This seems to be my week for uploading old essays. This one I wrote in 1993, just after my sister Rebecca died.
My family and I have come a long way in our grief since then, but how can any of this ever go away? The pain and grief are processed, morphed, mitigated, but still there, always.
What has been really wonderful for me in the past few months is that I'm writing something new, and I gave the main character the name Rebecca. I know Rebecca would like Rebecca, would like the story, would ask for more.
Someone I Don't Know
--So it is . . . that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. --Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.
This is the story of my sister Rebecca. This is the story of me.
I loved her more than I thought I did.
I knew she was dying the day I made the sandwich for the ICU party. We had been in the waiting room for four days and eating cafeteria food for the same time, so when my husband Jesse suggested that we bring some food for all the visitors, I agreed. It seemed to be a normal thing to do--it was better than crying, and it was an act I could accomplish. So I took a whole loaf of sour dough bread, sliced it in half, and made a giant salami, ham, lettuce, tomato, cheese sandwich. We also brought drinks, chips, dip, and fruit. Jesse put everything on a table outside the waiting room, and after he made a big point of going out and eating a sandwich, people went outside to eat and drink.
Her death was like a week-and-a-half party, ending with the reception after the memorial service. Eating, drinking, and talking. More company than we've had in years, probably since my dad died.
Rebecca was a diabetic. I've come to see this disease as a scourge as bad as the worst disease except it isn't communicable and one might live longer with it. For by the time my sister died, she'd had a toe amputated, kidney problems, glaucoma, eye lens replacements, associated drug problems, and circulatory problems. In the last few months before her death, she was always tired.
I guess we always knew she would die young. But I thought forty, not twenty-six. When we used to fight, I 'd scream at her that she'd die painfully, lose all her limbs, need a kidney, and I wouldn't give her one. She'd eat doughnuts and sneer at me and call me a fat pig.
Now, of course, when it is too late, I'd give her a kidney or anything. But I never got a chance to tell her that.
My mother called me at five-thirty Wednesday morning, December 30, 1992. I heard her voice and said, "No. What?" She told me that Rebecca was very sick and probably not going to make it. I cried (I have never writhed before except maybe in labor, but I think that is what I was doing after my mother called) deeply, as much as I did when Rebecca's body died five days later.
While we were driving, my mom asked me, "What will I say now? That I have two daughters? Or should I say 'I have three daughters, but one is dead'?" I had no answer for her, and I felt my hamstrings tighten.
We drove up to Sacramento absently and fast. As we pulled into the driveway of the hospital, we saw Rebecca's husband Geoff walking along, wiping his eyes. We thought that it was already over, but it wasn't. Geoff got in the car with us, and told us how she had grown increasingly incoherent through the night; how he'd taken her blood sugar; how he'd called 911; how her heart had stopped in the ambulance; how they had resuscitated her in the emergency room; how she was in ICU now.
We went into the waiting room and a small nun in white named Mary Katherine came to talk to us. We really wanted to go in to see Rebecca, but it was a shift change, and we had to wait. But Mary Katherine got the nurses to let us in.
Rebecca was in the hospital bed, attached to many tubes and machines. And she was doing some very strange movements, which at the time made me think that she might come out of the coma. Her arms were moving, her head was turning, and her eyes were opening and closing. It was almost unbearable to watch, but I thought she was trying to break free, wake up. Later, I put my cheek next to hers; her breath smelled full of blood.
When my sister Sarah came from Maryland where she works as a pathologist at the National Institute of Health, she told me that these movements are basic reflexes (she called them de cerebrate posturing--I kept imagining a tadpole or salamander) and show up when people have suffered tremendous brain damage. She also later told me that the brains of patients who have been on respirators look like strawberry yogurt.
At Rebecca's bachelorette party, my one-size-too-small dress ripped from hem to waist. I was laughing so hard I thought I would choke or my lungs would collapse. When we left, Rebecca followed to me to keep my rear end hidden. In the parking lot, she and I fell against a car's hood as we laughed. Sarah looked at us and said to my friend Tracy, "I remember why Jessica irritates me so much."
