When I was younger, I used to make plans with my sister to run away from home all the time. We always thought that the way our mother treated us was grossly unfair, and after a particularly hard day we would pack up a few days’ worth of clothes, make a couple of sandwiches, and sit beneath the porch of our childhood home to plan our escape. Of course we never went through with it; when the time came to pull the trigger, we always found a reason that the timing wasn’t right or why tomorrow would be better.
Only, as time went on and we grew up, we both did run away in our own sense. I fell into a ton of extracurricular activities in high school and when I graduated, I worked two jobs and spent the rest of my day at the library until it closed just so I wouldn’t have to go back home. After that, I tried really hard to be an active Jehovah’s Witness. When that didn’t work, I fled to college in southern Maryland.
My sister literally ran away without me when I was 13 or 14 years old. Suddenly, she was gone for months and neither my mother or I had any idea where she was. I was so stunned that I couldn’t think of anything to do except sit and stare at the wall for hours after school. It was safer for me than feeling whatever it was I felt. I knew the emotion was too intense for me, and that I would end up doing something to purge myself of it that would not be good.
I didn’t realize that was grief until just a few years ago, and since then I considered myself lucky that it had been the closest I’d come to the pain of losing someone so close to me. I can’t think of myself as that fortunate any more.
My sister died on April 30th, 2017. She had been found unconscious and unresponsive in her apartment a few days before, and when the paramedics arrived it took over twenty minutes to get back a pulse. She was on a respirator for days while the family gathered and doctors performed a few tests. By the end of that weekend, it was clear that her brain had died even though her heart was still beating. We heard the news as a family — my mother was there with me, and so was the father of her two oldest children. It shattered us; each of us had a complicated relationship with my sister that took us further away from her, then closer, over time. I’m not sure any of us understood how much she meant to us until we were told that we would never get to speak to her again.
In a lot of ways, I felt like I had already mourned my sister the first time she ran away. She came back and ran away a few more times before I left home for good, and that pattern would be repeated over the years in several fights with my mother. The last time I spoke to her, she had come back from going “off the grid” again for a few days, ready to work with Mom to get the house in order, take care of her children, and start the long hard road towards being a mother, daughter, caretaker and everything else folks wanted her to be. I didn’t think it would last, but I never could be sure because I didn’t know my sister — not really. The sister I knew had “died” the first time she disappeared without a trace, and all these years later I was still feeling my way around this changeling that had taken her place.
But of course that’s not the reality of the situation. Of course my sister was the same girl who plotted escaping home with her quiet, nerdy brother — just with more experience, an adult’s understanding of the childhood pain she carried with her for her entire life. When I think about what my sister went through in her too-brief life, I’m stunned by her strength and the realization of how much she loved people, how much she sought love and acceptance. And it breaks my heart that I realized that only now, when it’s too late to do anything with that knowledge.
Like all of us, my sister had mental health issues that had been inherited by our biological mother. Unlike me, though, she still lived in the heart of Baltimore City where these issues are largely unrecognized and go untreated. When she tried to talk to her friends about them, they would tell her that she was “making things up” or that she just had to think about her problems the right way to see how ridiculous an idea it was to have “anxiety disorder”. Over time, my sister learned to nurse her issues silently and even when asked she would be reluctant to talk about it. She had to bear the burden of her own faulty brain while stepping up to be strong for everyone around her. She worked so hard to clean and care for my mother, who only gave her scorn in response; she tried hard to provide a good life for her oldest son, even though his mental health issues will make it extremely challenging; she had to fight an uncaring bureaucracy for any help she could get, even though she had been punished for having such a hard time by losing her two youngest children to foster care.
Thinking about what my sister had to go through, it’s no wonder that she turned to drugs when she did — and that it was so hard to kick the habit whenever she tried. The comforting oblivion of being too intoxicated to think or feel is an extremely tempting one, especially when just piecing together a life for yourself is so hard and thankless. Still, she knew that she needed to stop for the sake of her children. The fact that she ultimately failed is a tragedy, but it is not one of personal deficiency. She needed a support network that believed in her and worked to validate her experience, one that would give her hope that she could still live a happy life. In the depths of depression surrounded by the craziness of the inner city, something like that can feel as impossible as flying to Mars.
Still, she stayed. She stayed because she was the only one who could care for my mother, an exceedingly difficult woman who pushes away anyone who gets close enough to help her. She stayed because her children needed her, and she tried to get clean for them. She fought and fought and fought until she couldn’t any more; but she never gave up. She gave her family everything she had and then some; she hid how much it hurt when she was told again and again that it wasn’t enough.
At last, her pain is over. Her struggle has ended. I wish this wasn’t the way it happened, and I’ll regret not doing more to do right by her for the rest of my life. The only way I can prove how sorry I am is by being as strong as she was, as giving and hopeful and tenacious. She eventually fell to her demons, but she never stopped fighting them. I can’t either.
Because of my sister, I will run away from my fights much less often. Standing my ground and fighting my battles is the legacy she left with me with. For that, I sincerely thank her.