My sister’s service is today. This song keeps running through my head, and if wishes were horses I’d have her riding some today. I can see it in my mind’s eye and it’s beautiful. Ride in peace, Deborah.
If she hadn’t died of metastasized lung cancer, my sister, Deborah, would have been 59 years old today. In November, on the one year anniversary of her death, I tricked myself that I had reached a completion in a cycle of mourning for her, and met that day with a sense of breathless relief, as if crossing a finish line after the last leg of a long race, ready for the ice water and heading to the showers. I felt that I was putting something behind me.
Ha ha ha!
This spring I am interning at the Mental Health Association of Essex County. One of my key assignments is to co facilitate a sibling support group for individuals with a brother or sister who is living with mental illness. My tribe. Just like me. My role in the group is not about me, and yet, thanks to my sister, I am steeped in the experience of the group from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. Working in the group, and approaching her birthday, I slowly caught myself going a bit numb. Averting my eyes from the obvious herd of white elephants entering the chambers of my heart, the memories of Deborah and her craziness, the ways she hurt me, the ways she hurt herself and, despite it all, how much I miss her. The missing began long before she died, when she first became ill. All that much more, then, do I miss her, truly.
So this weekend, I found myself paying a shiva call to the family of a beautiful young woman, whose vivacious and generous life seemed to end midstream, too soon, unfinished. The whole way there, I cried for my sister. In awe, in gratitude, I cried. This is what I have missed, I realized, the open grief. The loss of the one, resonated with the loss of the other, like the vibration of a bell, ringing out in concert, in sympathetic response. This is life. This is community. We share in the fullness, we stand together in the loss and in the next breath the rebuilding begins, quietly, subtly, relentlessly, as it should be. But you need to cry, you need to take those gulping sobs of oxygen in and let that river of tears flow out, to keep the cycle going.
The process of grief is what it is. It patiently waits for you to catch up, to surrender, so that you can keep going forward to what comes next.
Happy Birthday, Deborah. I’m still pretty pissed for the havoc you caused. But I’ll get over it. I love you lots. You beautiful, wild thing.
As a footnote: I recently became aware of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. Since I truly believe that the more we can share about our experiences and insights, trials, tribulations and triumphs in the struggle with mental illness, I am excited to participate in this project. Read more about it here, decrease stigma, encourage wellness, and share your experiences too.
“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”
Our second day in Taos started out cloudy and cold, as we headed out on the road to Abiquiu. It had been my dream since high school to visit the landscape that had inspired the artist Georgia O’Keefe. Since it was low season, a tour of her home was out of the question, but my husband and I reasoned that a simple drive through Abiquiu would be satisfying in itself. On the way, we crossed the Rio Grande Gorge, where pedestrians can stroll along the walkway directly above a 650 foot drop straight down to the river.
We returned to the car. I felt defeated, the gorge was majestic and beautiful, but I was unable to push beyond the paralyzing fear that consumed me. I put it out of my head and focused on the ever changing, colorful landscape on the way to Abiquiu.
Hours later, our second pass at the Gorge was much like the first, but the difference was in the sun. It had miraculously emerged, warming the day, softening the landscape and giving me courage. This time I alternated my baby steps with deep breaths, determined to go as far as I could. Whenever a car passed, at 55 – 65 mph, I froze, waiting for the resultant vibrations of the bridge to dissipate before resuming my movements.
I allowed myself to go at a snail’s pace as other viewers walked past me. My husband called out encouragement over his shoulder, by this time he had gone to and fro a number of times, crossing from one side of the bridge to the other, snapping photographs. I fearfully barked at him when he tried to hold my hand, imagining that any miscellaneous touch could throw me off balance, grimacing as involuntary tears flowed. I felt so out of control and can’t recall if I have ever experienced such a physically paralyzing fear. About thirty feet along, I was rewarded by the silver sliver of the river, serpentine, cutting throught the dark earth, cliffs peppered with snowfall. I hadn’t made it anywhere close to the midpoint overlook, but I had gone as far as I could go and was happy.
As we made it safely back to the car, I thought of my more adventurous sister, Deborah, I wish she could have seen this, she would have loved it. I suddenly realized that it was eight weeks to the day since she had died. This was just the kind of experience she would dig.
In the car, Tim gave me a high five. You must be hungry. Yes, I thought, terror really gives you an appetite. When we sat down to order our meal at the bright and cozy Bent Street Cafe in Taos, the radio played Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, the song I chose for my sister’s memorial service. Tim looked at me. Out of all the 3,000 or so songs they could have played, what are the odds they play this one? I swear it felt like Debbie was giving me a high five of her own.
Images of the gorge are by my brave husband, Tim Folzenlogen.
p.s. I recently read a moving post that calls to mind messages from lost loved ones, written by Kim Reynolds, called The Anniversary. You can read it here.
