The Forgotten Sister



Two years ago, my older sister was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer – stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer.  She had a mastectomy, went through chemo, and had setbacks along the way like heart failure.  The cancer eventually spread to her brain, and a little over a year after her diagnosis and just around her 42nd birthday, she had brain surgery to try to remove the cancer from her brain.

As you can imagine, it went downhill quickly and she died of cardiac arrest on November 10, 2013.

But this story is more than a story of losing my sister to cancer.  We hadn’t seen each other or spoken in over 13 years.  I did not want to have anything to do with her.  I couldn’t.

She lost custody of her older child at the age of three.  She was not equipped to parent her and my niece went to live with my mother and stepfather.  Throughout the custody cases, my sister was, at one point, diagnosed with or suggested to have had (not sure which) Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  It explained so much about her.

Whether it was BPD or something else, she clearly had something going on that she was unable to see and therefore unable to seek help for, and it deeply affected those around her.  I don’t know if my cutting ties with her made me the strongest or the weakest of our family, but I had to do what I could to preserve myself at that point in time.  Maybe that makes me the most selfish.

I moved away which made it much easier to remove myself from her and I went on to live my life.  She met my husband a few years before we got married, but she was not invited to my wedding.  She never met my children.  I couldn’t allow it.  It was a hard decision but it was what I felt was best for us.

When she was diagnosed and I got the message, I hid in a half-sized bathroom stall at my daughter’s 3rd grade talent show and cried.  Though I talked to my mom, my older niece, and my half sister a little, there wasn’t much else to do or say.  I might tell someone here or there what was going on, but I felt like I had no place talking about it because I was so removed from her by that point.

As it got worse, I continued to support my mom and niece, and to a lesser extent, my half sister, but I was the estranged sister, 3,000 miles away and there was no place for me to come to terms with any of it, except my on-again, off-again therapist’s office.

In early November, I was talking to my niece who was now away at school and concerned about her mother’s health.  She expressed the conflict of wanting to go to her, but not wanting to.  I completely understood and for whatever reason, shared her sentiments that it was time to go.

A little over 13 years since we’d last spoken had gone by.  I remember sitting in my mother’s bedroom a few days before I was to move across the country, trying to talk to my sister about her issues, and how I had started therapy and how helpful it was, hoping she’d consider it for herself.  It dissolved into an argument which ended with her screaming at me “Mummy made you crazy!” and me hanging up the phone, never to look back.

Over 13 years had gone by but I was overtaken with the need to go see her.  The thought scared me.  I knew she would look and act differently (the cancer in her brain was severely affecting her from what I had heard) but I needed to go.  I researched flights, made plans and then remembered I couldn’t fly.  Not for 4 more weeks.  I had just had an inner ear surgery two weeks prior and could not fly for a full 6 weeks.  I was, quite literally, grounded.

My niece and I put our plans on hold until I could travel, and a few days later, I got the call that she was gone.  And like that, it was over.

Years of heartache, conflict, and anger whisked away in a simple call.  I hung up the phone and laid on my floor in my bedroom, sobbing into the carpet like I have never cried before.  For what?  Who was I to mourn the loss of the sister I had rejected?  What right did I have?

The next few days where a whirlwind of calls and texts as my mother drove to my niece’s college to tell her, and arrangements were made.  My sister didn’t want a funeral, but one was planned anyhow.  I wanted desperately to be there, and though my sister was to be cremated (meaning there was no urgency i having a service right away), they didn’t wait for me.  I will never understand that.  My father – whom I also have not seen or spoken to in over 17 years – planned it and it went on without me.

I was able to watch via webcam, and I spoke via speakerphone.  It was the only way I could participate and I am grateful to have had that opportunity.  Aside from a few words from her boyfriend, I was the only other person to speak at her service.

It’s been almost 8 months now since her passing.  And I continue to mourn, mostly alone.  There are sympathy cards for parents who lose children, children who lose parents, people who lose pets.  Are their cards for those who lose their sister?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if my loneliness in mourning comes from how physically far away I am, because I was estranged, or because losing a sibling isn’t the same as losing a child, parent or partner.  I feel forgotten, alone and angry.

I mostly mourn in the car, driving to and from work.  Today was my sister’s 43rd birthday.  Fortunately my son fell asleep in the car as we ran errands today, and I was able to have my cry without him knowing.

I feel like if I try to talk about losing her, I will be viewed as a hypocrite.  I wasn’t there the last 13 years, what right do I have to care now?  But I was there for the 26 years before that and I am starting to realize I have a lot to mourn and am entitled to do so.

