A Birthday and Christmas Post for My Sister

sisters

 

28 years ago, I got the best Christmas present ever.

My sister and closest friend.

This isn’t going to be a particularly long post, nor am I going to write story after story of memories that I have–and trust me, there are plenty–but I will write this:

Happy birthday, I miss you, I love you, and Merry Christmas!!! YOU ARE THE BEST SEESTOR IN THE WHOLE WORLD-D-D-D-D-D!

Love,

Your sister who doesn’t let old jokes go. And never will.

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My Life with Bipolar Disorder and Depression

When the phone rang that night, I was asleep. It was probably 1 am or so, and my 10-year-old body wasn’t used to being pulled from slumber at such an unreasonable hour. I closed my eyes and willed myself to slip into unconsciousness again. The voice in the back of my head told me I shouldn’t sleep; that I should get up and find my sister and whichever parent had kept watch with us that night, and listen to what they had to tell me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it because I didn’t want to hear what they were going to say. If I went back to sleep, it’d be a dream; a terrible, awful, nightmare. The phone call would be a figment of my imagination.

I woke up again, when it was light outside, to my mother’s sobbing tearing through the walls. Sharp sobs. Unearthly wails. I can’t describe the grief and the overwhelming anger and helplessness that I could hear in her voice. She was in the bathroom with the door shut, but nothing was hidden from me and my seven-year-old sister. We sat up in our hideaway couch bed and I saw my father sitting at the little table across the room from me, with tears in his eyes, but his demeanor calm.

I knew the words that were coming next. The phone call hadn’t been a dream, and my willful ignorance had been pointless. I started crying. My sister got scared and started crying, too, not really understanding what was going on.

“Sara went to be with your sister last night.”

Angry sobs. Uncontrollable tears. Cursing God. Hadn’t I prayed hard enough? Losing Kristin was hell on my parents… and now Sara’s gone, too?

It was three weeks before her fourth birthday.

head-is-bad

Image from STYLEGERMS

 

My dance teacher threw up her hands, exasperated.

“Why don’t you even try?” she asked. I was half her height and couldn’t look her in the eyes. We stood in front of a wall-sized mirror, where she scrutinized my form as I practiced a section of my dance routine in a trance-like state.

“I am,” I said. We stared at one another for a moment, our eyes locking in the glass, and then she turned and went to assist one of my classmates. I wanted to leap through the glass like Alice, and escape from the inanity of memorizing a simplistic, boring dance routine. What did it matter, anyway? The only people who cared were my parents. They were the only ones who showed up to watch their kids prance around on a stage like clumsy little mannequins, wearing far too much makeup for their own good and hair sprayed into place like a tiny Texas beauty queen. Who else cared? I couldn’t think of a single person.

But my mom paid for classes. And I had to keep everyone happy.

I forced myself to move again. If you squinted, it looked sort of like dancing.

“We need to talk,” my piano teacher said, looking at me while I let my fingers slump from the keys and into my lap, knowing what was coming. “You haven’t been practicing, and you seem very… sad.”

I refused to make eye contact and just stared at the keys, tears welling up in my eyes as I tried to choke out some kind of answer. Words weren’t coming.

“Is it because of your sister?”

Yes, it is because I have a gaping hole in my life where her little bald head should be. Her adorable, round eyes and her singing and dancing and hilarious jokes. She should have been free of her illness, and don’t you think I am angry that such a sweet little person had to suffer so greatly? I hear her voice when I try to sleep, and my chest hurts so bad that I feel my heart will tear itself apart.

I have her drawings of our family together. It will never be the same. I have a mother who won’t stop crying, a father who gets the brunt of her uncontrollable wrath. A younger sister who is clearly struggling to process death and is doing worse than I am. I pretend I can’t hear the arguing and get angry with myself for being such a failure at everything instead.

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

She understood. She said I had to keep trying. I was trying. I was. Why did everyone think I wasn’t trying? I was reaching for something in the distance, but I never seemed to get any closer. Reaching was all I could do.

 

Or pursuing a writing career. Onion, you are spot on.

Or pursuing a writing career. Onion, you are spot on.

Image from TheOnion.com

“Girls, come in here,” my dad called. My sister and I were in the family room, and he and my mom had been fighting in the bedroom for what seemed like hours. I knew what was coming. We stepped into the room and they looked at us with somber, controlled expressions. I crossed my arms.

“Your mom and I love you two very much…” my dad choked out, then trailed off.

“You’re getting divorced, aren’t you?” I asked. He shook his head.

“We’re just going to try being separated for a while. I’m going to get an apartment and you can come stay with me every other weekend.”

I was so mad I was just numb. When the “conversation” was over, I left, and felt like crying, but it was the anger that was growing more than anything else. I hated my life more and more with each passing day. I didn’t know what normal was anymore.

