Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In Memory

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. From sundown Saturday night to sundown last night, my husband’s people fasted as they remembered their sins and sought atonement. Mothers and grandmothers lit candles in memory of the dead. Families gathered last night to break fast together.

I, too, fasted yesterday. I too remembered people now gone.

This is a way into a story I don’t really have any right to tell. Still, it weighs on me and the only way I’ve ever been able to excise anything is to write it down.

I tried to post this yesterday but for some reason couldn’t get the courage to do it.


As most of you who read this blog on a regular basis know, in last August before heading to the annual Burning Man Artfest-cum-Carnivale in Black Rock City, Nevada, I took a few days to visit my sister on the organic farm where she was interning for the summer before heading back to school to get her MA in English.

Since we live on opposite coasts we don’t get to see each other that often and even though it was a little awkward—I was supposed to be helping pack up for our desert trek, after all—I still made a point of visiting her on this farm about an hour or so east of SF.

R. and I spent two days hanging out with the three women who worked there: L, the woman who owned the farm, my sister; who used to be a cook at the chichi Berkeley eatery Olivetos; and the other intern, a former baker from Boston. The three women called themselves the Farmer, the Baker, and the Cook as a sort of joke that quickly became old hat.

The first night we ate a mixture of specialty produce from the farm and specialty meats they’d traded at that morning’s Berkeley farmers’ market. We hiked and talked. Talked and walked.

On Sunday our friend M (again, from Burning Man fame) came out and spent the night. The next morning he and R drove back to SF via Napa, wine-tasting their way into their own little Sideways adventure.

I stayed on the farm and spent that afternoon and the following day working alongside my sister, the Baker and the Farmer. I picked sungold tomatoes and peaches and pumpkins. I cleaned garlic and onions for market. I watched them pack orders for restaurants like Chez Panisse and Olivetos and Quince. Throughout, the Farmer’s dog, D, scampered between us, chasing mice and rabbits. When D stood still she always made sure some part of her flank was pressed up against somebody’s shins.

These women were all educated and their conversations ran along the lines of books and philosophy. (On the outdoor kitchen table, were several copies of the New Yorker and a primer of butchering. On the way down to the main field was a mattress where the Farmer was wont to sleep on the hottest of summer nights and on that mattress was a copy of The Turn Of The Screw, dog-eared and water-stained.)

During my visit I also learned that the Farmer and the Baker were dating and that the Farmer was toying with the idea of converting the farm from a specialty organic produce farm to an artist retreat or colony. She needed a break, she explained. Farming was hard work and it tended to isolate you.

On Tuesday afternoon after work my sister and I drove back into SF and I met up with R and M. We had dinner. My sister went back home and the next day we left for Burning Man, which I’ve written about extensively on this very blog.

When I returned to NY, life went on as usual. Just scroll back through the last few months’ worth of posts and you’ll see what I’ve been up to.

On the farm, my sister reported during our daily phone conversations, life just sort of coasted along. She was going to continue to live at the farm, in the yurt the Farmer had provided for both interns, throughout the fall semester. She’d work for about ten hours a week—tending the chickens; helping around the farm—for a small stipend.

She started classes last Tuesday. She attended an orientation on Wednesday afternoon. When she got home that night the Farmer wasn’t around but she learned from the Baker that the two had broken up at lunch that day. Perhaps, the Baker speculated, the Farmer just needed some space.

But the next morning at 7 am the Farmer didn’t show up for work. The Baker and my sister waited for a few minutes. They waited for a few more. They called her cell phone. They text messaged her. Nothing. My sister had a weird feeling. The dog wasn’t barking. And the dog always barked. And come to think of it, D hadn’t barked when she’d returned the night before, either.

She and the Baker walked up to the house and my sister, telling the Baker to wait by the door, went inside.

In one of the back rooms she found the Farmer sprawled on the floor. There was a lot of blood. She’d shot herself. The dog, too, was dead.

