My sister finally died (for real)

My sister’s been dead to me for years, but last fall she decided to finally make it official. Funny, it wasn’t the decades of abusing crack and heroin that did her in after all. She slipped in the shower, broke her ribs, and came down with pneumonia in the hospital. (Like mother, like daughter, if you know the story.)

I was ready for the call; hell, I waited for it for, what — 23 years. Still, it hurt to hear my sweet niece tell me that her mom had died. The funeral was outside, graveside, underneath gnarled trees shedding fiery leaves on a glimmering fall day. It was painfully beautiful. There was a rabbi, a gaggle of old relatives, and a surprising number of more recent friends. My niece, Sarah, and her fiancé, Dan. Kim’s third child, Zack, with his adoptive family. An old black guy who sat in front, pouring his eyes out. Me, Geoff, and the kids, wide-eyed to be at their first funeral, for an aunt they barely even knew they had. A fresh hole in the family plot and a coffin on rollers.

Kim’s cousin Randi did the eulogy. She called me Chrissy. She talked about growing up with Kim in Baltimore, about the art projects she and Kim used to do with my mom. About sleepovers at their bubbie’s house, when Kim taught her to French kiss using pillows. She made us laugh, which I didn’t expect to do.

If I had done the eulogy, I’d have probably told the story of how Kim pierced my ears with a sewing needle when I was nine, overtop of her kitchen sink. I would have told how she dyed my hair blonde when I was eleven, and how it took me two agonizing years to grow it out. She was the one who taught me to shave my legs, the one who’d come get me for sister time and take me shmying at the secondhand shops, the one who’d ask me about my crushes, the one who’d always encourage me to be bold. I would have reflected on the good bits – how probably more than anyone else in my life before or since, Kim taught me to experiment with this life of mine. To try and see.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I would have talked about how heartbroken I was at sixteen, the day Kim came to tell my mom and me that she had just done heroin with her new boyfriend. The day we begged her to stay, but she left anyway. Forever. I wouldn’t have lied, like her cousin Randi did, and said that Kim was a good mom. She wasn’t. She bailed, to gradually worsening degrees, on all four of her kids. On all of us. Including herself.

I’m glad that I didn’t do the eulogy. I needed time to let myself feel, and it took me awhile. Now that I’ve had a few months, I’d like to go back and visit Kim’s grave. I’d talk to her, let her know that I’m glad to finally know where she is after all these years. I’d tell her I’m sorry that I shut her out. I’d tell her I wish we’d had the chance to turn things around while she was alive. I’d tell her I’ve missed her all this time. That I forgive her. That I love her still, despite everything.

Kim, circa 1979.

Celibacy sucks

Let’s talk about my mom. It’s time, don’t you think? I’ve been putting this off for a while because, well, it’s hard for me to talk bad about my mom. But if you’re really going to know me, then you need to hear this. I’ve mentioned it once before, but my mom was a slut.

If you ever met my mom – you know who you are – you’re probably laughing right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, okay, wipe the tears off your face and hear me out. It’s true, that doddering old lady you remember truly was a slut. I know, it’s not easy to comprehend. I probably sound insane to you.

Let me think. My mom grew up in the 50s, long before the women’s movement and the hippie years. She messed around in high school and barely began to explore her slutty tendencies before she married a jerk at nineteen. The jerk fucked around on her before he walked out and took their ten-year-old daughter – my sister – with him.

Now, if you’re still paying attention, this is when my mom made a break for the dark side. I wasn’t around yet, so I can’t give you the gritty details. All I really know, I learned from my sister on a gruesome night at the beach that began with an argument and ended with me lying awake on the floor of a scummy motel bedroom listening to the sounds of my sister fucking her girlfriend. So let’s take a detour.

Yes, the night began with a screaming fight. “You don’t know what it was like,” Kim screamed.

“What?” I asked. I was fifteen. I still trusted her.

“Mommy used to be different,” she always called her Mommy.

I stared at her in disbelief.

