A couple of weeks ago, I opened a Christmas gift from my sister that had languished in her apartment until the birth of her second daughter, Evie. She had dropped it off with a bag of other gifts at the NICU for my parents to deliver to everyone.
Though I’m an active auntie to her daughters, Heni and Evie, I haven’t seen or spoken to my sister in seven years. Even as I type this, I am floored that it has been that long. How did so much time pass without us realizing it? Being estranged from family is a pain that throbs constantly. I see people with good familial relationships, the sisters who do everything together and have been loving toward one another their entire lives. I can’t help but compare and feel the gaping, lonely hole my sister has left. I am constantly grieving a sister who is not dead but also no longer with me. There is no closure for this grief.
My sister—my beautiful, intelligent, funny sister—suffers from heroin addiction. We were forced to watch her transition from alcohol to Xanax to heroin. Unable to force her into sobriety. Unable to appeal to her when she was constantly inebriated. She and I had always had a strained relationship, even in childhood. So, when she began to use it and slowly stopped contacting me, I didn’t reach out.
I think about this every day. I used to think I kept the distance between us for my kids’ benefit. Now, I understand that I didn’t want to face rejection from my sister again. What if I reached out and she told me she hated me again? What if I couldn’t understand her meaning or her slurred, slow speech? Better to keep my image of her when her biggest pet peeve was text shorthand, and we would watch My Sweet 16 on MTV. When she would make fun of my style, but then I would find my clothes in her room days later. When she’d add to my collection of elephants for every occasion. When we would talk about West Virginia and which way to live was better—there then or now in California.
My anxieties over my sister continued to grow as she struggled with her addiction, the law, and navigating the streets. Years ago, when we first moved into our house and I delivered Ollie (my second son), I got a text from one of her old friends while I was making dinner. My sister was seen living under a bridge in San Juan.
The dinner burned while I processed this and talked to her friend. I looked at the food that was inedible and began rocking, sobbing over the ruined food. Thinking about how I wasted a meal when my sister may not have access to food herself. When was the last time she had eaten? Was she going to be hurt out there on the street? Thank God she’s alive. We really weren’t sure until this sighting.
That’s the hardest part about having a family member living with this disease, you’re always waiting for the call that they are gone. Because this disease doesn’t stop on its own—it stops when the person decides they’ve had enough punishment or there is no one to punish anymore.
Since that moment, she has had stints in jail, and my mom and I would celebrate—thank God she’s alive. Every time we breathed that prayer, it had so much more behind it. Maybe this time she will get clean.
Then two years ago, she became a mom herself. Then again, this year—she delivered another beautiful girl. Meanwhile, I was struggling with a medical termination and the realization that we wouldn’t be able to have any more children. I couldn’t have been angrier at the unfairness.
Her disease has made her ineligible to keep her children, so they have been adopted by our parents. I feel so many things when I think about her situation. Anger, distress, resentment, devastation. An overwhelming, bitter sadness for her girls and her. She will have birthed two children but never know what it is to mother them. My compassion for her has grown as I have.
I sat at my table with her Christmas gift. I unwrapped the paper gently, wanting to keep her writing intact. Just in case. I felt the weight of the little box’s lid click open. Gasping, a punch to my gut, there was a silver necklace with a detailed elephant at the end of the chain. All these years, all the distance, my sister is not just alive. She’s still in there. I held myself, cried, and prayed for her.
Thank God she’s still there.
Thank God she’s alive.