...

“I think this sounds like you,” my friend said, pointing to the phrase BIPOLAR DISORDER on our worksheet. “You’re like, happy some days, and so sad the next that no one knows what to do around you.” I stared at it, then looked at her. Learning about psychology had apparently made our class into a bunch of 12-year-old mental health professionals. Still, something about all the symptoms made sense. I lagged behind my friends now that we’d started middle school. Boys terrified me. Doing anything physical in front of anyone terrified me. Going to church on Sundays terrified me. I hated everyone and everything, and had thought repeatedly about dying that week to escape from the misery of hormones, schoolwork, depressing home life, and practicing activities that brought me no joy whatsoever.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, and went back to doodling on my notebook. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that maybe there was a name for how I felt. I walked up to the teacher after class and I told her I thought I had it. She looked at me strangely and said, “You should talk to someone about this.”

So I told my mom.

She said I didn’t have it, and demanded I go apologize to the teacher and clarify before they started to think I’m crazy.

I looked at the bottle of painkillers and wondered. If I ate them all, would it stop? I thought of my sister and of my parents. Well, maybe I’d just take a few and see if it helped me be in a dreamworld or something. I took 10 and fell asleep.

I woke up the next morning as usual. I was disappointed.

It continued throughout high school. I could never focus. I hated most things and most places. And most people. I watched my close friends get picked on and plotted revenge against those who would hurt the few I did care for. I was just a girl, though, and the bullies were guys and totally unthreatened by my stature. Go figure. But some people thought I might be crazy, and many definitely found me strange, and that scared them. I began to channel severe rage episodes into art and writing, finding new ways of killing off characters who were quite thinly-veiled representations of the awful bullies in my life. But it was all written off as being a hormonal teenage girl.

On one occasion, I confronted a bully and threatened him, wanting so badly to tear him to shreds mentally and physically for picking on a harmless, shy friend of mine whose only crime was to draw too many anime girls on her notebooks. His mother was friends with my mother, but I didn’t care. I made him feel like the tiny, insecure little prick that he was, and I felt good about my meanness for once. But it was a short-lived victory. I still cried at night, not just because I was sad, but because I was angry. Because I didn’t want to deal with any of it any longer.

When I went home at night, my mom would keep her hawk eyes on me. I could never go anywhere unless she’d planned it about a week in advance. I understood her fears. I enabled them. I told her everything to keep her calm and as happy as she could be. She was petrified of losing another child; how could I be so selfish to be away? Especially when my younger sister, who was on the verge of a very serious transition in her life, was being picked on at school for being eccentric? It was my job to hold it all together. My burden I placed on my own damn shoulders.

 

 

Fucking love Emilie Autumn

 

I didn’t start cutting until I was about twenty. I was slow to arrive at the rodeo, I guess. My boyfriend had been watching so much porn on my computer that it was all buggy and gross, and I was livid about it. I told him how much it hurt me that he wouldn’t touch me, but he wanted the faceless girls on the internet; he apologized to me and he promised he’d stop. He never did. Not once in our nine-year relationship (in which we eventually got married) did he ever tell me the truth about his intentions. He just kept doing it and telling me he wasn’t. I got so good at catching him that I reveled in the fact that I was smarter than he was. But I felt so worthless and ugly after knowing what he did that I would cut myself out of anger. Punishing myself for being… me. For being not good enough. Because how fuckable he found me was apparently the only self-worth I could see inside of myself. I didn’t realize how unhealthy these thoughts were until our marriage fell apart.

He told me he’d been in love with one of my best friends for years when we’d been married for a year and a half–I was 27 at the time, living in a state far away from any of my friends or family. He wouldn’t stop drinking until he was an obnoxious asshole who sneered at people and blamed me for everything wrong in his life. He’d watch porn ON THE TOILET IN THE MORNING and completely ignore me while day drinking at his job that I GOT HIM. I’d started detaching myself from the relationship already, which was not the nicest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I was mentally and physically exhausted. When he told my poor friend of his true feelings (while smashed, of course), she was floored and didn’t know how to respond. This girl was one of the friends who was picked on in high school–we’d known one another for 13 years–one of the girls I’d wanted to protect.

For months after this, I switched back and forth from uncontrollable anger to severe depression. Body wracked with pain, mind completely blank, heart utterly shattered kind of depression. I went to therapy immediately, but did not see major improvements until I went to a psychiatrist and asked him to please help me by putting me on medication. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and chronic clinical depression. I also have body dysmorphic disorder and extreme anxiety when it comes to certain pornographic materials (just about on par with PTSD, but I don’t like saying that because I feel my case doesn’t merit the title. I was sexually assaulted and emotionally abused, but so many people go through so much more than I have and I feel PTSD isn’t the proper term for me–I’ve seen my soldier friends with it and I just can’t bring myself to use that terminology.)

depression_motivational_poster_by_quantuminnovator-d6dwgk8Image by QuantumInnovator on DeviantArt.

