nov 18, 2009
My sister died on the 4th of July, a day so quiet and still in the morning heat that traffic seemed to be silent, birds seemed to have gone on vacation, and when I woke up I thought my own pain had grown still. I thought, perhaps, that there would be an end to the pain for us, the living, as there would be for her as she left.
When my sister was dying in the hospital, she told me in very clear words, “I don’t know why I’m crying.” She wiped her face with her hands and we resumed the time before us. I told her I’d cried on the way down to Maryland, while I was driving, so I would not cry then, while I was with her. Really?, she said. and then she continued with the list of things she wanted me to do. I didn’t know where to send her, her– her spirit, her life– or where to tell her she would go. There was nothing. There was quiet. Or, not quiet. Time, very still.
Today is her birthday; she would have been 49 years old. And I don’t know why I’m crying. But when I cry for her, when I grieve for my loss, the thought of her makes her real, her spirit, her energy somewhere out there or in the things she left us, and I think I do know where to send her.
I knew she was brave, and I was proud of her dignity at such a dark moment, like night, without answers, without a way out anymore, but when she decided not to have dialysis again, and to let the failure of her organs shut her down, it was perhaps the way she found. To leave, to leave herself and life, us, her pain, and all our pain behind. Because she took the best of her life with her. It belonged to her, after all.
My sister died of alcoholism, and many other problems. I think that as an adult she reacted with anger to all she felt inside her that she didn’t understand, and couldn’t control. Menstrual pain and mood swings so severe that she became another person– impossible, obstinate, sarcastic, cruel. But this is me sitting here, trying to understand– I could be wrong. It could have been that when she was young, when she learned to drink until she was drunk she found a way to live her own life without the complications of people demanding, calling her to account, asking for more than she could give. These are all the things that surrounded her, the things that everyone has to cope with one way or another, and my sister didn’t.
When she was dying, there was no time to remember that the sister I’d loved as a child had a whole lifetime’s worth of being angry at her family sitting in the bed right next to her. There were only days left. I let all those days go and then I was able to be with her without anger, even though I still could not feel the closeness, I just could not feel. We talked and she drifted in and out of a morphine haze. She asked me to call her friends, her former boss at the barber shop, our parents and brother. I combed her hair into a pony tail on top of her head the way she wanted me to, because her hair was falling out and this way it was hidden. She told me over and over to whom she wanted to give things, jewelry, paintings, her car. I wrote it down and she signed it. She slept sometimes. We watched the news for seconds at a time. Michael Jackson had died. The nurses and the aides came and went. She was nauseous from the morphine; I called them as I held the basin under her chin. There were only days left. When I talked with the doctors I couldn’t contain the sobs. She didn’t have a job any longer, and never had medical insurance as a self-employed hair stylist, yet the hospital didn’t throw us out in the street. I feared that, sometimes. In between moments.
What had she done, I ask now, that made her so awful a person to us, and yet was still loved by many people. She’d been married several times; she lost husbands and close friends, she lost jobs over and over, and in the course of all this she fought with either my parents, my brother, or me, constantly. She probably fought with everyone she ever knew well enough until each of them, each of them walked away. “She deserved better,” one of her new friends said to me, and those words echo through the months. She did, of course. And perhaps as her older sister it was my job not to turn away as if my sister needed to be punished for drinking herself to death. I turned away when I couldn’t take anymore of those rages, those accusations of abandonment or betrayal– had I abandoned her, then? But then I remember that years passed with her being happy with all the new families and friends she adopted when she married, and not needing anyone else.
She was leaving, and maybe she didn’t want to see the end coming towards her. I understand that. Should she have fought to live for other people if she was done living for herself… is that the question that will let me say goodbye… was she finished with living and being angry and awake…? I wish I’d been able to talk with her those last few months, and I’m sorry for all the times she was alone. The partying was over. We did abandon her in the end, our small family, diminished with her loss and yet unable to heal, to live and let live.
The summer continued to be quiet. I walked in Central Park with my little dog, crying into the paper towels I carried in my pockets until I could find a way to live with grief. She was through with pain, and I could only ask why I cried, for whom I cried. And, was it for guilt or for love of a sister who stopped being a sister a long time ago? Was it my anger, then? And what did alcohol have to do with any of it, the grief, the heartache, the guilt and remorse, confusion and depression, the sheer desperation that felt so still and quiet in those summer mornings? One day I brought my phone and called my former brother-in-law, my sister’s ex-husband who was present the morning of the 4th of July, 2009, when she breathed her last breath. Her very good friend. And he said he probably loved her more than anyone, he said, as he sobbed on the phone. But she knew that, and he knew– she chose to drink. She loved the alcohol more, he said. And then we had no words of comfort for each other, only to let her go.
I stopped in the the green path under the cherry trees, now without blossoms, to wipe my face.
- In the shadow of my mother’s suicide (salon.com)
- Dealing with Death (donhall.blogspot.com)
- Do family members of people with borderline disorder have enough compassion? (psychologytoday.com)
- I had to learn how to grieve for my father (theglobeandmail.com)