One of my dearest friends lost his brother many, many years ago. He and his brother were as close as non-twins could be. Born barely 15 months apart, my friend doesn’t remember a moment where his brother was not part of his existence. When this new baby arrived in his life (followed by a littler sister a couple of short years later) he was pre-verbal still. A tiny little toddling soul. I like to imagine him that way.
Fast-forward two decades to the confusion of mid-twenties life: my friend lost his brother. His best friend. The person who knew him better than anyone.
And so I know that in September (the time of his brother’s almost-mysterious death) and in January (his brother’s birthday month), my friend enters a conscious melancholy. He mourns. Whether voluntarily or not, he takes the time and space to be sad. Sad for his brother’s non-lived adulthood. Sad for the nieces and nephews my friend will never have. Sad for the broken heart his parents will always carry. Sad for his own daughters that won’t know this uncle who resembles them in ways only their father will see. Sad for himself and the moments he will never share with his brother-friend. Sad for the loss of a life that simply needed to be lived out.
For several years now I have quietly observed this cycle of almost-silent grief. I have noticed a pattern. The September cycle brings out a darker side of my friend. He isolates himself with a certain air of hopelessness that will invariably lift by mid-October. The January cycle brings out nostalgia. He bakes a lemon pie with his daughters for his brother’s birthday (his brother’s favourite dessert) to cement a link with an uncle they will never know, but will always remember.
This past year, he spent his brother’s birthday as a guest in my home. His daughter’s were with their mother. We enjoyed a quiet supper supplemented by our usual light conversation about the depths of existence. After clearing the plates, I set out a delicate, miniature dessert in front of my friend: lemon pie.
He stared at me.
He was quiet for a long, long time. He alternated between staring at the pie and staring at me until his eyes welled up with tears.
I — who’d never known this brother of his who’d been born, lived, and died on another continent a decade before I had met my friend — I’d remembered that this particular date in January warranted lemon pie.
He ate the pie with misty eyes. Simultaneously touched, I think, by the memory of his brother and that I had taken the time to share in his grief. The pie had perfect meringue with much too much crust and a bit too little lemon filling.
I was pleased with myself for remembering. I was pleased with myself for making space for my friend’s grief. I was pleased with myself for being a good friend.
For a while.
A few days later I became suddenly and irrationally angry about lemon pie. I didn’t, for a moment, begrudge my friend’s lemon pie.
Except I did.
The thought that circled through my mind was: Where the fuck is my lemon pie? I was consumed with a pie envy that I could not have ever imagined existed.
See, January is also my father’s birthday. He liked spice cake. He died almost fourteen years ago. I have never made him spice cake. Or pie. He also loved lemon pie.
January is also the month where my brother killed himself — or maybe it was December? His body wasn’t found until the 8th of January, already badly decomposed. He had taken barbiturates and hung himself with a steel chain. I can’t remember what dessert he liked.
October belongs to both my sisters. One of whom has been consumed by MS and can no longer talk or move or sit on her own. She lives out her days in a long-term care facility that I never visit. My other sister may be in prison right now. Or she may be out on the streets. Or she may be dead. I really have no way of knowing.
April brings my brother’s birthday. He was born 10 years and 1 day before the man who will soon be my ex-husband. A soul I will always love, but who nearly destroyed me with his quiet disdain for me as a human who would not bend to his will. April is also my mother’s birthday month: a woman who birthed me but who was too caught up in her own cycle of pain to ever nurture me as a being separate from herself. A broken old woman who continues to live and breathe but numbed herself to actually feeling real emotions decades ago.
January, October, April.
It is a calendar of grief I have never explored. A lemon pie I have never baked.
Unlike my beautiful, wise friend, I have never made space for sadness in my life.
Realistically, I simply didn’t have time. The episodes of grief followed one after the other at an inhuman speed: Abuse. Addiction. Violence. Suicide. Illness. Incarceration. Despair. Neglect. Depression. Death.
Rat-a-tat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat-a-tat.
I experienced or witnessed every single person I loved fall prey to pain. I stacked that on top of the usual stresses of life like getting degrees and having children and earning a living and buying homes and changing winter tires and losing weight and selecting the exact right shade of off-white and eating kale.
I didn’t have time to bake no fucking pie.
Except at one point I exploded and imploded all at once. I left the marriage where I could never be all of myself without reproach. I packed my clothes and books. I bought a second-hand table and some beds. I created a nest for myself and my now part-time children. I filled my space with sunlight and plants and frames of my daughter’s art work and my son’s hand-written spreadsheets.
I tried to get past the implosion and explosion. I tried to heal. I tried to move forward. I tried to move on. I tried to release the rage that had accumulated inside of me. I felt trapped in a cycle of wanting to set things right, of wanting to heal with a husband that didn’t understand the first thing about me, of wanting to smooth over the wrongs of a past I had no hand in creating. I was so intent on moving forward that I didn’t notice the past that was dangling behind and tripping me up.
I did not create space for my sadness. I did not even consider baking a pie.
Who has time for lemon pie when life has you by the throat?
Because I gave it no space, grief burst from my every seam. It could not, would not be contained. It flavoured every conversation. It tinged every interaction. Without my knowledge or intention, grief dripped from me. It dripped on to every person who took the time to see how I was doing.
Grief shivered out of my soul. It altered my friendships. It affected how I work. How I teach. It splattered those that barely knew me. Grief oozed out of me like a slow-acting toxin because I had never given it any space. I had never baked it a lemon pie. I had never even considered that my grief needed pie.
My also-dead brother deserved his own pie. My fallen father deserved his own pie. My damaged sisters deserved their own pies. My broken mother deserved her own pie. My suffocating marriage deserved its own pie. My non-childhood deserved pie.
And so a few days after I served a beautiful lemon pie to my misty-eyed friend, I realized that I too need to make some serious space in my life for grief. I need to allow time to be sad.
I need to start baking.