 

I’m turning 30 this week. Mental illness has nearly destroyed my life. I once contemplated killing myself when I turned 30 if my life was as miserable as it had been for so long. But before you get all panicky, I’m happy to say that while I’m sad about this milestone and being “behind” my goals, I’m here to stay, and I’m recovering more and more each year.

These stories don’t include the struggles my one surviving sister has; those which my mother has dealt with; my father’s huge emotional and spiritual journey; the impact of an attempted rape (I just can’t write about it in this context) and an (unrelated) unplanned pregnancy; nor does it cover the impact that a building autoimmune disease and undiagnosed genetic syndrome have had on my life. But what I want to say is this:

If you have ever wondered whether mental illness was one of the following:

  • A phase everyone goes through
  • Something someone just needs to “pull themselves out of”
  • Hysterics
  • Something you need to just “get over” or “snap out of”
  • Attention-seeking or selfishness
  • Stupid or unwarranted, given the person’s status
  • Not justified in your eyes (i.e., someone rich or someone very attractive suffers from depression and you think it’s just them being stupid)
  • Something you should be able to get over without the use of pharmaceuticals or therapy
  • Something only for damaged people who are likely to be a threat to themselves or others
  • Something you can discriminate against because those who have it are “crazy”

You’re a moron. Okay, scratch that–you might be naive, but you’ve also got no handle on the reality of mental illness. Someone in your life may be afflicted with an invisible, awful, alienating disease such as clinical depression. As in, right now. When you pretend these things aren’t serious, or when you push away someone who is suffering, you’re doing them a disservice. You may not be a therapist, but you can be the one to reach out your hand and tell them they’re not alone. That you won’t judge them or shun them for asking for help. Many sufferers just need to know that someone cares.

Oh, and never fucking tell a mentally ill person that if they ate a better diet or took some herbal bullshit supplements that they’d cure themselves. That’s not how it works.

 

robin williams headshot

Robin Williams passed away today from apparent suicide at age 63.

 

Visit this site if you’ve had thoughts of ending your life. Cliche, but here it is.

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

I wrote this today after reading the discussions surrounding the death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate and it’s a fucking tragedy that it took the life of someone who has touched so many hearts with his successful career. My story is just one of many stories that could and should be told. I wanted to share just bits and pieces of my struggle so that people could see that it’s very real. It’s very dangerous. And I’m here today because of the support of friends and family, and because of medication and therapy.

If you need help, I’m here to tell you you’re not alone. Fight this shit. Fight it as hard as you can. And change the discussion surrounding mental illness. We need to remove the stigma and push for more affordable, accessible care.

If you like, you can watch a tribute video I made for my sisters below, and you can read the story I wrote about Sara’s death here.

 

 

You can also read my writing here under my pen name Deina Furth.

Art continues to help me and heal me in ways I can’t anticipate. I appreciate your support. ❤

hang-in-there

A Battle Not Easily Won: Part 2

fight endometriosis

Sure you can. By having surgery after surgery to laser scar tissue and blood-filled cysts from your organs, or going on drugs to induce a lovely, rage-filled menopause–the drug is also known to compromise bone density. FIGHT ON, SISTERS

Part 2: I have the insides of an 80 year old, and there’s nothing I can do about it because there’s supposedly “nothing” wrong with me.

Fuck Relationships and Endometriosis, Too.

Things didn’t get better fast. I bled uncontrollably. I could hardly function at work. I’d wake up with horrible headaches, and later be reduced to tears because of cramps and the fear of being unable to go anywhere without bleeding all over. It was debilitating. And in a job where I worked primarily with men, it wasn’t something I could really talk about much. I could talk to a few women, one of whom had looked out for me from the very beginning like a mother, but I knew she had her doubts about how well I was doing. I wanted to be okay. But I felt very isolated and, well, lonely. Even though I’d gotten married only about a year and a half earlier, I could see things unraveling. It began to put me into a very real, very deep depression. Between the pain, my crumbling relationship, and my growing anxiety and depression, I felt ready to quit my job. But I pushed through it because I wanted to save up money.

My husband started working out again and I decided to go with him, in the morning before we had to be at work. My hips and lower back began to feel better with working out, and felt better for a few hours during the day, but locked up at night and in the morning. He showed me some stretches, which I did regularly. He had to rub my back to force my muscles to relax so I could sleep. I got a sharp, nearly constant pain under my right rib, which I Googled and immediately regretted. I ignored it (great pattern, right?). I began to sleep less, waking up frequently, and eventually I fell into a cycle of 3 hours a night. My husband drank all the time. I knew he had feelings for my best friend. I couldn’t get him to admit to anything or change anything.

