And Then There Was One

This is a guest blog, tonight from my friend Jackie, who has shared wedding stories, dogs stories, friendship stories and love stories here.  She wrote this piece a year ago, and wrote the postscript last week.  This is for anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved on in the most painful way possible.  It’s long, so bear with us.          From Jackie:

I think a part of me will always be angry with my sister, my only sibling.  The anger sometimes morphs into fury, but then I feel guilty.  And then the guilt makes me sad, and the sadness overwhelms me with a depth of despair that only a few might understand.  When I got the call last January that my sister had committed suicide a part of me died, too.  The part of me that always hoped and dreamed that the estrangement my sister and I had experienced over the past several years could be overcome and we could renew the wonderful sister bond that we’d had shared for over 50 years.  How did things go so terribly awry?

 

I would say our childhood was unremarkable except in hindsight it was very remarkable.  My dad worked hard as an accountant for a large oil company and my mom stayed home to be a wife and mother.   We had everything we needed but few luxuries and I guess there was so much love in our family that I never really thought we were missing anything.  We lived in a new freshly minted suburban home and could walk safely to our elementary school.    Our house was always clean and tidy, we sat down to dinner every night together, and watching Lassie on Sunday night was a ritual. To save money my mother sewed all of our clothes; not always our preferred styles, but now I appreciate how hard she worked and how many hours she devoted to keeping our home life running smoothly.   It seemed totally normal to get up, have breakfast with my family, go off to school, make good grades, come home to a clean and organized home, and know Dad would be home for dinner at 5:30.   We followed the rules, respected our parents, made good grades, and both of us completed college in less than 4 years.  Our college educations were paid for by my parents so we never worried about loans or working through school.  My sister and I were close; we played and argued and shared secrets ~ and a bedroom too since my grandmother frequently came to visit.  We were loved and we knew it.

 

My sister and I had unique differences in our personalities and talents.  I swam competitively after giving up hope of having a horse of my own – when I was little I took riding lessons and loved being around them.   My sister swam a bit too, but never gave up on that dream to have her own horse.  When I was in college and she was still in high school my parents gifted her with her first horse.  He wasn’t much to look at, but moved well and she was ecstatic.   My sister was a bit of a slob in life; messy, but her riding tack was immaculate.  She would spend hours cleaning bridles and saddles and organizing them in precision-like order. She avoided cleaning her room but would happily muck out a stall.  I was more organized and enjoyed keeping things  clean, and that was a sort of joke between us – she had no problem ignoring her domestic chores to spend endless hours with her horses.   She just didn’t care.  And I loved that about her.

 

In our adult years, when we were married, we lived about 1 mile away from each other in Houston. She was a fun Auntie to my kids, and I did my best to help her with her  boys, who each had some unique learning challenges.  Her motherhood days were not easy.  But we enjoyed those years and were together constantly.  We talked on the phone everyday – long before there were cell phones.  Caller ID had just come into vogue and I would see her number and just pick up the phone and say “hey” and we would start in.  We endured the tragic and sudden loss of our father in 1995 and helped our mom get through some very tough years.  Sometimes we would just sit together and drink wine and cry.  She and her husband decided to move out to the country so she would have more room for her horse passion and perhaps find other schools to better manage her boy’s learning issues, and I moved to the West Coast in 2001.  That is when our bond would start to crumble.

 

Around 2005 my phone calls were not returned; I left messages, and my mother who lived close to my sister would ask me if I had spoken with her as her calls were ignored too.  Finally the ugliness was revealed.  My sister had decided to leave her marriage and children and run off with a pseudo-psychologist who practiced polygamy and had a prison record and had promised her a life of ease and loveliness.  She was trancelike in her devotion to him.  Her children and (now) ex-husband would call me in disbelief over her behaviors.  She managed to chase away all of the “wives”, handed over ALL of her divorce settlement, and very quickly discovered that he was nothing more than a con-artist who abused and beat her into submission.  I had told her from the start I did not support this decision, from the research I had done I felt he was a dangerous man and her decision was ill-advised.   I begged her to reconsider.  She turned on me with a vengeance, cutting me out of her life and insisting I owed her an apology for “judging” her choices.  And so it went.  I would follow her discreetly from afar and learn that she would run away from the violence more times than I could count; she would marry him and then leave him immediately afterwards because of the abuse.  She divorced him and then remarried him.  Her ex-husband would help hide her but always, always, she would go back.  My attempts to contact her were refused.  Her only calls to our mother were for money.  Mother’s Day, Christmas, Birthdays were ignored.  The years went by and I kept hoping she would come home.  Meanwhile her ex-husband moved on with his life and remarried and moved away.  Her boys grew up. I came back to Texas in 2008 but still no connection.  I told her ex-husband to please ask her to call me, I was here with any help she needed – but her pride was too high and the rift too deep.  She would not ask for help.  The torment continued. She had trapped herself into the endless cycle of abuse.  A few more bizarre business ventures would keep her with him, and give her temporary hope,  but they would fail and the misery would continue.  Early on she ran away from him and he threatened to cut her horses’ throats from ear to ear if she did not return.  She returned.

 

In 2011 I attempted to contact her via text.  She was rude and abrasive and would have no part of a conversation until I apologized, again, for the “choices” she had made.  My last words to her were that I wanted to resolve our differences, that I loved her, and would not fight with her.  No response.  I later learned that he tracked her phone, emails and texts.  There was never really a chance for her to be honest with anyone.