I mourn the loss of who she was, long before she died.  I remember days at our grandmother’s house, where we would play Cinderella (because she was the fairy Godmother in the 6th grade play) and she’d make me pretend to woefully wash the floors of the basement on my hands and knees while she danced around me singing “Bibbidy Boppity Boo”.

I remember the clubhouse we built out of old pallets in my grandparent’s yard and the hours we would spend out there, decorating it and playing in it.

I remember going with her to her friend’s houses all summer long and playing dress up and roller skating and going to the pool.

There are a lot more memories that I have in photographs but otherwise can’t recall them, because I was only 9 years old when things started to get different with her.  And those early memories were replaced with the memories of her screaming and yelling at my parents or late nights waiting up, listening to hear if my parents had found her yet.  I remember her sneaking around, asking me to lie for her, and getting into drugs at school.

I vividly remember the night they found her, high, wandering the train tracks late at night.  I remember when she came home with my mother, and I was still up, past my bedtime, playing Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo hooked up to the little black and white TV in our shared bedroom.  And I remember, after my mother screamed at her for what she’d done and left her in the room with me, that she made me promise to never do drugs.  And I promised.

I remember her changing schools.  Moving in with our father, moving back home, and living in a teenage facility for a while.

I remember the apartments she lived in, and I remember going to them after she’d move out, cleaning them with my mother in hopes that she would get some of her security deposit back.  I remember cleaning blood off of the walls, vomit out of a refrigerator and taking in a cat she’d abandoned.

I remember when she was pregnant with my niece and we went to her apartment to drop off a stroller my mom got for her.  The apartment was small and dirty.  There was an ultrasound photo on the table with a bottle cap on top of it and an old bassinet set up in the corner – with a litter of baby bunnies she’d taken in living in it.

I remember thinking that when she became a mother, she would change.  She would get better.

I remember calling child services on her when my niece was three.

It wasn’t long after that that I moved away, never to look back.

I always hoped she would somehow, miraculously change one day.  I longed for the sister I could call a friend.  I don’t know how I thought it was going to happen, but I never stopped hoping for it.

The day she died, I lost hope.

There is no going back now.  I can’t change that past, and if I’m honest with myself, I wouldn’t.  Leaving was the best thing I could have done for myself and maybe that does make me selfish.  But it is what it is.

So, as I continue to mourn, quietly and alone, I remind myself that I am not a hypocrite.  I did love her, but she wouldn’t let us love her.  She couldn’t.  Nothing I could have done would have ever changed that.

And I do deserve to mourn because I miss her.  I miss who she was in our youth.  I will forever grieve the sisters we weren’t able to be, and it breaks my heart that she wasn’t able to have better for herself.

She was beautiful.  She was smart.  She was an amazing artist.  And when she loved, she loved deeply.  But she had a hard life, and I wish she could have had so much more.  She had almost everything she needed to have an amazing life, but something – her chemistry, parts of her upbringing, something – kept her chained.

I don’t believe in an afterlife.  I don’t have visions of her off with others who have died before her, frolicking in the clouds or walking hand-in-hand with some creator.  It makes the mourning process that much more painful, but it is part of life, and I have to accept it.

The one thing I do believe is that she is free.  She is free from whatever kept her captive in life.  And because my belief is that the only afterlife is in the memories that those who knew us hold on to, I chose to keep those good memories of our childhood and let the rest go.  And that is the sister I will keep in my heart until I take her with me in my own death some day.

And until then, I will continue to grieve quietly, in my own time and place.  But tonight, I just really needed to let go of so much of the pain in the best way I know how.

Happy Birthday, Tracy.


