My Sister Died but Lives on Through Her Digital Footprint of Art She Loved

Illustration by Eric Fabbro.

The books didn’t come in time for her, but they came in time for me. They arrived in the mail after she was already gone, now ending up in my hands instead. I opened up the package to discover “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki and American University Studies’ “East Asian Philosophy” by John E. Ho. Through my burning tears of pain at having so recently lost my dear sister, I felt a moment of connection with her — an opening of a portal towards a deeper kind of understanding.

“A Tale for the Time Being” is a magical realism novel that explores the narratives and timelines of two women: Ruth, a Canadian author, and Nao, a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl who battles the many challenges of adolescence. Nao struggles, like my sister did, with severe depression and suicidal ideation. She decides, however, to stay alive long enough to document the story of her great-grandmother — an anarcha-feminist Buddhist nun she admires — who’s lived for over a century. Through her great-grandmother, Nao learns about family secrets and intergenerational trauma and wisdom.

The book is all about timing and how in the metaphysical realm, through dreamlike states, you can hop between timelines and influence people from across the world, in different periods of time, some of whom you may have never even met. The more I glanced at the gifts from my sister, the more I’m convinced these books were meant for me, drawing transcendent parallels. My sister and I are Ruth and Nao, whispering secrets to each other across dimensions, my sister now possessing intergenerational insight to guide me.

An unanticipated perfect companion, the East Asian philosophy book, seemed more than coincidence as part of the package. My sister wanted to shed her ego and understood, to some extent, that “the self” is an illusion. According to the National Library of Medicine, “East Asian people believe that through family names and rituals they are able to keep their spirits alive symbolically. Therefore, a person is never forgotten nor dies.” In this sense, my sister and I are also Nao and her great-grandmother; I now have a responsibility to tell Kelly’s story.

Kelly didn’t use social media much, being especially private with sparse publishing habits. She did have an Instagram account, though with only a few posts. However, found within her bio section is a link to a video with looping scenes from Satoshi Kon’s “Millennium Actress.” In the film, protagonist Chiyoko is searching for an important man she never finds. She says, in the end, that the search was what she loved most. Like Chiyoko, I am searching for my sister.

Day to day, I go through life piecing together the indecipherable, desperately looking for answers I’ll never find.

Kelly died by suicide the first year of the pandemic on August 23, 2020. She was 23 years old. What was her reason for ending her life, and at such a young age? Why did this senseless and agonizing loss occur? What could we — her family and friends — have done to prevent this horrendous tragedy? This is the unsolvable puzzle, and maybe I do enjoy the search. Maybe it gives me purpose; a way to derive meaning where there may or may not be any. Maybe it comforts me.

My sister feels alive as I connect the dots. It’s clear Kelly loved art and found solace in so much of it. This includes books, first and foremost, movies, TV shows, music, online videos, illustrations and memes. She saw both herself and the person she wanted to be in the characters she adored, learning about both the unspeakable horrors of this world and the possibility of a better one through others’ stories.

Like Joan Didion in her nonfiction novel, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she can’t get rid of her deceased husband’s possessions in case he somehow comes back, I want to believe my sister is still here. This search is like art itself; you glean what you can and want from it. No two people will view the same painting or read the same book and come to the exact same conclusion. There is beauty and magic in the abstract and unknown.

I was in Los Angeles when I received the phone call. It was 7 a.m. and I glimpsed an incoming call from my dad in Ohio, immediately wondering if everything was alright. As I answered, my father’s tone was solemn: Belinda… Kelly committed suicide, followed by his and my mother’s uncontrollable, choking sobs. The sentence rang in my ears until they burned, reverberating in my head until time slowed down. Everything froze. This couldn’t be happening. I screamed and screamed, and cried so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“NOOOOO! NOOOOO! NOOOOOOO!” I bawled, as the neighbors knocked on my door. I was inconsolable.

“My sister killed herself!” the words seeming surreal and strange as they left my mouth. The neighbors’ expressions of concern became muted gurgles as I entered a deep state of despair that felt both untethered yet visceral, like I was being gutted. I faded away into an unfamiliar place.

It’s my worst memory, and one that will forever haunt me. It will always walk alongside me and maybe, one day, it will sit still with me. But then it will inevitably get back up when I do. No matter where I am in time, it feels like that moment is eternal.

