My sister is 23. She is beautiful and quick witted, and can be angry and insecure. She often feels lonely and scared, though she acts fearless and self-contained. She loves sweeties and beauty treatments, on-running jokes and political debates. She hates food with bits in, tomatoes and people (me) borrowing her stuff without asking. But mostly, she is alive. Nothing about her is more cherished by me than that.
When I first knew my sister, she was fat and happy, chuckling, everything wobbling, as I tickled the smooth folds of her strong, sumo-wrestler thighs. Then she was a smiley little girl, with bouncy ringlets and a look of wide-eyed admiration on her face. She went to acting classes and taped Spice Girl posters onto every inch of her bedroom wall. Next, my little sister was serious and separate from me. My parents had divorced and my sister fitted neatly in to the family my Mum constructed with her boyfriend. I felt discarded, too old, too bitter, a bad fit for this new situation. My sister became the enemy and I became mean. I remember slapping her and teasing her and doing everything that I could to make her feel the pain I did.
And then, with puberty, she felt my pain too. But she also felt pain that was deeper, a remote cousin to the darkest depths of mine. She stole and she lied. She drank and smoked. She stopped going to school, not coming home until late at night. She ran away and screamed at my parents when they managed to track her down. And, during this time, she became my very best friend. My sister, even at her lowest points, has never failed to be great company. She is funny and articulate and dark and passionate. At the time, I knew that she was doing everything that someone deeply depressed would do, and yet I was never worried about her, because the sister I had come to know was brilliant in every single way.
I left for college and my sister was put on Prozac. She was only 15. I don’t know exactly what happened next. I was removed from my family, off sobbing in my dorm room and having bad drunken sex with men I didn’t really like. I was absent from this heart-stopping time for our family. This is what I know. My sister decided to kill herself in Spanish class. The decision was detached and absolute, like it got wired in from Moscow to a remote Soviet outpost. She went home and went to bed. My brother stuck his head in through her bedroom door at some point in the evening. She was turned to face the wall and looked like she was asleep. My mother got back late. She went into my sister’s bedroom and found the note. I don’t know what it says. My Mum still has it somewhere, filed away safe, for our protection rather than for posterity. I can’t bear the thought that it exists, let alone contemplate reading it, etching the words into my memory, to be conjured up whenever I think of her. I know that it mentions me. Perhaps more than anyone else, it mentions me.
Then my Mum saw the pill bottles. I don’t know what or how many. My sister was unconscious. My Mum shook and shook and shook her. In the ambulance, my sister didn’t come back to us. She lay still and silent, just a beating heart away from death. On a metal cot in an empty corridor she started convulsing, her eyes rolled back in her head. I don’t know who else was there. I know that my Mum was, and that she thought that my sister was dying and screamed for someone to help.
I heard the next evening; I was out at a student bar. I cried deeply and drunkenly, sobbing until my head pounded and eyes bled. I went home the next morning, straight to the hospital, where she lay tightly tucked into bed. My Mum sat in a chair at her feet. She pasted on a bright smile for my arrival. I crawled into bed with my sister and cradled her and thought of all the times that I hit her and told her that I hated her. A nasty voice, like a cancer in my heart, told me that this was all my fault.
After a few months of trying to live a spilt life -- wrenching family therapy and lonely train rides twice a week, superficial campus capers the rest of the time -– I gave up, deciding to drop out of college and move home. Since the suicide attempt, my sister had been sectioned, the British term for being held against your will. She had put on weight, packed into a psychiatric hospital with 15 other unwell teens and nothing but fast food to fill her time. She developed a nervous twitch. In family therapy, her foot would shake back and forth, back and forth, as she insisted in a monotone voice that she was fine and had nothing to talk about.