And then I fell apart.

In the end, I wasn’t a good wife any more than he was a good husband. He asked me, after I broke down, if we could ever make it work. I looked him in the eye and said, “No.”  Driving him to the airport was difficult. I felt like a failure. I felt like no one would ever believe me or think I was a good person ever again.

Journey Uphill

I started going to counseling. Living alone, I wanted to adopt a cat to keep me company, and I started talking to my friends online and tried to remain positive. It was difficult. No, actually, that’s being modest–it was nearly impossible. After about four months, I adopted a cat and got a roommate, one who I am with to this day–my boyfriend, Steven. He was supportive of me, but I pushed him to the limits of his patience. I was still climbing uphill, and I wasn’t moving very quickly. I began working on creative projects and focusing more intensively on my strengths, building a portfolio for my writing and learning how to do animation and video production. This proved to be a good investment of my time, as it helped me land my first writing job. I wanted to go to the doctor and see why I always felt so tired and in pain, and I was really stoked on the fact that this job offered good benefits, despite its shitty pay. We struggled with bills, and my sister moved in with us to help while she applied for PhD programs. It was helpful to have her around to talk to. After four months of hounding my boss and HR, and filling out paperwork 3 times because of ineptitude, I finally got health benefits.

It was only about two months later that I heard a radio advertisement for a medical study. This study called for endometriosis patients to test a new pain medication, and it paid a decent amount of money. Being poor and still suffering with bad cramps, I thought this would be perfect for me. So I enrolled.

A part of the test included a bone density scan, called a DEXA scan, to ensure you didn’t have osteopenia or osteoporosis. I asked if that was for the post-menopause participants, and the director said yes, and not to worry about it. The pill could compromise bone density, so it was just a screening measure that wouldn’t affect me.

Except it did. I found out the scan showed osteopenia and osteoporosis in different areas in my hips and spine. I was floored–growing up, my mom forced us to get our 3 glasses of milk a day. We ate so much dairy that it was impossible to have something like this, right? My mind drifted back to being vegan, to not taking care of myself during my stressful job. Did I do this to myself somehow? And thus began the doctor’s appointments to find out…

Announcing A New Late-Night Contender…Cap’n Crunch!

[Cross-Posted from Beneath the Brand].

Do you have a favorite cereal mascot from your childhood years? Growing up in the ’90s, I recall there being so many cereal mascots, so many jingles, and so many ways to tell adults that our cereal just wasn’t for them that it was nearly impossible to choose a favorite to represent our generation. We had Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Trix, and of course, Cap’n Crunch. While of course there are many others to bring up for nostalgia’s sake, there’s only one that I want to talk about right now, and that one is Cap’n Crunch.

I believe the last time I even thought about the Cap’n was when I swore he’d never lacerate the roof of my mouth with his dastardly crunch berries again (which, admittedly, was probably not all that long ago). But on April 23, the Cap’n himself took to Twitter and Facebook and made an announcement about some surprising new plans of his: He’s getting his own late-night talk show. Out with the old, and in with the new.

Of course you won’t see the Cap’n makin’ it happen in a lineup with the likes of Leno, Letterman, or Fallon. Instead, he’ll be showcasing his talents in an original YouTube series, The Cap’n Crunch Show.

The Cap’n Crunch Show is set to debut Tuesday, May 7 at 11:35 pm EDT, just like any other late-night programs. There will be a total of nine episodes, with a new one being made available every other Tuesday following the premiere. The content is directed at adults who have grown up with the cherished character, and is intended to be primarily tongue-in-cheek: the host will apparently discuss pop culture, social media, and interview animated celebrities from his giant cereal bowl with a little help from his pooch and first mate, Sea Dog.

In an effort to promote the mascot’s brand new image, Quaker has encouraged fans to interact with their host via social media. You can subscribe to his YouTube channelfollow him on Twitter, or like him on Facebook. Like many other brands, social media proves to be bolstering his campaign: He currently has about 270,000 likes on Facebook, and 14,200 followers on Twitter.

The brand’s new marketing strategy plays on adults’ nostalgia, creating a new bond between the character and the customer, and it springboards from popular social media platforms. It’s certainly an approach that has worked for other franchises that were popular in the past: think Transformers, My Little Pony, or even the new Kool-Aid manmakeover. Given that the ’90s revival theme is pretty popular right now, do you think the Cap’n will fit right in?

A Sister’s Love

Today, it has been eighteen years since I awoke to see my parents softly crying on the opposite end of the room.  When I asked what was wrong, the news emerged with wavering diffidence from my father’s lips: “Well, last night, Sara went…to see Kristin.” My mom broke into heaping sobs and ran into the bathroom of our little Ronald McDonald house apartment, locking herself away from the reality that cut her so deeply.  I don’t know if I began to cry immediately.  I think the power of the notion of my sister’s death had hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was just struggling to process it all in my ten-year-old brain.  I know my younger sister was upset.  But I can’t remember if she was crying.