6 thoughts on “The Forgotten Sister

  1. (((hugs))) Sommer. I have been dealing with something similar for nearly two years. It’s not quite the same as losing a sister, but there is someone whom I was very good friends with, nearly the best of friends, starting way back in 1992, when we worked together in NY. She is how I ended up moving to Orlando and living in FL in 1994. She became a toxic person to me. She had been a diabetic since childhood, and used it as a crutch and an excuse to be very belittling and condescending, and just not the kind of person I wanted to be around anymore, and we had a falling out. We spent many years out of touch with one another, and then on December 28, 2011, she sent me a friend request on FB. There was a third friend who we hung out with during our years together in NY, whom I still keep in touch with, and so when the friend request came, I spoke with our third friend, telling her how incredulous that it was that she thought I’d EVER want to be her friend again, and proceeded to rant on about what a horrible person she was, and how I intended to just go on with my life. At some point down the road, a few months later, this third friend contacted me, telling me that my former friend was very sick and had been in the hospital for about two months at that point. After about two more months, I swallowed my pride, and accepted her friend request, because I cared at least to know what was going on with her. I never posted anything to her, never sent any messages or anything. I just kind of lurked in the background, waiting for updates from her husband. After she had been in the hospital for about seven months, after having had a second kidney transplant, and recovering from whatever cardiac event had put her in the hospital, her husband’s updates became more upbeat, as they were weaning her off of the ventilator, and things were going well. A few weeks later, the updates stopped. Then six days after her 45th birthday, on September 25, 2012, I started reading things about how she was now an angel, and how much she’d be missed, and how she will be watching over people, etc., and I just lost it. We may not have been friends any longer, and hadn’t been for a long time, but still, we were very good friends, nearly best friends, for a time, and maybe in the time that we weren’t, she had changed. And she reached out to me. And I opted not to reach back. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. There was NO fixing this. There was NOTHING I could do. I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life. The guilt just ate me alive, and yet, I felt like you do–what right do I have? I did it to myself basically–I opted to not get involved again, for fear of being hurt again. And all I can tell you, is what my friends and my husband told me–you did what was best for YOU when you needed to…you don’t know that anything about her had changed in all of the time you spent apart. And I know you said you don’t believe in afterlife, and I’m not sure I do either, but it brings me some comfort when my friends who do believe, tell me that she knows how I’m feeling, and that she’d forgive me and understand why I did what I did. I am still sad when I think about her, and I feel like I don’t have the right to grieve for her, because I didn’t want anything to do with her after she reached out, and I keep telling myself that if I knew that that was what the outcome was going to be, so soon after she reached out to me, that I’d have done things differently. But all we can do is realize that we were finally taking care of US, instead of letting ourselves be hurt by people we loved, and hope that at some point in their lives, they realized that that is why we kind of faded into their background, and that they longed to fix things with us, the way we long now to fix things with them.

  2. Tracy was my childhood friend. I was a witness to how she changed, but I never knew any details of her illness. I am sorry to hear how troubled she was and the ripples that it sent throughout the family. I must say that I remember Tracy’s birthday more years than I don’t. I was working nightshift last night and happened to look at the operating room’s clock by chance as the clock turned midnight. I shared with a co-worker without any forethought; it just came out, “It’s Tracy’s birthday.” Why do I remember her birthday nearly every year? I have not a clue…

  3. and today I’m in exactly the same situation as you were in Nov.. with plans made, and a 43 year old sister dying in a hospice 1000 miles away.

    I found out last September that she had lung cancer, the kind little old men get, not women in thier early 40′s, and not related to her smoking as a teen.. perhaps pollution, perhaps just bad luck. We spent time there for her wedding in November, and had tentative plans to visit now.
    3 weeks ago it all went wrong, I’d put off visiting and my ever protective sister failed to tell me her returns to hospital after infection were for radiotherapy after they found spinal tumours.

    I found out just 5 days ago, she moved to the hospice on Wednesday.. two disturbed nights with no sleep.. my sudden wake up at 5:56 this am and the moment I step out of bed the call I’ve been dreading. She’s dying.. and I can’t get there, if I spend the money and tried tomorrow it would be too late I’m sure. So I must wait and perhaps have the wonder images of my sister as a beautiful bride as my final real life memories….

    sometimes life stinks..

  4. and of course… my thoughts are with you Sommer, I know it is an old cliche, but it does get easier with time.
    I wasn’t in touch with my father when he died, I found out after, then had his diaries to read about the years we’d missed. I can write about it finally without tears, but the special days always bring it back.
    At the time it seemed right for things to be the way they were with your sister, we sadly can’t turn back time and hope it was somehow different. I have every faith considering the circumstances you did the right thing, and I’m certain that deep down you know that. Your family is perhaps stronger for not having had to deal with the ups and downs that came with a relationship with your sister.
    Hugs and kisses for you and your family.. for today and all those future times that it just gets too much again. I’m sure there will be many of those for us both, I’m just a few months behind with my sister’s 44th birthday to come at the end of October.

    Thinking of you!

    Tia xox

  5. This should be published for millions to read. I can totally relate as you know. One way you & I bonded was the ways we disagreed with our older sisters.

  6. Sommer,

    I flipped open Laura’s iPad with Facebook open and noticed your post.

    This is a beautifully written piece about difficult matters. The love is clearly there. That’s all there is.

    Dylan

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