Oct 07 ● BY Maryann Aita
This is what haunts me: at twenty-four my sister stood five feet, one-inch tall and weighed only sixty pounds. I recall the numbers without hesitation, as if I were reciting my own address. I think of my sister mostly in pieces—ages, images, facts. Seven years older than me, she danced ballet. She looked like her cheeks had been hollowed out with melon-baller. She got a GED. Her veins erupted from her childlike wrists. She liked ice skating when we were kids. She was hospitalized five times that I remember. These glimpses are what lurk at the forefront of my childhood memories. This is where the story began for me, even though for everyone else it began in my kitchen in 1997, the summer I was about to start third grade.
My mother and father sat down with my sister at our kitchen table, while I played with a chipped brown plastic cup on the floor. I was eight, and for some reason no one made me leave the kitchen (or told me not to sit on the floor). My dad stood and leaned over the back of his chair while my sister and mother sat.
After avoiding the issue for twenty minutes, Mom and Dad mentioned that Valerie’s dance teacher had expressed concern about her weight, an opinion our parents seemed to agree with.
“We notice you eat a lot of salads, Valerie,” Dad said.
For my entire life, I have retained that single detail from their conversation, as if it were beyond comprehension that eating enough salad could be a bad thing.
There was much more to the conversation of course—ballet, baggy clothes, perfectionism—but it must have seemed less intriguing to me than the inscrutable salad comment. I also remember a picture that had sparked their concern. It was from a couple of months earlier; in it, fifteen-year-old Valerie and our oldest brother were standing in a hotel room on a trip to Seattle with our dad. My dad placed it on the table in front of her. She looked “thin.”
Exhibit A: Inordinate vegetable consumption. Exhibit B: Photographic evidence. Eventually, the word anorexia snaked its way into the conversation.
In all my eight years, I had never heard the word. I had no idea what they were talking about, which was probably why my parents never made me leave the kitchen.
At first, I was convinced my sister’s disorder was entirely fictional. It sounded more like a character from a book than a disorder. Anorexia, Princess of Galitraxis. It was new vocabulary; it was exciting. In my mind, I began constructing my own definitions.
ANOREXIA: (n.) possibly some kind of herb; maybe the name of some ancient ruins.
* * *
In 1998, psychologist Peggy Claude-Pierre published The Secret Language of Eating Disorders, a book about helping her two daughters fully recover from their successive battles with anorexia nervosa. One year prior, my parents confronted their fifteen-year-old daughter about the eating disorder they suspected she had. Claude-Pierre, and her book, appeared twice on 20/20, then on Oprah. Meanwhile my mother read and re-read her copy of Peggy’s book—my mother decided she was on a first-name basis with the woman—as if she were trying to physically absorb its contents. She scoured its pages four or five times that first year, and never picked it up again. Yet Peggy’s book remained on a shelf in our house until I left for college ten years later. I wish I had even skimmed its pages, but chapter books were still new territory for me then. Even as I got older, I was afraid of what I wouldn’t find inside it. That book was supposed to have a cure, but my mom never found one in its pages, so why would I?
In 1993, before she published the book, Peggy founded an inpatient treatment center in Canada with an astronomical success rate: the Montreux Clinic. Though she still only accepts the most severe cases—those who have been in and out of treatment and tossed between doctors with no help—Peggy has a 90 percent rate of curing eating disorders without recidivism. Though effective, Peggy’s methods are not easily employable in a family with four children. Her practices demand constant attention, encouragement, and flexibility from caregivers, which is not only exhausting, but would have been impractical in a household with a son in college, a teenage boy and girl, and a third grader. Unsurprisingly, my parents were unsuccessful in their efforts to recreate the results on their own.
After their kitchen table confrontation, my parents took Valerie to see a new psychiatrist in town. Her name was Dr. Green. “Green like salad!” I said to my mom when my parents mentioned her.
My comment went ignored.
