The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When my older sister and I were teenagers in the nineties, she would often bring me along on her late-night adventures around Eugene, Oregon: dancing at a rave in a closed salon, sneaking into downtown’s tallest building to see the view, hanging out in an old graveyard. On occasion, when a partygoer’s acid trip spiraled into a screaming fit or we came across someone passed out in the street, we would call CAHOOTS: Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, Eugene’s alternative to a police response for non-violent crises.
Twenty years later, back in town for a wedding, I ran into an old high-school acquaintance who now worked for CAHOOTS. He asked how I’d been doing, and I gave a response that was probably more than he expected: My sister had been found dead in a lake the previous month with no water in her lungs. Her death was unsolved. She’d been “living a life of adventure,” as she put it, a transient lifestyle that often landed her in dangerous situations.
She’d spent much of the previous year living on the streets in Eugene. I’d visited her a few times and watched her stand on the sidewalk, yelling before an invisible audience. I had accompanied her to the hospital, though she’d ultimately refused admission.
CAHOOTS had responded several times to her crises, and my acquaintance immediately remembered her. “She was your sister?” he asked. “I always thought she was from the South, because she spoke in a Southern accent.”
The accent was an alcohol-inspired affect. She grew up in Oregon, described as exceptional by her teachers and beloved by friends. She went on to study history, obtained a masters in teaching, got married, and lived in a fancy condo.
Alcohol and mental illness had long been factors in her life, but it was just in the last year that she had been living on the street. Often the only way we knew her whereabouts was by tracking the hospital bills that arrived at my parents’ house or checking a police database to see whether she’d been booked for public drunkenness, trespassing, or some other minor charge. During a brief incarceration, she wrote my parents a note thanking them for raising a daughter so strong that she had “no rock bottom.”
I’ve often wondered what people assumed about my sister when they saw her asleep under a bridge or swerved to avoid hitting her on the freeway. My acquaintance shared what he recalled of their conversations. I appreciated that, when he and the CAHOOTS team had interacted with her, they’d treated her with compassion.
I think of myself as an accidental encore to a well-established trio of older siblings. By the time I could talk, my oldest sister was a teenager — a kindhearted, neon-clad eighties queen. Despite her cool-kid status, she made me a part of her life. Her girlfriends did my “makeup,” she let me sleep in her bed, and she took me to amusement parks and to see the Easter Bunny, things our mother had no patience for.
I was five when she left for college. I tried to prevent her from going by hiding her suitcases. After she was gone, I cried for days. I lay on the clothes in her closet just to smell her. I sent her poems written in crayon. I went to visit her and came home with the gift of a goldfish, who quickly died. The next time, she gave me a stuffed animal that became my sleeping companion: a paltry replacement for my sister, but at least it symbolized her love.
In my family we used to joke that I had five parents: my mom, my dad, and my three siblings. Every decision in my life was met with five opinions. As I got older, I wanted nothing more than for the guidance to end; to be seen as an adult, not “the baby.” I told my sister this, and the next year for my birthday she gave me a photo of us from when I visited her in college, with this quote: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
My mom, an only child, often asks what it’s like to have a sister. I’m just glad I don’t know what it’s like not to have a sister.
Los Angeles, California
My sister met Carl in the dive bar below his apartment. After a long night of drinking they went upstairs to his place.
Fifteen years later they still live in the same flat, across from the freeway exit and above what Elena calls Poo Alley — the downtown homeless camp. Carl still drinks a six-pack a night. Because my sister cleans, the apartment is not filthy like the hoarder house we grew up in, but the rooms are still filled with Carl’s cigarette smoke and the ever-present sounds of television.
Elena was dealt a rough hand: braces, acne, paralyzing anxiety, terrible vision. If she misplaces her glasses, you’ll find her squatting, arms outstretched, feeling the ground. Impersonating her doing this is one of Carl’s signature routines: he exaggerates her out-of-focus gaze and open mouth as she pats the floor.
In my thirties, on a mission to expose my sister to the world outside that apartment, I took her on getaways: spas, hot springs, backpacking. A few years ago she visited me in San Francisco. All week she walked a few feet behind me on the sidewalk. Whenever I stopped to look for her, she would run into me. Finally I asked why she kept trailing me. “Because I can’t see, and it’s easier to follow you,” she said bashfully.
