I don't understand the concept of visiting someone who is dead; perhaps that is why I have never been comfortable in cemeteries. A loved one never dies inside the living; there are always memories, so why then do we feel obligated to visit a plot in the ground? I do not want to be here in the first place and now I am completely lost, driving around in circles, searching for something that I don't want to find. I am afraid to face you; I wonder if you will be angry that it has taken me two years to confront my fears and come here. Perhaps now that I am here, I will be able to bury the past and finally find internal peace.
I turn the wheel to the left and at last begin to recognize the landscape. Driving up the long, windy road I pull over at the top of your hill and turn the key, silencing the intrusive motor. I open the door and my foot crunches on the cold, gray gravel. Closing my eyes and taking a long, deep breath, I pull myself from the safety of my car. Forcing my eyes to open, I am shocked at what I see. I am surrounded by beauty in a place that I imagined to be ugly from death and grief, full of evil ghosts and dark storm clouds. Around me everything is filled with light. Life declares itself in the singing of the birds, in the breeze that plays with my hair, and in the leaves on the trees that are turning gold and orange, as bright as the sunset. The trees are the most majestic I have ever seen, standing high and proud. Like stately, mute guards, they lend an air of respect to this place, filling me with a sense of power. Now, I realize why our mother wanted you here; it is the most beautiful place on earth.
My heartbeat is returning to normal and my tense body has begun to relax amidst the serenity of my surroundings. Tip-toeing over to visit you, I am careful to walk around your neighbors, not wanting to show them disrespect by stepping over them. My presence in this haven seems like an intruder; I am afraid to make a sound for I do not want to disturb the delicate balance. I whisper when I speak, concerned that I will wake sleeping souls.
I look at the tree that stands at your head and catch myself before the laughter escapes my tight lips. It is sickly, tied to two poles for support. Its trunk is thin, its branches weak, and its leaves few. Even now it is impossible for you to escape your illness. The irony hits me hard.
It does not seem fair that a person as admirable as you should have had to suffer and live the life that you were forced to live. I am not even sure if it can be called a life, not to be able to talk, or dress yourself, or walk. An entire day sitting in a wheelchair staring at the walls or lying in a crib staring at the ceiling, what kind of life is that? I am wrong; you were forced to exist, not live.
I am amazed at how you were able to influence so many people, to make them love you. I recall the countless hours that nurses spent with you, as if you were their own child. Your smile lit up everyone's day and gave them the hope and strength they desperately needed.
At this moment I realize that you have made a stronger impression on me than I have let myself believe. You have made me strong and compassionate and from you I have learned that there is always hope, no matter how bad life may seem.
You have been more than a sister to me, you have been a teacher and a mentor. From you I have learned life's important lesson. You have shown the world how precious, and yet how fragile, life is. Life should not be taken for granted. I have become so caught up in mine that I haven't taken the time to appreciate it; to realize that I have been given a beautiful gift; and, that I need to share this gift with the world.
You have taught me more than I could have ever learned in any classroom. I am thanking you now, since I never did when I had the chance. Even now that your body is gone, your lesson has been planted in me and all who knew you. I can teach my children and they will teach theirs and you will never die; you will have completed your purpose.
As I turn to leave, I look back at the tree and smile. I know that it is thin and sickly now; but, over time, it will grow into a beautiful and powerful tree, just as your memory will grow stronger inside of me and give me strength. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.