I am blessed to have a very close family. Yesterday, I was reading a piece of writing by my cousin Colleen. It was a beautiful remembrance of our shared cousin, Sheila. Sheila died several years ago, still a young woman in her thirties. I have written a lot about Sheila since then. In some ways, she has become my muse. When I was taking creative writing classes at university, I found that she crept into my writing quite frequently. It has been some time since I have sat down to deliberately invoke Sheila Marie on the page, but since reading Colleen’s remembrance, I have been inspired to do so again. So in the spirit of remembering those who I love, this week I choose to tell you a story about Sheila Marie.
Not long after Sheila’s death, I had a beautiful dream. In it, we were all on a huge, sloping lawn. Sheila was running around, so happy, that gorgeous Irish smile on her face. Our whole family was there: mothers, fathers, cousins, siblings, boyfriends, girlfriends, dogs. We were having a joyous celebration on this lawn- it was Sheila’s wedding again.
I remember watching her laugh and dance, and thinking to myself: It’s interesting that Sheila is “dead,” because she is as alive as anyone here. She is vibrant, and happy, and pulsating the most beautiful energy. The only thing that makes her “dead” is our belief that she is. That’s the only thing separating her from us.
But in the dream, there was no separation. We were all celebrating anew, toasting Sheila’s marriage and beautiful life. I remember watching her laughing with her head thrown back, her long red hair curly on her back. She had a white dress on, and a glass of champagne in her hand. She was almost shimmering as I watched, this translucent figure so bright against the lawn. And again, I thought: She’s not dead. That is merely an illusion we believe in. Sheila is as real as you or me. She is completely here with us, as much a part of this party as anyone else. Someday we’ll understand that.
Sheila Marie was a woman of spirit if ever I knew one. She was so alive. She was older than I was, and until I was in my twenties, I never really had access to her. She was always so out of reach, so cool. When they were growing up, she and her brothers lived with their parents in an enormous old home on Capitol Hill. At the very top of the house, in the mystery-shrouded attic, Sheila chose to have her bedroom. I have a memory of being very small and creeping up to that room. I remember pushing the door open, walking through billowing silk scarves, and emerging into the dark, smoky interior. Incense burned, and records played. Sheila and her friends sat on the bed, smoking. There was a serpent shaped ashtray on the trunk that served as a table. Sheila patted a cushion on the seat beside her, and invited me in. I think I crept out backwards and ran, too afraid to enter that den of intoxicating smoke and mirrors.
Sheila was so cool that as her younger cousins, we were all a little afraid of her. One day, we were going to the park, or the circus, or perhaps the swimming pool. Grandma told me to run in and get Sheila, but I couldn’t even fathom it. How could I summon such a person, the coolest girl in the world? Did she even know who I was? I turned to Suzy, our other cousin, and passed the orders on to her. “No!” Suzy said quickly. “Someone else has to do it!” I don’t remember who went in to fetch Sheila, or if she just came out herself. She was like a demi-goddess, her hair shiny and red, her jeans ripped and torn.
Years later, Sheila and I worked together as gardeners, doing landscaping on a private property in Bellevue. It was then that I got to know her. She had struggled with drugs for years, and I remember picking weeds side by side in the vegetable garden one day. I was telling her about a rave I had been to recently, recalling the sparkly swirls I had painted on my cheeks, the lollipops and crazy dancing. Ecstasy was huge at raves then, and I’m sure she knew it. She kept digging in the soil, but she turned to me and said, “Sarah, if you ever have questions about drugs, let me know. I will be totally open and honest with you, and answer any questions that I can. Please feel free to come to me if you are ever curious about my history, or if you just want advice. I’m here for you if you need me.” It was so out of the blue, I was a little surprised. I never asked her about her history with drugs, because I was too shy. But her willingness to guide me in the right direction (and I’m sure that is what she would have done) is something that I remember. She wanted to help me if she had the opportunity.
For a woman I hardly knew, Sheila has remained close to me ever since her death. She has appeared to me in numerous dreams, and often the theme is the same- Sheila is alive, but we don’t realize it. She’s just existing on a different plane, and our usual five senses aren’t picking her up. Her bright smile is the same, and her eyes are the color of pale green apples. Her red hair blows in the wind, and freckles cross the bridge of her nose.
Surprisingly, I find myself calling on her at what seem like random times. I asked for her help while I was meditating, and she was with me right away. She filled the room. When I was living in my apartment on Capitol Hill, I would sometimes think of her while I was cooking, or find myself talking to her as I bathed. In some of my highest moments, when I come home from a great night of dancing, or when my plane landed in India, I tell her, “She-she, look, life is good right now.” I know that she would appreciate those moments more fully than anyone else- she loved to live.
She was a traveler by nature, going to London and Rome, South America and Jamaica. Perhaps that’s why I find myself calling her to me when I’m in these most distant places- she would love to be here, drinking chai, trekking to waterfalls, listening to reggae. And so I do. I think of her and I say, “Sheila, check it out! Look at that crazy baba with the dreadlocked beard! Check out the tiny baby who is giggling and burping in joy! Feel that tropical water, and the way the salt dries on your skin…” I know she’s with me. All I have to do is call.
So I’m calling on her right now. Sheila Marie, my dearest cousin, I’m in India now, and I’m writing about you. I’m sharing it with the world, or at least with the friends and family who read this. Many of them know you, and are loving you right now. Some of them never got the chance to meet you, but they’ve learned a little something about you tonight. The beautiful Chileans are playing music on the rooftop, and I can hear them beating drums and clapping their hands. Can you hear it? Can you feel the tears on my face? Are you wiping them away? I think you are. Are you laughing at me now that I’ve made a mess of myself, and had to blow a gallon of snot out of my nose? Yes, you are. I know you are. Are you reaching out through me, through this writing, and sending love to the people who are reading? Of course you are. You are full of love.
Now that Sheila’s with me (and you), I want to say the last thing that’s on my mind. I feel like I’ve grown up since Sheila died, and in some strange, inexplicable way, we’ve finally become friends. For most of my life, Sheila was the older, untouchable cousin. In her later years (although she was still young), I had the opportunity to get to know her. But it wasn’t until she died, and I began to grow into a woman, that I felt like I could relate to her. In those moments when I would recall her, or call her to me, I was acutely aware of how grown up I felt, compared to the way I felt when I knew her as a child. I felt like she admired and respected me now, like I would have been her confidante, and she mine, were she still alive. I felt a kinship with her, like she was rooting me on as I wrote, or went through relationships, or bought a plane ticket to one foreign country or another. It’s strange how someone can go on living after their body has passed away. It’s amazing how a relationship continue to grow after death.
Sheila is with me now, no doubt. I can feel her over my right shoulder. I think she’s encouraging me to write this, to remind us all of the dream on the lawn. No one disappears when they die. They just change. They slip behind a sheath, and do their work somewhere else. She-she is with us, she is dancing, she is laughing, and she is so glad to have been remembered this way. Death is not the end. I have no empirical evidence of this, just a deep, intuitive knowing. Sheila’s face is shining before me right now, her skin bright, her smile encouraging. She is there, they’re all there. All you have to do is ask.