Soul Sister

Isa's sister heather as a child

Getting Bunny ears right before getting into my wedding dress.

"You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp."

Anne Lamott

This Monday marked the second year without Heather. She was part of my life on this ground for 49 years, and still is, of course, but is now part of an interior landscape of shades, yearning and nostalgia. A great sister -- and mine was -- makes you visible, affirms you. Women tend to be listeners -- we listen to our kids, to dinner partners, to the disgruntled parents at school, to the lonely contractor, to the dissatisfied soul at the post office, to the neighbor, to other members of the family. As an introvert with a powerful "look at me, don't look at me" dynamic, this is a safe place, but an isolated one. Heather was the one who listened to me, and was interested in the quotidian details of my life, alongside the more opaque side of my inner life. She was honest when my paintings baffled her, or when I was prone to lazy thinking, and honest when she thought I was wrong. We would call each other when we were having fat and ugly days, or poor poor pitiful me days, or when we just needed a bitch session. We could move from the trivial to the complex with ease. She would call to ask if my daughter was over a cold, to learn of our son’s antics, what I thought of a particular book or a Krista Tippett interview, or wonder if I was sleeping well since women in our family struggle with insomnia. There was never impatience, just a flow of conversation. And like all sisters, we shared a repository of family lore and drama. My husband is my best friend, but Heather was my North Star.

Initially my loneliness was so acute that I was simply functioning the first year without her. I felt invisible and small. These feelings have morphed, they way they always do, into a gentler, constant current. I eased back into the world of joy and light and delight, but the undertow remains. As the writer Anne Lamott put it: ”you learn to dance with a limp.”

isa and heather at a wedding reception in San Antonio
At a wedding reception in San Antonio.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, I called her at least once a day. When I called she would pick up the line and ask, “Is this my daily harassment call?”

“Why yes it is,” I would respond.

And off we’d go. We fell into the good habit of telling each other “I love you” at the close of every call until the cancer moved into her brain and swept away her ability to communicate well over the lines.

For years, I worried that I loved Heather more than she loved me. I fretted that she disapproved of my wild child ways, especially when she was grounded in the rigor of parenting small children--we led opposite lives and my freedom might have seemed unearned and carefree, while her domesticity seemed safe, respectable and out of reach. She was an academic, a theologian, and lived in a world of reason. She harvested conclusions with discipline, while my artistic world was more emotional, chaotic and charged, relying on visual cues and sloppy mysticism. There was often no linear progression to my own career as a painter, no tidy accumulation of accomplishments. She harvested degrees like the dedicated academic she was. And though generous of spirit, she was more emotionally reserved and restrained than I. I lean towards impulsive thinking and speech, with a dash of hyperbole. She always took a more disciplined route to her conclusions. When I was young and much more literal, I mistook her reserve, her pointed glance over reading glasses and that wry smile below as a form of censure.

When my life got upended by autoimmune disease after the birth of my first child, I finally realized how much her love bound us, filling in any crack in our differences. Heather went into motion and was my advocate-in-chief. She coaxed me out of many an emotional mouse hole time and time again. When we lost our mother, we knew we lost a singular champion. But we still had each other, and we were closer than ever before. It took many years to really absorb the lesson embedded in poetry, in literature -- in all of the arts: that unconditional love is not evaluated measure for measure, but is just a constant that we take for granted. That lesson never comes early enough.

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