my sister’s voice

lucy coma typeface

You never really lose the people you love. When my sister Lucy killed herself in a psych-med overdose at the age of 31 in 1992, I feared forgetting her. I needn’t have worried. She was unforgettable, the most complete human being I’ve ever known: her kindness matched her brilliance matched her humor. She was my big sister. I was the “twerp,” her kid sister Aiminolde, the less-gifted one, the klutzier one, the one always struggling to find her place in that family of geniuses. She understood my many foibles, and she never treated me with anything but enveloping compassion and hilarious wit. Despite her intellect, which whizzed her through tests and off to Harvard, I never felt stupid around her. I only felt loved.

I knew I would never stop missing Lucy or sensing her near me. I knew I would always know her and call her my sister. But I also knew I had limits, that I couldn’t bring myself to pore over all the sheafs of notes she’d left behind detailing years and years of depression, hallucinations, suicidality, hospitalizations (13 or 14), medications (dozens) and misdiagnoses (countless) that led, finally, to the correct one: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, a complex neurological disorder compounded by severe psychological fallout.

Lucy was always writing — hypergraphia often goes hand-in-hand with TLE — and churned out poetry, timelines, essays and meticulous accounts of her life and illness. I was aware she’d been working on an autobiography when she died, but I had no urge to track it down and read that or anything else she’d written. The thought of diving headfirst into her pain terrified me as much as the reality of living without her. Someday, maybe, I’d be strong enough and removed enough to go there. Just not yet. Not when my own pain was fresh.

Twenty-three years later, I felt ready. Why did it take me so long? Grief is strange. My own became stranger when I lost my father two months after losing Lucy, when I lost my mother two years after that. Then life took over; there were babies to raise, jobs to do, my own books to write. Near the end of that stretch I lost my husband, my second mother and my best friend, and each loss dredged up the pain of old ones.

My sister was present in these cyclical bouts of grieving, just as she was present in every moment of joy after her death: the births of my children were attended by their Aunt Lucy, whose love resides in my heart and warms theirs, too. They know her through me. They know my parents through me, the ad hoc preserver and channeler of memory. That’s what the Albany Med chaplain promised me, that day when Mama lay dying and I sat in the chapel weeping.

I wrote my first memoir for just that reason.  Still, even as I wrote it, I could not bring myself to dig deep into Lucy’s papers. I got as far as a list of her medications and a description of her seizure-induced hallucinations, and that was it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I started reorganizing the attic storage space, and I found a big cardboard box of Lucy-centric materials. Since then I’ve been poking through it, gingerly at first, more boldly as I dipped in and read and found myself crying, yes, but also grateful to reconnect with this beautiful, tortured, impossibly good creature that I was blessed to call my sister.

The first major piece of writing that startled and moved me was a handwritten autobiography that she produced during one of her numerous, unsuccessful stays at McLean, the leafy and collegiate-looking psych hospital outside Boston. The second discovery, which I happened across just yesterday, is the first few typewritten chapters of her book. She opens with a poem (“. . . this twisted life / why has it been given to me”) and then moves on to describe, with breathtaking honesty and insight, her emergence from a coma after her first suicide attempt in 1990:

I don’t remember going into it; the last thing I remember is Mama screaming to the woman, “No, she’s blacking out already; don’t you see it’s too late for her to vomit?”

I had never read this before. On delving further into Chapter 1, I learned other things that Lucy and Mama had never told me: that she exhibited little neural activity; that the doctors predicted she’d be brain-dead; that she announced mid-coma, “I have asthma” and “I have to pee”; that she’d forgotten she’d tried to kill herself but felt, drifting in and out of nightmares, that she had made a wrong choice.

I cried and read and cried and read and cried and cried and cried. Of course I wondered, as I read, whether Lucy felt this same, floating regret in her last moments in a fetal position two years later. Of course I wondered, as I always do, whether my husband had split-second flashes of remorse on his descent from a roof in 2011. I know my father regretted his suicide attempt in 1974; I found evidence of that in another attic find, though I haven’t found a firsthand account of his own coma.

But mainly, I read Lucy’s narrative with relief, rejoicing to hear again the quirky, radiant soprano that always spoke so gracefully of wanting to live while wanting to die. No one tried harder to make it through this mortal life. She documented that struggle with a transparency, a crystalline brightness, that makes me love and miss her even more.lucy

It’s all so Lucy. She’s all so there. She’s doing what she always did, saying truths that I need to hear, however belatedly, with uncompromising candor and love. And patience: She waited all this time to tell me. For more than two decades, her voice sat mute in a box in my attic, biding time while that fumbling twerp of a sister finally got around to listening.

I’m going to do something with this. I have no idea what. I have no idea where the other chapters are, or if there even are others; probably there were, at one point, but they’re long gone now thanks to my own negligence and fear.

But I’ll keep looking. I’ll keep reading. Lucy’s voice has a story to tell, and I plan to listen, preserve and channel.

3 thoughts on “my sister’s voice

  1. “the ad hoc preserver and channeler of memory”

    What a beautiful way to describe what those of us left try to do. I have avoided reading my late sister’s journals, but I know I must eventually as I write our story. Thank you for sharing your words with us. I needed them today.

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