My sister rushed back out of the house, telling the Baker not to go inside. She called the police and then called me. I was speechless. I panicked. All I could think of was that I wanted to reach across the country and yank my sister away from this, yank her all the way back to what now seemed like boring but safe Brooklyn. Instead, I talked to her for a while. I don’t know what I said. All I know is that it felt inadequate. The police were taking a long time to get there, she kept saying.

Now, six days later, my sister’s staying with friends in SF. She’s helping the Farmer’s friends and family in whichever ways she can. But every time I talk to her she vacillates between sounding strangely calm, sad, angry and overwrought. She’s a tough kid. Always has been. She’ll get through this, scars notwithstanding.

Even though I only knew her for a few short days, I sensed that the Farmer was a good, kind person. (I still remember the look on her face when she thanked me for helping them out that day—the sudden flash of shy vulnerability. A timid sweetness.)

My heart goes out to her spirit, wherever it may be. My heart goes out to her father and brothers, her friends and colleagues. My heart goes out the Baker. My heart goes out to my sister, suddenly jobless and homeless days after graduate school started.

My heart goes out to all of us who, teetering at the edge of that dark place, somehow fall into the abyss.

And so I light this virtual candle in memory of the Farmer. And repeat the hindu mantra: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Without exception.


Blogger Red said...

Oh, MJ, that's terrible. Your poor sister, having to witness that horrific scene... and the Baker, poor girl.

Stay close to your sister, this can't be an easy time for her. Good to know you speak on the phone daily -- she is definitely going to need that sense of normality to move past this.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Shep said...

Just read your blogpost, and wanted to let you know that it moved me. My situation isn't that similar, but it brought it all back like new.

My sister was murdered by her partner in front of 2 of her kids. She had left him after 5 years of domestic abuse, and gone to live back with my folks. He followed her down the road. He killed her with 3 shotgun shells to the head, before shooting himself. The kids stayed amongst their parents dead bodies for 15 minutes before anyone came onto the street to help. (story here)

This was 3 1/2 years ago. My parents now look after my sister's 3 children. They are pretty old though, and the kids will be passed on to me when my parents can't cope any more. The grief doesn't lessen...it doesn't get any easier, and I'm not religious, but to share...to hear stories, to hear people talk about this stuff...it means something. And your words at the end were beautiful.

Bless you.

Shep xx

3:01 PM  
Blogger Minerva Jane said...

Red: Yes, I’m making sure to call her every day, sometimes twice, to see how she’s doing.

Shep: Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t even imagine how traumatized your entire family must have been by what happened. And those poor children. Thank god they’ve got you and your parents caring for them. I’m glad that the post moved you and moved you enough to write in about your sister. I’m not all that religious either—I operate more out of a spiritual hodgepodge—but I do believe in honoring our ancestors/loved ones. Even though yom kippur is over, tonight I’ll light just one more round of candles—one for you and your family. I don’t know. I think part of the reason I and my entire family have been so shaken by what my sister saw and is dealing with now is that our mother tried to take her own life in Jan 2003. Thank god she didn’t succeed, but the grief and anger and guilt were unbearable for me for a long time. Some of that faded. Some resolved. And some, it turns out, just lurking beneath the surface. I didn’t really know the farmer. I wasn’t there when it happened. I’m watching all this from the sidelines but still, I can’t stop thinking about her and my sister and that farm. I wish my sister didn’t have to go through all this again. But more: I wish violence like this—perpetrated by someone else or self-inflicted--was really just the stuff of movies and television dramas and fiction. I’ll quote just one more bit of hindu lore I picked up in yoga class: Namaste. Which translates as “That which is divine in me bows to that which is divine in you.” Minerva Jane.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Wandering Coyote said...

I'm so sorry your sister had to see that horrific scene. The farmer must have been such a sad woman inside.