“She used to have men over every night,” Kim yelled. “I used to lay awake, listening to them. Yeah,” she screamed. “You have no idea. They used to come knocking at the back door late at night, calling her,” her voice was shrill. You know she enjoyed hurling those truths at me.

My sister hated me. It’s a truism and it’s beside the point. I mean, come on, if you watched your slut mom completely reinvent herself for your bratty little sister, if you watched her swear off men altogether, learn to put a dinner on the table every day, learn to keep a house, learn how to love for God’s sake, you would hate the object of her affection too.

My fifteen-year-old self had a lot of trouble handling the truth. See, my mom never fucked around while I lived at home. From when I was too little to remember until I went away to college, my mom was celibate. She threw the word around like a prayer. So from that night at the beach until I saw for myself how much men could destroy her, I denied the truth about my mom. I watched my sister walk out of our lives into the shady underworld of drugs and I was a little bit glad to see her go.

My mom clung to her celibacy until I left home. She avoided sex even while I didn’t, and as a parent I’ve got to admire that kind of dedication. But don’t you know that just about the minute I traded in my bedroom for a dorm room, she found a creep at Walmart and started fucking him? I was disappointed at first, and then it got worse. She found a – what do you call it – a sugar baby? Some black guy a good twenty years younger than her with a penchant for running up credit card bills and beating on old white ladies while he was fucking them. Yeah, great, I know. I kind of avoided home while that was going on. Then she found Mike the used-car salesman, and you know how that ended up.

So, you know, maybe I should love celibacy. Maybe I should be thanking my lucky stars. My mom’s celibacy gave me a normal life. I grew up thinking the best of my mom, never having to deal with the truth. But you know what? Celibacy just put a cork in my mom’s life, it didn’t solve any of her problems. In the end, my mom ended up dying for some guy she met in a phone sex chat room. Once a slut, always a slut. I hate self-denial.

Note to my sister

I love you, I wrote.

I didn’t say I’m glad you’re alive, but I am.

I did not write about how I always thought this day would come.

I didn’t mention all the nights I’ve laid awake worrying about you.

I definitely didn’t bring up how much you scare me, or how angry you’ve made me over the years. I would never admit how, without even trying, you stole the fun out of my life. I didn’t mention the word trust but I also didn’t call you a thief.

Instead, let’s talk about how I’ve trained for this day, working out, strengthening my body and mind. I’m ready for you. I’m here for you. I love you.

Dear Mr. Hoffman

Photo via
Photo via

I’m sorry you’re dead. I’m going to miss you, you, one of the few actors who really got self-destruction. You always made me believe in the bad in the good and the good in the bad. You always creeped me out.

Mr. Hoffman, if you’re up there in ODer’s heaven, keep an eye out for my dad. He’s funny and you’ll like him. He’s a youngish-looking fifty-something with white hair and a jaunty fedora. He died seeking that alternate plane of existence that I know you knew so well. He chose the tantalizing promises of a sly lover—alcohol—over the greedy gropings of his little daughter. He died alone, like you.

Mr. Hoffman, I know your secret. Everyone else thinks that you died on your bathroom floor atop a scattered mess of needles and baggies, but I know the truth. No, you died in an elusive, exquisite, and delightful paradise. You died happy.

Mr. Hoffman, I feel like we know each other. May I call you Phil? Phil, this isn’t easy to ask. Phil, if you’re wandering around ODer’s heaven and you bump into a dark and curly-haired, middle-aged former beauty, Phil, will you please tell her that I love her? Phil, go ahead and give my sister a hug for me. Tell her that I get it, that I finally understand that infinite draw to the dark side. I finally understand how your soul responds to vice as much as virtue. I get that sometimes you can only find peace on the path to self-destruction. I realize how sin is a long-lost art supply.

Phil, I’m going to miss you, but perhaps one day I’ll join you on that alternate plane of existence. I hope that someday I learn to eviscerate and reinvent myself through my art the way that you did. Phil, I admire the way that you lived, and although it terrifies me, I have to commend you on your death as well. You never failed to surprise me. Maybe someday you’ll look for me up there, too.

