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.