My parents met my boyfriend for the first time at my sister Michelle’s funeral. It was a standing-room-only affair with more than 300 people crammed into every inch of our stately Catholic church. After the painful blur of the service passed, I saw flashes of his black suit, and black hair as he dashed through the crowd handing out bright orange stickers to people to put in the window of the car for the funeral procession. He had never met Michelle.
I grew up in a strict right-wing Catholic household on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia, the oldest of seven children. My dad was a CEO ad exec and former semi-pro baseball player. My mother was a pretty blue-eyed blond who stayed at home to raise her brood. Michelle was one of two sets of twins among my siblings. Her identical twin was spared the mental illness gene that afflicted Michelle from an early age.
I met my boyfriend when I moved to New York City at 27 to jumpstart a career in PR. I’d gone to his office to demand a review of my client’s product. I was immediately struck by his good looks as he made his way down an enormous flight of stairs to the lobby in a nicely pressed suit. At 25, he possessed a cool nerd sensibility with hip glasses, the only son of a black mother and a Jewish father.
He whirled me around the city, making dates in small French out-of-the-way restaurants, picking me up in cabs, holding my hand as we walked around exploring. With him, I felt cool, attractive, and lucky to be with an Ivy League-educated man who knew all the hot spots. I felt flattered to be pursued by someone I was so attracted to. He was like me, obsessed with sports. Football was our shared religion -- we spent hours dissecting games, coaches, Vegas lines, and traveled to see many Giants and Eagles games.
I was driving to the Hamptons on Memorial Weekend when I got a call saying there had been an accident. My mother had found my 30-year-old sister Michelle lifeless in her bed in Maryland that morning. It was no accident. Michelle started her clunker of a car in the two-car garage, propped the door open that led to her adjacent bedroom, and, sealed the door that led to the hallway of the house with white bath towels. She took sleeping pills, lay down in the bed and never woke up. On the nightstand, laid her old glasses on top of a three-page letter and a pile of yellow sticky notes, detailing chores she hadn’t finished, like repainting the kitchen.
Michelle had been living at my parents second home on the Chesapeake Bay for about a year after she decided she no longer wanted to be under their supervision or take the Lithium her latest doctor had prescribed. Two inches shorter than me at 5’4, and considerably thinner, Michelle had light brown hair, pale lightly freckled skin, and translucent blue eyes hidden behind coke bottle glasses until she decided she wanted turquoise colored contact lenses during one of her manic periods.
We were close in age, yet I struggled to feel emotionally close to my sister. We got along well when she was functioning, yet I felt helpless and frustrated when she was unable to communicate. As my family struggled to cope with her mood swings over the years, my father coached us to picture her in a wheelchair, as a way to comprehend her erratic behavior caused by her mental handicap.
There were touching moments we shared. Michelle surprised me when she mailed a beautiful handwritten note to say how excited she was after I started dating my boyfriend, happy I had finally found love.
Before her suicide, I hadn’t seen her for six months. I had plans to visit her the weekend before but the forecast called for rain. I didn’t feel like driving four hours to Maryland in that weather. During the previous Christmas holiday, my parents gathered us in her room to plead with Michelle to go back into treatment. She was deteriorating, unable to keep her part-time job at a local vitamin store. She rarely left the house. After two decades of doctor shopping, prescription switching and extensive research on bipolar disorder and schizophrenic illness cures, my parents were desperate. In an intervention of sorts, we each took turns begging her to move home. Michelle sat on her precisely made bed, her eyes the only pair dry.
After Michelle’s funeral, my boyfriend took off work for a week to stay with me in my old bedroom, my religious parents too grief-stricken to notice. At night, he held me and stroked my hair when I couldn’t breathe from weeping. When I took a three-month leave of absence from work to remain with my family in Philly, he took care of everything in Manhattan. He paid the bills and sent my mail to me with funny little notes about the latest gossip on Mayor Bloomberg and witty recaps of recent Mets baseball games. He’d ring me late at night when I couldn’t sleep, singing songs he made up about funny subjects. I felt grateful but was unable to snap out of my crying jags.
After a few months, I was planning to return to New York when my boyfriend called to tell me he was “sorry but he couldn’t deal with my grief anymore.” He had already moved his stuff out of our Upper East Side apartment. I hung up without responding, sinking into a fetal position, my hands clutched around my cell. We didn’t speak for four years.
Then, on a Sunday morning in October, I answered my phone from a 917 number I didn’t recognize. It was my ex. He had moved to Brooklyn, and said he wanted to apologize in person. He explained, as I sat in silence, that he understood now how much he hurt me, having just gone through a bad breakup himself. He asked if I would go watch the Eagles/Giants game with him, as if nothing bad had transpired between us.
For a long time, I had dreamed he would call me and say he had made a mistake and that he was sorry. After a long pause and a deep breath, I told him I didn’t need him to apologize to me so he could feel better. I slowly hung up without waiting for a response, quickly labeling his number ‘Do Not Answer Ever.’
I sat dazed on my couch, looking at the gray skyline of the East River from my living room in midtown Manhattan. After Michelle died, I had a hard time controlling my anger. I snapped at people on the subway and in my office when they spoke too loudly, causing me to feel anxious and panicky. I had to start working from home, where I sat on my couch in pajamas all day, unable to leave my apartment. My self-esteem felt gutted. I wanted constant attention and empathy. My neediness caused some friends to flee.
I recalled the trip my boyfriend and I had taken to the Jersey Shore with three of my siblings a few weeks after Michelle’s death. Nearly every day I picked a fight with him. When he didn’t spend every moment glued to me and acting sympathetic, I called him selfish.
One afternoon, instead of coming back to the house with me to get ready for dinner, he wanted to stay on the beach and relax. Later that night, I accused him of not caring enough. I watched him hang his head, cover his eyes with his hands and shoulders slump. I dimly wondered why I was hurting him. Feeling guilty I couldn’t save Michelle, I was trying to sabotage the only intimacy I’d ever known.
Through many counseling sessions, I realized my intense mourning had scared and alienated my boyfriend. He was not a bad person, just young and unable to navigate my intense mood swings, which had nothing to do with him. After his call, I kept waiting for the black hole of despair to swallow me up again. But it never came. I understood how my actions affected our relationship. He had taken time off work to be with me, yet I felt unable to stop attacking him. I used my anger as a blockade to protect myself from further damage, instead of finding a healthy way to communicate what I needed.
Even though I couldn’t save my sister or my relationship, I don't have to punish myself forever. Michelle lives on in my heart and in my memory, where she remains innocent, smiling, and forever 30. I forgave my boyfriend and Michelle for leaving me. I forgave myself, too.