After Dr. Green’s official diagnosis, my parents’ natural response was to place Valerie in a treatment facility. They could not afford Montreux and, at that point, anyway, my sister would have never been accepted. There was only one center, The Rimrock Foundation, that even treated eating-disorder patients in my home state of Montana. Most of its patients were alcoholics and drug addicts, but it accepted patients like my sister, struggling with anorexia.
My family made a two-hour drive with Valerie in the new mini-van to support her as we pushed her into an addiction center that loosely treated a disorder she didn’t believe she had. Rimrock treated anorexia and bulimia as a dependency, like narcotics or alcohol. Valerie never had so much as a sip of alcohol before her treatment, but she seemed to split her time there between AA meetings and card games.
After my family returned home from checking her in, her counselor called to tell us that Valerie had eaten chicken strips and fries for lunch. My parents were not as happy about this as I was.
“Well, that’s not a surprise,” Dad said, unmoved by my sister’s sudden reformation.
Not a surprise? I thought. “Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked. I had ordered chicken strips in every restaurant for my entire life.
My mother replied to my father, ignoring me: “Of course she did. She’s manipulating them.”
It became a tagline for my sister: The Manipulator. My parents and Valerie had read Peggy’s book and talked to a psychiatrist and learned terms like manipulate and anorexia nervosa, terms I didn’t understand. When I think of how often my parents used the word manipulate, I feel naïve for having taken so long to learn the definition.
“Why is that bad?” I asked.
My mother doubted Valerie’s sudden progress. “It’s not bad. Chicken strips are good, but…she doesn’t want to be there, so she’s trying to get out faster.”
I accepted this answer, though their logic about the chicken strips was still unclear to me. Everything was unclear to me. Instead of rummaging through shelves for our battered dictionary, I continued making my own definitions of words.
MANIPULATE: (v.) to use chicken strips for evil.
* * *
A week into her treatment, all five of Valerie’s immediate family members visited her, but the minivan dwindled after the first one or two visits. Valerie was probably in Rimrock for a month, but because my relationship with my big sister was culled from playing Barbies whenever we wanted to once-weekly visits in a hospital, it felt much longer. When I last visited my sister, only my mother and I went. I liked the long car rides with my mom. She was so serious then, straining to hold fragments of herself together in front of her children. The last time she took me, she missed an exit on the highway and had to double back. She checked the clock and failed to keep from swearing in front of me. There was only a two-hour window in which visitors were allowed, and we were in danger of losing at least thirty minutes of it. My mom tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as if it made the car go faster. I told her that it was okay; we had plenty of time. As frantic as she was, I was elated to be there. I didn’t mind spending an extra half hour in the car with her.
When we got to Rimrock, the three of us ate lunch and played new card games my sister learned. At some point, my mom gave me the deck of cards to play solitaire and told me to go get more Jell-O from the cafeteria; then she and my sister would talk about things I wasn’t supposed to hear. I didn’t mind. I liked the cafeteria. Cafeterias meant choices. I could have as many desserts as I wanted, including eight helpings of Jell-O, which we never had at home. I loved those moments alone in the cafeteria. I got Jell-O. And it was all for me.
After a couple of visits with me tagging along, Mom thought it was best that she went alone.
* * *
Growing up, Valerie had shown me how to do almost everything the “right” way: how to tie my shoes and how to bake, how to ice skate and wrap gifts, how to find the words in word searches, how to color.
When I was five and Valerie was twelve, the two of us sat at the kitchen table filling the insides of empty characters in our separate coloring books. I looked at our two pictures. Mine looked unrealistic and ragged. Scribbles of color appeared all over my page, whether they were intended to be there or not. It didn’t look as nice as my sister’s, with her complimentary colors and contained crayon marks. I asked her to help me make my picture look like hers. She taught me to make a thick edge of crayon color along the outline of the picture so I would stay inside the lines. The habit of coloring this way, and always staying inside the lines, is one I maintain even now. Still, that first time she was in treatment, brief as it was, stands out in my memory as well as any childhood game or ice-skating excursion. Perhaps because it seemed so out of context.
