What would you say to your estranged older sister as she lay dying in her hospital bed? How do you find closure after years of fighting and abuse?
The night my sister turned 49 my father called to tell me she was throwing up blood. “They think the cancer’s spread to her stomach,” he said.
I hadn’t wished her a happy birthday. We’d barely spoken for nearly 12 years.
When he said I should come to the hospital, as soon as you can, I told him I would have to think about it. “Ask her if she wants me there.”
In the background I heard ICU sounds, beeping monitors, the hiss of an oxygen mask. I heard my dad repeating my question, my sister replying in noises that sounded like a tiny animal.
Her answer was yes. But when I sat down to breathe and steady myself and not think of my sister dancing to her Rod Stewart records, I remembered the last time we had spoken. Just a few months ago, when she realized the melanoma would probably take her life. The conversation started off well, us joking about her new stubs of silver hair and how only Jamie Lee Curtis could pull off a look like that, but within minutes we were back to the way we had been for so long. There never had to be a real reason. Anything from a reminder to call our dad on Father’s Day to a blouse she’d sent that didn’t fit could spark an argument.
She said I was selfish. I called her destructive. Someone hung up mid-sentence.
It would take almost a year to remember that someone had been me.
What kinds of limits, if any, are appropriate to set for a person who is dying? Sisters fight. They say they hate each other. They blame each other for the things their parents couldn’t give. Kim was nine years older than I was and had spent most of her young adult life standing in for our mother who was too ill, both physically and mentally, to care for my brother and me. My parents divorced when my sister was 15, and it always felt as if a new marriage had taken that place. Every decision in our home needed the approval of Team Mom and Kim. Our mother was controlling, at times abusive when it came to my sister. If Kim took a phone call in another room my mom would enlist me to spy. “I bet she’s talking about me.” If I was caught in a lie my mother would first send my sister into my room to break the news. “We know you’ve been cutting school,” Kim said. “Me and mom expect you in the kitchen to discuss this.” I spent a lot of time on the sideline, jealous because I was not a member of their secret club. Later, when I learned about the word “co-dependent” I would be grateful for that buffer.
At age 16, just three years after my brother joined the Army, I left home to live with my boyfriend. Kim stayed behind to clean our mother’s house, drive her to doctors’ appointments, and wait in line at the welfare office so my mother’s electricity wouldn’t get shut off. When our mother died, my sister tried hard to navigate her way as a person our Mom no longer needed.
But the damage was deep. How is a young woman supposed to find out who she is when her entire life has been wrapped around someone else’s identity?
Over the years we would replace our fragile bond with the chaos of our past. Without our mother to choreograph the dance of Good Daughter Bad Daughter, my sister and I lost our footing. Instead of leaning on each other for strength and answers, we drifted apart, growing into two resentful women who would always be confused about where they fit into each other’s lives. Our visits would turn into shouting matches, phone calls lead to finger pointingand blame. I didn’t have sympathy for her aloneness. She didn’t respect my boundaries. I went into therapy, and my sister developed a serious drug habit. Opportunities to mend our relationship were met with her wanting only to talk about our past, how much she missed our mother, how selfish I was for sometimes not missing her at all.
The last conversation I would have with my sister would begin by her asking me, “Who do you think you are?” There was yelling, and as always there was bitch. I was in a coffee shop with a friend during this phone call. I went outside to light up a cigarette but started crying instead. “She’s doing it again,” I said to my friend. “My sister is dying and she’s still telling me what a horrible person I am.”
Many times I’d been told by my therapist, mostly when Kim was deep into drugs, that I had the right not to accept such “toxicity,” that I could say, “You’re not allowed to blame me anymore,” that I could walk away, hang up, end the relationship completely. Everyone at some point has received this advice. We’ve all been encouraged to cut someone loose who is causing us pain. But what if that person is your only sister? What if one day you start summing things up and realize, that although circumstances come from choices, she really did have it shitty, and that any day now she is due to leave your life forever?
I made the choice to go to the hospital, and I was scared out of my mind. But it wasn’t my sister’s dying that frightened me. It was the possibility of her still being able to tell me how I’d ruined her life. Even when she was using drugs my sister was a powerhouse of achievement. She kept her home spotless, her makeup flawless. She handled the demands as lead manager for a huge apartment complex. No matter how many chemicals my sister had in her system she was always able to kick my ass at Tetris. I knew her mind was strong and stubborn. Even if her body had forgotten.
During the eight-hour drive to San Francisco I kept imagining her sitting up in her hospital bed waiting for her selfish little sister. “Traci! I’ve got some things I want to say to you.” Would I be strong (or weak) enough to stay and listen? Should I have to?
I never had to make that decision. By the time I arrived, it was clear she didn’t have long.
At first I just stood in the doorway, waving like an idiot, not saying a word. Our father was there, crying almost uncontrollably. He hugged me and said, “Go see your sister.”
When I knelt at her bedside she whispered, “Hey you,” her voice high and little, her eyes trying to focus through the morphine. Even with all these slipping away things, my first thought was, Hey me what? Hey you hate me because you gave up your life to take care of me?
What ignorant cowards an unfixable past can make us.
My sister was barely hanging on. She was jaundiced and skinny, her breath like crumbling paper in her lungs as she tried to speak. “Hold me,” was the last thing she said. So that’s what I did. I curled the whole front of my body into hers, squeezing through her sickness, trying to get inside all those years we had wasted. There would be no hanging up on each other now, no slamming doors or telling each other to fuck off.
I wish I could tell you I said all those perfect bedside things one confesses to someone who is leaving this world. But I’m not sure that was the case. I already knew, and rehearsed in my mind, what I was going to say, providing she would let me. Now she had no choice.
“You know what?” I whispered, “I love you more than I loved our mother.”
Whether it was right or wrong, whether she agreed or understood, I couldn’t let her die without telling her my truth. If I could have pulled myself together more maybe I could have said everything I had always wanted to say: that I was sorry she had to grow up so fast, that her having to stay behind for a life that wasn’t her own had been wrong, and that sometimes I hated her for not standing up for herself.
Sometimes, when I’m thinking about the morning my sister died, I pretend that’s exactly what she heard.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.