My sister, Kathy, died one year ago. She was 3.5 years younger than I and died of ovarian cancer, for which our mother was successfully treated at the same age. Kathy died 3.5 years after her diagnosis, after a—to me, predictably—miserably unsuccessful course of treatment. I last saw her in June 2019, when I visited her and her husband in their rambling Victorian home, situated on a beautiful, park-like property in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although bald and less energetic than usual, we had a lovely time, chattering incessantly and long into the evening. After that, she, as usual, responded to my periodic e-mails with newsy missives of her treatments and activities and the doings of her daughter, an uncommunicative—but certainly not sullen—loner, cut from the same cloth as her father.
We rarely spoke on the phone—I gave that up years ago. It, like all (or most) of our communication since her marriage in 1986, occurred only on my initiative. When I sent e-mails, she cheerfully responded as if all were well, sending news of her projects (she was a bookbinder) and gigs (she played bass in a local girl band, after learning the instrument from my last college boyfriend). When we were together, an event that occurred only when I visited—she never once visited me after getting married—we always had a delightful time. We saw eye-to-eye on most things, liked the same kinds of music and activities, honored the same family traditions, and basically had fun together. My father always said, “When we’re gone, all you’ll have is each other.” She had me, but I never really had her.
I invited her and her family to visit me many, many times—at home in New York, Cleveland, Purgatory, Sweden, Germany. Wherever I was, they were always welcome for as long as they liked. They were family! But they never came. Once, she did stay in my house in Purgatory for two-weeks during my absence while her daughter took a ballet course; clearly my presence played no role in her schlepping to Purgatory, of all places.
Even when I visited, it was difficult to feel welcome. One Christmas (I stopped spending it with them when our mother died—the event was then principally about a Christmas Eve dinner with husband’s cousins), after waking in a freezing cold bed barely able to extricate myself from the numerous, heavy layers of camel-hair blankets, I noticed my back was red and abraded. The bed was gritty! When I descended the back stairs to the kitchen to help Kathy with breakfast and shared this information, she paused and then said matter-of-factly: “Oh, Ellen and her boyfriend visited in August and spent time at the beach. Maybe I forgot to change the sheets.” Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and I share your sentiments! While this may well have been the case, as it turned out, the ‘sand’ came from the pillows—the same disintegrating foam ones that had been in our grandparents’ guest bedroom in the 1960s. At the time, I thought, T.J. Maxx is a 10-minute drive. Couldn’t they have sprung even $6 for new synthetic pillows, if providing down ones seemed unreasonably extravagant? Kathy neither apologized nor offered to replace the pillows. In the succeeding nights, I used my wadded-up down jacket. For years, I thought of gifting them with pillows at Christmas, but never did.
Another time, I came for a job interview. I thought: How wonderful it would be to live in Worcester. Not only would I be able to spend more time with Kathy, but I’d be a lot nearer the people, nature, and culture that I enjoy. Despite their home having many rooms, the place I was offered to sleep in was the TV room. I had my choice of sleeping on a shoulder-width, aluminum-and-canvas army cot or the sofa. I’ve slept on many sofas, but this one came, l think, like the pillows, from our grandparents’ 1960s basement. It was lumpy, its cushions lacking the strength to remain parallel to the floor. I found myself rolling toward the back. And, apparently, the pillow incident from fifteen years earlier hadn’t prompted her to purchase guest pillows. I again stuffed my down jacket into a pillowcase and shivered under the oppressive weight of camel-hair blankets. I wished, too late, that I’d taken the prospective employer’s offer of a hotel.
When I was heading out of the country for two years, I envisioned a road trip from Purgatory to the East Coast, visiting friends along the way and then leaving my car in the care of my sister. After all, they had a barn, a circular drive, and a parking area. When I asked, she replied, understandably, that she’d have to consult her husband. He, however, didn’t feel they had sufficient space, and refused my request. I mean, if a friend, not to say family, made that request of me, I’d figure out a solution, appreciating their trusting me with their car. More than that, I’d delight in the opportunity to spend time with them pre-departure and to be the first to welcome them back to the U.S. For family, there wouldn’t be a question of my honoring their request.
A few years later, when I had given up staying with my sister in the wintertime, unable to tolerate the inhospitably frosty temperatures of her home, my daughter and I were driving through enroute to spend Thanksgiving with our cousins in Montpelier. I suggested that we have lunch together. Kathy, without any husband-consulting this time, responded that she planned to visit a friend in the hospital at that time and was unable to meet. It made me and my daughter sad, since it sent a clear signal of our unimportance. That would have been the last time my daughter would have seen her aunt and only cousin.
Over the decades, friends have suggested confronting Kathy about this unusual and inhospitable behavior, but I never could figure out what to say. Her behavior seemed so inexplicably and evidently unwelcoming. There was never any falling out, argument, disagreement, or other event that would precipitate such treatment. The settling of our parents’ estate, often a contentious sibling event, proceeded amicably.
Until her marriage, we had a great and mutual relationship. She, four years behind me in school, visited me often at college. I and my friends were so hospitable that she chose this little known and short-lived college (Kirkland) over a prestigious Seven Sisters school, Mount Holyoke. My guy friends made her feel special: chatting, dancing, playing pool with her, teaching her to play bass guitar. After my first year of grad school, Kathy joined me at the end of my language course in Vienna, and we had a wonderful three-week odyssey in German-speaking Europe. We stayed at the Hotel Krafft, situated directly on the Rhine in Basel, owned by childhood friends of her future and very charming father-in-law. I assumed, mistakenly, that we’d have many such adventures and moments of happy togetherness. With or without partners and children. But I was wrong.
I have very few regrets. Undoubtedly the biggest one is the lack of a meaningful adult relationship with my sister, whom I bathed in infancy because our mother had a water-averse skin condition. The summer she turned three and spent two months in traction in the hospital with a broken leg (it happened as she leaned forward to kiss our older friend while seated in a grocery store shopping cart), I spent every afternoon in the parking lot sweltering in the car while our mother visited her; I was too young to be allowed inside. I included her in my activities whenever possible, and she seemed to enjoy hanging out with the older kids.
The final disappointment was Kathy’s not seeking me out as she lay dying. I received that news in an e-mail from her husband (I was in Germany at the time). The news came as both a disappointment and a release. While I’d never understand for sure the lack of a meaningful relationship with her over the past forty years, I’d also never have to spend time wondering what I might do to fix it (although I have). In a way, her passing liberated us both. I keep a photo of us on my piano, a reminder of a time full of promise for the future, one where I see my love for her evident in the way she’s nestled in my protective arms. Big sisters remain big sisters.