The shrill ring interrupts my lazy Sunday afternoon. I almost let it go to voicemail, since the caller ID shows a hospital extension, and I don’t want another weekend Oncology shift. It’s the first glorious Sunday in May, I don’t want to give up what’s left of the day. But I’m a powerful self-guilt-tripper, so I pick up.
“Tanya?” A broken and small voice, but I recognize my sister, older than me by a decade.
“Yeah … ? Lisa?” She goes by LJ now, but I can’t bring myself to use a stranger’s name.
“She left meeee . . .” and the rest of the word becomes high-pitched keening. I hear another voice, a soothing Cambodian lilt, in the background, and someone takes the phone from my sister.
“Is this Tanya?” asks one of the hospital’s social workers. “This is H_____. I have your sister with me. She asked for you. She needs a family member. Would you be able to come to the hospital?” She explains a little over the phone. My sister’s girlfriend announced a renewed interest in men. Lisa waved a gun, threatened to shoot herself, peeled out of the driveway in her truck. The police pulled her over on the highway into town, confiscated the gun, and brought her to the ER for a psych eval. If I don’t come get her, she’ll be transferred to the state hospital. They don’t have room. They never have room. I hear my sister in the background, muffled choking sobs. The overwhelming dread, the inversion. Everything tilts for a second as the adrenaline kicks in. I have to be the adult. I can’t duck out of this.
“Yeah,” I sigh, and immediately berate myself for sounding so inconvenienced. I know this social worker from working at the hospital. She’s a saint. She doesn’t know how many times or ways my sister has attempted to die, plowing headlong into trees with her car, overdosing on the entire gamut of prescription medications. Silvery healed scar tissue works an intricate design over Lisa’s face and body, where ER doctors have stitched and glued her back together on countless occasions. “I actually live right across the street. I can walk over. Do I need to bring anything?”
It takes four minutes to walk from my back door to the ER’s main entrance. Once inside, I explain the situation and a nurse leads me back to one of the holding rooms for psychiatric cases. Not ten years ago, my sister worked as an intake nurse in this very department. Entering the small room, I still have trouble recognizing my sister right away: this grizzled, middle-aged woman with leathery, over-tanned skin, bleached hair buzz-cut into gelled spikes, men’s jean shorts, a racerback bra and a Big Dawg tank top, oversized Nikes. This outer persona goes by LJ, but it’s my sister Lisa who hunches over in a plastic chair so that her tears drip audibly onto the hospital linoleum during a brief moment of silence.
She’s created this heavy odor in the room, an upset-human smell you can almost taste. I recoil inwardly, slightly nauseated. I hate myself for this reaction, but she smells like our mother when she cries. Instead of feeling whatever one’s supposed to feel, and I know it’s not what’s racing through me at this moment, I have a momentary surge of anger. How can you continually fuck this up? I want to yell. You can’t even kill yourself right. I’m tired of this nonsense. I’m a monster for thinking this. I feel older than I want to be. I look at the social worker, who offers my sister a fresh ear to hear the story, new eyes to see the scars. I don’t want her to hear the wearied tone in my voice and think less of me.
I sit down beside Lisa and hug her close. Taller than me, outweighing me by 30 pounds, she nevertheless curves into my body, her tears and snot soaking my chest. As our brother jokes with regularity, and because he knows it chafes, I’m “the maternal one” in our family. He’s let all of his children be adopted by other men, his “summer kids” we call them — “some are” here, “some are” there — and my sister’s children have been in and out of her custody since they were toddlers. Myself, I’ve spent half my life as a warning to girls considering teenage motherhood, scraping by at low-paying jobs and working on a college degree that threatens to be merely symbolic by the time I finish. But I never gave my children away, chose a partner over them, or lost them to the state. This makes me, the baby of the family, positively matriarchal.
I never set out to be a mother, and whatever maternal drive I may have is more practical than precious, a learned behavior. Mine is a love that manifests — not in convulsive delight and curated baby books — but in changing diapers and nursing wounds. It does the right thing, what should have been done. I bend to her, hold her closer, grip tightly. She needs to feel secure. I’m not aware of the social worker’s words. She leaves us in the now-darkened room.
Another sunny spring day. I scream relentlessly from colic, a red-faced and genuinely unlikeable wad of infant distress, the result of an unplanned ten-month-long pregnancy that refuses to stop punishing my mother. Not quite 10 and 7, their skinny limbs encased in dirty shirts and cut-off shorts, my sister and brother bounce in and out of the trailer’s front door that stands open to the warm breeze. My mother puts me on her bed in the back bedroom, shuts the door, and returns to the front room where she sits in the recliner and continues her own crying. The next time my sister pops through the front door, our mother’s gone, the trailer too quiet.
Lisa runs barefoot down the short length of the trailer, long brown hair whipping behind, to see if our mother’s gone somewhere, perhaps out the back door, and left us alone again. The bedroom door’s still closed, but she can hear movement. She opens the door and switches on the light, startles our mother in the act of pulling a pillow back from my face. I’m finally quiet, but too still. My sister looks at our mother, trying to comprehend the scene. Eyes wide, our mother explains that she just now ran back to check on me and found me not breathing. I must have rolled under a pillow. It’s what happens to SIDS babies, she says, standing helpless and relieved. All Lisa can do is stare, but something about the tilt of her head pushes my mother into action. She pinches my nose shut and puffs air into my chest. Eventually I sputter back to life, and commence wailing.
Years later, our mother will confess to her psychiatrist what actually happened, but in the meantime my sister unofficially takes over my care. She’s already lost her older sister, and she won’t watch me die, too. She picks me up and takes me outside to where my brother is holding matchbox car races in the pinworm-infested dirt, and I become her full-time after-school-and-weekends job for the next three years. She will feed me, diaper me, potty-train me, teach me how to read, and stand between us children and our mother’s unpredictable rages and my father’s predatory impulses.
