Of my mom’s three daughters, Sarah was the one who we last expected to swoop in during the last months of our mother’s life. Sarah was the daughter that had broken our mother’s heart countless times. Calls never returned. Visits cut abruptly short. Cruel words, a thumb pressing down on a bruise. Our mother was fat. Tacky. Laughed too loud and talked too much.
But there Sarah was, abandoning her life in Manhattan: her husband; a demanding job; years of fertility treatments in an attempt to have her first baby in her mid-40s. She blew into the Care Center’s Alzheimer’s unit and never left. Amazon boxes began arriving in force, sometimes two or three in a single day. Balms, lotions, essential oils, all rubbed lovingly into our mom’s hands, feet, elbows, knees. A folding sleeping mat so she could sleep on the floor next to our mother’s bed. Scalp massages. Manicures. Soft nightgowns. She rarely left our mother’s side.
My oldest sister Nicolle and I exchanged confused, puzzled looks. Where we were reverent, Sarah was exacting. She got a nurse’s aide fired within days of her arrival because she didn’t like how she bathed our mom. Sarah spoke to Mom in a loving, hushed tone, when Mom could no longer hear, understand, or respond.
Although all three of us were the result of accidental pregnancies, all three of us were desperately wanted by our parents. But being wanted, being loved, was not an antidote to conflict. Our home alternated between ugly, screaming fights and tense, quiet periods. Sometimes fights came to blows between my sisters. Not infrequently my sisters or my mom would turn their rage on me, having nowhere left to put it. They hurled insults at me: I was fat, I was ugly, I was just worried about filling my fat fucking face. The words hit me like a fist to the chest. I backed away slowly, red-faced. Even then, I was quick to forgive, to be received back into their good graces.
I spent many nights hiding in my room, occasionally tiptoeing downstairs to try to diffuse fights, or distract from them, only to make them worse. Little by little I found myself spending more and more time at my friend Helen’s house across the street. Enough that her parents asked me to just knock and come in, instead of waiting for someone to come to the door. When my mom heard about it, she told them, “I’m so embarrassed that Ruth has made herself such a fixture over there.” I didn’t realize she’d noticed. I was also terrified she’d stop me.
When I wasn’t at Helen’s, the two of us were at Alison’s, two blocks away. It strikes me now that neither treated me very nicely, and they were even meaner when the three of us were together. But the alternative was the deafening quiet of my house, or the explosions themselves, my stomach turning itself into knots, waiting for the return to waiting.
Of all the relationships in my house, the one between Nicolle and Sarah was the ugliest, the most volatile. In my mind, it culminated when Sarah took a bottle full of aspirin one night while my parents were out. I woke up to my parents’ shouts from my sister’s bedroom, “How many did you take? What have you done?”
There was another late night, maybe around that time, when Nicolle called the police on my parents, claiming our dad had hit her. As far as I remember, it was a lie. I woke up to red and blue lights flashing across my ceiling, the sound of loud police radio chatter crackling downstairs. I remember coming down the stairs, seeing my dad sitting on the bottom stair, head in his hands, being talked to by a policeman in a wide-brimmed hat. My mom was hysterical, and my appearance brought her up several notches. “See what you’ve done?” she screamed. “See what you’re doing to your sister?” Nicolle let out a litany of curse words, screaming that our parents were goddamnmotherfuckers, she hated them, it was their fault. Eventually, someone must have ushered me back upstairs, although I can’t image who it would have been.
The next day, I showed up as usual to Helen’s house. Her dad was home. “I saw all those police cars outside your house yesterday, Ruth. What happened? Everything okay?”
“My sister had her wallet stolen,” I recited. “We called the police.” We all knew it was a lie, and we all knew that we all knew it was a lie. I felt my round face turn bright pink. I stared at the kitchen floor. Helen’s dad made us peanut butter and jelly saltine cracker sandwiches. I ate them as fast as he could make them, cracker crumbs falling to the floor as I ate, listening to him tell stories about growing up in Louisiana. Helen, for once, was quiet. We all knew he was trying to distract us from my embarrassment, and we all knew that we all knew.
