My (Dead) Sister Triggers



This probably reads to you like how my 10th-grade yearbook inscriptions read to me. A list of scrawled inside jokes that have no meaning. 

These are my dead sister triggers. They're contained in an invisible balloon that follows me wherever I go - whether I'm scrolling through Instagram and see a photo of Shannen Doherty and notice how long her hair has gotten (she and my sister went through cancer treatment at about the same time), or when I'm at the Container Store and overhear someone ranting about how the entire civilized world knows that all closets are made from cedar (this never happens, but just imagine if it did. And a special smile to anyone who loves Overboard as much as Alison did and I do). 

While I have not yet run into people quoting Overboard, I have had to sit through conversations about sisters, mentions of the state of Maine, or a reference to 2017, and suddenly my body is seized and I'm frantically searching for an escape. This can take form in an awkward and abrupt change of topic, a physical manifestation of my anxiety with sweaty hands and a nervous stomach (sometimes twitching), or leaving the room. These triggers are always with me - bobbing in their balloon just over my shoulder.

As painful as it still is to remember my sister (because I'm very much at a stage of mourning what I've lost instead of being grateful for what I've had), lately I've been wondering if these words and the connected memories will be forgotten. As much as I dislike the uncomfortable feelings that arise when these triggers happen in public, they are still connections to my sister. I know I shouldn't wish them away. I'm simultaneously frightened that I will forget the associations with these words, or that I will never forget and will always feel nervous when people start singing songs from Evita. 

I thought that the answer to that question of forgetting would always be no. I have been a student of my sister since the day I was born - and so that made 34 years and three months of research. I know her in a way that you can only know someone when you've studied them for your whole life, someone you've seen through all of their life stages. But the other day I reread the eulogy I read at Alison's service and already had the feeling that I have forgotten. It's not that I forgot what I had said, but I forgot to remember the things that I had said. 

A few months after my dad died I frantically wrote a list of little details about him that I wanted to be sure to remember. I wrote with such ferocity that the letter marks are wobbly. As if at that moment the memories would erase instantly and I had to write them as quickly as possible. And while those details are things that I still remember (his strong hugs, his yellow plaid shirt, his old slippers, his smell - not the actual smell - but the fact that he had a special smell), I often don't think to remember them if I'm not prompted. 

I will not allow myself to forget the small details of my sister, but I will forget to remember them. I need to write them down, just like I did for my dad. And while it is still so painful to think of these things now, it must be done so that when this grief is less raw, I can read what I wrote and remember her with joy. Like the way she snorted when she laughed, or how she always said love you when saying goodbye on the phone. It's also important for me to share these details with her son, who never had the chance to learn them for himself. 

Quintissential Alison silly face. 

I think the best parts of a person are not the huge accomplishments or their attendance at some memorable event. It often isn't anything that they'd put on their resume. It's the little things that you would never think to miss. My dad's habit of reading books while eating puffed Cheez Doodles (and leaving fingerprints on the pages). My sister's tendency to dance from foot to foot while pointing her toes. My mother-in-law stirring pasta with her short wooden spoon and saying "Hey" when you walked in the kitchen. These are the things you see when you really get to know a person, but never what you get to read in the obituary. There the things you desperately miss when the person is gone. These details matter, and in the beginning of your grief, these little nuances and associations can be your triggers. 

What do we do with the details you don't want to remember? Like seeing my dad for the last time in an ICU bed. Or my mom's 60th birthday celebration weekend when my sister wouldn't stop poking me and I screamed at her and refused to share a taxi.

I choose to remember those too. From my experience with my dad, eventually, the bad memories are thought of with much less frequency than the good. Also - now it's kind of funny that my sister and I got in a fight about poking when we were 32 and 29. 

Photographic evidence of the day of 1000 pokes. 

These dead sister triggers are here to stay. I can't imagine a Kellyn without an Alison. But without her here to constantly remind me of her nuances, I will need to remind myself about all of the little things that made her the intelligent, quirky, independent, and hysterical person that she was. I know that eventually, the mention of 1980 or the red box of Stove Top Stuffing will be a source of comfort and connection. Right now it's still a dagger. Forgive me if I run out of the room the next time you sing a Michael Macdonald song. 


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1 comment

Dead Sister Triggers. O, I have too many to name. It was always Kim and Kay. Now it’s Kim. For me, that’s not enough. Sending you love from MN. x

Kim Sisto Robinson

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