My daughter Sierra died a year ago – December 2, 2019 – of a heroin overdose in a homeless camp here in Portland. She was 27.
So much has happened in the last 11 months that her death feels like it happened years ago. I’m sure that’s partly because of how long I grieved for her before she actually died, as one does when one loves an addict. But, mostly, it’s because for me, as for many of us, this last year has been fucking relentless.
I also thought I’d be synthesizing how, at the same time Sierra died, I lost the house I was raising my almost 18-year-old twin sons in, then my sons a month later, when I had to move, and then almost all contact with the other important people in my life when a pandemic struck a month after that, and I was suddenly alone in a new apartment.
With my cat.
And a cookie jar full of my daughter’s ashes.
But as I sit here, the day after the national election, writing this, the fourth draft of what was meant to be an emotionally raw exposé about grief, I find myself constantly hitting refresh on the Presidential Election results map, unable to focus on almost anything else.
And that’s the way it’s been the whole time, this whole year, and I’m tired.
Don’t misunderstand me: Sierra’s death is in here, waiting, like lava bubbling deep inside a sleeping volcano. It will have its day, as such losses do, whether I want it or not.
In the meantime, my sorrow is for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery. It’s consumed by Elijah McClain and Trayvon Martin, sweet-faced boys who make me think of my own sons. I’m crushed by, “I can’t breathe.”
I’m devastated by lives, livelihoods, and social connection lost to a pandemic. Lives and homes lost to wildfires. The increase in homelessness.
And so on. You get it. Most of us are there together.
And I know this grief is collective, but that’s cold comfort. I’m broken hearted that so many are broken hearted.
I worry constantly about my now-adult sons and try to tune out a neurotic drive to protect them. The anguish of being a sudden empty-nester – of losing my home, my sons, and my daughter all at one time – probably makes my worry worse than it would be otherwise in the same strange circumstances.
I don’t see or touch my sons very often.
And when I do, I put all my willpower into not babying them. I need to know they’re okay – that they’re eating, getting good sleep, avoiding downtown, and that they’re happy. But I can’t say any of that, certainly not to the extent I want to, because they’re in the fragile space between dependent child and self-determined adult and it’s about their process, not mine.
I didn’t want to stop being a caregiver so soon. I certainly didn’t want it to happen all of a goddamned sudden. And it’s not like that entire part of my identity also abruptly stopped when my parenting did. It’s still here, vibrating in my chest like china in an earthquake. And the only way to stop it is action.
At the start of summer, I and a friend prepared dinner for 30 women in a transitional housing shelter a few times. In September, during the fires, when people were evacuated all across my city and state, I prepared several large meals for evacuees.
These acts of service help stop the emotional tremors, but there’s still an emptiness that will only be filled by the loving relationships I’ve cultivated.
There’s only so much Zoom can do.
But also, I feel profound gratitude for my job (that I like, no less), good insurance, a steady income, a lovely place to live, the companionship of the select few in my foxhole, and so on. And this deep-in-my-gut appreciation for my good fortune is the thing that keeps me buoyed. It isn’t enough to allow space and opportunity to process… fucking anything, really.
But it’s the difference between sanity and abject despair.
Sierra finds her way into the empty places and quiet moments, sometimes, out of nowhere. In the last few years of her life, weeks and sometimes even months would pass between phone calls from her. She rarely kept a phone long and would almost always call from a new number. And each time I answered, I was greeted the exact same way: Mom. It’s your daughter.
I can hear it in my head right now as I say it.
I heard it in my head the other day when an unfamiliar number rang my phone. Mom. It’s your daughter came my dead daughter’s voice. I realized then the relief I’d felt when I’d get those calls. It meant that she was alive.
I realized then I’d never hear those words again.
The last thing Sierra ever said to me was, “I’m so sorry.” It was a response on Facebook Messenger after I told her I was going to be no-cause evicted.
It’s such a weird thing to be able to access. Occasionally, I’ll give the statement a reaction emoji. Sometimes a thumbs up or a heart. Sometimes the crying face.
When she died, we’d just begun getting to know each other as women. I believe she meant it, that she felt nascent empathy toward me about losing my home. But sometimes I look at those words on the screen and imagine she meant I’m sorry more nebulously.
I imagine she meant: I’m sorry you’re losing your home and your daughter and that my brothers can’t live with you anymore and that you have to go into seclusion and that you won’t even have time to deal with all of that because of some other bullshit.
What I really want to say back is, “I’m sorry, too.”
I’m sorry I’m putting all of my spare energy into being just baseline functional at my job and in my personal time.
I’m still sober and tobacco free. I almost-always-usually eat more than just sugar in a day. I’m trying to stretch, drink water, and get sleep. And while all that may sound like the bare minimum, right now, it’s the high-water mark.
Maintaining is the new thriving.
And someday, when maintaining is just maintaining, the volcano can have its way with me.