My sister and I are twins: I was born first, and what the doctor thought was the placenta turned out to be Elena. Her head was small, so there was some concern about her health. “They did all kinds of tests — but you both were normal!” my father insists. Sometimes Elena gestures to me and says with a chuckle, “I was just her leftovers.”
The differences between us were obvious early on. The only thing I worried about on school-picture day was wearing my favorite barrette, but picture day caused Elena such anxiety she was once taken to the emergency room for a debilitating neck spasm. In junior high, after our mother died unexpectedly and our dad began drinking and hoarding, my sister dyed her hair black and became a goth. I was voted friendliest in our eighth-grade class.
After high school I got better and better jobs until I moved away to attend medical school. Elena got a position in a retirement-home dining hall and still works there more than twenty years later, making a little over minimum wage. She adores the residents. She’ll clutch her heart and tell me, “Oh! Mr. Petey died!” or, referring to a retired professor with Alzheimer’s, “I love my George.”
Now our father is dying. I’m too resentful of his years of alcoholism and dysfunction to want to care for him, and I dread the idea of touching his body. But Elena doesn’t mind. When the hospice nurse can’t come, my sister dresses his bedsores. She ignores the decades of clutter piled around the rented hospital bed, leaving just a narrow path to walk through. She pulls off the bandages and inspects him, squinting through her glasses. “Looking better,” she says.
I’ve always wished my sister could be more like me. Suddenly I wonder if I should be more like her.
Redwood City, California
The midday heat was brutal. My three sisters and I had been picking blueberries all summer to earn money for school clothes, and we were sore and sweaty. As I trudged toward the station to have my berries counted, I stumbled, crying out in despair as the fruit spilled on the ground. My sisters quickly surrounded me. Without a word, they poured berries from their own buckets into mine, filling it again. I was so touched by their generosity that I could barely speak.
In my second year of college my fiancé, a boy I’d loved desperately all through high school, suddenly announced that he no longer loved me. I called my parents from my dorm in tears. The next morning my sisters were waiting in the hallway outside my first class. They’d driven for hours to be at my side and stayed in my dorm with me until they were sure I’d be OK.
As adults my sisters all moved to Texas, while I stayed in California. We are different in many ways. We don’t all read the same books or enjoy the same TV shows. We don’t share a religion or an educational background. But we’ve seen each other through marriages and divorces; diseases, addictions, and car accidents; the slow, painful deaths of our parents and the suicide of my beloved nephew. We can still make one another laugh like no one else, even as we occasionally deal with old hurts and frustrations. Although we live two thousand miles apart, when tragedy strikes or one of us is struggling, we show up for each other.
In 2009 my stepdaughter was murdered in Las Vegas, and her killer was arrested. I traveled to Nevada to attend the trial, unprepared for the horrors we would endure in court — the photographs, the brutal details, the deep and unrelenting grief. I called one of my sisters and described the experience.
One day, after a quick lunch, I was crossing the street, heading back to the courthouse, when I saw my sisters hurrying toward me. They’d flown in from Texas. “We knew you needed us,” one of them said.
She could have gotten up later, lingered a few minutes longer in the shower, or made the bed before she headed out for a ride on her new cherry-red Harley. She could’ve taken less time to dress, but she was going to karaoke afterward and wanted to look good. She could have wrapped her hair in a bandanna instead of taming it into a tight ponytail so she wouldn’t have “helmet hair” after the ride. She could have saved a few minutes by skipping the lip liner, but she’d never skip the lip liner. She could have said she didn’t have time to make pancakes for her grandkids, though she always made time for them. She could have ladled the batter onto the hot griddle quickly instead of pouring it into the plastic squeeze tube she used to draw the kids’ names and make smiley faces. She could have served the maple syrup from the bottle instead of warming it with a pat of butter in the microwave. She could have hugged her son a little longer. She could have stopped to pick up the newspaper or gone back inside because she’d forgotten her keys or her wallet or her lipstick, and, once there, she could have paused to rub the dog’s belly and give him a treat. She could have taken a different route or ridden just a little faster or slower. She could have turned left instead of right. She could have made a mother and her two young children wait on the corner for her to pass instead of stopping to let them cross, even though they weren’t in the crosswalk. She could have stayed in Rhode Island and never moved to Florida to be near her kids and grandkids. She could have chosen not to buy a motorcycle.
