A Sister’s Death

A couple of days ago my sister died. Suddenly.

I have been wondering what to say about this here, if anything. Then this morning, just catching up on some other blogs, I saw James’ letter to his dead brother on Double Danger, and Victoria’s post about the return of her husband’s cancer on her blog Victoria’s Backyard. Not to mention Zoë’s struggles with her own cancer, mentioned on Garden Hopping, and recorded in detail on her amazing journal, The Journey. And I thought, all right then. I’ll just do this.

So there it is: my younger sister died Tuesday afternoon, and we don’t know why.

I did not even know she was sick.

Well—she was an alcoholic who drank nonstop for weeks at a time, so she was not healthy. She was so stubborn she managed to carry her habit through three or four rounds of rehab, knocking the best programs in the country flat.

I didn’t get a chance to ask what she thought of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I didn’t get a chance to hear her play the guitar since she took it up again several years ago. I didn’t have a chance to see her garden, or to show her mine. I didn’t get the chance to see the batiks she started making again this spring, though I have one she made years ago on my wall.


She could be one of the sweetest people in the world at times. Once when we were quite young, we were going off, each of the three of us, to visit separate relatives—probably Mom was sick again—and at the apartment door, Susan turned and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then without pausing to see what effect that had, she turned away with Dad and was gone. I remained, dumbfounded.

She too was a gardener, much earlier than I. When I was about seventeen and tired of our antagonism, I bought her a Peace Rose (Rosa ‘Madame A. Meilland’). "’Peace’ Rose, eh?" she said with a sidelong grin. And then she faced me squarely, and thanked me. She planted it in our family garden, where for years it spread its lovely blooms, palest yellow, the petals’ edges flushed with pink.


This image from Leonard Jedlicka’s Iris Pics List, # 49.

When she worked with earth and plants she became quiet, patient, and absorbed. Once during a visit to our house when son #1 was twelve or thirteen and eager for some plants in his room, Susan offered to help him pot them. For a couple of  hours the two of them worked together at the kitchen table, and I’d look up from time to time from my book, hearing their voices, calm, murmerous, absorbed.

Yet she was so destructive, of herself and others, that I could hardly believe it when she found a guy who seemed able to love her through it all, and even live with it all. I love her still, but I couldn’t possibly live with her.

Yet we tried to help her. For years, our older sister Molly cared for Susan’s children when Susan was too drunk to function. After she left Maine, our parents visited, and wrote wise and gentle letters, and helped pay for rehab or for medical bills.

I hung on longest. I made dozens of calls to get her into one rehab program, at reduced rates, and went to their family program, and joined Alanon; I paid medical bills, and paid for her to visit us in Japan while we lived there, a trip that nearly unstitched my smile and hung it out to dry and me with it. And that was when she was sober. When she was drinking I refused the midnight phone-calls and made the daylight ones; I took her in (once) and kicked her out; when she was in jail I sent her letters written on origami paper so she could use it to make lovely things, since the jail wouldn’t let me send her any craft supplies, nothing.

We did try.

Unfortunately, Norman Maclean was right when he said that “we can seldom help anybody.” Actually, it is his father speaking, near the end of that wise and beautiful and terrible book, A River Runs Through It. He goes on, “Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed.”

None of us had the right part—either to help her stop drinking, or to charm and defang whatever terrible demon it was that drove her to drink. It’s easy to think that our mother’s death of cancer when Susan was not quite twelve would be demon enough for anyone, but she was a demon herself well before that.

And now?  She had driven away almost everyone, and it was years since she’d worked, though this summer, amazingly, she was working a little. Even so, she was close to being homeless—only her common-law husband’s goodwill kept her off the streets. So this death, compared to the ones I imagined sometimes, lying in bed at night after her latest drunken call, seems a mercy.

She didn’t get hit by a bus, too drunk to cross a street safely. She didn’t get murdered. She didn’t freeze to death  in an alley. And she didn’t die the lingering death that she so feared after our mother’s death. She didn’t even die from cirrhosis of the liver.

All of these were possible. Any one of them at times seemed likely, certainly more likely than the sudden gasp—and another—that her husband heard one afternoon, so that he had just time to take her in his arms before she died.

She wreaked such havoc on my life and her own, that I’d feared I wouldn’t even be able to mourn her death.

But we were linked, by history, by family, and by love. On the sled we shared when we were children, our father had written our joined name, the first syllable of each of our three names: MoKaSu. That’s a link not to be denied.