The day I packed up to move back home, my Dad phoned. My sister had been allowed out of the psychiatric unit to go to the shops. She hadn’t come back. But she had been texting, letting people know that she wasn’t all right. She had bought aspirin, hundreds. She had taken them and was vomiting. This time she was going to die. My parents were frantic, searching endless residential streets in the sprawling suburbia surrounding the hospital. My sister was there somewhere and if they failed to find her she would die, maybe before nightfall, or in two hours, or in 10 minutes, or right now, or maybe it was too late. Our little baby was going to die, choking on her own vomit, hidden away alone in some dark place. I can’t find words for the desperation.
Somehow, my sister found her way back to the psychiatric unit and was rushed into hospital. Above all else, my sister hates vomiting. She cries after she does it. She shudders at the thought of it. She tells me about instances of vomit as if they are of life-changing significance. She wanted to die, but the vomit was more than she could handle.
I dropped my suitcases off at home and took several busses up to the hospital so I could be there when she woke up. This time had been even more serious than the first. When I got there, I didn’t know what to say. Despite the misery that hung over her, my sister was still upbeat around me. Behind the girl that I spent hours laughing with was a shadow, a shadow that I couldn’t bear to see. I didn’t know how to acknowledge the presence of this shadow. It was uncomfortable, somehow inappropriate, like acknowledging a rape in the middle of a children’s party. So I just held her and told her that I loved her.
One day, I cried in family therapy, deep, wretched sobs. The therapist asked me what was wrong, and I just shook my head. I couldn’t find the words. The therapist asked if it was something that I wanted to share with my sister. I managed a nod. "Look her in the face and tell her why you’re crying," he said. I looked up at my sister, her face stony, her little foot tapping a frantic beat. "If you die, it is going to kill me, it is going to destroy my life and I am terrified," I managed to gasp, looking down at the floor. I looked up and we were all in that moment together. Me, my strong, determined Mum, my newly remarried Dad, my helpless teenage brother, my emotionally detached sister, we were all there sobbing together, united by the exact same fear.
My sister didn’t stop trying to kill herself once she was discharged from the psychiatric unit. One night she left home and walked up to Hornsey Lane Bridge, known as Suicide Bridge to the locals, and the tortured people who find themselves drawn there from miles around. She climbed over the edge and sat on a ledge, staring down at the cars rushing away, just a death’s-distance beneath her. Someone saw her, deep in this contemplative moment between a painful tomorrow and a peaceful no more. They called the police and she was talked down. Soon after, she tried to hang herself, with an electrical cord wrapped around her ceiling light fixture. Something broke and she stayed intact. But the warning was stark; it was only a matter of time.
My sister’s desire to die never explicitly ended, there was no moment, no breakthrough, no full stop. But the attempts petered off, waning in frequency and severity. I now live thousands of miles from my sister, but I think of her so often that it’s like she is with me all the time. I have a bank vault bursting with good memories of her, and when she’s not close, I have savings to dip into.
But I wonder, if she had died -- that first, second, third, fourth time that she tried to -- how long would my reserves last? How long until I looked into my store of memories and realized that it was empty, that she was gone and there was no more of her left? Nothing breaks my heart more than that thought. Honestly, nothing.
Within families, or decade-spanning friendships and relationships, you get to know so many stages of a person, superimposed onto one another in imperceptible graduations, yet all so distinct in retrospect. When someone I love dies, it is their most recent incarnation that remains with me. Today, I could have just the image of my 15-year-old sister to hold on to, sitting across from me in therapy, her foot shaking, my worst fears about to come true.
I may have never known the engaged first-year college student, overwhelmed by the reading but energized by the thoughts. Or the love-struck 20-year-old, in desperate need of lengthy conversation and carefully crafted advice. Or the bossy full time worker, complaining about timesheets and coworkers and how much she gets taxed. Or the little sister that is stronger than me, sticking up for me, and stroking my hair as I cry. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to meet all these evolutions of her. And I am happier still that I have an opinionated 23-year-old woman, full of long-winded stories and disgusting jokes, coming to visit me next month.