I am eight years old which makes my sister three or four. We are not at our own home and are not accustomed to this Sunday morning frenzy.
People and things are everywhere in this house that was hodge-podged out of a double-wide trailer. At some point rooms were added here and there and people seem to sleep in every nook and cranny. The hallways are covered in clothing and toys and books and all the things that people need to exist.
In this two bathroom house there are fourteen people trying to get ready for mass.
My sister is struggling. She doesn’t move quickly. She rattles easily. She’s overwhelmed by the noise and the excitement and the colors and the itchiness of her tights. She’s agitated and upset. I am called to help.
But I am eight years old. This is my first sibling. I have no experience, nothing to equip me for this moment. I feel the pressure to be ready and to appear composed. And so I am frustrated and angry. Why can’t she just behave? Why is this MY problem?
I rip off her nightgown and try to shove her dress over her head. She is shrieking, turning red, and sweating with the effort to resist. I attempt to restrain her by straddling her. Grabbing her legs, I pull her tights over one flailing foot. She is straining with resistance.
I grit my teeth, embarrassed that I can’t reason with her. I am conscious that I am being watched. I feel my own face turning hot with exertion and humiliation. Both of our breathing becomes shallow.
And then suddenly I stop, exhausted. I lean back on the worn linoleum, really seeing her for the first time. She is spent. Her body shakes as she screams, goes quiet in that weird way that kids do before catching her breath, and then continues her tantrum. Tears stream down her face. Her short blonde hair is a mess of sweaty tangles.
She is so small, standing there with her dress over her head, one leg of her tights pulled onto her foot, the other flopped behind her. Every rib is outlined in her chest and I watch the thin membrane of stretched skin move in and out as she inhales and exhales. I look at her looking at me. Something creeps up inside of me – a sort of shame stew made from regret, frustration, sadness, and fear. The moment is frozen.
The first snow came today. First the ground was bare and then there was rain. By the time noon arrived, it was snowing big, white flakes.
Downstairs at the Mental Health Unit, the white flakes clung to the outside of my sister’s window. Sitting next to her on the bed, I acted as a sounding board for her words. On the window, snowflakes landed, filling in the spots where outside light could still get in, like stars abruptly being extinguished. Soon we would be entombed.
76 days, 20 hours, 23 minutes. She’s missed the last weekend of summer. All of fall. Labor Day, my birthday, Halloween, Election Day, Veteran’s Day…my mother’s birthday and Thanksgiving too will come and go.
Numerous medications. Multiple Doctors. Nurses Kristina, Ben, April, Alexis, Abby, Kathy, Paul, Jim, Jenny, Jody. Countless aides.
Today I carefully applied lotion to her cracked, bleeding hands. I braided her hair – long after more than two months without a haircut. She complained of being cold so I covered her with a blanket and found some clean socks. Reaching for her foot, I flashed to that moment, in that bathroom, decades ago when I fought to get her dressed. And then I tenderly held her adult foot in my hand, making a meditation out of pulling on her green hospital socks, willing her peace and ease.