Writer Claudia Sternbach lost her younger sister Carol to cancer in 2013. That same week, she also “lost” her other sister, Carol’s twin, to a family rift she never understood and can’t — despite the years — mend. Sternbach has kept Carol’s ashes in a lidded ceramic bowl on a shelf in her Aptos home all these years, despite promising Carol she would spread them in the sea. She’s been unable to part with them without Carol’s twin, her other sister, present. But now, to mark Carol’s 70th birthday, Sternbach writes that she has decided to scatter the ashes and let go of the hurt that haunts her. She has found the perfect way.
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In just about a week, my younger sister Carol would have turned 70. Every year since she died in 2013, I have tried to think of how to mark the occasion of her birth. This year, being a big birthday, I have struggled.
She deserves more than a lifted glass or moment of silence.
This was a woman who, in her younger days, played tennis with a vengeance and loved a strawberry daiquiri to celebrate her win. This was a woman who had a head for business like nobody’s business. This was a woman who adored her nephews and was so emotional, she would cry at the sight of an American flag snapping in the wind.
One afternoon toward the very end of her battle with cancer, I sat with her in her bedroom. Actually, I lay down next to her, and she made a request. Would I organize a paddleout and scatter some of her ashes on the bay?
Carol was not a water lover. She did not even own a wetsuit for playing in our cold surf.
She did love looking out at the ocean from a nice beach chair, though, especially with a tempting picnic lunch close at hand. She was sentimental and, in thinking about her request, I discovered she had a bit of a poetic soul.
Lying in her bed with her, I told her of course. Anything. Of course.
But then I never did it. Things got complicated.
I still have a sister who will be turning 70. She is Carol’s twin. I have not seen her since shortly after Carol died almost nine years ago.
Just a few days before Carol passed, her wife and her twin (my sister) made it a point to tell me that the loving relationship I thought we all had didn’t actually exist. It had been, my sister-in-law said, a facade.
It took a few moments for that to sink in. And then it did, like a deep, dark mass.
My sister, Carol’s twin, said that she and I were very different and, really, she no longer had room for me in her life.
Just like that.
At the beginning, when I was trying to adjust to this new, sister-free world, friends would ask me to try to explain what happened, and even after all this time, I cannot. The best I have been able to do is accept it.
I finally do. It has freed me in a way. I no longer look for a letter in the mail or text message pinging my phone with my sister’s name attached.
But still, it hurts.
I have almost become used to it. Sometimes. Once in a while. This is how scattering ashes became complicated.
We divided up Carol’s ashes. Her twin got some and Carol’s widow kept the rest. In the weeks after my sister’s death, I heard stories about gatherings to scatter her ashes. I don’t know where or even exactly when. I believe some ashes even ended up in Italy. But I cannot say for sure. Carol’s widow was in charge and was eager, I now know, to cut all ties with me. And so were her friends.
So I held on to my share. On a shelf in my living room sits a small lidded ceramic bowl made in Mexico. Carol has been resting there for years.
It gives me both a small amount of comfort and also a bit of guilt. I have not yet fulfilled her wishes. Why? Because I simply couldn’t imagine having an ash scattering without including her twin. Even though including me in their ceremonies never entered my only living sister’s mind.
Now, so much time has passed.
I am beginning to let myself imagine carrying out her request. Especially since her big birthday is coming on Sept. 10.
Like Carol, I am not an ocean swimmer. I have tried it on occasion, usually in the late summer or early fall when we traditionally get our warmest weather. I own a wetsuit, which may or may not still fit. I have booties. We have a garage filled with various-sized boogie boards. On a recent afternoon, while on my beach walk, I decided yes, it is time. We will do this.
My husband, Michael, has a group of friends. They hit the beach every Sunday morning no matter how cold the water or how gray the skies. They named themselves “the fogbathers.” I adore each and every one of them. I am going to enlist their help. I am counting on them to give my sister the sendoff she deserves and wanted.
I have a new bathing suit I will wear for the occasion. If the wetsuit can still be pulled up, which would be a miracle, I’ll be good to go. If not, what better reason to buy a new one? It’s not too late for me to become a woman of the water, is it?
It has taken all of this time for me to accept the impenetrable wall my still-living sister put up. I spent months at the beginning trying to understand. Trying to figure out where and when it all went wrong. When we stopped being the three blond little girls who played in the sprinkler and made our way to the roof of the garage and picked apples from the neighbors’ tree while their dog, Archie, barked and howled.
I can’t pinpoint when things changed. I think about our lives when we were kids, and though, yes, we were different — the twins loved sports and I was the sister who lived in a book — I never felt as if we didn’t have a bond. A strong love for each other.
I feel that if Carol were still alive she would have been able to explain. To help me fix whatever it is that went wrong. She visits me once in a while in my dreams but stays silent.
I feel her love. I know I do.
So I’m sending out the word to “the fogbathers.” This is the year we will grant Carol’s wish. We will paddle out on a Saturday morning, flowers and ashes in hand, and release her to the sea.
Just like she imagined. Just like she asked.
Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “Remember the butterflies: The monarchs are on their way, let’s plan a welcome feast,” appeared Aug. 9.