To My Sister, With Thanks

“A sister is loved for many things. For friendship most of all.”

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If Facebook existed when my sister and I were growing up, we wouldn’t have been friends. Two years older than me, Blevin frowned upon my bouncy enthusiasm and exuberant nature. She often complained that I behaved like I was on a sitcom. And so we avoided each other except when asking permission to borrow articles of clothing.

The holiday season was a rare and welcome exception to our otherwise cold relationship. The two of us considered “Thanksgiving” a code word for Christmas kick-off. After making and eating the big meal, Blevin and I teamed up to harass our parents about decorating the house for the holidays.

Some years my dad reluctantly donned his headlamp to rummage underneath the stairs for boxes of decorations. Some years we gave up before our parents caved in. Either way, we were in it together.

After I moved to Charleston and Blevin moved to New York, our Thanksgiving traditions evolved alongside our relationship. We fought less but didn’t speak much more. We called by necessity only: to discuss boyfriend drama, to lament the demise of our parents’ marriage, to complain about the men my mom found online and dated.

That first year away from home, as I struggled through a post-break-up funk, Blevin suggested we run the Thanksgiving Day half marathon together in Atlanta.

Having completed a dedicated training regimen, I arrived to my first-ever 13.1-mile race feeling confident and prepared. To my dismay, Blevin had only ran once to train. And that “once” was one mile.

She also insisted we stick together.

Although irritated with her for slowing me down, I felt grateful that Blevin had given me the challenge to begin with—and by doing so, pulled me out of my personal doldrums and reminded me how much I love to run.

By our mid-twenties—with our mom and dad divorced and living in separate states—the holidays morphed from relaxing vacations home to travel marathons with a strict no-parent-left-unvisited policy.

One Thanksgiving, my sister, my mom, and I rented a cabin in rural Tennessee. As the casseroles browned in the oven, we slipped into a hot tub on the back deck. The hot waters soothed our travel-logged bodies until the wafting scent from a neighboring chicken processing plant chased us back inside.

To the relief of our wounded nostrils, we enjoyed our meal inside by the fire, thankful above all else for our time together.

Two years ago my sister spent a fall semester studying abroad in Berlin. When I visited her the week before Thanksgiving, we strolled from one German town to another on a tour of holiday markets—drinking glühwein and eating fresh-baked pretzels and hunting for the perfect hand-crafted ornaments. We watched Christmas parades with the same giddy, wide-eyed looks we had when unpacking the decoration boxes as kids.

When we lost our mother the Christmas after that trip, I began calling Blevin in the moments when I would have normally called Mom. Blevin started reading my writing and giving me feedback—something only Mom used to do. When she could hear the stress and trepidation in my voice, Blevin booked a last-minute flight to Charleston to help me move into my first house last summer. I needed more than a long-distance sister in that moment—and she found a way to be that for me.

This Thanksgiving, I’m traveling to Arizona to meet my boyfriend’s family. Blevin is staying in Brooklyn with her fiancé. And even though it’s my first year without her to direct me in the kitchen or make me ache with laughter over a glass of red wine, she is at the top of my list of gratitudes.

I’m thankful that time and tragedy brought us together. I’m thankful we’re allies for more than just one month of the year. And I’m thankful to have someone who understands me like a sister and also loves me like a friend.

when christmas comes

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(Because some feelings will only be processed in writing)
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I tell myself I’ll be just fine,

When Christmas comes to pass.

I’ll wear a smile above my scarf—

With mulled wine in my glass.

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I’ll play the songs I love the most,

But there’s one I’ll dread to hear.

The one with words I know too well:

“It won’t be the same this year.”

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I’ll wrap the presents up in bows,

String lights around the tree.

I’ll hang the stockings in a row,

Place the nativity.

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But as the day looms closer still,

My thoughts will linger on.

It was 12/16 I got the call,

And in five days, you were gone.

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My toenails, they were sparkly green

At your funeral last year.

I looked down with misplaced shame

At their burst of Christmas cheer.

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Now coldness taps the windows.