Throughout the next four days, a steady stream of friends and relatives showed up. So many people were in the waiting room that my mom could not bear to be in there. "They are all shouting," she'd say. In a way, though, all that life kept me preoccupied. It was hard to think about death and sorrow when there were so many people to talk to. Of course, friends would walk in, and Mom and I would fall apart because of the kindness in their faces. But until Sunday, it was easy to leave my sorrow in with Rebecca. Now it is with me all the time.
My relationship with Rebecca was not idyllic. Only after the birth of my second child, Julien, did we become friends. I helped her with her wedding, which was huge and splendid, and was her matron of honor. We sent each other cards, letters, and Christmas presents. We gossiped about family, friends, and our mother. We talked about marriage and husbands. But we weren't close, and she wasn't my best friend. But, eventually, I think we would have become closer and finally healed the wounds of childhood. And that promise is what makes me very sad.
I looked at the wedding video today, and I cried at the same time I did when I was there: Rebecca walks out of the foyer into the church, and she is radiant, shining white, perfection. I also noticed that I am too busy--getting eye drops for Rebecca, fixing all problems, working on all loose ends. I'm not real at the wedding. I don't know how to act.
Once, years ago, before my dad died but about the same time I began to take over some responsibilities, I was fixing Rebecca a spaghetti dinner. She sat across from me on a stool, and I stood at the range, ladling sauce. I handed her a plate, and she began eating. Suddenly, her whole plate landed in her lap. She looked up at me, young, red-cheeked, surprise in her brown eyes, and screamed, "Get the hose." I remember hosing her off. She was wearing a green, white, and yellow shirt. The patio was watery red.
Lately, when I look in the mirror, I try to find Rebecca in my own face. None of us sisters really look alike, but I can now see Rebecca in my eyes and forehead; something about the place between eye and hairline. Sometimes I feel like Rebecca, as if she is looking out my eyes saying, yes, it's all too true. I am dead. And, suddenly, everything looks so brilliant in a slow, static, impenetrable way. Death becomes as permanent as the earth, the sky. They are there, and she is dead.
Grief shows me so well that the mind and the body are connected. When we were in the hospital together, waiting for a sign of some kind, my body felt perfect. I had energy, nothing ached, and I was not tired. It seems, upon retrospect, that I was infused with hope or consoled by the notion that her heart still pumped her blood. Now, two weeks after her death, my body feels cramped, sore. Something seems to be stabbing me in the back; I wake up in pain and nauseous. I can't get the tears out fast enough in order to elude this congestion, this backup of pain in my body.
After a trying time a few years back, I went into a depression--which is something I have been doing for years--but this time I had the added component of panic attacks. I really just call it my worry problem. Why I tell you all this is because when I first walked into Rebecca's room, I came close to panicking, and began to worry that I might pull the plugs out of all her machines. There were so many things moving and making noise in her room; so many tubes going from her body to bags. The longer we were in the room, however, the less intense these thoughts became. And when she was finally dead, I stroked her arm and thought, there is nothing I can do to you now.
As I was growing up, my father often expressed his feelings by throwing furniture around. And while I hope they did their best while raising us, what love was there wasn't enough. Rebecca, my mom often tells me, used to follow her around the house, whining, wanting attention. Sarah and I used to call her a baby, even into her teens. But I now think that Rebecca saw scarcity and went after what the rest of us decided to forgo.
Rebecca's friend Bailey brings over a picture of Rebecca from seventh grade. Walking up the stairs to the school, Rebecca looks wind-blown, tan, thin, blond, alive. I feel I am looking at someone I don't know.
The dreams have been coming all night. As I lie awake in my bed at one, two, or three in the morning, I think that I am either going crazy or dreaming someone else's dreams. Here are a few:
I am in a large warehouse full of wrecked, flattened cars that are stacked one on top of the other to form large rows. Strange green cars have pulled up to the front of each row so that I am blocked from leaving the warehouse. I see a man who is climbing the rows. I say "Hey, I can't get out of here." He looks at me, continues climbing, and says, "You should have thought about that earlier."