I want a tattoo

My sister pierced my ears for me. I was nine and I wanted a second set of earrings to go with the eyeliner and blush that I had just begun to wear. She was 27. I sat on a stool in her kitchen, dirty dishes in the sink, an ice cube stinging my earlobes. She used a sewing needle and it hurt. Afterwards, I felt like the coolest fourth grader on earth.

Kim was always an experimenter. Two years after the piercing incident, she taught me to shave my legs in the same kitchen sink, after I begged for the entire summer. A year later, she dyed my dark hair blonde on a whim. Long into high school, she would take me out to the secondhand shops and buy me drapey blouses and tie-dyed t-shirts. She wanted to help me invent myself.

Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo. I want to design it myself, and I want it on my back so it will show when I wear a tank top or a swimsuit. But I’m mixed. Geoff doesn’t like tattoos. He thinks they’re trashy and distracting. Maybe he’s right. It’s possible that I would get the tattoo and hate it, dread the sight of it in the mirror, and never be able to wear a sleeveless top again.

I think having a tattoo will remind me of Kim. She got several tattoos, in succession, around the time that she went on drugs. It’s funny, but she was about my age at the time, in her mid-thirties. I don’t remember what her tattoos looked like, but I guess they were your basic flowers and butterflies, nothing that extreme. Yet her body art starkly coincided with her turn to the dark side. It marked her as a druggie, a petty criminal, an abuser in so many ways. Her tattoos offered visible proof of her badness, and they scared me. I was seventeen, eighteen, and symbols seemed significant.

So I stopped seeing her. And I stopped experimenting. I passed a very difficult few years, where even a haircut felt like too much commitment, and I lived in fear of marking myself in any way. Kim had taught me everything I knew, and look what happened to her.

But – how can I explain this to you? After so many years of denying it, lately I’ve been thinking about how completely awesome it was to have a sister so much older than me. She was like an aunt, a second mom who taught me how to have fun. Kim was never afraid of messing up. I mean, she should have been, but she wasn’t. She tried things just to say that she had. She was bold. Even after watching her life crash and burn around her, I love that about her.


Want to hear about a party?

The first time remember my sister cheating was the summer that I turned nine. My niece, nephew, and brother-in-law were strangely absent, off visiting faraway family.

She had a tryst with the neighborhood handyman. His name was Victor. He had three little girls, one older than me, the other two younger, and he brought them with him for the three days he was with my sister. I joined them, playing all day, sleeping in a heap on the living room floor at night.

For months, maybe even years, before the actual deed, she used to flirt with him from her lounge chair on her patio. She’d be in her swimsuit with the straps pulled down, sunning herself while he mowed the lawn around her. Even then, at my young age, I knew what was happening. I sensed the ephemeral lines being crossed, the invisible limits breaking. They laughed a lot. It felt like fun.

What made her decide to go through with it? I suspect it was his sudden availability, the finalization of his divorce. Did she worry for the fate of her own marriage? I suspect so, but she flagrantly defied it. She traded the rush of those three days for her own well-being – she stayed at home with the kids, my brother-in-law earned the paycheck. She traded the illusion of happiness for the excitement of temporary anarchy.

During those days, we kids were in charge of ourselves. I barely remember seeing my sister at all. We girls ran wild outside. We played at the park, rode our bikes. We ran outside in the rain. We braided each other’s hair. Did we eat? I suppose so. I vaguely remember Froot Loops and pizza, maybe barbecued chicken at some point. We definitely drank Kool-Aid. I did not go hungry.

Music blared from the radio at all times, in my memory. This was mid-80s, and my sister was a fan of James Taylor, Carly Simon. Ironic, right? Nevertheless, the party atmosphere pervaded. I had a lot of fun during those three days.