So the night after her husband called with the news, I cried and cried, and wished I could cry louder, longer; I would have beat gongs and banged on great drums if I had them; I wanted to howl down the moon.

23 Responses to A Sister’s Death

  1. My thoughts are with you during this heart breaking time. Be Well

  2. Our thoughts and energies are with you and your family. My father passed away two months ago. Some of your thoughts seem so familiar to me. Again, we are sending our best energies your way.

  3. I’m so sorry Kate. My thoughts are with you too.

  4. Kate, I’m so sorry. I know how much you loved her and how complex your relationship was. Thinking of you.

  5. Kate, my friend, I’m so sorry about your sister. Peace!(((HUGS)))

  6. Thank you all–and sympathy to you, Shibaguyz, as well. These complicated relationships, as Michãel so aptly puts it, lead to complicated grief. But there it is, so might as well pick it up and carry it.

  7. I am so sorry about the sudden death of your sister. Your very sensitive posting showed how much you loved and cared about her.
    Always Growing

  8. {{{{ Kate }}}} I don’t have words that can make this feel better, but I am holding you in my thoughts. So sorry for your loss.

  9. What a horrible shock for you and what a terrible waste. Some people just seem to be on a self-destruct path and there is nothing that anyone can do or could have done. You have some lovely memories of her and it is great that you are concentrating on those moments rather than the negative side of her life.

  10. Kate, that was a heartfelt and heartrending tribute to read, and I know it was much more so to write. I lost my best friend of 35 years to alcoholism in 2002 and so much of what you said is familiar to me. Death ends a life but it doesn’t have the power to end a relationship. In the days, weeks, months and years to come, may you feel Susan beside you in spirit and may that bring you peace and healing.

  11. Kate – I’m so sorry. And how brave of you to tell us about it. I hope it’s started the healing process for you.

  12. Kate, I was very moved by this. The loss of those who push us away is very hard to deal with, I think. It sounds as if you can remember your sister with love, and in happier times, though, and that’s a very precious legacy.
    lots of love, Victoria

  13. I am sorry, Kate. Sometimes life is a bitch.

  14. I am deeply sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you. Take care.

  15. I am so very sorry, Sweetie. Sometimes those who are closest to us are the ones who can hurt us the most. It sounds like she was a tortured soul while here. Maybe she will be able to find a little peace where ever she is now. M heart goes out to you and your family.

  16. I’m really shocked to hear your news and feel for you – I sometimes think my sister going would feel the most like losing my witness in the world. THinking of you.

  17. Kate, I haven’t visited in a while, I’m sorry, and even more sorry to hear this. Such violence toward the self is, well, something hard to understand, and you seem to have dealt with it as well as anyone thorugh your life. I can’t say much, being a stranger, but I hope things are already–just a bit–getting better for you.

  18. I expect you are mourning what might have been too. And being angry that they never were.
    I have struggled to understand alcholism and failed. I have known many people who have suffered from it and, however much I have cared for those people, there has always been a gulf between me and them. I can’t get beyond thinking ‘Just Stop – Just Stop’ – which isn’t helpful and I know isn’t possible.
    I couldn’t have offered the help you offered your sister.
    I don’t want to be trite but I hope you are able to gain some smiles and retrospective joy from knowing you tried.
    I would like to offer you congratulations as well as wish you strength and a speedy passing for the worst part of your grief.

  19. I agree with Michael about relationships being complex. Despite the destructive nature you describe, you were inextricably linked so you can’t help but grieve. Maybe for the loss of what could have been (like Esther suggested)or from the shock of how suddenly it occurred or just because she’s no longer here (where there was always that glimmer of hope that things might turn around). My condolences. and maybe it was therapeutic to write about it?? I know it was for me when I lost a friend to breast cancer last month.

  20. I hate to hear any loss, especially on this level – however dealing with it immediately is the best method in my mind. This may not be the absolute best method, however it seems to help me – and apparentely it helps others as well.
    Good luck and thanks for sharing.

  21. There aren’t enough words in the world to make this better for you, Kate. Other than to nod and say…I know something of what you write. Only in my case, I expect to see my sister’s obituary in the paper one day, as she has long since estranged herself from the rest of the family. People make their choices and live withthem, and we…well, we do too, even though their choices are not ours and we didn’t want them forced on us. Please be gentle with yourself in the coming days and months, and know that you’re cared about.

  22. You people bless me with your words and your caring. Thank you.

  23. I am so very sorry. I have a sister too. Difficult relationship with her also. I don’t know what else to say, but again, my heart goes out to you.~~Dee

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