I am outside the warehouse--it is kind of a wrecked ship atmosphere now, and I see a large crowd watching an enormous steel elevator head for the ground. The elevator door opens and out comes a young man, escorted by several men. I look into the man's face, and he is fair, blond, blue-eyed, and friendly. I ask someone in the crowd what is going on, and I am told that this man is being executed.
I am in a desolate place--white ruins, grey trees and sky. Something has demolished the area--a bomb or a plague. I am talking to someone, saying, "We need to cut down everything, burn it, and we can live here again." But something feels evil and terrible, and as I am standing on the suddenly crumbling earth, I feel terror and begin to swim/run away from whatever is chasing me. I awake, my heart beating very fast.
I think about the dream for awhile, and then I fall asleep. The image I remember is of a pale, girl's face in my hands. And during some surge of power or time limit, I try to pull needles out of her face. But the time ends, the needles are in her face still, and she is smiling palely at me--her face luminous, gray, shining, and dead..
I wake up again. Then, as I am about to fall asleep and walk back into the deadly, evil ruins with a young long-haired man, I hear someone say "Easy." I wake up and hear my son Mitchell sneeze. I also know that I never want to go back to that place again.
I am on a couch. I look over to my left and see Geoff and Rebecca laying down and hugging. Rebecca's head is cradled on Geoff's shoulder. They are crying. I can't see their faces.
So I have been feeling dread and fear for a month now. I wake up for short moments in the night, and fear spreads through my body like sand in an hour glass. I chastise myself, the fear diminishes; but when I wake again, I have the same feelings all over again. Is this from Rebecca's death? I wonder. Or is this just myself, my fear, my worry--where does grief, sadness end and my other problems begin?
One Thanksgiving, years ago, I decided that, as a family, we should dress up for our celebratory meal. We had no relatives on the West Coast, so it was always just us five--a Barksdale/Randall outpost. I figured that we could make the meal a bit more festive and significant if we put more into it, so I asked my family to dress up. On Thanksgiving, we were all sitting in the living room, and Rebecca ran out dressed in a clown outfit. We all laughed at her painted smile and round nose.
This past Thanksgiving, we sat around the table laughingly giving "Thanks." Mitchell and Julien murmured "Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub." Rebecca held Mitchell's and Geoff's hands tightly and thanked God for her family; for her mother who loved and helped her; for her nephews; her loving husband; for her sister whom she loved very much. None of us quite knew what to do with her emotions, so we laughed and began eating.
The last time I talked to Rebecca was after her first signs of illness in December and before her birthday. I called her house because my mother was driving home from Rebecca's that evening, it was raining, and I was worried. Rebecca answered, told me Mom had just left, and asked if she could call me back because she was on the other line. I told her she didn't have to, wished her Happy Birthday, and hung up.
Both people in my immediate family born in December are dead.
After Rebecca had her toe amputated in 1991, she was given a prescription for sleeping pills. Apparently, the doctor did not know about her previous drug problem. Four years before, Rebecca's addiction to Valium was discovered. She was in Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek after her skin grafts (she had given herself third-degree burns with an Epilady Ultra--a leg shaver). While she was recuperating from the grafts, she had a psychotic reaction induced by withdrawal--they had not prescribed her any Valium during her stay. She jumped out of bed and ran down the hall shouting for my mother; she claimed a variety of friends and relatives had been in to visit her, but she wanted to see Mom. The nurses chased after her, pulling her back to her room. And though her skin grafts failed that time, we did learn about her addiction and tried to treat it. But after her toe amputation, she spent three days at home and took twenty sleeping pills. She went into a depression so deep that Geoff could not get her off the couch, and she cried for days. Finally, my mom went up to Sacramento to get her and brought her to my house. I tried to be the brave strong sister--I fed her, clothed her, talked to her. I took her to school with me, and she seemed to be coming back. But when we got home, she began to cry, to moan, to whine; my mother and I ended up putting her in a psychiatric lock up. They drove her over to Herrick Hospital in Berkeley in a police car.
