I saw my dead sister sipping coffee early in the morning at Grand Central Station. I was scrambling for the train that would take me to Lexington and 52nd when I saw her leaning on the granite newel of the East Balcony staircase, a cup of Joe’s Coffee in hand, amused by the willy-nilly of the crowd. She looked downright cheerful, not the snarling sister I spent the last eleven years working to forget. Patty was always beguiled by a crowd of people and it was good to see her finally happy. The last time I saw her she was sandwiched inside the eight inches between the toilet and the marbled wall of her 19th century bathroom, already petrified with the post-mortem rigor of a toppled statue.
I‘d never seen death outside of a casket, so I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed Patty would appear soporific, serene, sacred. In my naiveté, I imagined death as a gentleman caller, offering a moment of civility before allowing a seizure to loot the last beats from a pumping heart. But like I said, I was naïve.
Her left fist looked like that of a newborn with thumbs stuffed tightly inside pink hands, fighting to begin its life, only her hands were blackish-blue, cold, and suspended motionless in mid-air. A lip-liner pencil landed just outside the reach of her right hand whose pointed fingers remained splayed and disjointed. The same blackish-blue trimmed her mouth where the lip-liner ended. Her eyes, rimmed with black oxygen-starved vessels, were yellow and open. Drool spilled from her thick tongue and lay contorted on her chest, giving the image of a person possessed. Her stare appeared almost spiritual—a grotesque tranquility. I stared back. Her coffee sat cold on the porcelain sink above her.
Patty’s mornings began with a cup of black coffee, a fistful of pills, and a seizure. On a good day, she wrestled with only four or five seizures; on a not-so-good day, she’d be flogged by fifteen or more. Each electrifying moment further unfixed her mind from her body so that by evening, she could hardly manage to stammer a word or two. If you asked her a question, she would scan your face, looking for clues in your expression in her wistful attempt to understand the words her brain was too exhausted to process. Frustrated and discouraged, she would bite onto her bottom lip and with a chin puckered by silent tears, resign with a slight nod of her head. Sometimes she knew what she wanted to say, but couldn’t gather the words or will her brain to move her mouth; other times, she was stuck somewhere between this world and the one she traveled to during a seizure.
Patty had an ornery type of epilepsy. The human brain is a chatterbox of about 100 billion nerve cells talking one to another through a throng of electrical currents—quite an engineering feat. For me, as for most of us, the synaptic sparks in this web of neuronal wiring behave properly, firing just the right amount of electrical juice for me to sit erect, cross my legs, and coordinate my fingers. I’m a lucky woman. My sister wasn’t so lucky. Her seizures began in the corpus callosum, the wide river of nerve fiber that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, allowing the left side of her head to talk to the right side and vice versa. Because this is the relay station of activity, her seizures spread throughout her entire brain. Think of it as the NYC subway, and the train running straight up the middle of Broadway grows huge and out of control, two hundred amps of rogue current sizzling the brain’s circuitry. Nearby trains pull in their brakes, begin to shake and rattle before they too seize, the entire system seizes, and the body goes down, helpless. It all happens without warning, without reason. One day—we knew and Patty knew—that the rails would char and retire from too many years of labor. The current would run out of track, and Patty’s morning grand mal seizure would still itself on its last current.
Patty spent most of her childhood in bed, sedated by a heavy dose of barbiturates, while the rest of us were planning sleepovers and playing “It” in the summer grass, giggling with fun underneath her bedroom window. Her harried mom and dad, her brother, her sister, me, and her bed became the parameters of her constricted life. She never experienced coming of age milestones: riding her bike to her first babysitting job, proudly waving her first minimum-wage paycheck, failing her first driver’s test, buying new jeans for a first date, or spacing out with black light posters and Pink Floyd on the headphones in her freshman dorm. Instead, she watched old movies alone in the basement family room while we were out on dates or cruising the back roads with our friends and smoking pot.
