A Letter to My Sister, Who Would Have Been 41 Today

Sometimes I am sure of who you would be if you had lived. Sometimes I am not.
Publish date:
October 14, 2011
death, sisters, open letter, grief, brain tumor, Magnum P.I., the 1980s, M


Hi, S.:

This letter is for the you that exists in my imagination when I think of you as having stayed alive. You're 41 today -- 20 months older than me, as ever -- and I can imagine you based on my memories and the photographs. Some of the picture have little bits of preadolescent scrawl around them. Which could be mine or yours. I don't know.

Sometimes I am sure of who you would be if you had lived. Sometimes I am not.

I went through life without you after I was nine, the same age my kid is now. (By the way, I wish Imaginary You wouldn't spoil him so much.) Not that I blame you for how things went -- obviously I blame the brain tumor you had -- but I kind of got left hanging in 1981, just saying. I was nine and I was already freaking out because the cliffhanger season finale of Magnum, P.I. had just ended, the one where Higgins gets shot. And then you left to go to the hospital, and you didn't come back. Unlike Higgins, as it turned out.

I apologize for my inappropriately deep focus on the wrong part of that evening. We didn't realize -- I didn't realize, since Mom and Dad didn't tell me -- how deep the shit was with your nausea and loss of equilibrium. I thought you had the flu and were puking, and I was providing you with valuable updates on our shared interest. It was more than that. I didn't realize until later when I was told.

As I grew up, I liked to imagine you having the experiences I was having. What, I'd ask myself, would S. do -- at school, with friends, in a relationship, professionally? You were a beacon in a mirage. You were girlier than I, so I imagine you a bit like this so-called “Carrie” I hear about sometimes. I didn't necessarily follow the advice I imagined you giving me, but I always considered it with a smile on my face. I figured you might live in Dallas and drive a Miata. I figured you might wear earrings with every outfit.

(I don't wear them, normally, but I did put them on today, thinking of you)

Maybe I'm all wet, though. Maybe you're an evangelical missionary turned homeschool parent or a city councilperson or a glass artist who lives on a beach. But I have to pick a scenario and narrow it down to feel that I've gained any sort of access to you, so I populate your imaginary life with details borrowed from sitcoms and chick lit, the places in popular culture where sisterhood lives and I can access it easily. And Nicole Holofcener movies, although she's in a more awesome class of truthfulness if you ask me.

Sometimes I imagine you like Dr. O'Hara (Eve Best) from “Nurse Jackie.” (Warning: sudden audio.) Not the English part or the doctor part, but the briskness and the heels and maybe the clubbing, perhaps.

I know this is projection on my part. I want a guide through the mysteries of life—a cooler, calmer, and more experienced girl who's Been There and Done That but knows me and sees me and shares common ground with me. She can tell me how do nail art. She can tell me how to not get hurt, not get my heart broken. She can tell me which teachers are mean and where to sit in the cafeteria. She's not exactly like me, but the distance between us is perfect for comparison and contrast.

I wanted all this so badly that I held onto it after you were gone. I have found other paths toward sisterhood -- my friends, communities on and off line, the wisdom of women's cultures -- but I still want you, the specific you that had just entered sixth grade and went out for cheerleading and made fun of me in your diary (which I found) for wearing red socks.

(By the way, I forgive you. I'm the unfashionable sister, and I've never understood what to do with socks besides literally put them on my feet and go, so I've remained in our warm native climate, where I rarely need them.)

If you had come home, maybe we would have grown together and apart and together again. Maybe we would have kept each other sane and drove each other crazy at the same time.

I don't know if you've kept up with Mom and Dad (I'm guessing you'd do that), but they're both good at the moment: She's totally in remission and his kidney function is good and they even got two inches of rain, though Dad said it came too late and wasn't much encouraged by it.

Mom and I do this weird thing where each of us insists that the other has it worse in terms of grief.

Honestly, I don't know. I guess it's not a contest. Maybe losing a child and losing a sibling are just two different worlds. Now that I have a child of my own, losing him is the worst thing I can imagine. On the other hand, whenever I've told a therapist about you for the first time, she's started scribbling furiously.

Having a death in the family at a young age is a thing. I guess having a death in the family at any age is a thing. You realize that anyone can die at any time, just like Joe Bob Briggs says. I was terrified that I'd die before my 12th birthday, like you did, but I didn't. I'm 39 now. It's totally wack. Why did I live and you die? There's no reason for it whatsoever.

I used to try to pay my good fortune forward by never, ever, whatsoever troubling people if I could possibly help it, but that didn't really last past puberty. (Sorry.) I'm still a priss and a nerd but now I'm a broken-down (but not broken!) single mom and I grit my teeth through every day, but goddamn it, I'm still here and I wish you were, too.

I get up every morning and try to live in a way that would make you proud. Or at least in a way that would leave you partially sympathetic to your weird little sister in red socks.

I miss you so, so much.