I wrote my sister a letter to tell her about our very sick brother but she didn’t answer me or call him which was more deadly than the last time I wrote to her when she sent back my letter unopened crammed in an envelope with my name written in hard big letters, so angry-looking I felt small and childish like I’d interrupted something important, a discussion she might have been having with a friend on the lounge chairs on her back porch overlooking a valley resplendent with trees and a running creek where in a different time we might have ridden horses, their hooves clicking smartly on the wet rocks.
My parents never came.
If they had come, things would have been different.
My mother would take up her spot next to the kitchen sink. She would stand with her arms folded and a dish towel over her shoulder, the smoke from her cigarette friendly like a tiny campfire in a dark forest.
My father would drink coffee from a cup with a saucer and read the paper, his man weight ballast for our crippled ship.
Yes, things would have been different. My parents were experienced. They had already had people die. My mother’s sister, dead at 26, from a blood clot that traveled somewhere in her body that was fatal. She was movie star beautiful with hair that rolled in curls, one of those remarkable people with no sense of their own perfection. We were in the kitchen when the call came. “That’s a damn shame,” my father said to the person on the phone. “A damn shame.” My mother leaned on the sink.
If my parents had come after my sister’s ex-husband died, after he crashed his car into a tree and died so badly that they had to gather him up for burial, well, if they had come, things would have been different.
They would have led us through it.
But they didn’t come. They never said why.
I tried to do what I thought my parents would do, casting back to my five-year old self sitting on a vinyl covered chair at the kitchen table watching my father on the phone and my mother’s great heaved sigh as she settled against the sink. What should happen next? What should I do now? What do grownups do when there is a death in the family? What are the steps?
But the sea was too rough, the going too chaotic to think about anything in steps as if one carefully planned action would lead to another. Everything led nowhere except to a giant wall of grief until the wall of grief disappeared and anger took its place. My sister and her teenage sons were awash with blame and mean questions. We called a family meeting, something I’d never done before or even seen done, but it seemed an adult thing to do. I tried to get everyone to calmly state their issues but the table erupted in yelling and accusations. Fierce talk, like things could get broken.
It scared me. I had never been at the center of so much yelling, of such sharp, dangerous pain. I could do nothing but run from it, retreat into the room I shared with my sister, close the door and listen to voices in the hallway, echoes of accusations bouncing from wall to wall. No one can blame me, I thought. I just came to help.
Please see Witness to a Broken Heart.
I had a sister once.
She didn’t die. She just left and never came back.
The time she left before this last final time which has lasted twenty-eight years, she left for just six months. We differed about something, one of us made a remark on the phone, and then the phone went dead for the next six months, her in California and me in Wisconsin.
When the phone next rang, it was to tell me that her ex-husband had died in a car accident. For whatever reason, his yellow Mercedes had crashed into a tree one dark California night. She said his body was so mangled that they would have to wrap him in a sheet to bury him. It seemed an incredible thing for her to say, explosive, red and angry, with a tinge of blame.
I didn’t want to hear this bloody, torn detail about a man I’d known for twenty years, who’d taught me to water ski by pulling me up with his speedboat, watching me fall and circling back so I could start again and again, each time tooling the boat back alongside me, holding a can of beer in his hand, and smiling at me, “Ready to go again?” I was 14, sunburned to scorched, but. by the end of my 14th summer. I was crossing the boat’s wake on my skis. I flew over the wake, my knees jockeying, handling the waves, my skis smacking the water. It was so beautiful, I remember it now, so many years later. I flew because of him. And now he was to be wrapped in a sheet.
I flew to California. Broke at the time because we were in the end stages of adopting our second child from Nicaragua, a friend gave me a ticket she bought with the miles she’d accumulated. I went to California because my brother-in-law had died and because my sister was crying on the phone. It’s what people do. Go when one of their own is suffering. And she was suffering.
My sister and her husband may have been divorced but they weren’t apart. They were entwined still. Nothing about their relationship was over except he was now dead and she wasn’t. The grief was everywhere, floating in their backyard pool, cascading from the kitchen faucet, lit by a match to a long cigarette. Moments of calm would erupt in sobs. I wondered if I was the right person to have come. I prayed for my brother and parents to come. Her grief, it was too much for me to handle. I was the youngest, after all. The baby. No one should expect me to manage this, I thought.
