Coping With Death

Tomorrow is my older sister’s funeral. She died a week and a half ago from that lethal cancer, glioblastoma, the monster that attacks the brain. We’d been estranged for almost seven years, at least according to the accepted definition of what estrangement means – we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other within that time frame. My truth is that I’d been estranged from her most of my life. I never understood the gulf between us but I always felt it. In the early years of our youth, I tried to figure out ways to bridge the distance between us. Our parents had taught us that family was the most important thing, that we should all stick together in a united front against the world. I didn’t question that essential premise much back then, even though mom and dad were both involved in mucked up divisiveness in their own nuclear families. I believed what they told us and tried for a long time to emulate their principles which quite naturally evolved into mine. No matter how much I tried, though, the gap between me and my sister not only remained but widened. The five years’ age difference between us seemed longer than that, almost like a generation. She wasn’t an activist wrapped up in what to me were the critical social issues of our lifetime. While I was demonstrating and getting arrested, she was married and having her first baby. Although there were similarities between us in certain ways, we operated quite differently. She was extremely private and reserved while I liked to put almost any topic right on the table for sharing and analysis. Of course I deferred to her boundaries, as the invisible wall she lived behind was clearly demarcated, with my place definitely outside its secrets. Ironically, despite my own openness, her reticence kept her away from my most essential self as much as I was away from hers. Aside from the superficial aspects of life, we never really knew each other. For days I’ve struggled to remember shared experiences.

I can’t remember many positive ones. Once when I was about five years old, I went with her to the S.S. Kresge five and dime store in Sioux City, Iowa where we lived at the time. She wanted to buy Elvis Presley’s single Hound Dog which she could play on a small portable record player. After she got it, we went to a candy counter where you could peer through glass at brightly colored sugary confections. She got me a small white bag of what were called Michigan cherries, a candy with a hard exterior and a chewy inside. That’s the only concrete positive experience I can recall with her from my childhood. I remember we played school. She was the teacher and she was very strict. For my whole life I can remember her telling me to modulate my voice. I guess I was pretty loud. What is my most vivid memory is of me standing on the tall steps at the front of Hunt School, waiting for her to meet me so we could walk home together. She never arrived and finally I was the last kid standing there. I really don’t understand how I found my way home but I did. I remember descending the hill to our house which was at the bottom and seeing my family looking for me. After that I had a terrible abandonment fears. Every day I asked my mother if my teacher would be at school that day and if she would be home when I got home. Mom lied. There were a few incidents when my teacher was absent and I would become a cross between hysterical and catatonic. Then they’d call my sister to talk to me. She said I just stared at her silently while my eyes looked as if they would bulge out of my head. My mom had been hospitalized, which contributed to my anxiety, but that being left alone was something I never forgot. When I was older, it occurred to me that a ten year old might think if she left her five year old sister at school that perhaps that little kid would just disappear. That’s how I felt, that my disappearance would please my older sister.

Hunt School, Sioux City, Iowa

Our family moved back to Chicago when I was seven. My sister and brother were adolescents. Although I was scared of the move, I think it was much more challenging for them than me. The social atmosphere around us was more sophisticated than our Iowa world and there was significantly more wealth that was obvious to our struggling family. My brother became a real outsider while my sister tried hard to fit in. I knew bits about their lives and friends. My brother was wild and impulsive while my sister fretted and was depressed. Both were academically talented but there also was friction between them and my parents. They were probably angry about their disrupted lives. I was in a separate world with my younger sister, just two years behind me. I focused on her, doing everything I could to have her feel differently about me than I did about my increasingly alienated older sister. Eventually the top two moved out, leaving what felt like a more relaxed family of four. And my parents made it clear that they felt more comfortable with these new dynamics.

Me with my older brother
My brother’s wedding

We all gathered together for family holidays and picnics, seemingly like any other family. But establishing intimacy between all of us siblings never really happened. We knew about the events in each other’s lives but most of our group dynamics were at the surface level rather than in any depth. Eventually my sister’s marriage took her to Europe where my brother-in-law, a doctor, served in the military rather than going to Vietnam. When they returned, they wound up first in Iowa City and eventually across the country in California. We spoke on the phone but visits were infrequent. Meanwhile, my parents who lived close to me and my younger sister, began to experience physical problems. I was there for all of them as was my younger sister. I didn’t feel like a third child. I felt like a first-born with lots of familial responsibilities. As decades passed, my parents eventually relocated from Chicago to live in the same community as my younger sister and me. My dad was dead in less than three years after that move. I became my mother’s caregiver and unfortunately the authority figure she’d always had in her life, the first being her mom and the next, my dad. I hated that role and she knew it, but old habits are tough to break when you’re in your late sixties. She spoke on the phone regularly with my older sister and I know that she complained about me in the same way she used to gripe about my grandma and my dad. Ultimately the distance between my sister and me grew increasingly uncomfortable as I was selected as mom’s power of attorney. I’d jumped the chronological line, simply by default. California was far away from daily problems. Sometimes my sister addressed me as “Sissy” which I found passive-aggressive and demeaning. When Michael developed cancer on top of my mom’s decline into old age, my request to my sister for help was met with a coldness that was dreadful for me. The years up to my mom’s death were filled with disagreements as my sister tried to do her version of helping mom from a distance, a process which complicated my life when my proverbial plate was full. She mistrusted me and I found her “help” to be nothing more than interference. That’s when all semblance of sisterly feelings blew up, with the final result being her complete dissociation from me and my family, along with my younger sister. She cut my kids out of her life and never acknowledged Michael’s death. For me that was unforgivable. I remained in contact with her children who were adults and innocent bystanders to our messy breakup. They were the ones who informed me of her illness. I was terribly sad for her and for them and was immediately aware of how dire the trajectory of her illness would be. But in those years apart, I’d dealt with my own husband’s death along that of my brother and mother. Then there was the symbolic death of our sisterly relationship. I went to therapy and explored myself and my feelings, ultimately pushing back any impulse to try to breach our silence. I thought that any effort to do that would do nothing but create another false connection, one which would never meet my definition of a depthful relationship.