 

So in January when I got “the” call, a part of me was not shocked.  Still the tragedy of the whole messy thing crashed down around us all.  She had driven 9 hours to an out-of-state locale, hidden from all.  She poured a glass of wine and poisoned herself with barbiturates.   She was discovered through her car’s GPS.  When the kind detective contacted me he was solemn and sad.  In a level voice he asked if I wanted to hear her Note.  I listened quietly as he read me her last words, how she was so very sorry to leave everyone but she could not take the physical and emotional abuse any longer.  The final straw was that he was having an affair with a woman she worked with.  The disgrace was complete.

 

When I especially missed her during our years apart, I would fantasize about coming together over a favorite bottle of wine – sitting together, face to face, and thrashing through everything so we could begin again.  I think about the glass of wine that she poured herself to wash down the pills, the glass that should have been our glass of wine ~ our fresh start, our new beginning.  When she left forever that cold day in January she destroyed all of the hope.  And that’s when the anger/guilt/sad cycle begins again.   Why could she have not called me one last time to ask for help?  Why didn’t she remember the goodness about us?  Why why why…

 

My sister would have been 58 on June 30, 2013.  She was fun and smart and beautiful, and I loved her very much.  I will miss her forever.

 

A Healing Postscript:

Dr. Miranda thought it might be a good idea to wait to post this piece about my sister’s death until I had spent more time grieving.  It was a good idea.    I originally wrote this almost a year ago.  She suggested I write a follow-up on how things are going, how the healing process has gone.  It’s taken me longer to write this postscript than it did to write the essay.   I have struggled with this all week.

 

The passage of time is an amazing thing; it softens the rugged edges of grief and lifts the darkness.  But when the death of a loved one is a result of suicide, there is always a cloud that hovers ever near.  It is a difficult process to experience and it has given me deeper compassion for others who have gone through this horror.  A few days after my sister died my mother still had not called her friends or Pastor.  I contacted him myself.  He was shocked to hear the news – he knew our family well – and wondered why no one had notified him.  I explained that she could not bring herself to tell anyone; she was ashamed.  He told me that was not unusual.  He went on to comfort me with his opinion that Suicide was the single most selfish act a human being can commit; that it leaves those left behind wrecked and ruined, the ripples run far and wide.  He was right about that.  Even now when I mention my sister passed away I am always asked “Oh that’s terrible.  Was it an illness?”  And then I have to figure out just how much of the story I need to tell.

 

I have such a wonderful family and amazing friends and a great life.  I just wish my sister was here to share it with.  When I packed up my mother’s house recently and went through all the “stuff” I would literally talk out loud to her “…here is that plate that we agreed would go to you….or……  hey look at these pictures of you in grade school, what a hoot…..or…..remember this horse trophy that you were so proud of….”  and on and on.  I have decided I will never completely come to terms with her death, so I choose to remember the happy times of her life.  It’s the best I can manage.

I Had a Brother

Sometimes it’s the little things that trigger the memories.  A few weeks ago, when those young women who had been abducted in Cleveland were found, almost by accident, my father said to me, “I don’t believe this story.  It’s impossible that these women could be locked up for all those years and no one ever heard them, or saw them.”  I lashed out in anger, “Dad, there are BAD people in this world, whether you want to believe it or not!”  I went on, “Don’t you remember when Joel and I were little and you and Mom would be getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, and you sent us across the grocery store parking lot to the drugstore soda fountain to get dinner?”  My father was a plastic surgery resident then, and we lived, the five of us, in a two bedroom apartment in a complex next door to the A & P.  I was seven and Joel was five and I had a job–no, a DUTY to make sure that the server did not put mayonnaise on his hamburger.  He wanted it PLAIN and that was that.  I said, “Something TERRIBLE could have happened to us and you and Mom didn’t care.  You just wanted us out of the way so you could get ready.”  My father had no recollection of this whatsoever, and it occurred to me that perhaps he wasn’t even there.  Perhaps he was still at work, sewing up lacerations and dog bites and victims of car accidents.  There were no actual memories of him, only of my mother, sitting in front of her vanity, applying her make-up.  She was beautiful, my mother. While she put on her make-up, my little brother stole candy from the drugstore.

My brother spent his life between drug rehab facilities and prison, with brief moments of hopeful sobriety in between.  We stopped speaking for a very long time after he cashed in the ticket my parents sent him so that he could be best man at my wedding.  He spent the weekend in Las Vegas gambling.  He didn’t bother to call.  When our grandmother died a few years later, we met in Chicago at her tiny apartment just before her funeral.  When my father asked if there was anything of hers that we wanted, he replied, “I checked the silver.  It’s under the bed.  It’s plate.”  My brother survived car accidents, a bad marriage and the AIDS epidemic.  He was handsome, smart and charming.  You just wanted to believe him when he said that things were better, that he was getting along  fine.  His eyes were cornflower blue, and my favorite picture of him was taken when he was eighteen.  He was sitting on a ferry boat on the way to Anacortes, wearing a blue shirt.  In the picture, the sky is gray, and he looks young, and sad.

In 2003 my brother died of an accidental heroin overdose in a flop house hotel in Portland, Oregon.  Apparently, he had been shooting up with a friend, who was recently released from prison and was on probation.  The story I got was that the friend knew that my brother had overdosed, but fled rather than call 911 and risk going back to prison himself.  It was a few days before they found my brother’s body. I don’t remember much about the funeral, except that it was late fall, and turning bitter cold.  I still miss him.

The other day I was rifling through drawers in my office, trying to find an article I had saved about melanoma.  I had to pull out some old framed family pictures that were taken off my desk top during some construction in the office, and put in the drawer for safe keeping.  I showed the medical student the pictures of my kids and we had chatted about my sister and he asked, “Do you have other siblings?”  I replied, “I had a brother.”