family

No answers here

The main job of any writer is to make sense of the world around them. In my work, I try to help my readers think about ideas and events in a different way. If I’m lucky, I can dig deep enough in a subject to provide context and really put things into perspective.

But even the most experienced writer can’t solve every puzzle, or resolve every question. And I have no rationale, no context to understand why, on a clear Sunday morning a month ago, my sister Shelle took her own life.

It’s usually so easy for me to write, but it’s been such a challenge to line up words in a sentence about her death. Suicide is such a final choice, and all of us who knew and loved my sister are still in shock.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours, awake and half asleep, talking with other family members, trying to replay the events in my mind and answer the unanswerable: why? I never thought I’d be saying goodbye to her so early. Or picking out music for her memorial service. Or reading a medical examiners’ report about someone who was so alive to me.

We can all try to get to WHY but the truth is, we’ll never know what led to that sequence of events. I know she was in significant physical pain; her liver had been damaged years ago and she’d been experiencing massive physical symptoms; she described the pain as someone “tightening a belt around my midsection and pulling.”

And when you lose your health, it devastates every single other aspect of your life – your relationships, your work, your family life. And so it was with my sister. The lightness we all need to have balance in our lives was blotted out for her. We offered our help and our love. Why did she make the choice she did?

I have regrets – did I do enough? Should I have known? My last text message exchange with her reads like a cry for help in retrospect, but at that moment, it was just like hundreds of other text messages she’d sent me.

I feel guilty. I wonder if I took the process for granted – that if she really, really needed help, she’d ask. We had a similar situation in our family where someone suffered from severe physical pain that drove them to a suicide attempt. But they got the help they needed – both mental and physical – and went on to a much better phase of their life.

I wanted that so much for Shelle, and I am deeply sad she couldn’t be here for it. My heart hurts for her husband and my nephews, her two sons, both of who are still school age boys.

I don’t know that I will ever understand why. And perhaps it’s not for me to know. It reminds me of the lyrics from “I Don’t Like Mondays”:  They can see no reasons / ‘Cause there are no reasons / What reason do you need to be shown?  No “reason” can ever really be an answer. A dear cousin told me something that made so much sense to me. She learned it from the teachings of Catholicism but I think it’s a universal thought: The moment that someone leaves life, or goes to their God, is an intensely private one, and a sacred moment.

I will never understand what prevented her from making another choice. But ultimately, I need to learn to let go, to forgive her (which I already have – as if I was ever mad), and to honor her memory. I love my sister so much, and I don’t want the way her life ended to define in any way the person she was before that.

I want people to remember how sweet and tenderhearted Shelle was, how shy she was as a child. How loyal she was to all of us. I want everyone to know what a great big sister she was, spending hours with me when I was a kid and carting me around with her once she was old enough to drive. She was 7 years older than me, and as soon as she had wheels, she had to take me to my weekly allergy shots, but she never complained once.

I want people to know what an amazing nurse she was, and how she was such a perfect combination of my parents – my dad’s perseverance and work ethic, and my mom’s heart and empathy for others. My other sister reminded me how funny and silly Shelle could be – like my mother, she never met a camera she couldn’t make a face at!  I want people to remember what a great friend my sister was, and how our house was filled with her friends.

We no longer have that family home, but when I close my eyes and think of my sister, it’s there I see her: in our game room watching TV, in her bedroom with the seizure-inducingly loud wallpaper, playing her Bay City Rollers (and later, Styx and REO Speedwagon) records with her friends, at our kitchen table with our Mom, in our backyard splashing around in our swimming pool.

And she’s home now, both there in my mind’s eye, and home with my mother, both of them resting high in the hills of Cambria County. I have to pray she is finally at peace, and pray that all of us who loved her can move forward in healing and reconciliation.

The kids are all right

We’re at the end of a long, cold Chicago winter. (Finally!)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been using my time wisely, catching up on a stack of unread books gathering dust on my nightstand.

My favorite so far? It’s a book called The Kids are All Right. It’s the story of the Welch family, a family that was both extraordinary (Mom was an actress on several soap operas, and Dad may or may not have been in the CIA) and yet completely ordinary.

For any of us who came of age in the 70s and 80s, it’s a familiar story, and one that has a few recognizable threads from other writers and humorists that mine family life for material (like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, to name two).

I don’t want to spoil the story here, because I really want to encourage everyone to buy this book and read it. But here’s what has drawn me to the book and what has kept it in my head weeks after I’ve finished it: it tells the story from multiple viewpoints.

Sisters Diana Welch and Liz Welch, both writers, are the principal authors of the book, but it’s also the story of their other siblings, Dan and Amanda.

This really reverberates for me, because I’m also one of four children. I’m the youngest, with my closest sibling being five years older. My oldest sibling? She was 12 years older than me.

To put that into context? She graduated from high school in June 1975….three months before I entered first grade. That’s not just a big difference in calendar years. That’s a huge generational difference that really informed how we both see the world.

That oldest sibling and I get along really well. But we have incredibly different viewpoints and memories, sometimes of the same events! My time with our parents came much later and at a time where I was the only kid in the house. She was the first kid that had to share with every new sibling and probably had to deal with my parents’ trial and error in child rearing.

Our family coped with things that many families in middle America coped with: physical illness, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and conflicts in relationships. But it still amazes me, sometimes, how different my experience and my memories are from my siblings.

I loved The Kids are All Right because it lets each sibling tell their story and honors and validates each story (a twist on the title of the book and perhaps its true statement: the kids are all right).  There’s a fantastic line on the Web page that they’ve set up for the book that says, “The past belongs to everyone who was there.”