When my sister was released from Rimrock the first time, I was thrilled to see her again. She simultaneously appeared frail and sturdy. The sight of her was enough to give me hope. Little did I know how much worse it would become. After a few days back, her life became a schedule. Every action, every meal, every thought was planned. It seemed the only way to manage her obsession with control was by regimenting her life.
My misunderstanding of her disorder grew into a mystified admiration for my sister and her ability to restrain herself. I wanted to be her, from coloring inside the lines to counting calories. There was something in her I envied: Valerie was my opposite. She did everything perfectly.
PERFECT: (adj.) like an older sister.
* * *
Most of the things she taught me—how to fold wrapping paper over the corners of a box, how to measure vanilla extract—are now rote. She had carved her life into a rigid order and I swooned at its artistry. Slowly, though, the order she etched—her three snacks a day, a crossword puzzle every morning—consumed her. But she taught me how to do so many things.
I thought I was supposed to be like her.
Growing up next to my sister’s flat, feminine body, a body she had sculpted with unrelenting discipline, I felt grotesque. My sister went through life backwards: shrinking instead of growing, perfecting instead of mistaking, dying instead of living. She reduced her ballerina silhouette down to a specter of herself. She was the ideal for which women have strived for centuries. I, on the other hand, hit puberty before I was twelve. My breasts ballooned to an absurd size, my body started to jiggle when I ran down the stairs, and clothes clung to parts of me that I didn’t know I had. Valerie was almost nineteen when I was in seventh grade, but people began to confuse her for my younger sibling on the infrequent occasions we were together. Four years after her diagnosis, my sister moved to a town more than an hour from home. My family thought she might get better there, free from Mom, but we saw each other even more rarely than we did during her hospitalizations, and Valerie continued to shrivel away.
Unlike me, Valerie had control of her body. Whereas my boobs were of questionable proportions for a middle schooler, hers shrank. While so many girls desired bigger breasts, some telling me how “lucky” I was to be so curvaceous, I wanted nothing to do with mine. Even my mom, whose intentions were well meaning, made me ashamed of them every time I tried on clothing. She would tell me how “flattering this cut is” and how well it “hides” or “distracts” from my neckline. Despite one daughter starving herself, my mother would still make occasional comments about the other daughter’s weight. I remember her once telling me I looked a little plump.
I almost walked away crying.
Valerie was thin. I wasn’t. I thought that was what bothered me. But what bothered me was that despite her best efforts to disappear, my sister remained the star of our family. When I was ten, I was already sick of family and friends asking me, “How’s your sister?” I wanted them to ask about me. But my childhood was out of order; it was mired with guilt, responsibility, and misunderstanding. I wanted an eating disorder, a mental illness, a magical power—anything special about me, anything to be wrong with me. Instead I was the stable one, a healthy child in a family steeped in illness: the boring daughter whose parents didn’t have to worry about her.
It wasn’t until I was in college and Valerie was in her mid-twenties, that I realized how much like her I’d always been. I wasn’t anorexic, but she and I were after the same thing: an impossible, indefinable standard. We differed, though, in where that desire led us. I was left chasing perfection—trying to get the best grades, obeying my parents, avoiding pleasure, putting all my effort toward college applications, homework, knowledge—but I had no idea what “perfect” even meant. Rather than try to reign over every moment of her life, Valerie chose to control one thing: food. She agonized over each calorie, willing her body not to eat. She found one aspect of her life over which she could rule absolutely. I realized all too late that it was the anorexia that fascinated me, not my sister. It had a hold on her and quickly took the rest of my family in its grasp. Anorexia is a highly visible disease, yet my family never spoke about it. My sister walked around like a ghost, and we treated our shared psychosis with Prozac and as much physical distance between ourselves as we could make. Both of my brothers moved out of state while I was in high school. I counted the days until I could apply to colleges and escape. It took me years to understand that Valerie was not her eating disorder, but until she recovered, it was hard to see anything else.
