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.