Sister Loss

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker on stepping back into the world from her sister’s death, only to grieve the death of other sisters in Gaza.

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My sister Annie Ruth Walker Hood died the morning of Dec. 27, 2008: Throughout the four days leading up to her death in Hospice, friends and I sat in ceremony, thousands of miles away, chanting, praying, meditating and speaking at times to her spirit and soul. It was a difficult transition for her; at the end, for us at least, there was a palpable feeling of release, of peace. We were close as children, but grew apart as the years turned into decades since we lived near each other, and our ways in the world proved very different. She didn’t believe in voting, for instance, which I found an affront to those who, voting even when their lives were endangered, made attempts year after year to change a system that kept her and others like her relatively poor, without health care, undereducated and largely ignorant of anything not seen in a flash on television. 

Just last year she discovered, and believed, the earth was in trouble, running out of resources, and immediately decided to recycle her paper napkins and garbage bags. But voting, no. Seeing Earth as divine, rather than a fundamentalist religion that encourages passivity and “heaven” for a few thousand souls, no. So we disagreed.

The morning of her death my friends and I moved our circle from outside the house to the dining-room table. Holding hands we urged her to let go. I had written a poem for her, and letting go was its theme. During her cremation, we again sat in circle, just my partner and I this time, a two-person circle, and waited until my niece called from Atlanta, to tell us the machine had stopped and the cremation was done. No pun intended. But my sister would have enjoyed this, even if one were intended. Anything to do with cooking, eating, ovens and refrigerators aroused her interest; she loved to eat. This had, unfortunately, contributed to her ill health.

So this was our Christmas. The day after my sister’s death I felt lighter than I had in months. She had been very sick for years, fighting it all the way. The day after her cremation, however, sister-loss set in. It felt exactly as if I had lost a limb or some other part of my own body. My body felt too heavy and wobbly to carry; I had to lay myself down, as if I were wood, the remains of a tree from which a huge branch had been removed. I found a hammock way at the back of my house, hidden behind cactus plants and swung in limbo. Earlier I had had a dream that I thought of now: I was being informed by an old friend that he was leaving. He showed me the symbol of his new life: a green apple encased in a moist, spongy kind of cake. I seemed resigned to his moving on, but at the same time I experienced a piercing pain in my heart, so agonizing it threatened to wake me; but I went up to the table (that suddenly appeared) in the dream, a table spread with all that remained of enjoyment in life, and I tried to find a new place. A place not for two, as had been the case until now, but for the solitary one I had become. The dream had done the thing that dreams do so well: given all the symbols my psyche needed to prepare for the devastation I was feeling in the hammock as I swung.

Going from this state to encounter the news of the outside world was probably a mistake. I don’t know why I did so. Curiosity, love of the world, concern over our collective well-being. More curiosity. In any case, the first thing I encountered was Israel’s attack on Gaza, illustrated by a row of little girls, looking sound asleep but obviously dead, their grandmother wailing over their heads. And then, in the same frame, or close, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat Speaker of the House saying that Hamas, the elected representatives of the Palestinian people are “thugs.” Had she seen these children’s bodies? And then, a fragment of news that has kept me awake every night: In one house, bombed by Israel with money their state (more important by the attention it gets than any of our legitimate states) received from American tax dollars, five sisters had been killed. Five sisters. Their mother was critically injured.

We know that Gaza is comprised largely of refugees. That refugee settlements are generally 80 percent women and children. What are we to do with this assault on a people who have been forced into a space too small for them, deprived of water, food, medicine and mobility? Of fathers, brothers and husbands? Five sisters, on whom a thousand-pound bomb was dropped. And on their mother. How are we to live with this?
 
This tragedy to the human race is unbearable. How are we to raise children in this atmosphere of savagery? Every child on the planet realizes he or she is in danger from grown-ups gone mad. When I think of children left alone with images of bloodied corpses of children just like themselves I can hardly sit still, let alone sleep. When I visualize the five sisters, they are wearing green. Green dresses with billowing skirts. The mother alone is dressed in black, and at her throat she wears a white embroidered collar that can be detached. Is she still alive? And if she is alive, and if they have told her about her daughters, how does she feel? As if all her branches are gone? Her root? Were there still more sisters left? One sister? There are now hundreds of people dead, thousands wounded. Even before this attack, medical supplies, as well as food and water, were miniscule. I had a glimpse of the horrendous wall the Israelis have built around Palestinian settlements and noticed they have a ledge on the Israeli side for soldiers to stand in order to shoot down into the imprisoned population. Doesn’t this remind the world of images we’ve all said “Never again” to, and tried to grow beyond?
 