When the drugs left her system, she came back to my house for two days. She told me about the young woman she met who had just discovered she was schizophrenic. One day, this woman just started to hear voices in her head. Rebecca said the woman was scared yet funny, present, and clear. Rebecca also met a history professor who had been admitted by his neighbors who found him mowing his lawn nude.
I am a detective or a very interested private citizen searching for clues to several devastating events. Cars have gone out of control, people have died, children have been kidnapped. And no one knows the reason for these events; nor do they know the culprit. Suddenly, I begin to find clues to explain these incidents. There is an invisible man running around doing the damage. We discover him one day by throwing sand toward his footprints--it sticks to his body. We also do this with snow. And I begin chasing after him for awhile, but then I think, Do I want to spend my life looking for this invisible man, anticipating his every heinous move? Or do I just ignore his presence and go on with my life? I wake up.
My body, in comparison to the way I felt one month ago in the hospital, is in agony. I feel like someone has taken a long knife and shoved it under my shoulder blade and through my breast. My arms are tingling and my chest hurts. As I write, my back aches.
I just talked to Geoff. He has had a few bad days and is very lonely. I tell him that Mitchell has set up a Rebecca "shrine" on his bulletin board--mementos and pictures. Geoff wants to hang up.
Five years ago, when Rebecca, Jesse, Mitchell, and I were all living at my mother's house, Rebecca came down with what we all thought was the flu. My mother was in Hawaii at the time, so Geoff was driving down from Sacramento to Orinda every night and taking care of Rebecca. At the time, I was so disgusted with Rebecca I did not even think about her as she lay in her bed. Angrily, I cleaned up the toilet after her bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. Finally, though, even I became concerned and asked Geoff if she should go to the hospital. He told me she would not go until my mom came home. Saturday, after Rebecca had been in bed for at least four days, my mom came home from her two week trip--minutes later, she, Rebecca, and Geoff headed to Kaiser once again.
She did not have the flu--she had a kidney infection, and she almost died. Now I know she might have died in her bedroom; I question if, at the time, I would have cared.
The night after she was admitted to the hospital and before we learned how severe her condition was we had a party to celebrate my graduate school graduation. But, I don't think we really talked about anything concerning me. Rather, we berated my mom about her passive stance she took with Rebecca. We, my mom's friends, my uncle Bill, Jesse, and I, all told her what she needed to do; we discussed what Rebecca needed: therapy, health classes, exercise.
I remember my Mom's solemn, shining face; it seemed for a brief few hours that we could change Rebecca's life.
The December morning that my mom and I raced up to Sacramento, we later sat in the cafeteria with Geoff talking about what we would do with Rebecca when she woke up. "Some kind of Betty Ford for diabetics," I said. My mom nodded slightly, her head down. Geoff and I went on and on, but Mom looked at us this time. She knew Rebecca's life had finally changed.
I am laying on a table, staring up at the nostrils of an Oakland Kaiser Permanente doctor. I am telling her about Rebecca as she thumps my stomach. As I talk, she stops, her cold hand on my body, and I tell her about Rebecca's kidneys. There is nothing wrong with my stomach or my chest, she says later. I leave the hospital and cry on my way home.
I am feeling better now. I am sad again.
The image of Rebecca I am left with is this: After Julien's fifth birthday party in August, Rebecca, Jesse, my mom, and I relaxed on our patio, watching Julien and Mitchell play with Julien's new toys. Rebecca suddenly stood up and asked Jesse if she could swing on the swing. "I don't want to break it," she said. Jesse assured her that the swing was more than strong enough to support her, and he helped her get on.
She has on a white shirt and blue shorts. Her blond hair spreads out behind her as she stretches her thin legs upward. Her white shoes touch the trees.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org