As a kid, I wanted to know everything about anorexia and everything about my sister. Like anyone haunted, I wanted to exorcise my ghosts, which meant knowing them first. Being a part of my sister’s life, however, was like trying to infiltrate my neighbor’s “No Girls Allowed” tree house. I collected incomplete “facts” about her situation from conversations I overheard between my mother and other relatives or from clues around the house. On our refrigerator, for instance, she and Mom kept a daily meal plan (written on a cutesy Mary Engelbreit notepad with cartoon animals) that included breakfast, which they would eat together; a midmorning snack, which they would eat together; lunch, which they would eat together; an afternoon snack, which they would eat together; dinner, which the family ate together; and an evening snack, which they would eat together. The concept of planning snacks made little sense to me.
SNACK: (n.) regimented one-on-one quality time with Mom.
* * *
There was food in our kitchen I was not allowed to eat—Boosts, low-fat yogurt, burgers made of vegetables. My sister kept dozens of PowerBars stacked in even rows at the bottom of a cabinet, organized by flavor, that I had to ask permission to eat. Things in my house were not mine; they were my sister’s. When you are eight years old and you watch your mom eat six meals a day with your sister, but you aren’t allowed to drink what appears to be a milkshake in a can, you start to assume it’s your fault.
Valerie seemed in control of everything. Eventually I found out my mother would tell her if I had eaten any of her food. For my sister, this served as a way to account for any disturbance in her perfectly ordered life. To me, it was an act of oppression.
The last time I ever asked for a PowerBar, when I was nine, my mother said, “It’s probably not a good idea. They’re really for Valerie. Only have one if you really want it.”
I didn’t really want it—every flavor tasted like grass—but I really didn’t want to have to ask permission to eat gross food.
“That’s okay,” I said.
Later that day, I changed my mind. I took my mother’s earlier statement as a loose permission to take one—not entirely sure it was all right but figuring no one would notice. I stole one “chocolate” flavored PowerBar. It was my treasure, forbidden and wrapped in gold. I gnawed through it and disposed of the shiny wrapper evidence. While I was playing in the dining room a few hours later, a doorway apart from the kitchen, I heard Valerie, her voice shaking, ask our mom why she was missing a PowerBar.
How did she notice? I wondered. My heart sped up.
I’d been caught.
“I know Maryann didn’t have one today,” Mom said. “I’m sure it just looks off.”
It seemed my mother had been reporting my PowerBar dalliances to my sister. It became clear I had ruined my sister’s perfect order, all because I wanted to be able to choose what I could eat whenever I wanted to eat it. Yes, a part of me wanted to take something of hers, but I hadn’t realized how it would upset her, how it would disrupt the balance of things. She could eat anything she wanted, whenever she wanted, and all I took was a PowerBar. One PowerBar. It seemed so small.
Crouched there, digging through wrappers, searching for the evidence, my sister frightened me. She thought she’d mistaken the number of energy bars in her store and she felt helpless. I realized how fragile she was, like a porcelain figurine that I had dropped and made shatter on the floor. Frail as she was, she had a power over me. I was afraid of breaking her. I never told her that I was the culprit and that she wasn’t wrong.
And I never willingly took another thing from her.
CONTROL: 1. (v.) To use pity to inspire fear in others, especially children;
2. (n.) a sense of superiority over inanimate objects, often by outsmarting them with one’s ability to count.
* * *
Before my sister moved away in 2001, for a job in Helena, my parents were frantic to control her. All while she manipulated them, pretending to follow her meal plans and reporting more calories than she had actually eaten. The three of them began to act like the scribbles on my coloring book pages, trying to appear put together, but clearly crossing outside the lines meant to contain them.