My mom was in and out of the picture. I recall the grownups drinking beer and playing cards while we watched movies in the next room. Strangely, even though we lived just a few doors away, I don’t remember ever being at home during that time. Perhaps my mom felt that she had to watch over my sister as she ventured down this strange path. Maybe she wanted to keep all memory of it out of her home. I think she liked seeing me in the company of so many little girls, almost but not quite like cousins. She wanted me to have that, never mind the illusion or the downside.

I loved playing with those girls. I can still remember the feeling of being included in their group. It felt like butterflies and rainbows, but sad. I knew that what was going on was wrong. I missed my nephew, my longstanding buddy. I wanted to twist the scene like a Rubik’s cube and make it all better. I wanted to make it suddenly right. I wanted to erase my complicity. I wanted fun to be just fun. I wanted to put my family back together and somehow still have the three little girls and nice Uncle Victor. I wanted the impossible.

I can spell crazy

“I can spell crazy,” I said to no one in particular. I was in the car with my mom, my brother-in-law, my nephew, and my niece. We were returning from a visit with my sister at Sheppard Pratt, a relatively spa-like mental institution.

“How?” my nephew asked.

“C-A-R-Z-Y,” I answered, proudly.

“Carzy?” My brother-in-law laughed from the driver’s seat. His booming laughter was contagious, and so an inside joke was born. For years, we all used the word carzy to describe whatever was beyond crazy, things that were hilariously weird.

I remember that drive home well; we made the trip more times than I like to admit. The steadily repeating patterns of light and dark from oncoming highway traffic mimicked the waves of sadness at leaving my sister behind — again. My baby niece slept in her car seat between my nephew and me. I used to sing to her, making up the words as I went along. I imagine that the grownups would have been annoyed at my little girl voice intruding on their thoughts, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to be quiet.

I remember those trips to the hospital so clearly: eating cafeteria meals in the fancy dining room among other patients and their families, lounging on wingback chairs in the parlor accompanied by piano music from the corner, running on the immense lawn outside, chasing my nephew. And always my sister, who seemed so happy in spite of her increasing girth and the increasing frequency of her stays. I remember it feeling almost, but never completely, normal.

I remember the cold steel fear of my sister’s craziness rubbing off on me. I remember being afraid of losing her at the same time that I was afraid to know her. I remember wanting desperately to protect my nephew, just a few years younger, from the pain of letting go of his mom after each visit. I remember the sadness that pervaded all of us like a damp winter chill.

So the laughter in the car that night is clear and bright in my memory. It was joyful. Carzy. It was the good beating out the bad. It was sanity speaking up for itself. It was an eight-year-old girl telling anyone willing to listen that she would never, ever be crazy. It was my secret code.

Why all-girl triathlons rock

I competed in a triathlon yesterday. Now, I’m no athlete. If you know me, you know that’s true. In fact, for some of my readers, who do know me but have not seen me in a while, this might come as a shock.

So let me explain. I competed as part of a relay team. I swam half a mile in just under 20 minutes, and ran on hard pavement to pass off our team’s ankle bracelet to my best friend, who was biking 14 miles. I did it all for her. Earlier this year she became diabetic, and the year has been such a struggle for her to come to terms with her new identity. Biking is something that she loves. It reminds her of how strong and healthy she is. So when she asked me to swim on her triathlon team, I immediately agreed. Half a mile in the pool was no big deal for me, athlete or not.

The thing is, the triathlon really impressed me. All the athletes were women. They came in all ages, shapes, and abilities. There was a small group of elites who completed the whole race in under an hour. There were cross-generational relay teams with moms and daughters. There was a large group of cancer survivors. There were moms, there were teenagers. There were die-hards and there were slowpokes. What I noticed the most was that everyone was there to support each other. There was an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) message that “we can do this!” It was so inspiring,

My daughter was very concerned about who won. At her age, winning matters. But the thing is, yesterday wasn’t about winning. It was about personal strength, determination, and health. There was energy up for grabs everywhere, and even more than that — sisterhood. It was awesome.