“We were somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” This is the opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism epic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What is the first line of your story? What would be the journey that follows? Writing prompt submitted by the Red-Headed Menace to the University of Chicago.
Ghosts are poor companions. Death, even the death of someone you never knew, makes life difficult.
My sister died when she was five. I was two at the time, small enough to have no memories of her or the illness that took her life. I was old enough, though, that the grief and pain that wracked my parents reverberated through my childhood like darkness spreading from an overturned inkwell.
My sister died of an inoperable brain tumor, spending most of her last months at home. I have been with someone I cared about in the last stages of brain cancer, and it is profoundly painful. To watch a child go through this would be absolutely devastating.
She was not talked about, that I remember: her name was rarely mentioned, and once when I was older and I found one of her favorite books (with pictures of angels, yet), my mother cautioned me not to let my father see me with it. We moved away from the city where she was buried when I was five, and she disappeared from the center of the fabric of our lives, only to hover like a ghost around the edges.
My older siblings were more affected than I was. They were old enough not only to remember her, but to feel more keenly how her loss affected my parents. My parents did the best that they could (a fact that I appreciated only after I had children of my own), but they struggled under the weight of the loss of a child, and after a long and debilitating illness at that.
When my brother was born two years after her death, my parents gave him the masculine form of her name. A memorial, no doubt, yet at the same time an erasure, a replacement, even if they did not mean it as such. She was gone, as though she had never existed. Part of me, deep down in the recesses of a brain formed during pain and turmoil, wonders if this is what happens when you die: is it as though you have never lived?
After my father’s death, my mother has talked about my sister more. It as though she is free now, that she need not protect him from his own pain at my sister’s death. I have talked with my mother about her; Mom seems to have reached peace about her life and death. My sister is now far more real for me than she ever was when I was a child.
She still hovers around me: I react badly to people disappearing from my life with no explanation or without saying goodbye, for example. For my own peace of mind I need to know why they left. (That my older brother sometimes disappeared unexpectedly when I was in my late pre-teens did nothing to dispel that fear of people leaving me with no warning.) Although it has gotten easier as I grew older, I have had difficulty making friends: caring about people means that you get badly hurt when they go away, and I am afraid of being abandoned.
I enjoy taking photographs of nature and beautiful urban landscapes. But I do not take pictures of people, hate having my photo taken, and feel a vague panic when anyone photographs my children. When I was very young, before my sister died, my father loved to take photographs. I have seen some of them: he was actually pretty good. He took a series of photos of my sister during her final, horrible illness that were not developed until after she died. The difference between the bright, happy child she had been and what she became under the burden of her tumor and the drugs she was given to control it broke his heart. He rarely took photographs after that, leaving my mother the job of photographing special family events.
As a result, I formed a deeply held, rarely articulated superstition that to photograph someone is to invite their death. It was a very long time before I recognized that was what I felt; fortunately, my mother-in-law is a shutterbug who grew impatient at the photographs of my sons that I never sent her, and documented their life and growth whenever she got a chance. There are still gaps, mainly from when they got older and we did not go back East very often. The Resident Shrink is an obsessive photographer, however, and so I have many pictures of my children from the past few years.
I find myself resenting my sister: how dare she die, leaving my family to struggle under the weight of her loss? How dare she deprive me of a normal childhood, the childhood all my peers seem to have, of the happy family I saw so often on television? Even now, as I know from friends I have made as an adult that many times the happiness is a facade that masks deep pain, I wonder what life would have been like had she lived.
I never knew my sister, but I have walked through my life with her at my side, unseen but dimly felt, like a faint cold breeze that catches my heart.
I wish she would go away.