Winter looms in sight.

And I’m not sure how I’ll manage

On this year’s Silent Night.

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If you were here beside me—

Avoiding all that’s Mary and bright—

You’d whisper words like magic,

And make everything all right.

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Since you’re gone, I’ll just imagine

Those words that set me free:

“When you celebrate the memories,

You still celebrate with me.”

many forms of mother

"I am mother," a painting of my mom's
“I am mother,” a painting of my mom’s

My mother died this past December. I say “died” because “passed away” is too gentle. Too sweet. She was snatched out of life; she was ripped from us; she was stolen. There was nothing passive about it.

Since then, I’ve had my first Christmas without her. My first New Year’s without her. Her 57th birthday. Without her. And I’ve managed to survive each one.

But May . . . May may just be what does me in.

I open my email each morning and every subject line is “Tell Mom You Love Her,” “Perfect Gifts for Mother’s Day,” “Don’t Forget about Your Mom.” The in-store signs are equally dangerous. And the greeting card aisle? I’d rather be back in the hospital with her than trying to walk down it right now. I can’t even peruse the latest issue of Real Simple because mom is everywhere.

Everywhere, except here.

Needless to say, this Mother’s Day is going to be different for me. And so I’ve decided to do exactly what my mother would want: to stop grieving, stop aching, stop breaking, and to celebrate the many forms of mother.

Like my sweet sister, who strives to find mom-like things to say. Who let’s me call her when I’m hysterical and patiently calms me down. Who talks to me on my drive home so I don’t get lonely. Who buys me plane tickets to visit her and my own bottle of Design perfume. Who draws “Corkscrew.” Who tells me to write more poetry.

Like Grandmom, my mom’s mom, who asks how I’m doing and really means it. Who calls and emails and Facebooks–whatever it takes to touch base. Who offers love like only the mother of my mother could know how to do.

Like my best friend Amy, who knows everything I need before I ever say it. And would do anything for me without ever thinking twice. And makes me believe I’m the best person in the whole world.

Like my dad’s wife Rana, who made a point to send extra flowers to the funeral because she knew there could never be too many flowers. And offered to buy us even more Christmas presents. And hung my mom’s paintings in her home.

Like David’s mom, who welcomes me into her family unquestioningly. Who offers empathy without ever becoming overbearing. Who, even though David and I are 27 years old, sent an Easter card with money. Just like my mom would.

Like my friends from childhood and adolescence and college, Robyn, Tiffany, Leiko, Taylor, Brittany, who held my hand before the funeral, sent me the best care package I’ve ever received, kept me company on New Years Day, and made sure I knew they will always be there when I need them.

Like my Charleston friends, Madeline, Sarah, Joni, Kimberly, Stephanie, Amy who were waiting with hugs when I came back. Who are always ready to listen when I’m ready to talk. Who surprise me with capes and scarves and mustard blouses and good advice. Who buy me brunch with more biscuits than is humanly possible to eat.

Like my supervisors at work, Heather and Amy, who could not have been more human when I missed so much time. Who sent text messages full of hope and strength every day I was away. Who provide such a sense of comfort just by being the incredible women they are.

Like my aunts, Sandra, Sarah, Susan, who made the worst week of my life a little better by being extensions of mom. Who held me when I needed it, made sure I had something to eat and somewhere to sleep, and did all the things that mothers always do.

Like my extended family, Melanie, Gayle, Phyllis, Candace, Celeste, who remind me how lucky I am to be a McCollough-Shelnutt. And always know what to say to lift my spirits.

These women are proof that there are many forms of mother. And my mother would be the first to say so.

So to all the email blasts and commercials and radio spots and banner ads reminding me not to forget about mom, let me be clear: there will never be a Mother’s Day for the rest of my life that I forget about my mom.

But this year, this May, this Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate these women.

And say thanks.

Thank you for being a new form of mother in my life. Thank you for filling a gap in my heart. Thank you for weaving the seamless network of love and support and kindness that has kept me afloat for five tough months.

You are precious to me. Happy Mother’s Day.