My sister didn’t leave a note.

My family looked through her computer, phone, notebooks and all around the house. In her search histories, we found questions like “Why is the world so cruel?” and various instructions on suicide methods. It was harrowing. I didn’t want to keep looking. Any clues discovered at the time made me feel panicked and sick. However, our other sister, Lisa, pointed out something that didn’t sting quite as much. On Kelly’s phone, as a final screenshot, was an image from Kate Bush’s music video for “Cloudbusting,” displaying an almost calming passage:

But every time it rains
You’re here in my head
Like the sun coming out
Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen

My dad claims to never cry. After he had a heart attack and, more recently, cancer, I told him to read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, to help him understand the mind-body connection for health reasons. I sent him article after article about the benefits of crying, something I strongly advocate, and how it prevents heart disease. I wanted him to shed much-needed tears and, above all else, for him to be okay.

My father’s father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s Mainland China. My dad was only 13-years-old when he watched my Grandpa — who had been sent to a labor camp for once having been a part of the Kuomintang Army, despite being a reformed communist — die in front of him. Instead of crying, he felt deep shame and hopelessness.

At his father’s funeral, my dad squeezed a twig until his hand bled, spouting something like red tears for the Red State. I created a radio documentary in graduate school about my dad’s story of surviving the Cultural Revolution. I believe Kelly listened and understood. Maybe, in whatever realm she is in, she has met Grandpa.

In her “Cloudbusting” music video, Kate Bush is dressed up as a young boy, accompanying her father, who is working on a contraption that literally busts clouds to create rain. Outraged at the inventor’s gall and him designing something potentially illegal, a group of men in suits arrive to take the boy’s father away. Kate watches helplessly as the father glances back from the very vehicle that will forever separate them. Resolutely, the boy then goes back to the contraption and successfully makes it rain, forming tears from the sky, as his departing father smiles.

Both the song and video are based on Peter Reich’s “A Book of Dreams,” a tribute to Peter’s well-known father Wilhem Reich, a persecuted psychoanalyst who attempted to idyllically meld the world of dreams and reality. I’d like to believe my sister saved the “Cloudbusting” screenshot for our dad, whom she similarly admired and also as someone whose life draws parallels to Peter’s.

When my sister died, my dad did cry. He still cries about it sometimes. He is also now reading “The Body Keeps the Score” aloud to her each night.

My mother, on the other hand, has not stopped crying since the day my sister left us. Of all of the people in Kelly’s life, mom had the closest bond with her. They were nearly inseparable and this loss has irreparably shattered my mom’s world.

To ease the pain, my mom keeps busy as best as she can. She enjoys working in her garden, planting everything from tomatoes to zucchini to bittermelon, the last of which was the affectionate namesake she and dad gave Kelly. It’s been raining a lot in Ohio, where they live and where I’m from. Where my sister is buried. Where my mom’s crops are large, healthy and nourishing. When she was alive, my mom always made sure my depressed sister ate, and now my sister is ensuring that my mom eats, even through her infinite sorrow.

I have a framed painting of my mother’s in my apartment: a little boy flying a blue kite in a village. Painting is another hobby through which my mother finds comfort. I was, in a subconscious way, immediately drawn to the village scenery, until I eventually realized it’s because Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is one of my favorite books. My mother painted a child uncannily similar to several characters depicted in the book. “The Kite Runner” was also one of Kelly’s favorites.

When I pulled the same novel out from my bookshelf one day, thinking about Kelly, my heart skipped a beat. On the cover of the version I have is a small blue kite, just like the one in my mom’s painting. It’s almost as if across dimensions, my mother painted something for my sister while mourning her. Or maybe, in some sense of channeling that grief, my sister inspired her to paint it.

With any suicide, those closest to the person who dies feel inexplicable regret and self-blame. My mom blames herself the most. She blames herself relentlessly. The “Kite Runner” tells a tale of family, love, loss, guilt, shame, grief but, ultimately, redemption. Intergenerational redemption. While my mom is Christian and yearns for an afterlife with my sister, I’d like to think there is a kind of redemptive closure for us in this lifetime.

My mom’s painting and “The Kite Runner.” Notice the two blue flags at the same angle.