I remember Sarah telling me at one point, “You know other families aren’t like this, right?” She said, “I go to my friends’ houses and their families don’t yell. They like each other.”
It was only years later, when I looked back on spending time at friends’ homes, that I could identify what she and I both felt: envy. I’d like to tell Sarah that sometimes. I’d like to tell her that I remember times—even as an adult—when I wanted to be part of someone else’s family. I remember visiting my friend Amanda’s home in Denver when we were in our 20s. We ate dinner with her parents, twin sister, and younger brother. I wanted to fit myself into the narrative of their lives—kind, supportive, loving. Not without flaws certainly, but always thoughtful, and without spite. Amanda’s siblings actually knew each other, adored each other, told stories about each other in boastful tones. I heard so many of the stories from their growing up, I could tell them myself. I unnerved Amanda more than once by bringing up a story from her childhood that I held close to my heart, retelling as if it were my own, sometimes remembering more details than Amanda herself remembered. By re-telling it, I made it a part of my history too. One of my favorites was from a visit to their grandparents’ house in Texas. After a long day of play, Grandma scooped out big balls of ice cream for the kids. I imagined them breathless, lines of dust stuck to their sweaty faces, turning to Grandma for seconds. Instead of, “You’ve had enough,” Grandma said, “It’s good, init?”
So, when I think about Sarah telling me about other families, I want to tell her, I know what it’s like to be in someone else’s home, and to wish it—all of it—was yours.
I want to tell her that in spite of it all, growing up I loved my little family. I spent time angry and sad, sure, but mostly I looked forward to being together. Many years later, when my sisters and I were adults, the five of us developed a pattern with each other. We made it look easy, I liked to think, but now I see it was forced. There was lots of teasing, mostly directed at me, and I was happy to be the butt of the joke. It kept things from getting too serious, or from anyone getting too angry. It took the focus off our disregard for honestly, real connection, reckoning. Sometimes the humor cut close to the bone, but I smiled through it. I tried not to think too hard about how I felt anxious being alone with either of my sisters, as if I wouldn’t know what to say, how to act. How it felt like we were pretending to be a close-knit family that could not see the demons of our collective past hanging over us. If we just pushed forward, we would become the family we pretend to be.
I want to tell her that I fell out of love with my family when I fell in love with a woman. My family’s rejection made my head spin—it was that fast, that disorienting. It didn’t seem to matter to any of them how I felt, or even if I had feelings at all. They were quick to condemn. Sarah likened my love to a cancer; something that needed to be cured or cut away. Nicolle told me that I lacked self-esteem. My parents lied to their friends and made clear when I visited, I was to visit alone. Finger pointing in my face: “You. Are Not. A. Gay.” Oh, how my family found new ways to break my heart, over and over again.
I want to tell my sister that their rejection was so powerful, so complete, that for years every time I boarded a plane I hoped it would crash. Every time my mind wandered driving on the highway I hoped someone would run me off the road. I want to tell her that living felt exhausting.
I want to tell her that I was still quick—desperate, even—to forgive their betrayal. Even without an apology. I craved that illusion back, and was soon able to put the hurt behind me. Ironically, I was desperate to do the one thing she has never been able to do: put demons aside.
I want to tell her that I get that now. That our failure over the course of our lives to reckon with our family’s demons means we are left to side-step them, step over them, duck under them, leaving little time for anything else. Our time together is something we get through.
I wonder sometimes about Sarah’s time alone with our mother at the end of her life. Sarah had a lot to forgive: our mom could be cruel; she had an ugly mean streak. But Sarah had a lot of forgiveness to seek too. I wonder if my mom knew she was there, that she chose to be there until the end. I wonder if being there with our mother provided the reckoning Sarah sought, a settling of their grievances, a balm applied to their broken hearts. I wonder if there is enough to heal the rest of us.
Ruth Wilcox is an aspiring writer in Washington, D.C. This is her debut publication.