My sister died on Thursday, Oct. 29th, early in the evening. The moon, two night from full, would have been high enough in the sky to be shining in the windows if they faced the right way. She went peacefully because she was in hospice under the influence of enough pain killers that she was no longer responsive.
We were not close, but she was not close to anyone. Indeed, one could say that she died friendless. I’ve met a wide range of people in my life, many of them lonely, but I’ve never known anyone else who didn’t have at least one friend.
My sister had been enduring an unhappy life for over forty years at the time of her exit. Since about the age of seven, to be specific.
In the suburban house where we grew up, my parents framed and hung our annual school portraits, one after the other, in the bedroom hallway. The viewer could follow our physical growth, hair styles and, later, eyeglass frames, from this display. The first six portraits of her show a happy baby, toddler, and then little girl. The joyful radiance of her smile is a beautiful thing to behold. Then, it’s gone, never to return.
In the next decade of portraits, her face plainly shows anguish. The smile is forced, and her eyes apprehensive.
What happened to her? I don’t know, but it was real.We were both sent to Catholic grade school, and that was certainly an exacerbating element–to say the least–if not the precipitating cause. I was an unpopular kid in my grade, with just a small circle of friends, but my sister was mocked throughout the school. She had a harder time than anybody else I knew there. To make things worse, the principal of the school hated her too, so she the adults offered no protection.
She went to an all girls high school (and mine was all boys) so I don’t know much about her experiences then. She had a friend or three then, it seems, but she was otherwise miserable.
Up through college, she really put some effort into trying to improve her lot. She really wanted friends, but didn’t know how to make them. When we were both in college she asked me for advice, and I did my best to say something helpful, but I also knew that our personal constitutions differed, and our circumstances, and that my experience might not be relevant. That turned out to be the case.
My sister’s internal suffering sometimes took the form of emotional melt-downs, often tantrum-like. It was clear that she could just not handle the pressure being put on her to conform to society and be content with that. She was just not capable of it. Personally, I never viewed her lack of ability to fit in as being either her fault or a negative trait.
Our parents felt differently. They never really forgave her for not being normal, especially my mother. According to her, even my sister’s hospitalization this year was somehow her fault, and could have been avoided if only she’d been more something. She didn’t come out and say that in those words, but she hinted at it a couple times, and I could hardly believe it. When would it be time to just give my sister a break?
Our society had no place for my sister and treated her with cruelty. This was not my sister’s fault. She bears no responsibility for being born into the time and place where she found herself.
My critiques of society are often expressed in political terms, but my disdain is far deeper, and it’s personal. It precedes and informs my political consciousness, and is based in part on witnessing my sister’s unrelenting hardship.
I always knew that there was nothing wrong with my sister; that in a different setting, she could be content or even flourish. This has been, and remains, one of my motives for seeking radical change.
Despite her challenges, my sister held down the same job for 25 years. I know she had an advocate there, who saw that she was different, and who hired her anyway, or perhaps for that very reason. This was perfect for my sister, who retreated into routine as a way of holding herself steady. By keeping a strict regimen in her daily, weekly and even annual schedules, she kept herself “functional.”
And that’s all the system really wants: for everyone to play their parts as cogs in the machine. It sucks. Anyone who doesn’t think so is deluded. My sister deserved far more. We all do.
I feel sadness for my sister’s death, but more than that, I feel sadness to live in a society where her suffering was inevitable. How tragic that this person spent most of her life feeling wretched about herself! The dominant culture here is mean, cold-hearted, and downright nasty. We don’t just lack common decency; we are actively sadistic. And have been since at least the 1970s, in my own direct experience. Pick up a history book and you’ll see that it goes back to the beginning.
Love, compassion and generosity are not typical US American traits. They are, however, essential for relating to all living creatures on the planet in a healthy way. So, we’re leaving out the most important parts. That doesn’t pencil out in the end, as is becoming more obvious.
There are practical reason to smash our system: our military is a terrorist scourge and our consumption is destroying the biosphere. But our “values” also deserve to be very publicly pitched into the wastebin of history. Let our downfall be a vivid illustration.
The revolution I want requires more than just workers seizing the means of production or billionaires going to the stocks. The revolution I want must make a place for people like my sister, no less than for anyone else. If it doesn’t, it’s not good enough for me.
The night my sister died, I closed my eyes and asked to see where she was. A vision flashed before my eyes, come and gone in a blink; whether it was merely a manifestation of wishful thinking or an actual metaphysical glimpse, I have no idea, but it certainly offered comfort. There was my sister, floating in a sky with no ground below, and she wasn’t giving any of us humans any thought whatsoever, not even our parents or me. Finally, none of us were hassling her, and she was free to be, just be. And on her face was the beatific smile of her girlhood, undimmed.