At night, we would sleep together in the big bed my sister and her ex-husband had shared while they were married. On one wall of their bedroom, next to the sliding glass door that opened to their backyard pool, was a set of shelves and on the shelves were his Izard sweaters, folded perfectly, every color represented, yellow, coral, sky blue, navy blue, all the blues. My sister heaved with sobs in the night and I held her. And prayed for my brother and my parents to come to take over, to do the right thing, to know what the right thing to do was because I didn’t know. I just held on and looked at the sweaters in the moonlight.
It’s hard to believe looking back like I did today, sorting through hundreds of photos, some so old that they were printed in squares like they were taken with a Brownie camera, so hard to believe that I never took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye and told her, “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
She was a teenager when we adopted two toddler boys. The first was a thin delicate boy, gentle and undemanding, but he needed so much to make up for what he’d lost. He was hungry in all ways but hid it so well; he was patient, unassuming, expecting little from us. He never cried. We marveled at that until we figured out what it meant. Still, we rocked him for hours just out of joy for him coming to us.
The second boy came to us after having laid in his crib day after day looking at the ceiling of the orphanage cabin where he’d lived his whole life next to several adjoining cribs, some of those babies lying on their backs, too, others standing at their crib railing, railing against the boredom, the heat, the people busy with other children and other things. He was silent. Because of his brother, we expected that. But it didn’t last.
He was sick. He threw tantrums. He needed breathing treatments. He took steroids. He was sweaty, sticky all of the time. Holding him was holding a wet, squirming box of heat. Nothing made him happy.
On our first trip to Florida together, he fell and hit his head on a stone bench. This meant that he had stitches on the back of his head in addition to the every four hours breathing treatments, the little machine with the mask and the tubes and the plumes of medicinal air floating up around his ears. Meanwhile there was the other quiet, patient boy needing everything he couldn’t ask for.
It was hell to admit that we were in over our heads. A teenager, then one little boy and then another. But we were. Or we would have been if the teenager hadn’t been the person she was. Able, strong. Not uncomplaining, thank God, because then the story wouldn’t be worth telling. She didn’t complain so much as give us looks that we correctly interpreted as her saying, ‘what did you think this was going to be like?’
She was nobody’s fool.
So now, oh, twenty-five years after the fact, I am saying thank you. I am saying to my daughter what I am maybe just now realizing. I could not have done it without you. We, the two of us, the parents, could not have done it without you. And we might be late, we might have waited a very long time to say this. But we say it anyway.
If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister? You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country. But because we are estranged, people stay in the same emotional place as they were when the break occurred. If someone was angry, frustrated, quick to react, unthinking in words chosen, she stays that way, frozen forever as someone to cast out, someone whose casting out was justified. Even though the one casted out might now be serene and compassionate, introspective and calm, careful and measured. My sister is 70 today, assuming she is still alive. We haven’t spoken more than two or three sentences in twenty-three years. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was standing with my brother on a hill in our home town cemetery after the graveside service for our mother. There was no mutual comfort, no shared responsibility for our mother’s funeral or for the taking care of our aging father. An opportunity to reconcile missed by mutual consent. Years before, deep in a 10-year estrangement with my parents, I’d driven many hours to the same cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents. Driving up the dirt road, turning left at the oak tree, I parked and right away saw two headstones with my parents’ names on them. “Oh my God, my parents have died,” I told my husband. “They died and no one told me.” I’d imagined this happening for years, figuring that the only way I would ever know they were dead would be that Christmas would pass without getting a Christmas card from them – our only contact for years. But they hadn’t died, not yet. In typical fashion, they had, however, planned ahead. Both headstones were ready for them with only the end date to be filled in. We stayed not long. Unnerved, I wanted to get out of the cemetery, away from the shade of the oak tree, and be long on the road away from the decisions I’d made that resulted in our estrangement. I’m not happy that my sister and I are estranged nor do I feel it’s justified on either end. The loss is enormous, a loss so big I won’t understand it until we are reconciled. And yes, I’ve tried to make things different but to no avail. The person who was my sister doesn’t want that role. “I have everything I need,” she told me the last time I contacted her. I paused at that line in her email. So tight and final. She doesn’t need what I have to offer. She doesn’t need a sister. She just doesn’t. But I think I still might.
Originally posted in 2012.
In 2008, I wrote a piece published in Newsweek called “The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’.” It’s about ending the estrangement with my parents. Many people have found it to be helpful in sorting out their own situations. Here’s the link. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/05/the-power-of-i-am-sorry.html