This triggered something in me. I know the mindset of suicidal people because I've been one. It's hard on my soul; one the one hand, I understand why people want to check out, yet on the other I feel horrified, confused and angry like the survivors do. Yet I do not blame. Probably because I believe she's at peace now.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear your sister had to witness something like that. What a horrific event. I'm glad to hear however that she has a strong support system to lean on while coping with such a tragedy.
Sorry for your loss Shep. I'll never understand mindset of violent people.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

Wow. I'm crying. I can't think of much to say except to repeat your mantra back to you - "may all beings everywhere be happy and free. Without exception."

May you and your sister be at peace.

It's hard to make sense of of something like this. Actually there is no sense. Sometimes things just are. And we go on, touched, both with love and with pain.

11:59 PM  
Blogger Martha Elaine Belden said...

wow, mj. i'm speechless. i wish i knew what to say to bring you comfort... but i know words aren't always enough.

as someone who's come close to the end of her rope a few times, i'm distraught for your sister. there have been times when the only thing that's kept me from selfishly ending things is the thought of those i would leave behind. even though there are times i feel i can't go on... i know it's selfish to think that way... and the thing i can look back on is, i always feel better a day or so later. i can't fathom how your sister must be feeling... what a horrific notion come true.

and shep, i don't know if you'll read this, but i'm devastated for you and your family. i've read your responses to red, * and the bunch, and i almost feel like i know you now, too.

i know neither of you are religious... but i am. and i promise to pray for both of you and your families... even if you don't believe, i hope that knowledge will bring you a shred of comfort.

1:53 AM  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

MJ, what a terrible story. And Shep's too...

It's amazing how this blogging thing brings us closer to this sort of human tragedy than anybody should have to be.

Warm wishes to you both.

5:29 AM  
Blogger City Slicker said...

All the condolences imaginable to both you and Shep.

You no doubt found an inner strength to carry you through that is as deep as it is strong.

I gues if nothing else you may find some comfort in your inner being.

With all my respect

12:33 PM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

Holy shit, I am so sorry for the loss of your sisters friend and co-worker. This is a terrible shock. It is also shocking because many paople who are suicidal are very high functioning sorts tightly held together and many times, no one sees it coming.

Hopefully your sister will be able to find a stable living arrangement and get back to focusing on graduate work, although this may deeply affect her research and energy, I hope not. Perhaps she will find another way of looking at her school work and although fro sad reasons...another door will open, I am sure of it.

Shep, I am sorry, your situation must extrememly difficult and no sense of resolution...except for the very happy fact that that fucking bastard did not kill your parents and nieces and nephews. I am terribly terribly sorry for the loss of your sister. It is giving me a terrible pain to type these words. You must seek comfort in some ethical or pjhilosophical resolve so you can teach your young wards how to out think and eat well to fight against the kind of brutality they have seen and lived with. Your sister was a hero to take those kids away from him, and she paid for her wisdom with her life. Bless her.

It is very good of you both, Minerva and Shep, to find a way to voice these things because who knows who might read this and maybe look differently at someone who might be secretly suffering in front of them.

We really need to have the signs, body language and manners of depression and suicide brought out into the opne, it is a narrative that can be seen if we know what to look for...

Again, very sorry and sad to hear all of these comments and stories.


1:08 PM  
Blogger Wendy Ann Edwina D'Cunha e Pereira said...

I was really horrified to read this post. My heart goes out to your sister & her friend. I guess, we never really know what is going on in someone else's mind. Besides the horror of what she had to face will also be a sense of failure because no matter how unrealistic it may be, we as humans always feel that there could have been something we could have done to prevent it. I guess only love, time and patience will help her.

Shep, I am so sorry for your loss as well. Losing a sister in such a violent way is terrible. Her chldren must have suffered so much because of the thoughtless act of their father. I'm sure there is still a lot of hurt even today. I only hope and pray their scars will heal with time and they will remember more of the love and happiness they shared and less of the pain as time goes by. your parents too must have been in so much pain as well having to conceal it because of the kids...

4:49 AM  

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