I got off the plane at Baltimore Washington International Airport, and something came over me. I suddenly found myself screaming at my colleague on the phone and running in circles. I could not find my car, I was crying, I could not even articulate my own name. I wasn't myself: I had just flown off the handle. Whether or not my argument on the phone was correct, my delivery was outlandishly inappropriate.
Six months before that day in BWI Airport, on January 24, 2012, my sister Lisa died in the city of Baltimore at the age of 44, leaving behind two wonderful children, Ezra and Sam, age 6 and 8. I had not been back to Baltimore since her funeral. If you think Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not real, look at that day. The mere smell of the airport had sent me into a spiral for which I still feel I owe an apology to many random strangers and some friends in the city of Baltimore.
Today is the second anniversary of my closest sister's death. We shared a room for 14 years. We commemorate tragedy with anniversaries, but a wise man once warned me that second anniversaries are the hardest. First anniversaries, everyone comes together to prepare for the day to come, but as we approach the second anniversary many people around us forget. And more than anything, we do not want our loved ones to be forgotten.
You also don't really know your role in your family until tragedy strikes, and when Lisa was diagnosed with cancer, it felt as though we were living in a dramatic play. Remember in high school when you would run to the list on the wall to see what part you would play in the school production? In our family's play, I expected to see my name up top as "The Beacon." I was shocked to see my name so far down the list under "Pragmatist." My job was to plan funerals, speak to doctors, secure plane tickets, and pick out caskets: hardly the Family Beacon!
My mother, of course, had the leading role, as would be expected. My father was the key grip... as in "grip the key and go back to the hotel. You cannot fix this." No father should have to watch a battle that he can't win for his daughter. My sister Jodi secured the role of caregiver, taking care of Lisa's children, and my other sister Jan sat with Lisa and held her hand the night she died.
I understand that the grief never fully goes away, but it has given me more empathy and compassion in the disaster business. Imagine this on a much greater scale where people have lost their entire communities and live with this daily. Look at Haiti, Syria, and the Philippines. We come together for as long as the disaster is on television, and then we get together to light candles in vigil on the first year. But who comes together to support the community in the second year? We just barely acknowledged the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina here in the Gulf.
CNN will cover the first anniversary, just like my friends brought over wonderful food to help me get through the first anniversary following Lisa's death. But no one remembers today. Today I would trade the CNN satellite truck for a CNN food truck with some yummy and nurturing commemorative treats.
And reflecting back to my own experience of Post-Traumatic Stress at a smell that evoked such strong memories, think of the first responders, community members, and local leaders who continue to deal with the crisis. The battle with PTSD is ongoing for those who work in the trenches, and it is less likely to hit us on anniversaries than it is to come on a random Tuesday. Anniversaries are often used to celebrate life and remember the good times. We are not prepared for those sudden reminders of the tragic.
Perhaps I got the role of Pragmatist because I was already out there dealing with large-scale disasters every day, and was used to the crisis environment. However, I cannot help thinking that it was largely owing to my absence. While I was out assisting communities, I forgot the fundamental rule of philanthropy: charity begins at home. But I was gone playing Disaster Barbie, a name ironically coined by Lisa and myself because of our love of Mattel Superheroes.
To commemorate Lisa today, I will be visiting my mother wearing Lisa's favorite uniform, a velour Juicy Couture tracksuit and Pumas, and later I will FaceTime with my nephews. But for those who are not facing their own grief today, reach out to someone you know who has experienced tragedy and remind them that while grief will eventually fade, the power of compassion endures.