I asked what it meant for me now.

“It’s okay to cry,” my father told me.

I said I felt angry.  Was it okay for me to swear?  I wanted to swear.

“Well, in this case, I think that’s okay,” he said.  I bet he wished my mother was there to help him through that oddball.  I remember the seething anger that started to rise up inside of me.  I felt like it was physically manifesting, coming out of my pores.  But I had lay awake in my fold-out bed for hours that week, in the clutch of fear, praying that my little sister wouldn’t die.  I wanted to bargain with God to save her, but I was a ten-year-old child who had nothing but her toys to offer.  With my hands wrenched tight and tears streaming down my cheeks, I promised I would make it up to God if somehow He could save her.  What a terrible God, to let a child die.  Was there even a God?  I doubted it.  I didn’t want to believe in that fable anymore.

***

My older sister Kristin was the first daughter born to my young parents on March 31st, 1983.  My parents were only 24 and 25 years old.  They were poor graduate students at the time of her birth.  Kristin was born healthy, but it became clear in the following months that something was very wrong with her.  She died October 16th, 1983, not even six months old.  Whatever was wrong with her was beyond medical technology and knowledge at the time.

I was born only 10 months after Kristin passed away.  I had been a huge gamble, because my parents didn’t know if I would be ill too.  I was colicky,  but nothing more.  My sister Megan followed in 1986.  My parents worried about her as well, but she turned out to be perfectly healthy, just like me.  When I we were very young, our parents told us of Kristin and her illness. I always just imagined her as being sick, like she had a cold.  This was the narrative I had in my head, because I was naive.  I don’t know what Megan thought of it.  But for me, it wasn’t until I was faced with the reality of Sara’s illness that I understood.

My youngest sister Sara was born healthy in 1990.  Like Megan and me, she went in to the doctor for regular tests to ensure she didn’t have Kristin’s illness.  But when she was about three months old, tests started coming back with strong indications that she was indeed ill.  She was diagnosed with Familial Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. I couldn’t spell that for years, let alone pronounce it.  But I knew, even from the age of six, what this meant.  It meant that she could die, because my older sister died from it. It meant that her immune system didn’t know when to stop attacking bad cells.  It would attack her good cells until it destroyed her body.  That meant even a cold could become life-threatening.  And that meant a lot of isolation for her.

I remember a lot of panicked decision-making in a short period of time.  Little Sara would be treated experimentally with chemotherapy — something that wasn’t guaranteed to work, but could perhaps keep her alive long enough to receive a bone marrow transplant.  I believe it was every other weekend, or maybe every two weeks, that we had to trek to the hospital and watch my tiny baby sister be hooked up to machines.  The small fluff of hair she had when she was born disappeared.  Her eyebrows and eyelashes fell out, too.  This wasn’t much of an issue early on, but it started to become a problem as she grew.

I remember shopping at Target with my mother, Megan and Sara.  A lady commented about how bald Sara was.  My mother owned her, so to speak: “She’s on chemotherapy and has lost all of her hair.”  My mother already had bonnets for her, but as Sara got bigger, she began putting a floppy bucket hat (remember Blossom?) on her to keep people from commenting.  I would overhear comments about her despite her protective helm.  Rage began to grow inside of me.  I mostly remained silent, but I wanted to choke people who made fun of her.  One time, on the bus while I was going to swimming classes, my mom, Megan, and Sara waved goodbye at me from the parking lot.  I waved back.

“Look at that kid,” said some brat behind me. “It’s got no hair.”  

It. Lack of hair erases your identity to such an extent that you aren’t even credited as human? I started to cry, despite my anger.  Sara still smiled and waved, having no idea what was being said of her.  I wondered how many other people made fun of her while I couldn’t hear.  I turned around to face the kid in the seat behind me.

She is my sister,” I said, trying to hide my tears with my anger.  “And she’s on chemotherapy. That’s why she has no hair. She’s sick.”

The kid sort of just shrugged at me.  I wanted to break his nose.  In retrospect, chemotherapy was probably the biggest word he’d ever heard, and he probably had no idea what it meant.

This picture says it all. Sara’s feelings about her lack of hair were heartbreaking.

Among my friends and peers at school, though, Sara became loved.  Most kids didn’t understand what was wrong with her.  But they knew she was special.  It was okay to bring Sara in briefly while my mom picked up Megan from preschool, and she obviously loved being the center of positive attention — who wouldn’t, when normally people fawning over you end up poking you with giant needles and IVs?