I was haunted by what to do during this terrible time for her. Finally, I recorded myself singing an old family lullaby which we’d all heard as children and which we all sang to our own kids. I felt that conversation would be useless. I sent that video to her daughter who would use her best judgment about sharing it with my sister. Despite her fragile condition, she was moved by my reaching out and with assistance, chose to send me a video response which touched on her current situation and our fractured past. But too much time had passed and her condition wouldn’t allow for really substantive rapprochement. As I wept, I was keenly aware that absent her dreadful disease, I’d likely never have heard from her. A harsh truth. The grief I’ve felt through these swiftly passing few months has been the grief for the “wethat never was. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to have been unable to reach sisterhood in my own family. My mind has been inundated with thoughts of the big issues, the meaning of life issues, the unknown world in our brains that with the impact of environmental issues, both social and physiological, make us who we are. Yes, who we are, despite some of our best intentions. Ironically my constant probing led me to a timely topic that has given me much to ponder during this sad time.

Image of brain connectivity – Psychology Today

During the years since I retired, I’ve taken a lot of classes, in person before the pandemic, and for the past few, online. I have a restless brain, always hungry for new bits of knowledge. Some discoveries have more impact than others. In recent weeks, despite these pressing personal, emotional issues, I’ve continued to Zoom in for sessions on cephalopods, the Etruscans, the history of pandemics and most recently, the development of the human brain from conception to birth. This last class will stick with me. Here’s an astonishing bit of information from what I learned in a brief hour:

“The making of the human brain from the tip of a 3 millimeter neural tube is a marvel of biological engineering. To arrive at the more than 100 billion neurons that are the normal complement of a newborn baby, the brain must grow at the rate of about 250,000 nerve cells per minute, on average, throughout the course of pregnancy. But it is not the volume of growth alone that makes the production of a human brain staggering to consider. The great number of functions that the brain reliably carries out and the specificity with which these are assigned to one or another type of cell or small location in the whole assembly are stunning in their complexity..” NIH

Billions of light years in the galaxy – Hubble telescope

Grasping the concept of a growth rate estimated at 250,000 nerve cells per minute reminds me of how I feel when I read about light years, string theory and black holes. I’m completely overwhelmed by these big ideas so outside my daily wheelhouse. Still, interesting statistics like the one about the growth rate of nerve cells in the embryonic brain somehow lead me back to the more common questions about life, perhaps not as huge as those like quantum mechanics, but nevertheless, profound. I wish I could understand why I have been so successful at building some remarkable lifelong bonds with people while being unable to do the same with my sister. How much of our inability to be truly close was pre-ordained by those billions of developments that transpired before we were ever born? Or is that totally irrelevant? I don’t have any answers right now and likely, I never will. I just have to continue to process and move forward. I do know this. Once I was the third child behind my two older siblings. Now they’re both gone and the sense of being the eldest which I carried for years, is now reality. I’d better make good use of the time I have left.

Farewell, Roberta. Peace to you.

4 thoughts on “Coping With Death”

  1. Thoughts swirling around the complexity of familial relationships perplex me also. Once again you have so beautifully articulated yours.

    It is clear to me that we cross paths with random people who we recognize as members of our own tribe while some members of our families, even with our intimately shared history, never seem to be. It’s a curious thing.

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    1. Yes. Sometimes I’m afraid to write about this intensely personal stuff. But when I find that my words resonate with some people I feel like I’ve done a bit of good. Thanks, Debbie.

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  2. This is such a beautifully written piece that somehow has both a raw-edged and yet velvet feel to it. As I read it, I was totally immersed in your story and only afterwards did I layer my own story of the loss of my sister, my only sibling, my lifetime friend, upon it.
    Peggy and I, much like you and your younger sister, lived near each other most of our lives. After starting our family, Larry and I moved from St Louis to Homewood where Peggy and Bob lived. We were siblings and friends and touched base most days, other than a few times when there were disagreements that required cooling off periods. Since our mom lived to be almost 103 and our dad to be 85, we figured we’d have decades left and also realized- and Peggy stated- that if one couple moved, we’d probably both move to continue to be near each other. Peggy was less than 2 years older than I and her death at 67, the day after Mother’s Day, in 2016, shook my life and has left a hole in my life that still hurts in a raw and deep way and I expect always will.
    Although I am analytical in the way you are, I will never be able to put my feelings, and the facts- the scientific and psychological pieces together as you consistently do in your blogs. I look forward to reading your pieces in both an intellectual and emotional way and thank you for sharing yourself as well as your talent with me/all of us.

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