Valerie had started antidepressants when she was diagnosed in 1997—she was fifteen—and she went on anti-anxiety meds the next year, and our mom upped her dose of Effexor somewhere in between. Our dad tried things like hiding 1% milk in the skim bottle, a plan that ended with a bottle of milk poured on the kitchen floor in the center of a triangle of screaming.
Mom ate every meal and every snack with Valerie and gained almost thirty pounds in the first few years. My sister lost weight. My dad told Valerie once, years later, that she looked like a Holocaust survivor. He wasn’t wrong, but my father was, at times, tactless. My mother was often too soft. My sister couldn’t admit she was anorexic. It was like they were trying to build a square with only three sides, each miscalculating his or her contribution. There was no way they could add up.
Eventually Valerie moved to Helena; a town an hour and a half away. Our parents thought living on her own might be good for her, away from the constant monitoring. Instead, Valerie became drastically worse, and we ignored it. A long drive made for infrequent visits, and we all chose not to look past the long sleeves, pants in the summer, and Valerie’s word that things were “fine.” My mother, father, me, and even my brothers were exhausted.
Though some eating-disorder patients—between 30 and 40 percent—fully “recover,” the extent of their recovery is up for question. They may be physically healthy, but their emotional security could be unstable. Between 5 and 10 percent of eating-disorder patients die within ten years, the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Statistically, Valerie should have been one of the latter. She was only 59 percent of a stable body weight. She weighed sixty pounds when she was twenty-four; I weighed more in fifth grade. It wasn’t supposed to be possible to live like that. I’m not one to believe in miracles, but if I ever witnessed one, it was my sister’s life.
MIRACLE: (n.) when the math is right even though the statistics don’t work out.
* * *
More than eight years after her diagnosis, my twenty-four-year-old sister, who was as close to literal skin and bone as seemed humanly possible, acknowledged her eating disorder for the first time. On Thanksgiving Day 2005, she sat on our couch and pushed the words out through her almost translucent, tear-stained face.
“I am anorexic.”
It was also the first she ever spoke of getting treatment. Close to a decade into a mental illness that had ravaged her mind and body, Valerie said she’d found a facility she’d be willing to go to: Peggy Claude-Pierre’s Montreux Clinic in Canada. She was nervous to bring it up because of the cost but thought our parents might be willing to help. Apart from the expense and the distance, it required that each patient have a caretaker to watch her every day for the duration of the treatment.
“They would need to be there for a year and stay with me 24/7. And, when I thought about it,” she hesitated, “the first person I thought of was Maryann.”
I swallowed. Hard.
“Maryann can’t do it, Valerie,” Mom said, “She has school.”
“And she’ll be seventeen,” Dad said.
The sentiment was overwhelming; I was not the candidate for such responsibility. At the time, I was in my junior year of high school. I’d recently achieved the coveted milestone of learning how to do laundry by myself. Not only was I unfit to look after another person, I could hardly look at my sister without tears welling behind my eyes.
Valerie had plans, too, thinking I could go to college in Canada while she went through treatment, or that I could take a year off before going to school. My sister’s world revolved so closely around me that she believed I would pause my life for her.
As much as I wanted to rescue her, I couldn’t.
Montreux was not going to happen. We might have been able to come up with the money, but I couldn’t stay with her, and my mother had to stay with me. In part, it was my fault she couldn’t go.
Instead Valerie returned to her life as it was.
Until she was fired.
* * *
In April 2006, I had just turned seventeen and twenty-four-year-old Valerie had driven down to visit my parents and me. By that time, both of our brothers had moved out of the house. When I hugged her, my hands nearly wrapped back around myself. My teenage arms rivaled her thighs.
