The Sister Unit is down by one. I lost one of my sisters last week. She was a year younger than I. Losing a sister is different than losing a parent. I’ve lost one of each. It sucker punched me. The phone call left me stunned into silence as I searched frantically for my voice. How? Why? Please tell me. Gone? I talked to her last week. We exchanged texts over the weekend. I hung up the phone, told my husband, and curled inward unable to find words even for myself to express the impact of the death of my sister. We weathered so much together.
For those of you who don’t know our story, we five girls were raised in an intact, but incestuous home. I’m going to try very hard not to put on a pair of rosy tinted glasses, because if I achieve nothing else, for the rest of my life I will continue to speak our truth.
Elsie was a bright eyed, strawberry haired pixie when I met her. She was three. I was four. My family adopted three girls: Michelle (12), Katie (4) and Elsie. It was a huge change for all of us, and at three, Elsie still wasn’t talking.
Their life before us wasn’t good. The state took the children from their mother. But her life with our family turned out to be worse.
One of the cutest stories I remember before our family moved to Africa was when Elsie was watching our baby sister Carly one afternoon. Carly, newly potty trained, had an accident. When Elsie brought her inside for a change and Mom asked what happened, Elsie (afraid Carly might be in trouble) said, “She was standing on her head in the rain.”
In Africa, while I embraced our cross-cultural experience, she stoically endured it. Elsie adopted one of the feral cats. She loved our toy poodles. She liked babysitting. She even liked doing laundry, which makes her a saint in my book.
I talked to Elsie last week. We texted over the weekend. She was tired, but happy to be settled into her new home. So I don’t feel a sense of guilt “If only I had …” because I made that new home happen. I think I held onto an abiding grief over her challenged life, her longings, her unfulfilled dreams, her lack of understanding as to why she wasn’t loved by my parents. When it fully hit me that she was gone, unshed tears streamed out of a well I didn’t know existed.
Elsie was the reason I jumped my horse over the Swedish Embassy’s wall seeking asylum. Make us safe, I asked. Elsie’s heart couldn’t withstand her upbringing. She struggled. My parents were brutal to her and about her when all she wanted was to be loved, accepted.
I know Katie rescued her numerous times. So did I. When my children were young, she lived with us temporarily several times. She would drop out of our lives for long stretches of a time, and then I might find her behind a grocery store going through a dumpster getting outdated food, or living in a broken-down barn, or holed up with some loser in a rent by the month motel. Katie or I would get her settled until another bump in her road threw her off.
Her daughter was premature and lived in NICU for months. Elsie had a heart attack at age thirty. She was given permanent disability for an anxiety disorder, and lived with her curtains drawn. If no one could see her, she couldn’t get in trouble. She became reclusive, but had an odd measure of independent pride paradoxically combine with a crushing dependence that kept me guessing.
I would give just about anything for her to have had loving inclusive parents, to have spared her her childhood. She was the least resilient of us five sisters.
Despite all, she loved. She needed connection. She took joy in little things. She loved her cats, an extended family for her. She believed in angels. I picture her now, across the stream, as she liked to say, with that childlike twinkle in her cornflower blue eyes, and the impish grin she had as a little girl. She’s pain free. Happy. Loved. Peaceful.
She ended every email, every phone conversation, every text with “Love you, Sissy.”
Love you too, Elsie.