When I visit Kelly’s Goodreads account, it says that she’s 25 years old (26 as of April 1st), not 23 frozen in time. It’s like she’s alive and active on the site. Her profile photo is the character Lapis Lazuli from the show “Steven Universe,” an animated series both she and our sister Lisa loved. (The two of them shared a special fondness for animated shows, manga and horror films.) Lapis has a disdain for existing on her ‘miserable’ planet, but eventually, through much character development, finds happiness. I often wonder if Kelly has found her happiness.

Kelly has several favorite quotes on her Goodreads profile, including one from “Cloud Atlas” that reads, “All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”

My sister sometimes claimed her mind was a prison. Her mental illnesses, ranging from the more detectable depression to the more internal OCD and social anxiety, prevented her from acquiring what she most desired: friendship, self-acceptance and self-love. She was painfully aware of her perceived shortcomings and limitations. But her YouTube channel, which includes three short videos she created, holds a special power.

The first video, something she made during a summer internship for her computer science program, is titled “Pulse.” In it is a beating red dot, a pulse, that moves from left to right, with small trackers. When I saw this for the first time, maybe a year after the suicide, I bawled, realizing it was her beating heart on display. Separation really did feel like an illusion in that stirring moment.

Another video, “N E V E R L E T M E G O,” conveys her message in the title. The video features characters from the show “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” There are smiling, applauding faces and the protagonist Shinji, a young boy who has to make sacrifices for the greater good of humanity and eventually grapples with his own reason for existence. The song Kelly samples in the video is a slowed-down version of “Satellite” by Fantaholic.

“Still a romance / life and afterlife / a secret double life.”

I often wonder how closely Kelly identified with Shinji and the lyrics in that song.

The title of that video also shares a name with one of Kelly’s favorite novels, by author Kazuo Ishiguro, which is — according to Goodreads — “a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society.” A lot of the literature towards which Kelly gravitated explored concepts like the detriments of conformity and outmoded social constructs leading to dystopia.

This segues into her last video, a floating bag in the wind very similar to the one from the movie “American Beauty.” That film is all about the ennui and quiet anguish of suburbia: the repression, imprisonment, performance, unfulfillment and utter loss of self. This is also something I believe Kelly experienced, growing up with my traditional parents in suburbia and living there in her final days during lockdown. But within the infamous scene, Ricky, showing Jane a plastic bag he filmed blowing in the wind, explains why it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever recorded.

The bag takes on many forms while it’s freely blowing around, almost playfully, whimsically. When we see the bag again at the end, protagonist Lester describes the most profound aspects of his ostensibly miserable life replaying before his blank eyes. It’s the freedom, authenticity and simplicity that bring him the most joy. I contemplate what Kelly saw in those final moments as she lay in a coma in the hospital ICU, her brain waves coming to an eventual halt, as we collectively sobbed and kissed her goodbye.

I’m still piecing it all together. The groundwork has been laid out and I’ve only just begun my investigation, but what does it all mean? Again, I may never know, or I may only ever think I know. But one thing’s for sure: I’ll have years, if not a lifetime, of art to consume in an attempt to better understand my sister. Death ends a life but not a relationship, and art is eternal. On Kelly’s Goodreads alone are hundreds of books she’s read or wanted to read.

Some of her favorites include David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” Jeanette Winterson’s “Written on the Body,” Diana Wynne Jones’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Yukio Mishima’s “Confessions of a Mask,” Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human,”

Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” Ryū Murakami’s “In the Miso Soup,” Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Yann Martel’s “The Life of Pi,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale,” Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” George Orwell’s “1984.” The list goes on.

I only wish “A Tale for the Time Being,” the book now in my possession, had gotten to her in time. Nao would’ve been ever-relatable to someone like Kelly and, however dark and bleak the themes are, the book remains hopeful. Perhaps my sister has already read it in the other dimension, in which she is at peace. I continue to think, in my way of magical thinking like Didion’s, that Kelly sent me the book from that place to tell me something. To help guide me in breaking generational curses. To remind me that despite life’s challenges, despite how much I miss her and have to live with this very heavy grief — there is hope.

There is art, and so much of it. It is not a suicide note, but a love letter that never ends. It is magic that is real.

Originally written for Medium: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

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