My adult sister weighed 60 pounds then, little more than a fourth grader. We didn’t know the exact number at the moment. I didn’t believe it was possible to be so small; she was a skeleton I feared would shatter. I tried to ignore the fact that her child-sized pants were slipping off her hips. But she wore short sleeves that day, and trying to divert my gaze from her withered arms only left me looking at her face. All I could do was trace the sharp contours of her jaw line and examine her cavernous cheeks, trying to find some remnant of joy in her face. She rarely smiled. She didn’t laugh. She hardly spoke, and when she did, she seemed to wander, lost in her own thoughts. It physically hurt to look at her. Her eyes were dimmer than I remembered, but faintly alive. They glossed over as she told us she’d lost her job.
One tear slid down her cheek, a lone droplet of emotion that came to rest at the corner of her mouth. Then she wiped it away.
“Angie said…I couldn’t…concentrate anymore—and I wasn’t,” she sniffled, “focusing… on the work,” Valerie explained, each syllable lagging farther behind the next.
Angie, my sister’s boss, had known about her eating disorder; it was hardly surreptitious by that point. Because she dearly loved my sister, Angie made every accommodation she could. In the few months before that April, Angie had noticed Valerie fading away, too mentally and physically adrift to perform her job at an embroidery company. Eventually, she had to let Valerie go. Unknowingly her action became the catalyst to Valerie’s recovery. My parents sat down with my sister and talked for hours about having her move back in with us. I listened, seated on my bedroom floor, tracing the rim of an empty drinking glass. It was going to be constant monitoring, snack schedules on the fridge, and unpleasant dinners all over again. We had reached the point where the only option left was to start back at the beginning.
Valerie refused, but a few tearful hours later, hesitantly agreed.
My parents took her car keys. They made a plan to go to her apartment the next day to get her things. Early that morning, however, I heard my sister across the hall rummaging through her bag. When I woke up, she was gone. As I suspected, she had taken the spare keys she brought with her; I can only assume she had them because she knew what to expect. Of course, if anyone was to carry a set of spare keys at all times, it would be my sister. Sometimes I wonder if I should have gotten out of bed and said something to her, maybe asked her not to leave. I’m not sure it would have mattered, but I’ve asked myself why I didn’t try: had I given up, or did I feel sorry for her?
My parents spent the next three days calling Valerie, our psychiatrist, Valerie’s boss, and state mental health services. My sister holed up in her apartment like an outlaw. She needed to be in a hospital or she would have died.
Over the next few days, my parents had my sister legally committed to a general hospital—rather than a psychiatric facility—because she needed (and was unwilling to get) immediate medical attention. Initially, the County Attorney didn’t consider her mentally incompetent, but her psychiatrist Dr. Green wrote a letter explaining that my sister’s physical state caused her mental duress and that she was incapable of making decisions. When the police came to Valerie’s door, she followed without question. One officer told my parents he was amazed. He hadn’t needed to handcuff her, but he wouldn’t have been able to anyway: the cuffs would have slipped over her hands.
* * *
Once she had gained some insubstantial amount of weight in the hospital, Valerie was taken to Rimrock. This time, she was the only eating-disorder patient in the facility. She stayed for a few weeks while our parents contemplated what to do next. A volunteer they met at Rimrock, who had recovered from bulimia a few years earlier, recommended Rogers Memorial Hospital. It was in a tiny, unpronounceable town in Wisconsin a two-day drive from home, but it had both a medical facility and a treatment program. It treated men and women—one of the few centers in the country that does—and it cost more than a college education.
Anorexia exists in a neglected crevice reserved for deadly diseases with no cure that most people don’t consider deadly diseases—insurance companies above all. At the time, most health insurance companies would only cover the cost of getting an eating-disorder patient beyond a “stable physical condition.” Based on my sister’s multiple hospitalizations, this seems to mean a patient can leave after three to five days of monitored food intake and no weight loss. Our health insurance did not provide adequate mental health coverage for our family, or for most people in need of mental health care. But my sister’s former boss, Angie, let her keep, and paid for, Valerie’s health insurance after she was fired, which meant she was covered for the duration of her three-month treatment. There is no value I could assign my sister’s life, but in providing treatment, Rogers inherently appraised it at upwards of $100,000. My parents, like most people, were in no position to take on six figures of debt to save their daughter’s life, but it was the kind of decision with only one choice.
