|Annie, age 5|
So why the lying and secrecy? Yes, I know - lying is bad. Lying about not having a sibling that I did actually have is even worse! In my defense, I feel guilty every time I incorrectly answer those well-meaning, curious people's questions. But what can I say? I'm lazy. The story is kind of a downer, catches people off guard, and just plain takes too long to tell in casual conversation.
Annie was born mentally and physically handicapped. No big deal, she was just learning at a slower pace than other kids her age. But she was learning. To walk, to feed herself, to talk. Then she got pneumonia and, as the story goes, when she was in the hospital, the doctor there overdosed her with some medication that she wasn't supposed to have in the first place. Needless to say, that fucked shit up, big time.
I have a few glimpses in my memory of Annie in those early years. She was able to interact to a degree. I would get really excited at any small advance she made. I dreamt of her "getting better" and coming to school with me, where we would work together to beat up Frank Miller - I couldn't do it on my own, hard as I tried. I longed for a sister in my house full of brothers. We would share clothes, keep secrets, braid hair.
Most of my memories, however, are from after The Incident. After that day, Annie couldn't walk - period. She couldn't talk - period. She had violent seizures, all day. We fed her through a catheter by connecting it to a G-tube that had been surgically inserted into her stomach. She wore diapers her entire life, needed oxygen, and spent her time either in bed, on the couch, or in a fully supportive wheelchair. She required 24 hour care, so we had night nurses that would come in from 6pm until 6am.
Because I was the second to youngest kid, as my older brothers moved out of the house one by one not only did their chores get added to mine, but more care of Annie did as well. This meant anything from mixing up and administering her liquid food, phenobarbital or other medications; to changing her diaper; to suctioning the glop from her mouth that she often coughed up but didn't have the muscle capacity to swallow. When I turned 16 I was thrilled to finally get my license, as I'd been driving since I was about 12 anyway. My mom bought me a used car - but only so that I could be home in time to get Annie off the shortbus she took to the school she went to. I didn't have much of a teenagehood. (But that car did have a tape of Lionel Richie's Dancing on the Ceiling in the tape player! I will forever associate any song from that album with short-tethered freedom).
Once, I was home on a Saturday afternoon by myself - a very rare situation. My folks were gone, Annie's nurse had taken her on some sort of outing. A guy from school called and asked if I wanted to go tubing. I automatically started to answer that I couldn't, but then realized that I was all alone in the house, and that I could go tubing! I will never, ever forget that feeling. I went out on the lake with other teenagers that I'd never actually hung out with outside of the classroom. I felt what it was like to be carefree and to have fun and fuck around, playing and being a kid, without a time limit or worrying that my mom was going to be pissed because I'd snuck out with Frank Miller in order to have that fun, like usual. It was an afternoon of pure bliss. And then I went home.
After The Incident, the doctors told my mother that Annie wouldn't live past the age of 7. After she passed that milestone, every time she got sick and ended up in the hospital, mom would be given a similar story. I vividly remember a nurse once saying to her "you might as well start saying your goodbyes, I doubt she'll make it through the night." Sensitive medical care, it was.
When Annie did pass away, she was 18. I was 19, and I'd just gotten a huge and ridiculous tattoo of a fairy the day before. The van I'd been driving had broken down on the train tracks, and I was stranded in downtown Kalamazoo when Frank Miller stumbled upon me sitting in a chair in the sunshine, feeling helpless. He took me with him to a friend's house, where I used the phone to call my roommates. I was given a message to call home.
Of course I knew why, in the way you always know, even though you have no reason to.
My step-dad told me that Annie had died early in the morning. I was in this stranger's bathroom, looking at a poster of a shirtless football player, trying not to touch my raw tattoo. I put the phone down and walked out, past Frank and out the door, down to the parking lot, where I sat in the car until Frank climbed in with me and I started sobbing. He had just gone through this with me when I'd learned that my chihuahua Fern had been killed while chasing a UPS truck a month or so earlier. So he knew to be comforting, but to not let me go off the deep end and to reign me back in with inappropriate jokes.
It took me quite a while to really mourn Annie's death after the initial "it was always expected but it's still a shock." I was so wrapped up in the resentment over my own lost childhood, having spent such a great amount of it caring for her, that I was simply stunned and numb when she died. I acted out by running to California, twice, and staying away from home for longer and longer stretches of time. I'm not terribly close with any of my older brothers, but we all love each other because that's what siblings do. I often get so caught up in my own life and joys and pain and drama that I forget - yes, actually forget - that I had a sister, since she isn't on facebook, or emailing or texting me to remind me that she's there, like my brothers sometimes do.
So when people exclaim "and no sisters?!" I always pause for a split second, deciding how to answer, and almost always say "no, no sisters. Just me."
It's just a much shorter answer.