Small bodies stared out a car window, helpless, listening to the drone of a voice, pitiless, and naïve, a horrible combination. Houses never furnished. Refrigerators full of liquor and doggie bags, steak slices, and baked Alaska, toddlers hidden behind beige drapes peeing on white carpet. Babies crying. Shit stains and Martini olives. Poodle yelps. Flash of ocean daylight. And remorse.
My Moody Sister died in a drug-induced coma. Dark hair matted with vomit. Fell asleep on a double bed in a Tulsa motel room beside her abusive boyfriend, and never woke up.
I jumped out of sleep to answer the phone.
“I’m calling to let you know,” my paternal aunt said. “Didn’t want you to hear it from none of them.”
Receiver to chest, I crouched down. Balanced on my heels, and rocked.
“Cancer,” my aunt said. “Had to have been. Just look at her obituary picture. Looks like it to me, like she died of cancer.”
I knew that wasn’t true. Got off the phone quick as I could and searched online for my sister’s obituary, head full of unanswerable questions. When did the drugs and drinking start? Was it because we had no real home? Why did she stay in Mama’s dark orbit so long past youth? Was it the only life she knew, or the only life she could imagine? Frantic and doubting, I searched until there she was in glowing bits, my Moody Sister.
Pixilated otherworldly eyes smiled above a brief paragraph.
She left behind three children, at least eight half siblings and survived by both her parents, was buried in an Ozark cemetery facing old Route 66. Her three children went to live with her last husband. Their names in her obituary were long jingly strings of karmic payback and wishful thinking: combinations of our Mama’s real first name alongside my sister’s absent father’s surname.
She didn’t meet her biological father until she was a grown woman.
Come from a childhood with no fixed address.
Identity, a combination of what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, flawed mosaic of who you are, and who others think you are. Not who you are inherently, but also who and where you came from, and what you were able to make of yourself.
She was Mama’s favorite child and most constant companion, always riding beside her in the front seat of the car as we traveled from town to town. Disregarding its isolation, she accepted the position of best loved, her dark head barely visible to the other kids crammed together in the backseat. When left behind with the rest of us she became inconsolable, running after the car, plopping herself on the sidewalk as Mama sped off. Sat there, cross-legged, head thrown back, mouth wide open and skyward, wailing with all her need, outdoors and out loud, for her Mama to come back home. My peaceful respite, lolling alone on the motel carpet unobserved with a new Nancy Drew, was her full-bodied pain.
The daughter in the front seat never learned to be alone; disconnection terrified her.
I ran away from all my family, especially my Moody Sister, putting real distance between us, and seldom looking back. Her unhappiness was of another order altogether from mine: unquenchable, indulgent, and seductively unhealthy, like too much syrup on an already too sweet dessert.
The last time I saw her, I drew her portrait. Pencils sharpened, I layered colored lines on a flat green page, porous and textured. Watched her bow her head slightly to the left, as she had done so often in our earliest days together, and recorded what I saw and what I knew to be true. Made art of our brutal detachment.
Long black bangs curled across a forehead into downcast blue eyes.
A heart-shaped face held sharp lips painted red.
Absence charged by a presence, deceptive and confounding. Continue Reading…