She could have done any of these things, but she didn’t. And so there she was — enjoying the new thrill of the throttle vibrating in her hands — when the young man who was driving home after partying all night didn’t look to see her cherry-red Harley and pulled into her lane to pass.
When I was a year old, my parents and I moved from the United Kingdom to the San Francisco Bay Area, where my dad had found work as an engineer. My younger sister was born the next year.
When she was almost three, my sister nearly drowned in a lake in a public park. She was taken to a local hospital, where she lay in a coma until a tired nurse negligently switched her food and air tubes, causing her death. Doctors told my shattered parents the truth about what had happened, but also talked down to them because they were immigrants. They were asked to sign some papers and shooed away.
My parents couldn’t fathom their loss. In the months that followed, we traveled all over India, visiting temples and relatives’ houses. My mom asked, “Why?” so many times that the word haunted me. To try to fix things, I wove a story for my parents: I said that a Hindu god had come to me (which seemed plausible in this land where temple bells pealed on most corners) and told me that my sister had been taken by mistake and would be reborn in a new body.
To honor my tale, my parents had another child: K. When they told me I would have another sister, I considered it the greatest gift imaginable. I wondered whether the story I’d invented was coming true.
At the same time, I carried my deception around with me like a rock in my stomach. I’d lied about the gods. I’d been raised Hindu, and it took me years to let go of the guilt. When I finally told my parents the truth as a teenager, they said they understood. As an adult I learned that, if not for the hope my story had given them, my parents might not have stayed together.
My sister K. has her own story, which hasn’t always been easy, but no one in the world is more important to me. Her wisdom has saved my life more than once. Over the years we’ve developed our own language of inside jokes, songs, and nonsense. Together we’ve navigated breakups, crises, deaths, and celebrations. We’ve mailed each other postcards from faraway places, thrown each other baby showers, and been in each other’s weddings.
Now K. and I live near each other and are both married with two daughters. Our parents’ favorite pastime is watching their four granddaughters play together.
“You belong on a locked mental ward,” my psychiatrist said matter-of-factly, as if these words wouldn’t shatter me. After my appointment I called my sister from my car and begged her not to let anyone send me away. She talked me down from my hysteria and told me to come over for dinner.
Despite her love and care, my symptoms progressed. Medications only made me worse. Friends suggested I sign myself into a hospital, where I could be monitored while doctors found the right medication. Exhausted, I finally agreed.
When my sister found out I was on a mental ward, she was desperate to see me, but she had a two-year-old and an infant at home. Since she couldn’t bring the kids into the hospital, she figured out which windows belonged to the cafeteria and, during mealtime, squeezed into the bushes beneath the windows to hold the kids up to me: first my nephew, who blew kisses, and then my niece, who drooled on her fist.
That evening the desire to end my life kept running through my mind. Having decided on a method, I sat on my bed and wrote a note explaining why I had to do this. I found myself addressing it to my nieces and nephews. I thought about the trouble my sister had gone through to see me. Her actions assured me I was loved and wanted — maybe even needed. My suicide note became a gratitude list.
Deer Park, New York
We enter the library with the energy of a bunch of teenagers. In reality we are forty middle-aged Italian American women, let loose from demanding jobs, household chores, family obligations, and dominating husbands. Though we meet every week, we greet each other as if we haven’t been together in months.
As president of the Italian Cultural and Language Club in Staten Island, I give everyone fifteen minutes at the start of our meeting to catch up. Every week fifteen minutes turns to twenty or twenty-five. It takes me several attempts to bring the hubbub to a tolerable level. “Figlie miei!” (My daughters!) I call out, trying to get their attention. Finally the clamor ceases, and we are ready to begin.
We gather to share our Italian culture, language, history, and traditions. We read and write poetry, discuss the novels of Elena Ferrante, and once a month watch and discuss an Italian movie, all over coffee and homemade cannoli, cassata, and cavallucci.
Half our members are immigrants, and many came to the United States as newlyweds. Most of these women do not drive — their husbands take them wherever they need to go — and they have no money of their own. The majority of their outings are to churches or clubs where their husbands are also members.
“This is the only place that my husband allows me to come without him,” more than one woman has told me.
