Once I had a sister. We were born 21 months apart. Momma sewed matching dresses for us and we shared a room until middle school. We had hokey flannel nightgowns and, during our Little House on the Prairie throwback days, even wore little matching nightcaps to bed. I was pudgy and dimply-kneed while she was gangly and sharp-boned. We lived on a dead-end street in a small town, with parents who divorced – 70’s style – and then we spent weekends in the country on our father’s farm. My sister would have been 50 today, and I can’t picture what she would look like.
In our awkward, pre-teen years, she would complain that her back was crooked, her eyes didn’t work, and her brain wasn’t good enough. And it was true that she had scoliosis and had to wear a back brace that I helped fasten her into each morning for several years. She wore thick glasses from a fairly young age. Her elementary school teachers never said nice things about her, and her grades were low and often failing. She was jealous of me from early in our school years because schoolwork, teacher approval, and friendships came easily for me, but never for her.
In our teens, she became more depressed and reclusive in her room while I got a job and discovered boys and punk rock. And then the voices began in her head and she was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, and our lives changed forever. During my teen years, we spent Christmases on psychiatric wards or, if allowed to check her out for the holidays, watched her for uncontrolled shaking and night wandering caused by the heavy medication.
My sister never graduated high school. She tried to go a few times, with outcomes too horrific to recount. Each attempt ended in another hospitalization. When our family’s insurance ran out, she was transferred to the state psychiatric hospital where she contracted pneumonia, was refused medical care or release to our care, and died just before her 21st birthday.
If she had lived the past 29 years, would she have been miserable every day? Would she have improved and enjoyed watching my children grow up? Would she have had children of her own, who I would have watched grow up? What would she look like? What would it be like to have a sister, someone who shared my whole life experience, and could laugh with me about those goofy nightcaps?