Sister, Redacted: The Other True Story

10/23/1989

I’m 22 years old. I live in South Sacramento with a roommate. I left school a year ago and moved out of the family home because of my father’s violence. You, my little sister, helped me pack, and swore at Dad on my behalf, calling him an “asshole.” I like to write, to make roleplaying games, but being a writer isn’t even a dream. I have no dreams. Not anymore. I haven’t even graduated from college. I just returned to school full-time because my mother is secretly paying for my education. Life is looking up.

I call the family doctor this afternoon to get the results of my sinus x-rays. The receptionist is confused when she hears my voice. Haven’t you heard? she asks. Has no one told you?

No one has called. There are no messages on the machine. She says you, my little sister, have been in a life-threatening accident and are now in a coma. You’ve been flown from Marshall Hospital to U.C. Davis Medical Center.

The floor disappears beneath me. I plunge into a boiling void of grief.

The receptionist says I should get someone to drive me. I don’t know who to call, nor do I know how to ask for help. I don’t have friends nearby. I’m not even entirely sure what a friend is or does because Mom has always said that “friends are snakes.” And even if they’re not a snake, you can’t ask for help from someone you like because they might stop liking you. Or think you’re weak. My roommate is at work. My boyfriend lives two hours away. I don’t call anyone. In the same dangerous rains that slickened the asphalt under your boyfriend’s car, I drive myself. When I arrive at the hospital, I have no idea how I got there.

Our parents are in the ICU lobby. Mom prays with church people. Dad stands apart, hunched over, his dark face wrinkled with rage and despair. They don’t acknowledge me at first. Eventually Dad tells me tearfully what happened, his voice trailing off into a squeak. Your head took the brunt of the impact. You have a severe brain injury and the surgeons have been operating. When the ICU doors open, I brace myself for what will surely be a horrific sight. But the nurse says I can’t see you. Parents only. Despite my intense religious beliefs, I have never felt so helpless. So alone.

When they finally let me see you a week later, you are incredibly fragile, like a sparrow with the feathers plucked from its head. Thick bloody stitches criss-cross your shaved scalp, your scrawny naked wings tethered to massive machines. A thousand years of sleep encrust your eyelids. You are also like a princess in a fairy tale, but you kiss the plastic breathing tube instead of a prince. The neurosurgeon says that in a year, you’ll be more or less the same girl. This news infuses us with hope. Eventually, it will prove entirely, devastatingly wrong.

I can’t stop crying. Or praying.

Take me, not her.

I cancel my Halloween plans. Later, I hear that the people I was to see said I need to “get over” what’s happened and get back to my life. So this is what Mom meant. Their callousness drives a railroad spike in my already agonizing heart.

My boyfriend is kind. He tries to distract me with silly movies. When that doesn’t work, he prays with me. But the truth is I want to die. The pain thrashes inside me, chewing and clawing its way out. I’ve never felt anything like this in my life. Yet I refuse to let it debilitate me. I stay in school. I write stories, poetry. A respected professor in filmmaking reads my work and invites me to take her graduate-level screenwriting course. I’m starting to taste who I am.

For eight months, you’re in a coma. It’s not like it is in the movies, where you wake up suddenly. Day by day, you slowly regain consciousness. Opening your eyes but not seeing. Grasping my hand but not holding it. Agitation strikes without warning at times like a cymbal crash, sending you into hellish gyrations. The doctors move you to a hospital in Pacifica where you are in a room with another Greek girl. She’s a “vegetable” from her head injury. She doesn’t speak or acknowledge others. Her family visits once a month. The rest of the time she stares at the wall. No light in her eyes. Just darkness.

As you eventually awaken, a changeling emerges. A creature who looks like you but who has halting, garbled speech and twisted memories. Childlike. Unable to walk or relate to others. Wild temper tantrums strike you like earthquakes. Whoever this is, it’s not you.

The truth is this: you died. But no one says it. I alone know, but I’m not allowed to speak. Not allowed to feel. Your tragedy is so big that there’s no room for my feelings. Shame presses its foot on my throat. I’m okay. I don’t have a severe head injury. I’m not disabled. I don’t have problems or needs. It’s true, true. Not compared to you. I understand. That’s just how it is.

I assume that someday I will be responsible for you. I decide not to have children. Not that I have any desire for them now.

Nine months after your accident, I get married. The doctor said it would give you something to look forward to. To encourage you to wake up. I have not finished school. On my wedding day, Mom orders me to take care of you in your wheelchair while she sets up everything. Can’t Aunt Velda do it? I ask. I have to get dressed. Do my hair, makeup, eat. I’m getting married, I remind her.