In what may be the only documented instance of an insurance company’s compassion, my sister’s insurance made extraordinary accommodations for her because her condition was so severe. They agreed to cover almost the entire cost. We were lucky. Incredibly lucky.
To stabilize her, she was put in the Rogers hospital wing.
“She had to eat her way out of that room,” my mom told me, years later. As I listened, I conjured the image of Hansel and Gretel chewing their way out of the Witch’s gingerbread house. Even years after the fact, I couldn’t accept my sister in a hospital bed.
“She recovered through fear. The police, the hospitals…she lived like a prisoner,” my mother paused, “She had to leave the door open when she went to the bathroom.”
FEAR: (n.) an effective last resort.
* * *
Slowly, my sister began eating regularly and as her caloric intake increased so did her mental clarity. Once she reached a point where her body was no longer starving, she could reason again.
She made it through the initial treatment program faster than predicted, and the staff at Rogers wanted to put her into the next phase of the program, which required living on her own in a small apartment for a month. It also required my mother to live in a small apartment next door. In Wisconsin.
My parents were skeptical of her miraculous improvement, however. My sister had not lost her title of “The Manipulator.” None of us had forgotten about the chicken strips, the eating regimens she had claimed to follow, the “I’m doing well” calls. Debating the next step of her treatment, though, was not something either of my parents wanted to spend more time doing. Mom agreed and went to live with Valerie for a month, three states away. By that time, my brothers were each rooted thousands of miles from Montana, leaving Dad and me alone for the month of September—the first of my senior year in high school.
Neither one of us had seen Valerie since that April; we’d had only phone calls. We talked to my mother and Valerie often, though. I could hear the smile in my mother’s voice. There was an overwhelming sense of relief in our house. It was the calm of the aftermath of a hurricane: damaged, but with the worst behind us.
What I remember most, though, was getting to use my sister’s car while she was in treatment. I had always planned to go out of state for college, and my parents didn’t think it made sense to buy me a car for two years. I instead got to use my mother’s minivan when she didn’t need it. My sister’s hail-dented Ford Taurus was the highlight of her absence that spring and summer. Perhaps it was the stereotypical apathy of “senioritis,” or maybe it was exhaustion from years of guilt, but having that car to myself almost made things OK.
At the end of September, the day my sister was scheduled to come home, I stayed at school late to stave off the inevitable disappointment of whatever waited for me at home. If my sister was going to be the same as when she left, I would have returned to immeasurable disappointment and grief. And if she was going to be different, what would that mean? My relationship with my sister had always been fragmented. She was more image to me than human in the last few years of her eating disorder: skin stretched like saran wrap around muscle and bone; spindly fingers like Jack Skellington; veins like rope constraining her.
Part of me questioned whether I wanted her to be well. Even the direst status quo can bring more comfort than an uncertain future. I was used to living with a ghost. What would be demanded of me in this new human relationship? Preternatural communication is very one-sided.
When I finally came home, I waited outside the front door a moment before I opened it, trying to quench my anxiety and act as though my sister had merely returned from a weeklong vacation. As I walked inside, I saw her face, chubby-cheeked and beaming. Her face was flush, and she had a brilliant smile I hadn’t seen in nine years.
The moment was drenched in ambivalence. There was joy to see my sister and to know she was well, but there was a despondence between us. It was unfinished and imperfect. It was a beginning. Of what, I didn’t know at the time. I took a deep breath, leaving my bags at the door, and walked forward to embrace my sister.
RELIEF: (n.) As we hugged, my arms didn’t wrap back around myself.