I hadn’t expected an afternoon of spring cleaning to lead to an endless wave of nostalgia, but that’s exactly what I got when mom asked me to clean out your closet after you were gone.
It's my own fault, really. I'd unintentionally fooled her into thinking that I was making progress, and that I was even able to spend a few minutes at a time in your room without a barrage of tears threatening to betray my confident demeanor. I'd made her think that I was immune to your absence.
I’m on my knees, wrestling the door of your closet open and waving away the flurry of dust bunnies that floods out, when I see the sliver of a Polaroid edge peeking out from underneath the dresser we’d shoved in there in the height of dad’s carpentry phase.
I lean forward and slide the Polaroid out, only half expecting the photo to be another record of your wild high school Friday nights. Or maybe it would be a picture of you and that old boyfriend of yours that none of us really liked. With all the mistakes you’ve made in your life, I wouldn’t be surprised if this picture was just another record of it.
After blowing away the thick layer of dust that cakes the surface of the Polaroid, I give it a good shake and bring it into focus. The once-glossy texture of the Polaroid paper is still intact, but the frayed corners and inconspicuous location imply that this picture captured a moment you’d wanted to forget.
But when my eyes drift towards the messy handwriting that labels the scene captured, I feel my throat suddenly tighten, and a heavy weight befalls my chest.
Christmas 2001. Adri & me under tree
It’s a picture of you and I sitting cross-legged underneath the artificial Christmas tree that mom insists on dragging out every year. I’m wearing my archetypal Mickey footie pajamas, a displeased frown adorning my face. Clearly, the 2001 version of me was going through something.. or multiple somethings, by the look on my face. Or maybe I was just upset that another year had gone by without mom allowing me to choose the lawn decorations on my own.
The lights on the tree are incredibly bright, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the photo. It occurs to me that this was probably taken by dad, someone who had no idea how to bring anyone into focus. Or maybe mom had just splurged on some higher quality LED lights that year.
But the star of the picture is by far you, Hannah.
You’re sitting there, a giant grin spread across your face, your hands latched around a perfectly wrapped Christmas present, complete with a giant red bow. With your red Santa hat and snowman slippers, you’re the stunning image of a happy kid on Christmas morning.
My mind is suddenly plagued with memories of our Christmases together. You, being the older sibling, would always be awake first, skipping down the stairs to get to the presents before anyone else had dared step out of their warm beds. In your glee, you’d throw yourself underneath the tree and holler for everyone else to join you, and of course, we’d all oblige to keep you from ripping open the first gifts by yourself. How could we ever say no to you?
I’d traipse down the stairs after you, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I struggled to wake myself up – your contagious cheerfulness helped a lot with this particular difficulty. It would be around 7 a.m., no earlier and no later, and while mom brewed the coffee for herself and dad (we were far too young to have coffee, they always said), the festivities would begin.
It’s amidst this overwhelming wave of nostalgia that I realize that my fingers have instinctively tightened around the Polaroid. In my own reflection, I must have felt the familiar creep of fear and isolation invade my mind subconsciously. Now, as my unflinching grip on the photo threatens to ruin this glossy immortalization of a once happy duo of sisters, I’m forced to realize that it’s not the photo that I’m hopelessly clinging to.
It’s the very idea of you, Hannah, that I’m so desperate to hold onto.
The holidays haven’t been the same since you left us, Han, and I’m sure that you know it, wherever you are. Mom and dad still make coffee on Christmas morning, and there are still presents waiting for me under the tree, but there’s a hole where your warm presence should be. We still send out a Christmas card (something that mom insists on doing to give us “closure”), but my smile feels less and less genuine every year. Snow and black ice still cake the grass and the streets outside, but you’re not there to make a snarky comment about how much colder it gets every year.
The Polaroid in my hand suddenly feels heavy, as though I’m carrying the entire weight of our lifetime together. I’m looking around the room suddenly, still clutching the photo in my hand. I can’t help myself – every now and then, I give the room a quick scan, hoping fervently that you’ll be there in the corner to scold me for going through your things. Or you’ll be irritated with my inability to brush my hair the right way, and you’ll drag me into the bathroom to show me how to “be a real girl”.
Right now, I can’t stop myself from hoping that you’ll come snatch the Polaroid out of my hand and stick it in a memory box, or wherever you keep the most important glimpses into your life away from prying eyes.
I miss the sound of your voice, even when you were lecturing me about why I wasn't good at the same things you were good at.
I miss the way you used to coax me into making amends with mom and dad after a fight, even though I was perpetually angry about doing so.
I miss the fact that you were mature enough to guide me through life's tougher moments, but lighthearted enough to lift me out of my own darkness.
I miss the way that your presence lit up the room, and how your gentle touch saved me from slipping through the cracks of my most difficult days.
I miss you, Hannah.