by Bari Benjamin
She smiles when she sees me and her skin stretches tightly over her mouth and chin. Her cheekbones and collar bones jut out, sharp and pointy. I sit by her hospital bed, trying to understand what has happened to my seventy-two-year older sister. Just three weeks ago, we spoke on the phone. She asked about my daughter. “You’ve done everything possible for this child.” And I knew she meant it.
She was twelve and I was five, an annoying younger sister who adored her. One day she taught me to ride my big girl bike. We inched down the cobblestone road when zoom—she let go of the seat and I sped off. My hair flew in my face; my hands clenched the handle bars, my knuckles big and white. My eyes stared wide open.
But the next day she hated me. Often she scared me; she looked like a witch, skinny with long fingernails and straggly, thin hair. We played outside one day, when she hid behind the side of our house. “Boo,” she yelled as she wrapped her gnarled fingers around my neck and squeezed. Hard. She tortured me. “Eat, eat more. Eat for me,” she said, as she pushed food in my face. It didn’t matter what—candy, bread, doughnuts, fruit, whatever was in the fridge.
I became the focus of her rage. Not only did she desperately control what she put in her mouth, she controlled my diet as well. And so it went, I struggled with my sister’s intense emotions, and my mother struggled to keep peace. Her illness divided my parents: My mother protected my sister and my father defended me. “Mommy, please, “I cried, “I don’t want any more to eat. I’m stuffed. I don’t wanna throw up. Help me.”
“Leave her alone,” my father yelled, again and again.
Madeline and Bari
A year away from my family at the age of five fractured my vulnerable sense of security. But my sister got better. She stopped starving herself and stopped scaring me. There was peace in our home but we remained distant, and it wasn’t until our adult years that we gradually grew closer. Our daughters provided a bond, a safe island upon which to connect. She embraced the role of big sister, advised and comforted me when my daughter’s troubles emerged. Did she have a special understanding of how wounded a child can be when they feel utterly helpless? When they have so little control over their lives?
At six months old, my daughter had been left in a carriage in a train station in Moscow. Sometimes I imagine her crying and crying, her baby face scrunched up with rage, her terror at not seeing her mama’s familiar face. Police rescued her and placed her in one of the city’s twenty-five orphanages. And then at age two, she was flown halfway across the world with another unfamiliar face. My sister, the experienced parent, helped me navigate those early years.
“She won’t make eye contact with me. That’s not normal. What should I do?”
“Don’t worry,” she soothed me. “It’s a temporary delay. Sit with her, rock her, hold her.”
But then, adolescence exploded like a series of firecrackers. I bore the brunt of her rage. “I hate you, you bitch,” she’d scream, as she stormed out the door.
My sister didn’t experience that kind of trauma, but did she feel abandoned when our father, (who was in the Navy during her early years) came home and showered her younger baby sister with affection and attention? Did she cry, “What about me?”
I climbed up on my father’s lap and rested my head on his shoulder. “Daddy, why are you so mean to Maddy? Please be nice to her.”
He grabbed me and set me down hard. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he growled.
“She’s taken off again. What should I do?” The police won’t do anything. I’m scared.”
“She’ll be back. Try to stay calm, “she said.
Then: “Should I place her in a treatment program? They say they can help her. But I hate to send her away.” I worried, was I repeating history?
“I understand but you have to keep her safe. This is her chance.”
Finally: “She’s coming home. And she’s better.”
“Thank God. You did the right thing.”
We never spoke of her illness.
I left the hospital that day, haunted by my childhood memories. My sister, who had become my friend and my advisor, spent the next four months in the hospital, in and out of intensive care. There was pneumonia, and then heart failure. She recovered from both but then she simply could not swallow. No one knew why.
My sister had just turned seventy-two when she died. She never made it out of the hospital, unlike her first hospitalization at age twelve. I found myself almost stoic at her funeral, detached and cold. Shock? Denial? Survivor’s guilt? I just know I couldn’t find my tears.
Then two weeks after her death, I drove to Zumba class one rainy Sunday morning, my daughter’s favorite rock radio station blaring. I recalled her dancing to the music just the other night, her large, dark brown eyes sparkling, and my heart swelled with that special love that parents have for their children. And then it hit me: I can’t ever call my sister again to talk about our daughters. She isn’t home.
My sobs stunned me. My body shook. I pulled over. I finally surrendered to them and when I finished, a sense of peace enveloped me. I drove on.