When the pandemic shut down our meetings, we started “Driveway Dialogues”: Two or three of us would walk to the homes of members who weren’t going out. We’d stand at the end of their driveways and shout hellos and trade news. In the summer we started meeting every Sunday afternoon in a local park to catch up and rejoice in just seeing each other — masked up and six feet apart.
Then, on a dark January day, Raquel’s daughter died of cancer. Though many were terrified of the coronavirus or had husbands who didn’t want them going out, a group of us gathered outside Raquel’s home, to be there when she returned from the undertaker. She pulled up not to an empty house but to a crowd of friends.
I’ve been thinking about when we can finally meet at the library again: how the chatter and greetings will be louder and more vigorous than ever. I don’t think I’ll call them to order with “My daughters!” anymore.
Sorelle! I’ll say. Per favore, Sorelle! My sisters! Please, my sisters!
Ann Marie Antenucci
Staten Island, New York
This was the second time I’d received a phone call informing me that my sister Bev was in the hospital with a brain aneurysm. She had miraculously recovered from the first, but no one knew if she could do it again. My partner, Dave, and I drove nine hours to see her. I hoped she would recognize me when I walked into her hospital room.
Though we were close, my sister and I had rarely discussed what our father had done to us when we were kids. One of the insidious residues of sexual abuse is the strange dance of avoidance it creates between siblings.
One time we went to see her therapist together. When Bev left the room for a moment, the therapist turned to me and said, “It must have been hard to have a big sister who didn’t protect you.” I didn’t fully understand what he was saying. There were so many adults who had left us vulnerable as children, it seemed wrong to blame Bev.
As Dave and I stood in the doorway of her private ICU room, the ominous hum from the medical devices unnerved me. Nurses were bustling about, changing bags and checking her vitals. One of them motioned for me to come closer.
“Hi, Bev,” I said. “Do you know who I am?”
She scanned my face and smiled. “Of course I do! You’re the one Dad pimped out.”
All went still. This was language neither of us had ever used. I suddenly felt the warm satisfaction of the truth finally being spoken.
“That’s right, Bev.” I smiled and moved over to her bedside to hold her hand. “It’s Sue.”
With those ten words Bev achieved what we’d been unable to accomplish in years of therapy. It was a balm applied to a wound that had refused to heal, a gift from her scrambled mind to my aching soul.
My sister recovered, and we have never spoken of that moment again.
Rochester, New York
I met Katie in fourth grade on my first day at Wilmington Friends School. After all the other kids had found seats together, I stood alone, feeling out of place. I knew no one and didn’t wear L.L. Bean, Izod, and Docksiders like the others.
“Would you like to sit here?” Katie offered. Relieved, I joined her and her friends at their table. Katie’s long hair was pulled back with barrettes decorated with pink ribbons and beads (which I would soon learn to make, too).
She and I quickly became best friends: sleepovers, birthday parties, Friday-night dinners with her family at Mr. Pasta. As we got older, our pastimes changed: smoking cigarettes purchased from the vending machine at Wanamaker’s; experimenting with the marijuana we found in her father’s sock drawer (we didn’t know how to inhale); making prank phone calls to boys.
We went to separate public high schools, but we remained friends and still hung out occasionally. She told me all about her string of boyfriends. Sometimes I would cover for her so she could see one of them.
At the start of my senior year my mom suffered a mental breakdown, leaving me to live with a neighbor. Feeling untethered, I cried to Katie on the phone.
“My parents want you to come stay here,” she told me.
I accepted their offer and moved into Katie’s house. Of course, I had spent countless nights there during our nine-year friendship, so it felt as if I had always lived there. Living with someone can often cause a strain in the relationship, but it had the opposite effect on us: Katie became the sister I never had.
We went to different colleges and have not lived in the same state since 1991, but we have spent many holidays, vacations, and weekends together. When I need to talk to someone now, I know I can call her, anytime, no matter what, and she will listen.
The last of four children, I was raised mostly by my older sister. By the time I came along, our mother was happy to relinquish some parental duties. Five years my senior, my sister adored me and would put me in the stroller and wheel me around the neighborhood to show me off. She would pick out my outfits and, when my mother wasn’t watching, feed me candy.
As I got older, my sister showed me how to jitterbug, swishing an imaginary skirt. She taught me how to kiss, practicing on the old Admiral refrigerator. When I started menstruating, it was my sister who told me what to do.