I’m getting married. And I feel so alone.

After the wedding, I move to the Bay Area. I do not see you as often. I finish school. I graduate. I even start working as the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine at Intel. I start making new friends. Friends I can call if something happens. Say, if I need a ride to the hospital because my sister is dying. But I don’t need them for that, thank goodness. Mom and Dad never visit. They come to the Bay Area with you, but they never tell us when they are here.

I don’t talk about your accident. If I do, people ask how you are. I never know how to answer. When I say the truth, the only thing they know about me is your tragedy. They don’t see me anymore. The first thing they ask is if you can walk. I say yes, and then they exclaim, “Oh, that’s good!” As if walking meant you were okay. I want to explain that you died, but that I’m the ghost. They wouldn’t understand. Obviously, you are alive. Even if it isn’t you. And so am I, even if I have no feelings. Or needs.

I realize early on that Mom and Dad shouldn’t be taking care of you. The burden is overwhelming. Mom gets sick with breast cancer but doesn’t tell me until after treatment is over. They say they don’t need help, but in reality they distrust authority figures. Government services. Doctors. Nurses. Mom and Dad keep you isolated. And angry. They tell you things that aren’t true about the people who want to help you.

My grief stretches into years. Mom talks excitedly on the phone about your progress, but when I see you, the changes seem small. You are still dead. I visit your neuropsychologist. He says my feelings are normal. If I were living with you as our parents do, I would be able to accept your condition. But I can’t. I’m still in the Bay Area and now going through a divorce. My life — my God, my life — is in extreme turmoil, but not from the divorce. Not from you, or anyone in the family. My religious beliefs have joyfully, rapturously fled in the wake of real miracles. Someday the world will know the powerful tale of what happened.

But that story is for another time.

During my turmoil, Mom and Dad decide to marry you off to a sweet, disabled man who cannot speak because the plastic breathing tube atrophied his vocal chords. He uses sign language and writes little notes. And he’s very wealthy from his accident settlement. Mom tells me on the phone that he’s the answer to your problems. I ask to speak to you. My heart riots as you tell me you don’t love this man. Mom says you are confused. The wedding happens in the Greek Orthodox church. I refuse to look the priest in the eye.

A couple of months later, I am waiting for a scheduled phone call from Clive Barker — yes, that Clive Barker — when the phone rings. It’s the caregivers assigned to you and your new husband. They beg me to tell them where you are. I can’t. I have no idea what’s happened.

Mom and Dad have kidnapped you, I soon learn. Unable to get control of your husband’s money, Dad abducts you, lies to you about your husband, and forces you to divorce him. I imagine your husband howling mutely with anguish when he realizes you’re never coming home, and I’m enraged. I am not there, they tell me high-handedly. I don’t know what’s going on…

I have no right to speak.

Less than a year passes. I’m disabled myself, in chronic pain. I live in Los Angeles. Alone. And I’m scared for my life. My future looks bleak. Mom calls multiple times a week. Will you be your sister’s caregiver if something were to happen to us? she asks. We need to put it in the will. I’m disabled, I explain. I can’t even take care of myself right now. I promise her that I would make sure you have the best care. This angers her. She calls. And she calls. Over and over. The same question.

No one asks if I’m okay. If I need anything. I’m not a ghost, goddammit.

I stop answering.

10/23/2019

Thirty years have passed since that catastrophic day. Mom and Dad are both dead. Your life is far better than I could have ever hoped. Thanks to your disability benefits, you will never go hungry. You will always have care. The house, which is in a special needs trust, is well maintained. You see doctors on a regular basis. A very special woman cares for you 24/7 with a team of other special women. I didn’t stay away that whole time. I went into therapy to learn how I could deal with Mom and Dad so that I could stay as close to you as possible. Because you wouldn’t understand why I left. And you needed me, especially after Mom died.

When Dad died, I was disabled yet again, awaiting my surgery date. I came to stay with you that first chaotic week until the government agencies could step in. Dad had made no plans for you. He and Mom had lied on legal forms so that you would fall off the grid. He told you that you were not disabled. So, you lashed out whenever anyone mentioned those agencies. (You still do.) You were taught they’re evil, but they saved your life. The weight of Dad’s denial nearly crushed me that week. In three days, I was so exhausted I didn’t know what day it was. I awoke at night shivering, not from cold but from extreme stress.

I jokingly called the house “Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom.” Dad and Mom were hoarding guns, food, and money. Lots of money. One day, I found $70,000 in cash. I could have tossed it into my car trunk in a burlap grocery bag. No one would have known. But I didn’t. Instead, I turned it over to your trustee. Legally, you can only spend the money you inherited that’s in the special needs trust on vacations and gifts. You rarely buy either.