It had to have been a mistake. It was my sister who belonged in the group home, not me. But here I was , other patients milling about, and I was one of them. I had dreaded this as a child, the thought that my freedom could be taken away, or worse that I would lose my faculties or my sense of reason. The first fear was drummed into me from a young awareness of the cold war and from having a father who had nearly escaped life in Maoist China. I used to think, “I could have been born in China. I could have been a communist. I could have been in a prison camp. I could have been killed for having been a baby girl.” Generally, these thoughts made me grateful. The second fear came from watching my mother and my sister during their worst moments. In my mother’s case it was when she suffered her “breakdowns.” My sister’s low points were more dramatic. I have a collection of memories featuring her staggering across the living room, high on drugs, while my anxious, pajama clad parents called 911. Consequently, I never touched drugs or alcohol. “Keep your wits about you,” I counseled myself.
How did I end up here?
I was being interviewed for intake. Lydia was nice enough. You could tell she cared what happened to us.
“ Now then, everything seems to be in order. Do you need anything from home? Or is there anyone you would like to call?”…………
“No.” I was bewildered. “Thank you.”
Then you can join your sister for group. “
I looked up and there she was. She looked happy. Happy to see me. Happy that little sister was here, and that she was not alone.
“Let’s make this a family thing” I could see this thought clearly displayed on her face.
Inwardly I was cringing, but what choice did I have? None. It had been taken from me.
I started to think,
“So this is what my life has become.”
Opening my eyes, I found that I was in my own bed, in my own home, and it had all been a dream.
My sister wasn’t always repulsive to me. Far from it, I desperately wanted to be just like her. She was the older princess of the family, with long, sheet like black hair and exotic features inherited from my mother’s side of the family. She could draw beautifully. Her passion was horses and I remember admiring sketchbook after sketchbook of horses, jumping , grazing, leaping over fences. I remember one night, I must have been six and she 13, when we sat on her bed and made tin foil lanterns. She patiently showed me how to make the pattern I desired, and then poke it carefully with a sewing needle. When you held it to the light, it looked like a mini constellation. Hers was in a pattern of Pegasus , the horse with wings. It was magnificent. God, I worshipped her. She was quiet. She was smart, always on the honor roll.
I remember her helping mom dress me for my First Holy Communion. Mom made my dress of delicate white eyelet, and I wore white patent Mary Janes. I think she let me wear stockings for the first time. I complained that my feet hurt.
“You have to suffer to be beautiful, “ they both teased me.
I looked at both of them in awe. I wanted to be like them so much it hurt.
We were both presented with rosaries for the occasion. Each in its own petite leather purse with a holy picture inside of the Virgin Mary, hers was pale blue crystal in a white leather case, mine a ballerina pink in burgundy. I hated pink. Maybe I hated pink from that exact moment, simply because pink was something my sister did not have. For years I perversely coveted her rosary, her clothes and her friends, her room and her very self. I would have much rather been her than young scrawny me, down to the last detail.
When she did grace me with time to play together, I was in heaven. We played school, she was the teacher, I was the student. We played Mission Impossible. Silly putty made the perfect substitute for plastic explosives, so that no room was off limits to us. We simply placed the putty on the doorknob and BOOM – instant access. We were quite happy in our imagined world of secret missions and exploits to save the day. We tied each other up with invisible bonds and then each of us would take turns getting rescued by the other.
Seven years older than me, my sister was always an entire phase of life ahead. Her bumps in the road became my warnings.
“Don’t take that route, the road’s out.” was the signal when she ended up in the hospital with a drug overdose. As a result I never so much as drank wine until I was forty. As we got older, I would not give up the idea that I could still rescue my beloved sister from drugs until well into adulthood when I had children of my own. Maybe it was the exhaustion . You try and you try. I know the Chinese are famous for perseverance; they built the Great Wall , after all. But then again, I am only half Chinese, and was raised in the land of boundless opportunity and instant gratification.
Dad was always getting offered promotions attached to relocations. When we moved, yet again, this time to Texas, my sister seemed devastated. Truth is, I never really knew what was happening to her. She was a quiet, Madonna like beauty, a creature different from myself, who graced me with her playtime, and rebuffed me as she discovered dating, and ultimately , LSD.
So now, she is dying. She won’t admit it, doesn’t want to look at it, but the reality is that she has end stage lung cancer that she refused treatment for and now it’s too late to do anything but seek comfort care. She didn’t tell anyone in the family she was sick. Meanwhile, the lung tumor grew unchecked so that it cracked her ribs and is now in her hip and in her lymph nodes. We found her on the floor in her apartment after Hurricane Sandy and she couldn’t get up. From her hospital bed, with labored breaths, she told me she doesn’t want to move to a facility to be closer to me.
Why should I turn my life upside down just so I can be ten minutes away from you people? I want to stay in control of my life. Besides, I don’t want to put you through the same thing you just went through with mom and dad.
Well guess what, sis, I am going through it, and it bloody hell doesn’t matter in the least where you are, because even when your craziness got to be so much that I tried to shut you out, here you are, in my heart, reminding me that I love you. You are my big sister after all. And here we go again.