Not all her ministrations were successful, like when she overtweezed my brows or accidentally cut my bangs too short trying to get them even. I don’t remember ever getting mad at her, though. We’d just laugh until tears came to our eyes.
My sister was the maid of honor at my wedding, and she and my new husband got along famously — pretty much a prerequisite for any partner of mine. When, after only a year of marriage, my husband told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay together, I called my sister, devastated. She told me to pack up my things and come stay with her. She was unmarried, tending bar in Southern California and living in a tiny, rustic cabin.
Accepting her offer was the best decision I ever made. My sister’s presence practically took my pain away. When we discovered that her wooden floor was just slats laid on sand, we decided to replace it with bricks, making dozens of trips to the used-brick place. It was exactly the kind of project I needed to keep my mind occupied. With the stereo on full blast, we sang and sweated, then rewarded ourselves at the end of the day with cold glasses of chardonnay on her deck while the sunset lit the canyon. The Lakers were in the NBA playoffs that summer, and we spent nights cheering them on while watching the games on the small TV on her bookcase.
My husband started calling during my second week there. Our conversations were amicable, and he always closed by saying he missed me. As much fun as I was having, the phone calls reminded me how much I missed him, too. Two months into my visit he broke down and begged me to come home, saying he loved me more than anything. When I told my sister, she just said, “Of course he does. It just took a bit of time for him to realize it.”
The next day I drove back to Northern California. A month later, the phone rang in the middle of the night, and my husband answered. With tears in his eyes, he told me my sister had been killed in a motorcycle accident. She was only thirty-eight years old.
It took me months to accept the reality of my sister’s death. I felt numb for a long time, but eventually I came to appreciate the gift of those two months with her. I can’t imagine how I would feel if we hadn’t had that time together before she passed. She turned a devastating event in my life into a time of joy.
At twenty-four, fresh off a move from St. Louis to Boston, I volunteered as a Big Sister. The organization paired me with Carlene, a thirteen-year-old who had been through several prior mentors, none of whom had lasted more than a few months. When I met Carlene at her family’s cramped apartment, she greeted me enthusiastically. Overweight with thin, greasy hair, thick eyeglasses, and boundless energy, she spoke rapidly and with an openness that made her seem younger than her age.
In contrast, her sisters — one younger, one older — were cool and silent as they assessed me from the far corners of the room. They rolled their eyes at Carlene’s chatter. The girls’ father had left them, and their mother talked about Carlene as if she weren’t there. She said Carlene had eaten lead paint as a baby, and by the time a doctor had diagnosed her, the damage had been done.
For two years I took Carlene out every Saturday. We walked on the beach, explored Walden Pond, and trekked Boston’s Freedom Trail. Sometimes we hung out at my apartment and listened to music with my roommates and my boyfriend. We took rides and talked. She admired her sisters and craved her mother’s affection. She didn’t have many friends, which didn’t bother her much, though she wanted a boyfriend.
When my boyfriend and I got married, Carlene attended the wedding and danced at the reception. It was our last happy day together. I moved away for a job, and though Carlene had nearly aged out of the program, Big Sisters matched her with one last mentor.
A year later, shortly after I’d delivered my first child, Carlene called. The new mentor hadn’t worked out. One of Carlene’s sisters was pregnant, and her home life was bad. Could she come live with me? I talked her down and explained why she couldn’t move in with us. In the background I heard her mother screaming at Carlene to hang up. Afterward I debated taking a trip to see her, but as a new mother, I was daunted by the trip and wary of renewing my involvement. I did not go.
Carlene and I talked a few more times. Our last call was when she was nineteen. She said she had a boyfriend who loved music, and they went to concerts. She’d gotten pregnant and had a baby named Dawn, but something bad had happened, a misunderstanding, and Social Services had taken Dawn away. They wanted Carlene to put Dawn up for adoption. Carlene was furious and asked if I could vouch for her with Social Services.
Four years later her younger sister tracked me down by phone to tell me Carlene had died suddenly. They were still sorting out the circumstances. She wanted me to know about the funeral.
Showing up to mourn felt like too little, too late. Not wanting to face her family, I did not attend. I was acutely aware of my shortcomings as a do-gooder and as a big sister.
Mary Beth Hines
They were “sisters of the cloth”: heavy black serge habits and starched white wimples. They both wore plain gold bands on their left hands to signify that they were also brides of Christ, and they influenced me indelibly during my grade-school years.