I did the right thing, but I worry it was a mistake.

Dad wrote me out of the will because I was a “traitor.” I spoke to the authorities when another family member reported him for refusing to take you or Mom to the doctor. I wrote to the court when he abused and neglected you. I called the police when he took you out of state against court orders. (I later learned that, after Mom died, he was seen in public kissing you on the mouth. I’d suspected he was doing much worse in private. I wanted to dig him up and murder him a thousand times.) He wrote such terrible words about me in the will that, when my boyfriend found it in the mountain of dining room paperwork, he wouldn’t let me read that part. I already knew Dad had poisoned his side of the family against me for watching over you. Consequently, he wasn’t the only one to disinherit me.

The painful irony is that you’ll never understand my heartbreak. The significant damage to your cerebral cortex means you can’t feel compassion. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Yet I have found a way to build a relationship with the new you. It’s not nearly the relationship we could have had or even what we had, but it’s what we have now.

The truth is this: thirty years ago, I lost all three of you. I’ve stumbled along in a daze for decades, stitching my wounds with ink and binding them with silences. The therapy and self-help groups helped, but the healing truly grew as I gathered to my heart our family members on Mom’s side. They see me, love me, appreciate me, as I do them. They remind me of what family should be.

And I have friends. Real friends. The kind that find you when you’ve crawled off and drawn the drapes to hide the bleeding. That hold you when you’re splintering apart. That help when you can’t do something on your own. That call, listen, and make you laugh. I’m even lucky enough to have a loving husband now who is all of this and much more. His family is everything.

I’ve lost so much. The financial and emotional impact of what’s happened has been beyond devastating. My life isn’t perfect by far. But I do have love. And my art. Hopefully others who have suffered losses like mine will read this and realize that they aren’t ghosts, either, but people with feelings and problems and needs.

Not needs like some, true, true, but still incredibly, extraordinarily important.

“The Question”

As mentioned in a previous essay, my parents were syncretists. (Or should I say syn-cray-tists?) Picking and choosing whatever they liked from each Judeo-Christian religion we visited, they held contradictory beliefs without apparent conflict — that is, until their teenage daughter confronted them one day. (That would be me.) I was 16 at the time of this incident, and we were all supposedly evangelical Christians.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And by innocent, I mean no one in my family.

 

The Question

 

Emily drops me off at my home in Cameron Park one Saturday afternoon after I spend the night at her house.

“I’m home!” I call out, letting my backpack slide from my shoulder. The odor of spicy taco meat wafts towards the front door like plumes of alchemical smoke from a medieval Mexican lab. I silently beg God that the cheese is done because the grater never fails to slice the flesh from my knuckles.

“Hello Mawee-ah!” my father squeals in a girly voice. He careens toward me in his dingy brown polyester pants and oyster white dress shirt spattered with food from last night’s dinner, not to mention fresh dribbles of this morning’s coffee. He wants his “kiss,” which means squashing a slobbery, noisy smooch on my cheek as he makes noises like a squeegee on muddy glass. I reluctantly offer my cheek, putting up a hand between him and my burgundy sweatshirt. While other teen girls cut their sweatshirts Flash Dance–style so that they drape off one shoulder, I’ve re-sewn mine into a Renaissance-style bodice. It laces up the front through metallic grommets with a leather thong over an indigo Academic Decathalon t-shirt that I’ve slashed strategically atop the sleeves and in the cleavage. This is my style: New Wave Renaissance Nerd Princess.

My father, an unworthy peasant, continues. “Did you eat lunch with Emily, Mawee-ah?”

“Yup!” I plow down the hallway towards my bedroom at full tilt, as if I could possibly escape The Question.

He abruptly ceases his baby babble, face darkening as his jowls sweat violence. “What did you eat?” he growls. And now, The Question: “Did you eat pork? YOU DIDN’T EAT PORK, DID YOU?”

Every time I leave their presence and return, The Question hits me like Chinese water torture. Did you eat pork? And every time he asks, I usually brush it off with a breezy “No.” To which he consistently responds, “Good! Because pork is a damn dirty meat! I don’t want any daughter of mine eating it.”

But this time the flint of impatience strikes my flammable teenage hormones and I explode in fiery defiance. “Yes! I ate pepperoni and sausage pizza! So what?”

My mother emerges from the master bedroom with a basket of laundry. She’s a domestic chameleon, her butterscotch slacks and vanilla blouse blending into the walls and carpet. “Awwww, Maria! You didn’t!” The way she says it, you’d think I had announced I’d spent the night at Emily’s robbing banks and shooting heroin.