I am convinced that, unless the world takes the time to unravel the skein of hatred that binds the people of the Middle East, our end—the end of the world citizens have made—will come from there. That though all focus appears to be on which Arab nation is likely to strike the United States, in my awareness of the unpredictability of evil, I imagine Israel just as capable of doing us nuclear harm. This is because the United States and Israel, working together (and with Britain) have done terrible things to others in their greed to take resources away from them: And it is the nature of thieves to eventually have a grand falling out. More, Israel, with our help, has the weapons of mass destruction for which Bush looked for in vain in Iraq. One senses, in Israeli rage, unhealed wounds that may well be unhealable. As a world we continue to feel grief for this, as we feel grief, unspeakable grief, knowing four and five hundred years of enslavement and unimaginable brutality inevitably damaged our people. Human people. All people. Not just the blacks, browns, yellows, reds and whites that were enslaved.

But what is the remedy? Is it to claim the people who fight the madness are “thugs?” While the people who drop bombs on women and children are justified?

Three years ago I called a Peace Camp to which I invited African-American and Jewish women, feeling completely sure that peace is not to be entrusted solely to men. About 20 women came, and we had a couple of days of talking together, no holds barred. I called the circle because what frightens me more than anything is the silencing of people who object to Israel’s behavior, which I have experienced personally, as have many other African Americans. My position was, and is, that in every single movement for change and betterment of lives on the planet in which I’ve found myself, I’ve been flanked by at least one Jew. Sometimes this has been a male, sometimes, often, it has been a female. Only in the last three decades have I felt a chill, as we tried to talk to each other about the Middle East. This precious and unlikely alliance, two beleaguered peoples, determined to witness and affirm each other’s struggle, seemed too essential to relinquish without a word. Or many. At our Peace Camp, we talked through the day and into the night. What was accomplished? For me, the certainty that this circling around this issue, globally, might just lead to the kind of change that real conversation, real telling and real listening, can lead to. I was able to express how being called anti-Semitic hurt, when I dared, in the ’70s and ’80s, to express the fear that what is happening in Gaza would one day occur. To say to a beloved Jewish friend who dreamed, she said one day, that she was kissing Ariel Sharon, that in the absence of a non-dream sharing of what this symbol might mean, I had felt the need to withdraw from her. (Being true friends, we, of course, talked our way back to our senses on this).

I remember one of the women from Israel who explained to us that she worked in Israel with Arab women in the cause of peace, but that she never thought of the Arab women as friends. This was sad to hear. And the other African-American women, silenced for decades, struggling now to pull back into focus a cause that—with all the calamities befalling our own communities—they had mostly lost. What happens when one’s words of concern are thrown back at one as if one has no authority to speak is that people learn not to pay attention, not to care. But, of course, this is impossible. This is a very small planet, and by now most of the humans on it are endangered, one way or another, and very scared. It is in no one’s interest to let any nation, no matter its history or claim to sympathy, further terrorize us.
 
And that, I feel, is ultimately what I am objecting to: the terrorization of the planet by the United States and Israel. And yes, I know African armies and Indian armies and all the other smaller armies are imitating the big guys as best they can. I happen, however, to be attached to the U.S. and Israel through the strongest possible bonds: birth and taxes. These overly armed countries are attacking people who cannot possibly put up an equal fight, which makes attacking them sadistic. Where is the glory, the freedom and bravery, the wisdom, the profit in this? All the oil in the world will not wipe away the bomb scar now seared on the hearts of billions of Earthlings, cowering in their beds or losing themselves in licentiousness and drugs.

In the film The Thin Red Line, the main character, a conscientious objector to the war in which he finds himself, asks, contemplating the slaughter on both sides: Who is Killing Us? That is the only question to ask, really. Who is killing us? Who is torturing us? Who is making us dance around the world going Yes, Yes, Yes, you are so right, when all the time we’re appalled to our very core.

We have not, as a planet, been seeking to change the world so that this insanity can continue. And we must not feel limited by our insistence on non-violence, when all around us is guts and blood. Wars of the sort that cause guts and blood cannot be won. Let us take courage from that fact. The anger, hatred, fear, devastation let loose on the planet just during the reign of George the Second will mean millions of people, people we might see every day, will carry war in their hearts. A war carried in the heart will one day mean a bomb under the table.

I place my own trust in human conscience. As exemplified by Israeli students who are presently demonstrating against their government’s massacre of largely defenseless people. I call on all Earthlings to let their conscience speak; no matter what you are called, or by whom you are called it. You have a right to live in joy on this planet. You cannot do that, we cannot do that, if we are harassed and tormented by those who do not care about us, or about law and justice; those who readily insult our integrity whenever we ask simply to be heard; those who trample our dreams of peace and would deny us tomorrow because we, having been made to feel guilty and intimated by a history of which we had no part, have not found the courage to say No to them today. 

 
©2009 Alice Walker

Casa Madre
Mexico

Alice Walker’s recent books are We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, Meditations, Why War Is Never a Good Idea, a picture book for children, A Poem Traveled Down My Arm, Poetry and Drawings, and Now is the Time To Open Your Heart, a novel.