After three years of irascible instructors, I was surprised to find our fourth-grade teacher unbelievably sweet, gentle, and tolerant. I’ll call her Sister Glinda. Her quiet voice captivated me. I did not want to miss a word of what she said.
I didn’t realize until she joined us at a class reunion several decades later that she’d been only nineteen when she taught us. Thanks to a staffing emergency — my classmates and I were the first wave of boomers to hit elementary schools — she’d had little teacher training and been thrust unprepared into our crowded classroom. But she was wise beyond her years and made sure we knew she loved us. The other students and I blossomed in her care.
The next year we had a sister I’ll call Sister Elphaba, who was cranky and controlling. Her demanding ways set the class on edge and stirred up mistrust.
One day on the playground Sister Elphaba overheard three of us girls discussing another classmate. It was unkind schoolgirl talk, but nothing out of the ordinary. After recess, though, Sister informed the entire class of the “sinful” behavior she’d witnessed. She didn’t name names — that would’ve let us off too easily. Instead she eyed each of us as we sat squirming at our desks. “You know who you are,” she said. “I want you to stand and admit what you’ve done.”
No one stood. Sister glared, then began pacing between the rows of desks. I still recall the musty smell coming from the thick folds of her skirt when she brushed past me.
Finally she played her trump card: “I’ll have to call your parents this evening if you don’t confess.” My mother always took the sisters’ side over mine, whatever the report. I struggled out of my seat and waited for God to strike me mute as punishment for gossiping. Sister’s eyes shone in triumph.
Then she was done. Leaving me to collapse back into my seat, she announced it was time for geography. The entire class let out a “whew” of relief. And my co-offenders sent me covert glances, grateful I’d acted as the sacrificial lamb.
Both of these sisters had dedicated their lives to God. I imagine that Sister Elphaba’s God was a stern, Old Testament deity, grim and forbidding. Sister Glinda, on the other hand, exemplified the kindness, humility, and love commonly ascribed to Jesus.
I have not been a practicing Catholic for fifty years, but I owe both of these sisters my gratitude. I carried what I learned from each of them into my own way of teaching. Over my career, whether working with elementary or college students, I aimed to embrace my inner Glinda and keep my Elphaba at bay.
When my sister became ill with kidney disease, it was difficult to watch her quit her job and go to dialysis three times a week while waiting for a kidney to become available from a deceased donor. I am at a loss to describe what it must have been like for her: healthy one day and end-state renal disease the next.
In 2012, after seven years of seeing her struggle, I broached the idea of donating one of my kidneys to her. She was resistant. We were raised to do things alone and not lean on others for help. Still, I insisted on at least getting tested to see if we were a match. When the results came back, our genetic markers were so similar that the doctors said we were like twins born three years apart. This made it easier for her to say yes.
Struggling to find the right words to talk about the upcoming procedure, we ended up naming my kidneys Jelly and Bean. Jelly would stay with me, and Bean would go with her. Somehow this made it easier. We exchanged jars of jelly beans at holidays: awkward acknowledgments of a deeply personal act.
The surgery was uneventful. I’ll always remember my sister’s husband telling me that as soon as Bean was connected, my sister peed on the operating table, and he cried with relief.
My sister’s aggressive disease caused Bean to fail four and a half years later. While she waits for a donor once again, I’m thankful for the time I was able to give her.
My sister, Megan, is only thirteen months younger than I am. Growing up, we played together, whispered our fears to each other in the dark, and had each other’s backs — until junior high.
Megan was cute and also trusting. When boys invited her to get drunk and fool around, she went. Afterward the guys told stories about her, and she ended up getting a bad reputation. (In the early seventies girls were expected to be chaste.) I distanced myself from her, as did her friends. She was alone.
The weight of the insults and abandonment crushed her, and she began to act out even more with boys, alcohol, and drugs. My parents, who didn’t understand what was driving Megan’s behavior, punished her, which only pushed her further out of our family circle. She ran away several times and was finally sent to reform school.
When she came home a year later, she hadn’t changed, and she went back to being high more often than not. Megan dropped out of school and developed several addictions. One night she took so many drugs, she thought she was going to die. She prayed to stop using and offered to give her life to God if she lived. After she survived, she did exactly what she’d said she would and became a zealous, born-again Christian. I believe it saved her life, but it created a new wedge between us.