“I did! Because I’m a born-again Christian, saved by the blood of the lamb, and the bible says I can eat whatever I want!” My bible study is about to payoff. Maybe.

“I’ll show you what the bible says.” My father stomps into the family room towards the lamp stand by the couch where his weathered King James Bible sits. On top of his bible squats his Inter-Linear Greek-English New Testament with Commentary. He loves reading the Greek in low, dry whispers, relishing his arcane knowledge over our monolingual ignorance. He could be making it up, for all I know.

Down the hallway, Danielle’s bedroom door flings open. She explodes from her adolescent alcázar. It wavers with the haze of cheap perfumes, Michael Jackson’s music pulsating within. Great feathery earrings swing from her swarthy lobes as she wades into the fray, heavily glossed lips ready for argument. “Dad? Dad! There’s nothing wrong with pork!” she yells.

Like my father, my pubescent sister has one volume for everything: raucous.

“You be quiet!” he roars.

The volume in the house cranks up as the two of them squabble, Danielle defending my position without any better argument than simply repeatedly shouting, “We’re not Jewish!” Of course, they never ask Danielle what she eats. She and her friends probably go to Long John Silvers for plates of greasy popcorn shrimp and juicy crab legs drizzled with butter. Unlike me, she’s also allowed to listen to rock music – that is, if one can call Michael Jackson “music.” Meanwhile, I have to hide my 45s of Annie Lenox, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden in the album jackets of Brahms and Grieg to play whenever my family leaves the house.

“You go ahead and look that up. I’ll be in here with proof!” I dump my backpack on my bedroom floor and close the door. I then pull my New International Version bible off the bookcase shelf where it lives with my mother’s religious books, and collapse on my bed.

I’ve known this fight was coming. Thanks to my father’s penchant for violence, I’ve avoided the confrontation as long as I can. My heart now jackhammers in my chest as I anticipate something just short of Armageddon. Sick of the hypocrisy and ignorance, I am going to prove to them that the Jewish food laws don’t apply to us and then maybe — just maybe — my father will stop annoying the living hell out of me with The Question.

I examine the passages in the bible I’ve highlighted and memorized. Although quaking with apprehension, I briefly fantasize about an idyllic dinner at Sizzler ordering shrimps with my steak and potato.

The shouting between my sister and father stops. After a moment, someone knocks on my door.

“Come in.”

My father shambles in without even a bible in hand. I wonder what’s up, as he’s never knocked in his entire life and loves dragging out that Inter-Linear book for no reason. It feels unfair to duel an unarmed opponent, but I figure it’s his theological funeral. Of course, it could be my literal funeral.

“What’s this about you eating pork?” His gruffness is shockingly subdued. Still, you could have swapped the phrase “eating pork” for “smoking hash” or “cutting class.” Disappointment paints pouches under his eyes, his gaze strafing the walls rather than meeting mine. He enters the room and shuts the door, plopping down on the sagging edge of the bed.

I point to the bible lying open before me. “Dad, it says right here — ”

He grimaces. “I don’t care what it says. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Yes, it does! In Romans chapter 14, verse 14 it says, ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.’ And then he says, ‘But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.’”

I reign in my enthusiasm for a moment to avoid stumbling into the next verse, which says, ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ I leave that out because I don’t consider my family to be “brothers,” and “love” rarely figures in the father equation. Besides, verse 16 follows, which somewhat undermines the previous verse. It says, ‘Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.’ I take this to mean merely that I shouldn’t eat unclean meat in front of people who are offended by it and that I should defend my actions when called on it. But I want to end the quote on a strong point, not one that seems to concede to my father’s bizarre obsession.

My line of reasoning clear, I bravely knot my thread of logic so that it can’t slip: “So, according to the bible, for you, it’s unclean. But for me, it’s not! And as long as I don’t eat in front of you, I’m acting in love. That’s what the bible says.” Although I wait with triumph for his concession, I also keep one eyeball on the window as an escape route.

“Maria, Maria.” He wrinkles his nose, his glasses nudging upwards. “The Old Testament lays out the food laws for a reason. It’s forbidden to eat unclean meat. Pigs and cloven-hoofed animals are filthy.”

Actually, cows have cloven hooves, but they chew their cud and therefore remain on Moses’ menu. Since my father is from Chicago and neither of us has ever seen a real live cow except in a field from the car window, the error is understandable. I let the error slide in favor of addressing the more egregious issue.