One time, as we picked Megan up from preschool, my mom panicked.  She saw spots on a kid’s skin.  Was it chickenpox?  My mother fled, I remember literally running to the van with her.  Megan and I were confused at first, but our mother explained that we now needed to watch her for spots.  Well, she came down with it, had to go into the hospital, and when she was stable, Sara had to be on an IV drip at home as she struggled through healing her chickenpox.  Most other kids got a shot and maybe some boo-boos that scarred.

Sara had a couple of times when her disease went into remission — these periods were bittersweet.  It was a hopeful time, but simultaneously we remained wary.  We knew that her improvement was good, but the possibility of her remaining stable wasn’t high.  Sometimes she’d go for a few months with no chemo.  Her hair would start to grow back, and she would be so excited and happy.  When she inevitably had to go back on chemo, all her hair would fall out again, and I would see the anger and fear on her face once more.  The poor kid was only three years old, and all she wanted was a life where she wasn’t feeling crappy and sick all the time.  She wanted to brush her hair and play with other kids.  But my parents taught her not to feel sorry for herself.  It was pretty remarkable that she didn’t complain very often.

The summer of 1994 Sara went in to get her bone marrow transplant.  The transplant itself was actually largely successful, from what I remember and understand.  Megan and I went back to school in the fall.  Every weekend we drove four hours to the Mayo Clinic to see her, becoming a bit scared around the October mark.  It had been three months since she was admitted to the hospital, but she wasn’t getting better.

I do not remember the exact date, but I remember I was in music class.  I was suddenly called to the office over the loudspeaker.  There, they informed me that my father was coming to pick me up, and I needed to be ready soon.  We left directly from school.  My dad drove about ninety miles an hour to get there as fast as he could.  He didn’t tell us something was wrong.  It was just there.  Looming.

Once we arrived, we went immediately into the clinic.  We went around a corner in the hospital, where I saw my mom at the end of the hallway.  My dad rushed to her and told us to wait there.  When he came back, they told us Sara had some “tests” that we needed to be there for.  This didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  I can remember my dad choking up while talking to the doctor.  My mom looked like a ghost.  We went to see Sara, who was in the ICU.

My little sister, cheeks swollen, yet body emaciated, lay still in her bed.  A breathing tube was taped to her mouth, creating a crude impression of a circle around her chapped, dry lips.  IVs were plugged into her arms, and a colostomy bag was on the side of her bed — I had never thought about how that worked before.  She had a bandage on her head, where I suppose they had taken a piece of her skull to reach her brain — there was a fungus attacking it.  These images will never leave me.  I tried to talk to her and she didn’t respond.  I asked my parents if she could hear me, and they told me she could.  I don’t know if she could.  I felt stupid and self-conscious. I wanted to talk to her alone, not with people listening to me.

We lived in the Ronald McDonald House apartments near the hospital.  There, I met my friend April, whose brother was there with leukemia.  She hung out with Megan and me all the time — we did art projects together (I remember having to go to a class where we tie-dyed T-shirts) and we played Super Nintendo all day.  Games became my escape while I was there.  Mario could defeat all his problems head-on: Jump on a Koopa or Goomba, defeat a boss, rescue the Princess, end up a hero.  I felt like my life was me helplessly flailing at problems, but they compounded rather than retreated, and I ended up ignored or alone.  I would read to my sister with other people in the room.  I would play games with April and Megan but feel out of touch.  Our homework started to be mailed to us at the apartments because we’d been out of school for weeks.  I remember getting a box filled with cards for my sister, handmade by my classmates.  I was so happy to receive them, that I immediately started to read them to my mother. But she told me she couldn’t listen to it — it was too hard.  So I read them by myself.  One that I still remember was made by one of my best friends at the time — she was very creative.  The card said, “Sara, open the doors to find a surprise!”  They didn’t know how bad it was.

I overheard my parents talking at night.  They sat in shifts at the hospital.  I knew the worst was about to hit when they talked about baptism.  Megan and I met with a pastor at the hospital the next day.  He baptized all of us.  It spoke volumes to me that my sister and I were never a part of this ritual, but suddenly, when my unconscious, terminally-ill sister is involved, we all received the rites.  I do not remember which day this was.  But I remember them telling me to tell her goodbye.  Again, they didn’t fucking leave the room.  The stood on the other side, as if that created some sort of barrier.  Some people teared up when I choked on my emotions and told her I loved her.  I’m not putting on a performance for you. I want to be alone with her.  I don’t know if she can hear me, but I want to be alone.  The pastors at home had told us we needed to pray for her.  This pastor also reminded us of the healing power of prayer.  I panicked, thinking that maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough.

