I’m making it public: my little sister is dead. Writing out those words makes it impossible to take them back. I am the brother of a dead person. After years of being the brother of a mentally ill person. After the ceaseless drama of her life, it feels strangely anticlimactic.
My sister was different from the time she was three years old. A virtual parade of psychiatrists and psychologists gave her different diagnoses and multiple medicines over the years. It became more and more difficult to spend any enjoyable time with her. She would fight about anything, pitch tantrums of monumental proportions if she didn’t get her way, lose friends faster than most kids lose teeth. She rarely smiled, and often threatened the other kids on our block, including me. My mother made me take her with me to play with my friends. Being the obedient son, I did this until I was about eight years old, then refused to let her accompany me any more. By then, my mother must have realized how troubled and troubling my sister had become, because she didn’t argue with me about my decision.
Whereas I excelled in school, my sister dropped out before the ninth grade. By then, she had been smoking dope and hanging around with a shady crowd of older kids for several years. I moved away to college; she moved to parts unknown—though never far from our family home. She was always a haunting presence in the community. She would appear when she needed food or money or a shower then disappear into the netherworld that is home for those with borderline personality disorder. Her friends were other damaged souls, merely using each other for food, money, or drugs. None of them stayed in her life for very long. I heard about her comings and goings from my mother, who kept in contact with her, took her shopping, and continued to hope in vain that she would get better, get a job, settle down.
After years of estrangement, my sister contacted me. I was living on the West Coast, and she was reaching out to connect with me, driven partly by the need to manipulate me—her illness controlling her actions—and partly out of the raw love that siblings feel for their own flesh and blood. We began a mutually suspicious correspondence, and I made sure to visit with her whenever I was back east. She had changed in many ways, but her crude, sharp, very funny sense of humor had survived the suicide attempts, overdoses, hospital stays, and countless other attacks on her dignity. Her body had been through a lot of punishment, and she appeared much older than her true years. She was still using drugs, still lying about it, and still leaving behind a wake of chaos as she churned through her rapidly shrinking world.
My sister seemed to know everyone in her small town, and they certainly knew her. She ignored their politely stricken faces and loudly greeted each of them and asked after their families or offered unsolicited advice. The knowing looks they gave me when I took her out for lunch or to buy her some groceries made it clear that they both pitied and feared her. The fact that all of the local police knew her by name validated their feelings.
These were the police who called my brother when my sister’s body was found in her small apartment, and it was my brother who had the task of informing the rest of the family. I hadn’t talked with my sister in at least six months, which wasn’t unusual for her. Because of our sporadic contact, it took some time before the reality of her death hit me. I didn’t talk about it at all for a month, and although it has been eight months since my brother’s phone call, I still pause whenever I am asked if I have siblings, unable to produce an articulate answer. “There were four of us growing up”; “I have three siblings”; “I have a brother and two sisters”; ”I had a brother and two sisters, but one of them died.” Cue the awkward pause.
I still haven’t told all of my friends and colleagues. Despite her larger-than-life presence in my early years, later my sister was such a small part of my world that many of my friends didn’t know about her. How could I tell them that my sister had died, when they hadn’t known that she had lived? I told a friend about her death a few weeks ago, and he was shocked that I hadn’t told him over all of these months. I was shocked by this as well and realized that it was time to face my demons. My sister is gone, and she and I had too much unfinished work and too little time.