My sister Marie died five years ago today. For two short months in the fall of 2003 my 45 year old sister fought back against an atypically agressive multiple myeloma that ravaged her bone marrow, while radiation and chemo left her bloated like Jerry Lewis on his steroid medication (her words). In New Hampshire I waited helpess for the dispatches from Maryland. “It’s treatable” became “this is bad” became “come now” became ” you didn’t get here in time, I’m sorry. She’s gone.” I hadn’t seen her for two years before her death. Unable to be with her when she died it was as if my sister had just vanished from the planet leaving behind all things uniquely Marie — her tangled jewelery box, her hordes of bodice-ripper romances, her husband, her oversized sweaters, her three sons, her antiques, her dogs, and her treasured black and white photo of her and my brother Patrick as children. This last item was taken during what my sister called the “good years” before I came along.
In 1966 my family was the typical sixties family — mom, dad, 10 year old boy, 8 year old girl – -then bam! Mom gets pregnant at 40 (dad was 50) and along comes the baby and in one fell swoop dethrones the aforementioned 8 year old girl as youngest and only girl. My sister never got over the sheer indignity of it all. Or so she said. But I knew that beneath the digs and the comments was a sister who would be my champion until the day she died. Eight years my senior, Marie was old enough to act as surrogate mother while also young enough to play endless days of Barbies with me. In my teens she taught me about makeup and how to study for finals, about tampons and Cosmopolitan magazine, about footnotes and white russians. She counseled me on birth control and what to tell and not tell our mother. Her life to me was endlessly glamorous. As a pudgy, awkward 12 year old wiith braces I looked up on her 20 year old college life as the stuff dreams were made of. Endless streams of suitors, glamorous nights at the campus disco (this was 1978 after all!) perfect nails, violet eyes that would put Liz Taylor to shame, and the most finely honed flirting rarely seen before or since. She took me to the touring Broadway shows in Boston and on weekend trips to the mountains of New Hampshire, bar hopping in Portland, and on windy drives up the Maine coast. Never content with the way a room looked she compulsively rearranged furniture. I’d come home from school to find my room completely different from how I’d left it in the morning. When I was in college myself, blue and homesick she would appear unannounced at my Holy Cross dorm room door (2 1/2 hours from our home in Maine) and take me to lunch. She sent me letters written in her ultra feminie curly writing (where every “i” was dotted with a round ‘o’ of course) complaining about our parents, or called me to talk about what was happening to Luke and Laura these days. We’d make endless trays of nachos and drink gallons of wine and talk about how our mother liked our brother best of all and how unfair that was.
As we grew into women with husbands and families and trials and secrets and burdens and hurts of our own we dirfted at times. Always able to trigger each others temper we were often barely even able to be in the same room with one another. But come a crisis and that first phone call would come “Marie I did something wrong, I’m confused, what should I do?” “Katie, I’m scared, I dont’ think I can stay married any more, what should I do?” I remember the last such call, two weeks before she died. “Marie, I need you to know I”m gay. I need you to know this. I need you to understand” As usual, she was one step ahead of me. “Honey, I’ve known that for years, I’ve just been waiting for you to know it”.
Marie was a woman who wanted — status, titles, awards, prestige. But in her 40s she finally shed all that and found her happiness on Maryland’s Eastern shore, with a new husband who treasured her and the sons she adored. No longer wanting wanting wanting, and surrounded by her antiques and her friends she carved out a life of joy far away from the cold granite of New Hampshire and the rocky coast of Maine that had let her down. But New England would always be home. Frustrated by being sick and so far away from me during my own divorce she told a friend the day before she died “I’m going to go home. I’m going to go home to help Katie. I’m going home to her.”
I carry Marie with me every day. In her old fleece sweatshirt I sleep in, the bracelet I wear, the photo I touch each morning. She is my sister. And She is gone. But she is also home. With me.