Of the three who survive, my sister is the only one of us children who still willingly speaks to our mother. I feel dismay when she relays these conversations, like she’s still trying to be picked first for a losing team. I drew a line around myself and my children long ago, tired of our mother’s hypochondria, the suicide attempts, the general hysteria. All of us fled to far corners of the continent before our 18th birthdays, eager to put the past in our rear-view mirrors. But Lisa can’t help glancing back. John also comes when he’s called, but he’s a doctor and feels obligated to fly in and review our mother’s charts whenever she’s hospitalized, even though she won’t even eat in the same room with him.
For a brief while, my sister and I become typical siblings and less mother and child. As I grow up and into a person worth having a conversation with, she mentors my cultural tastes. We live in foster care some of the time, but attend the same small schools, though grades apart, and love the same books, the dusty reads little-loved by other children in our factory town. I haunt the school libraries, looking for her signature of approval on the sparsely filled check-out cards. I feel so close to her in these moments, double-blessed if I see my brother’s name scrawled below hers.
After she elopes with a guy she’s known seven days, only to see him arrested and thrown in jail the night before her 19th birthday, Lisa moves back home while Brian serves out his sentence. The next summer, she delivers a little girl and I move into her and Brian’s one-bedroom apartment until school starts. I sleep next to Nikki’s crib in the living-room, bringing her to Lisa for nursing during the night, eventually fixing bottles and feeding her myself. I go headlong into the role of aunt, eager to prove my worth. I feel pangs of envy when our mother dotes on Nikki, but I almost understand. Unlike me, Nikki is beautiful, the spitting image of our oldest sister, Diana, the one who didn’t live. Nikki has a chance.
In early 1987, my father sells some of his Chrysler employee-shares and we move into a real house, complete with stairs and a basement. Lisa buys the fully furnished trailer from my dad for a song, and proceeds to toss everything harvest gold and pea soup green, appliances and carpet, ripping the walls down to studs. Two years later, she takes Nikki and runs away to California, to live with Lisa’s real father. They return to Brian after a few months, and a year later we welcome my nephew Zach.
Our parent’s religion orders us to shun her for running away, but I refuse. Lisa drops by the junior high and picks me up just before school ends. We sit in her third-hand Olds Cutlass, and I luxuriate in the heater’s roar against the cold vinyl seats, the heady scent of Lady Stetson, the whisper of exhaust leaking in through the rusty floor, the faint tell of old cigarettes blunted by the chill. We chat while she drives, until she lets me out a block before home. I’m the only person who talks to her for months, until finally she’s reinstated to the church.
During the time I have her to myself, we become real friends, instead of just sisters. I tell her about bullies, and she shows up to straighten them out. Even after she gets her old church friends back, I stay a part of her group. Whenever our mother is hospitalized for her latest suicide attempt, I head straight to Lisa’s trailer — the old family home now a whitewash of Mary Kay pink and dusty blue — carrying only my toothbrush, needing nothing else. Under the pretense of helping with the children, of course, but Lisa recently warned me about my father. With her help, I’ll never be alone in the house with him.
Lisa and I now wear the same size, and I love borrowing her things, using her shampoo, wearing her makeup. After I run away from home the first time, she miraculously convinces our mother to let me move into the trailer for good, babysitting my niece and nephew while I homeschool myself. Lisa’s husband has issues of his own, though, and I must move back to the house for my own safety. Lisa also moves out, and the kids end up in foster care. Oddly enough to me, it’s Brian who files for divorce and gets custody of the kids while Lisa must couch-surf. She stops by the house periodically, and I funnel groceries, toilet paper, and soap her way. She slowly shrinks before my eyes, now 104 pounds as she proudly tells me, lighter than myself. Every time I feed her, she excuses herself to the bathroom because the food never sits right. She develops a tic, a guttural hard swallow. She forgets her keys, and breaks through windows and doors with her fists to retrieve them. She punches through walls to finish arguments. One car accident after another, until her insurance drops her.
I’m not sure where she’s staying, the grey January afternoon she comes over to the house. Her wrinkled, shearling-lined denim coat smells like car exhaust, perfume, smoke. I invite her to stay and watch movies with me and my friend Erin, but Lisa says she can’t. “Well, alright. I gotta go. I love you, baby girl,” she says, squeezing me hard as we hug goodbye.
Erin notices the flashing lights first, as they sweep across the dining-room wall. I pause the movie and run to the window, open the drapes further to look out. An ambulance takes up most of the driveway, blocking my view. I run through the kitchen, out the back porch steps and onto the driveway while a firefighter breaks down the side garage door and another uses a prybar to yank open the front. Exhaust pours from the garage bay as the door raises up on the scene, and paramedics duck under to pull my sister from the car. I’m ordered to get back, and I scream as loud as I can, loud enough to hear nothing but a train’s roar in my own head. But Erin says later that I don’t make a sound, that I stand at the back porch storm-door and quietly watch the men work to restore Lisa’s heartbeat.
They put her on a stretcher and take her away in the ambulance. After a few days we visit Lisa in 4-East, the psychiatric ward at Swedish-American Hospital, a place I could draw a map of with eyes closed. I’m the one person in my family for two generations to only be a visitor. Across the table from me, Lisa sits, jittery, eyes bulging. We learn that a worried friend dialed 911 after Lisa called her to say goodbye. Perhaps the meds, or the oxygen deprivation, but she’s changed, like her own skin doesn’t fit right. Her long, permed hair suddenly brittle, the make-up harsh under these lights. But I’m her sister. Ignoring our mother’s berating voice, I reach across the table and take Lisa’s hand, grip tightly as I steady her for the both of us. I can be the strong one for a little while.