Dear God, please do not take my sister away.  I will be a good kid, I will go to church every Sunday!  I will never say a bad word.  I will try very hard to behave and get good grades.  I will give you anything you want, except her.  I think I need her more than you do.  I don’t mean to say that I’m more important than you, but what could you need with a sick little girl?  Her birthday is in three weeks.  She wanted to be Darkwing Duck for Halloween.  Well, she’s going to miss Halloween, and I’m sad about that, because she was really excited and she was walking this summer and she was getting better.  But please don’t make her miss her birthday. Am I doing this right?  Can you hear me?  Please give me a sign if you can hear me.

The little sister I will always love and miss.

The sound another human being makes when it is in so much pain, when its heart is breaking, when its child has passed on before it: I can’t describe it here.  The wracking sobs, the gasping for breath, and the pain in their eyes makes it so unbearable to witness.  I hurt too.  But my mother couldn’t even look at a picture of her baby without breaking down.  I found a drawing of Sara’s and there was a tiny tear in the corner.  She became enraged that someone had torn it and tried to tape it back together, to fix and preserve Sara had made with her own  hands.  (Understandably though, because it was a drawing of our family.)  We shopped for her funeral dress together at Target.  No one knows you’re buying a dress for a dead person.  At her funeral, I watched my mom’s hands shake as she tried to put lipstick on her daughter’s sunken features, complaining that they didn’t make her look good.  She wanted make her look as perfect as she could before she said goodbye forever.  It was one of the most painful things I have ever witnessed, and in that moment, I wanted to hug her and take away everything that had hurt her.  I had written a very personal letter to Sara that they read out loud at the funeral.  Why I was always denied the chance to say something to her in private, I don’t know.  Maybe because I was so angry but didn’t want to look selfish, so I never said anything.  And I guess it really wasn’t about me.  But after eighteen years, I say goodbye to her again, publicly, as I have every year since the day of her funeral.

I love you, I am your big sister.  I was, like my parents (and unlike Mario) unable to protect you.  My life has gone on.  I’ve had some good times and some bad times, but every year I examine whether or not I would make you proud.  I’ve been told that I wasn’t a good enough Christian and that’s why you died — I fixed that problem (I’m  no longer a Christian).  I’ve been told my whole life hinges on your death by ignorant people.  In some ways, it does.  But if they read what I wrote today and still don’t understand how profoundly this has affected me, then I honestly think they are incapable of experiencing the depth of feeling — of love — that I have towards you.  And that’s a damn shame.

Autumn

In southern California, we don’t often get rain. When we do, either it doesn’t know when to quit (like the winter of 2010 when my mom came to visit – it rained for two weeks straight!) or it seems to only last a few hours.  Today it has been consistently overcast with intermittent showers. The air is chilly. I have my window open, and I can hear cars driving through the puddles.  This is autumn.

Something that my city lacks is that distinctive feeling of summer ending. Sure, we have these rainy days, and rain is definitely synonymous with autumn here. I also see the swimming pools get drained, and I see the seasonal trees change colors; the leaves eventually dry up and fall, to be swept away by the immaculate city workers during the night. But palms and coniferous firs line the streets alongside the bare trees, keeping the landscape beautiful and green through the “winter”, where snow never even concerns the residents. This is in stark contrast to what my body has cued as “autumn” in the past.

Growing up in the upper Midwest, autumn had a very concrete beginning to it. This almost invariably happened over Labor Day weekend, and the change was always drastic. One morning in late August, I would wake up with my oscillating fan on full blast. The air still distinctly felt like summer. I would laze around the house with the air on while my mom was at work, usually working on art with my sister. By the time my mom got home, I would have to be finished with my summer chores: sometimes I would have to mow the grass, but usually I would just water the vegetable garden, feed the animals we kept outdoors, and take care of my mom’s potted plants on the front porch. The trees in our yard may have had hints of fall colors, but it was still decidedly not autumn. The best part was, at the end of the day, we could still enjoy a meal outdoors — or at the very least, with the windows open, drinking lemonade like we were in an advertisement for Summertime ™.

The next morning, my bedroom seemed colder. Maybe it had something to do with me knowing that it was the last weekend before school started, and the sense of responsibility and the grueling schedule that came with it. Whatever it was, I felt like summer was officially over. Looking out the window, I noticed the grass seemed less green. The leaves had many colors: reds and oranges, golden yellows, and dull browns. The cottonwoods seemed like they had released more of their wispy seeds onto the lawn. My mood changed. We went to the typical Labor Day weekend BBQs, my sister and I enjoying the event, but very aware of what the following day meant. It meant trudging to the end of our country driveway at 8:05 to catch a bus to school. It meant the end of summer, of freedom and fun.