She pleaded with me to accept Jesus as my personal savior. We’d been raised Catholic, and I was content with my religious beliefs, but Megan attacked them because, she said, she didn’t want me to go to hell. Offended and hurt, I once again distanced myself from her.
A few years later she apologized, and I strove to offer her support. The trauma she’d suffered as a teen had left her with mental-health issues that she worked hard to overcome. Her old self eventually returned, and she became a true blessing to have as a sister.
When Donald Trump appealed to the values of evangelical Christians in order to get elected, Megan jumped on the Trump bandwagon. I couldn’t figure out how this gentle, loving, generous woman could support someone who seemed to go out of his way to hurt others and had lived a life of greed and exploitation. The only time we spoke about it was when she declared her support for Trump and the entire Republican agenda. My response was to stay silent. We barely communicate now.
I would have been saddened, but not surprised, if I had lost my sister to drugs or alcohol. To lose her to this charlatan and his conspiracy-driven movement is something I never saw coming.
When my sister Tarri was nine and I was seven, I attended her funeral at least once a week. Tarri would cover the lamp in our shared bedroom with a dark-blue cloth. Then, wearing a white bedsheet as a burial shroud, she would lie on the bed with her eyes closed and her hands crossed over her chest, a peaceful expression on her face. I’d stand beside her and await her instructions to kneel, bow my head, and let my tears fall.
Sometimes Tarri was a dying princess, or an orphan whose inheritance had been stolen by a cruel stepmother, or a foreign diplomat who’d been poisoned by her Russian-spy lover. But most often she was just my sister who’d contracted a mysterious illness that no doctor could explain, and whose early death brought mourners from miles around.
Tarri is now sixty and dying of stage-IV bone cancer.
When she was diagnosed two years ago, she opted out of conventional treatment and designed her own health regimen: meditation, floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, sunshine absorption, vitamin-C injections, coffee enemas, art therapy, and playing the didgeridoo. She’s kept a diary of her program and has shared it with family and friends. She’s allowed herself to be photographed and has shared the photos with us, saying, “It’s a family affair, and I want to celebrate it as we’d celebrate a birth.” Some of the photos are hard for me to look at, but many are sublime. Although dying of cancer, Tarri is also beautiful and otherworldly in her flowing gowns.
She recently wrote to me, “I’ve always known that my death would be the best part of my life, and I longed for it. It’s an exciting and mysterious transition.” I am inexpressibly saddened to lose my kind, inventive, intelligent, and wonderfully complicated sister. But I am glad she is finally getting her childhood wish.
When my mother was near the end of her second pregnancy, she asked me, “Do you want me to have a baby boy or a baby girl?”
At five I was resolute: “I want you to have a puppy!” I had no interest in another sibling, especially a baby.
When my mother gave birth to my sister, I tried to be excited like everyone else, but I felt only disappointment. Quite likely it was the beginning of my animosity toward my sister. When I was in my late teens and C. was eleven or twelve, everything she did — from the way she prattled on the phone to the way she sidled around the house — infuriated me.
While I was away at college, my mother called to tell me that C., just fifteen, was pregnant. “She has to have an abortion,” I said. “Or put it up for adoption. She’s way too young to have a baby.”
My mother, who had given birth to me when she was sixteen, encouraged C. to have — and keep — the baby.
I didn’t stay in touch with my family much after that. I stayed in Connecticut, where I’d gone to college to get away from our mother and the state of Maine, which, I felt, was too small to contain us both. C. and I grew to have even less in common as the decades passed. While she got married and had more children, I was in graduate school, working multiple jobs, and never taking a break.
Two years ago C.’s oldest son committed suicide, and I drove up to Maine to visit her for a few days.
How could we reconnect, I wondered, especially under these circumstances? But she built a fire and showed me home videos of her son. Then we smoked pot, ate s’mores, and sat in silence, staring at the lake.
Since then, I’ve swapped my Honda for a Subaru to better handle the Maine roads in winter. And C. has come to visit me several times. She’s helped with my garden, donating her extra vegetable starts and weeding my strawberry patch. We tell stories, take pictures of birds and flowers, and lavish attention on each other’s pets.
During this pandemic, my heart has ached for missing her.