“Don’t you see that we’re Christian now and we don’t have to follow those laws?” I tear through the pages to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 and read out loud from verse 25. “’Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, The earth is the lord’s and everything in it.’” I drill a finger into the page and turn the book towards him.

A tap on the door. “Ah, Maria? Steve?” My mother pushes open the door slightly, peering inside.

Jabbing a thumb at her over his shoulder, my father slides off the bed. “Listen to your mother.” He shuffles out as my mother ambles inside.

Stunned by his denial yet undaunted, I gear up to pitch the argument to my mother, although I know from many a debacle that the fabric of her reasoning is badly frayed. But since she’s here, I figure I might as well try.

“So what’s going on?” Her face lights up with excitement as she lowers herself onto the bed. She probably enjoys being included for once in an “intellectual” discussion between my father and I.

I show her the passages I showed my father and make the identical argument, which I end by saying, “Paul said it! It’s right there!”

My mother shrinks up into herself, folding her arms over her bulging abdomen. She squints at me as she doles out what will go down in history as the least scholarly response ever uttered: “But honey, Paul was the least popular of the disciples.”

Um.

“Nobody liked him,” she continues. “So, in other words, we don’t have to listen to him if we don’t want to.”

“Nobody liked him?” My mouth drops open and my mind somersaults as it attempts to follow the corkscrew logic. “He wrote, like, half the New Testament! I’d say he’s pretty seriously important!”

“But he wasn’t that important.” She turns up her nose with apparent indignation. The statement seems to clear up things for her. Standing from the bed, she digs her hands into her hips in her signature pose. “Are you having lunch with us? Or did you eat already with Emily?”

“I ate, Mom.”

“Oh. Well, then help me with the laundry.”

My mother’s logic has me hog-tied. My hopes of ever escaping The Question spiral down the gorge of insanity. I’ve been denied a rational discussion and, with despair, I realize I’ll only ever have peace once I leave the house.

That won’t happen soon enough.

BDSM Bull

For lots of obvious reasons, people love to ruin and misrepresent BDSM. It’s titillating. It’s weird. It’s there for the storyteller’s taking to destroy, distort and exploit for whatever effect they seek. Here are two great examples.

The Frenchman and I last night watched the really terrible Roger Rees movie, Going Under. I was surprised to see Roger Rees’ hard cock at least three times. Not peeking out, either, but bobbing in the breezes. Woo! Sadly, even this generous revelation was not enough to save this truly appalling film. The BDSM scenes were tepid at best and certainly not remotely realistic. The woman who played the pro domme was annoying to watch with her atrocious acting and unbrushed hair. It would have been okay if it was actually a movie about a therapist curious about BDSM who makes an appointment with a dominatrix and winds up discovering his true sexuality. But no. It had to be this confused mess about a kinky therapist with a wife who apparently lets him see pro dommes, even when it’s clear that he’s fallen in love with the one he’s been seeing for the last two years. It starts at the point where he and the domme have already crossed lines. Roger’s character is this sniveling, sneaky bastard who takes advantage of his open-minded wife by trying to seduce his domme as soon as his wife goes away for the summer to write. The BDSM players are all emotionally screwed up jackasses, wrecking every relationship they have with their runty intimacy skills.

And then someone recently pointed this one out to me: “Writing the Whip.” It’s a “diary” by a supposed professional dominatrix on the site where the 6 Word Memoir thing was born. My pal asked me specifically to read the entry about kidnapping. Are you fucking kidding me? This woman claims to have drank “several flutes of champagne” before commencing a kidnapping scene — get this — in a foreign country with a guy who doesn’t speak English. Sorry to piss on your stilettos, Mistress 21-year-old Asian Pro Domme Ivy League School Graduate*, but you’re romping in the floaty dandelions of a Ridley Scott fantasy flick.

Of course now we’re getting onto the topic of how we live in a world of “reality” victims who gorge themselves on whatever excrement someone puts out there as long as they say it’s “real.” This is just beyond silly and dumb. Can’t we just acknowledge the fantasy and say, “Yes, but I like it anyway”? Whatever happened to loving soap operas and calling them “my stories,” taking the characters to heart because they’re people you can care about? It’s just baffling.

Now back at it.

* HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

The World, It Weighs On Me

Just a warning to everyone that I’ve exceeded my 24-hour limit of jackasses, hacks and frauds. Why don’t they just put themselves in the ground rather than other people? (And is this happening every other fucking day now or what?)

Oh, and Margaret B. Jones can triply fuck herself, as well as the gullible dopes at Penguin who didn’t fact check her story, making it more difficult for someone with a real story to tell. Salopes et cons touts.