Another attribute of the autumn of my childhood was the leaves only holding their glorious vibrancy for a week. I heard stories about taking cruises in the New England area where the leaves and their colors were a spectacular show. Well, in my hometown, they would dry up to a crispy gray-brown and fall to the ground within an extremely short period of time. In other words, there was no grand sightseeing here. The trees, barren, would open up an incredible view of the plains, though –the land was so flat that one could see for miles if the trees had shed their summer skin. Even the crops had been harvested in the last week of August. Lawns turned to brown after the first frost, and Canadian geese migrated south in flocks shaped like giant Vs. Everything hibernated, migrated, or looked dead.

Yeah, something like this.

There was a certain sense of peace in those decadent environmental cues, however. I enjoyed taking walks after school and contemplating things while surrounded by the changing landscape. My sister and I always planned our creative endeavors while strolling down the old railroad tracks near our house. My little Boston Terrier loved rolling in the leaves when we took her outside with us. So even though the summer fun had ended and the autumn toil had begun, getting past Labor Day weekend was the hardest. After that, my body and mind settled in to experience a change of pace as well as a change of weather. In the end, it was just part of the year as much as it was inevitable.

Today I’m enjoying the rain as a signal of the changing seasons. Southern California may not get much in the way of distinctive seasonal weather patterns, but right now, I’m enjoying being transported to something similar to the autumn of my youth.

Memories Unburied

I walked across the street to the only tall building on campus. Every week I go the the fifth floor of the tall building to talk to my therapist. Most days there are groups of college students gathered at tables just outside the entrance, enjoying the sunny southern California weather. Today there was only one woman reading something on a Kindle. And then a man running toward me. He jogged by me so quickly that a gust of wind followed his body. Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio filled my nostrils. Immediately my mood soured. He smelled exactly like my ex.

Recently, a lot of days that I go to therapy, I’m not struggling with depression.  So during those visits, my therapist and I discuss job prospects, my relationship with my boyfriend, or our cats — we both have Siamese mixes that we adopted and love dearly. If I feel like talking about my ex, I do. If I don’t, I steer the conversation to other things for that week. It ebbs and flows. Some people may see this as a waste of money. I see it as an opportunity to build my life around something other than the man represented by my clouded memories. They create a caricature of the person he was. They don’t tell me who he is now.  Because now, he isn’t in my life any more than meager interaction through surprisingly emotionally-draining texts.

“Any news on the divorce papers?” She asks me, cradling her arm. She broke it playing tennis, and this week, it’s just come out of the cast. It still looks extremely swollen and painful.

“No,” I reply. I sniffle. How the hell I managed to come down with a cold when it’s ninety degrees outside, I don’t know.

“Do you think he’s dodging you? Avoiding responsibility?”

“I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised. But I have texts from the day he received the papers, and I let him know explicitly that he only had twenty-one days to sign and return copies to me.” My therapist smiled.

“Look at you,” she said. “You’re keeping track of everything. You’re organized. And best of all, you’re almost finished with this.”

Yes, she’s right. I’m almost finished with this. Should I feel more satisfied with my life now? Should I feel triumphant? I’m not sure how to respond.

“Yeah,” I say weakly. My head is still swimming with dredged-up memories from smelling that man’s cologne. Some of the memories are pleasant. I remember buying that cologne as a gift for him. I remember smelling it on him while I snuggled with him, or whenever he walked by my desk at work. Others are not pleasant. It reminds me of arguing with him while he told me he’d fuck my best friend in front of me if she walked through the door that very moment. Or when he sneered in my face as I told him he’d better help clean up the window he’d broken while wrestling with another one of our friends. He ended up doing nothing. I paid to replace the window, and told the rental office some lie about how my nephew was over and roughhoused too much. I don’t have a nephew. But I apparently had a child for a husband. Close enough?

My therapist continued to talk about how glad I’ll be when this is all over. And I agree, I will be glad when the papers are signed and I can begin to heal without worrying about legal paperwork. But there is a part of me knows that memories are unburied at the most unexpected times. Like when a man rushes by you and inadvertently forces you to smell the cologne your ex wore. Other times, you hear a laugh that sounds like his, or you see a picture of him on Facebook. Fragments of the person you used to know — these memories — will never combine to create an accurate picture of who the person was then, and most certainly not who the person is today.  I can’t base anything off those feelings.  But they do evoke powerful emotions while you’re healing.  This is the hardest part for me.  It is beyond my control and it is completely unavoidable. And to think that something as small as a smell can incite anger in me is frightening.

When my paperwork is done, it will be a symbolic moment for me. My marriage will be legally over, although emotionally it was over nearly a year ago. But the legal documents will not erase memories I have, good or bad. I don’t even think time will erase many of these memories. I just hope that someday, I can have these memories unburied and think to myself, “Oh yeah. That happened,” and move on with my day, rather than dwell on the emotions that accompany them.

“How’s Steven?” Asks my therapist.  I smile.  Much more pleasant memories fill my head as I think about the man who truly loves me.