The gray pebble on my bedside table nestles between my teacup and my sleeping pills. On the nights my husband and I drink too much wine, it’s the morning tor for a forgotten painkiller, or a nipple ring. The week between Christmas and New Year it’s buried beneath gift receipts, an Ativan bottle, scratched lottery tickets.
My dead sister’s name is written in green marker on the pebble’s flat stretch. When my daughter was four, she used that marker to draw a wild-eyed green horse held down by chains, tape over its mouth, being stoned by cows. Before she was diagnosed. Before we knew how strange she finds our world.
I picked my pebble from a bowl of red and blue stones offered like colourful canapes by a grief group leader. Its cold smoothness filled my cupped palm. It was our first group session. Six strangers coming together every Wednesday with name cards and bad coffee and saggy faces. I sat, folded, on a child-sized chair. My back on fire. Unwashed in my sweatpants, my damp armpits filling the air, running my fingers through my hair to feel it rip. First with my left hand. Then with my right. Repeat. The hair fell in clumps into my styrofoam coffee on the floor.
I stuck the pebble in my pocket. Scratched my nose with one hand, then the other. When my sister was alive and working as an ER doc, she told me on one of our lake walks this was called “evening up.” On that same walk, she had wrapped her strong fingers around my daughter’s fist. Tried to teach her how to skip flat stones across the water.
“Proprioception,” she told me later in the pub; her palms warm on my cheeks. She doesn’t know where her body is in space.”
After group ended, Tim walked me to my car. His brother was murdered by a gang back home in New Zealand. His parents were bankrupting themselves. He was too far away to help. It was his parents he was worried about. He was ok, he would say, opening his tupperware of special food that smelled of vinegar. Tim had to eat at odd hours, at least twice during every group session; his nails more bitten than mine.
At the car, Tim hugged me. The undertow of grief buzzed between us as if I’d put my tongue on a power line. You understand, he whispered in his cabbage breath. I swore he going to try kiss me in that dodgy parking lot beneath trees minted in frost, my husband waiting at home by the fireplace. I let go. Touched the car handle twice with each hand before opening it.
Back at home, I found the green marker in my daughter’s pencil box and wrote my sister’s name on the pebble. The chewed plastic marker, light in my fingers, glided smoothly over the stone; green ink sinking in without spreading. I placed it on my bedside table next to a photograph of my daughter and my sister laughing as their stones sank in the lake.