My sister died this week.
She was seven years old when I was born – my big sister. I remember her reading me to sleep at age three to Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” She taught me how to play 500 rummy when I was eight. She was sixteen years old and just starting to teach me how to dance, when her boyfriend got her pregnant. In a fit of Electra shame-rage, my mother threw Andrea, and the few clothes she owned, out into the scrubby gravel street that ran through the Rockview housing projects where we lived. Several years later, at Christmas, she showed up unexpectedly at the front door with arms full of wrapped presents for my younger sister, Melanie and me. In a rage replay, those presents too, were hurled out into the street.
My mother was in serious decline by then, and so there weren’t going to be any Christmas presents at all that year. Somehow, my sister had gotten wind of the situation and did her best to try to remedy it. I can imagine her excitement at taking the money she made from waitressing and babysitting and walking through Macy’s and Malley’s picking out presents for Melanie and me. And then I can imagine her pain, frustration and the heartbreak at having this great kindness so wildly rebuffed. Being poor damages your brain and makes you often act like someone with stroke damage, so I suppose my mother couldn’t really be faulted. By the same token, she also couldn’t be trusted.
Several years later though, my sister’s persistent heart was ironically rewarded: our mother had a psychotic break and had to be hauled off to the State Mental Hospital at Middletown. In an inspired act of seemingly never-ending compassion, she married a guy who’d been in jail, thus allowing her to become the legal guardian of Melanie and me. The State of Connecticut required legal guardians to be married in those days. After some creative negotiations, she was awarded custody of two teenagers who would have otherwise become wards of the State. It boggles the mind and inspires the heart to be so cared for. She was only 23 years old.
A Poor Self-Care Substitute
Without having parents to adequately soothe her and strengthen her neurophysiology – one of the most important parental responsibilities according to Siegel and Hartzell in Parenting From the Inside Out – Andrea took up smoking cigarettes to serve as a replacement. A poor substitute, it did serve as a grounding means of self-medicating, self-regulating, though. I think many people initially take up smoking for similar reasons. Our mother did. But for the last ten years or so, Andrea has suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Not being able to breathe easy is an impediment to a fully joyous life, I suspect. I know she lost her smile long ago.
In addition to raising three kids, interestingly Andrea worked for many years at a private orphanage. Several years ago, she opened a pet store to care for animals. She was a caregiver. I would have wanted and expected her life to have lasted much longer – a just reward for such good works. But then I’m reminded of a story Ram Dass tells in Death is Not an Outrage. Death, he said, is like getting to be done with third grade and then being released to enjoy a summer of freedom and exploration before having to show up for fourth grade next fall. It appears that Andrea completed all her assignments and got done early. There was no good reason to hold her back. My sister Andrea’s heart knew how to answer The Main Brain Question “Yes.” Sadly, though, she was lost to me the day we stopped dancing together… and I miss her still.