Today would have been my sister’s sixty-third birthday.
She used to be a stranger to me, but now I see her everyday. Her ashes are in a small box that sits on a shelf behind me. To many, that may seem macabre. But I take comfort in knowing that finally, at last and for always, she is in a safe place that’s warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and blessedly free from pain or fear.
She was like me, but not like me.
We shared many things, including a bedroom that was not much larger than a shoebox. We had the same eye color, the same hair color, the same quirky and irreverent sense of humor—and the same love for snow, sauerkraut, and songs by Fontella Bass. I lived the first ten years of my life within arm’s reach of her…literally. But still, in all the ways that really should have mattered, I didn’t know her at all—and I could never really reach her.
That’s because, in my family, you didn’t talk about the things that happened after the lights went out, and you retreated to your dark silo beneath a shroud of silence. Maybe if we had been able to give voice to the other things we shared—the fears, the terrors, and the vulnerabilities—she would have found a way out of her bleak, narrow world, where things had to happen to someone else to be bearable.
But that never came to pass. And not because we didn’t choose it—but because it wasn’t a possibility for us. It wasn’t a possibility in the same ways it’s not a possibility for my cat, Max, to drive a car (although I’m sure he thinks he could give Toonces a run for his money).
Dashiell Hammett is purported to have told the great playwright, Lillian Hellmann, that it was time for her to stop mourning the death of her beloved friend, Julia.
“She was and isn’t,” he said. “That’s it.”
My sister was and isn’t. But that’s not it. And, although she now is free from her prison of fear and delusion, it won’t ever be “it.” Not as long as we all remember her.
Today, I remember.
And I still miss you, Sheila.
February 1, 1950—July 23, 2011