In many ways, Patty became a parameter of our lives too. I was only six or seven when I learned to rush behind her to soften her fall, to cradle her head and rub her seizure-stiff limbs. Well-trained ears listened for the faintest sound—the irregular clanking of her hand on a wall or her foot on the floor boards, the rhythmic rattle of unbalanced chair legs, the frantic silence of a single life-saving gasp for breath. Family vacations were spent looking for help from neurologists in far off cities. It was the 1960s. The brain was still the mysterious frontier of the wild west of medicine; there wasn’t much help to be had. A children’s home for the mentally retarded, the specialists concurred, was the best they could offer Patty. So, one late summer Sunday, my parents met with the director of a small group home for girls. I was too young to be left alone and so against my parents’ better judgment, I went with them. The director was a kind man, but stern. He sent me out to his garden while he and my dad tried in vain to persuade my mother to institutionalize her second-born daughter. It was a sobering ride home. My mother locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of the day. That Sunday afternoon was the first time I heard her cry.
Patty’s seizures went from somewhat manageable to incorrigible. Grand mals became a daily norm and so frequent, she could barely make it through a school day without at least one violent collapse. She had no friends. And the more her family tried to befriend her, the harder she pushed us away. Her spastic shrieks frightened teachers and brought classes to an end. Her shame was so great. Fellow students mimed and ridiculed her by falling to the floor with hands flailing above their laughing faces. If one of us—her sisters or brother—were nearby, we would rush to her aid, only to be answered with raging obscenities and a fist in the face. I saw her lying between rows of desks one day as I walked passed her classroom. Miss Bauman, the health ed teacher, and a few other students were huddled around her. Patty was on the floor with the back of her head toward the door. When I walked by, her eyes met mine. I wanted to cry for her, but my insides turned over with knots instead. I should’ve helped; I wanted to help, but I knew I’d get punched, scratched, or worse if I stopped. I knew, too, that a screaming rage would ensue. And what would I do with that?
Her growing resentment outpaced her raging seizures. And her raging anger outpaced our mental strength. I understood her wrath for her pitiful life; I even understood her wrath toward each of us, but not without harboring my own measure of resentment for filling our home with her anger, for her insolence toward our mother, for our inability to help her, for the brokenness of our family.
The years moved on. Our mother died. Two years later, Patty was accepted into an imposing Brownstone richly refurbished to house up to eight men and women with epilepsy. It was the only one of its kind in the city of Pittsburgh and perhaps the only answer for the prayers of eight desperate families. For the first time in her life, Patty was among friends who didn’t shun her, ridicule her, or politely avoid her. The eight epileptics lived as a band of brothers and sisters, each familiar with the curdling shriek of a seizure, the sound of a fallen body and thrashing limbs, and the stumbling clatter of feet trying to regain composure. Instinct told them when to “come quick” and when to “stay away.”
Her anger abated somewhat by then and I enjoyed her company at times. Even so, I lost the energy and the will to stay in touch with her. I rarely returned her phone calls, and our visits became less frequent. Her new band of friends, I hoped, was a way through the moat of her tortured life.
A few months before our mother died, she asked me if I thought it were possible for a mother to at once love and hate her child. I don’t remember how I answered her, but when I saw my sister at Grand Central that Saturday evening in early May, the forty-one years that Patty trudged through our life collected themselves, gathered somewhere—who knows where—in my deep space. A vague sensibility of inward motion—a rapid collapse of something unnamable—a calm madness perhaps—began to pummel about my insides again. It can take tens of thousands of years for a star to implode on itself, reducing its mass to an unseeable, single point and tens of thousands of more years for it to muster enough energy to reignite its center and bring the collapse to a halt. I had the mistaken notion that Patty’s life ended at her fingertips or at the bottom of her feet on the day she died, but life reaches far beyond the boundaries of a body. She’s been dead for eleven years, yet she still orbits my inner spaces like a rogue meteor.
I chanced a glance over my shoulder before losing myself in the bustling crowd, then I tossed the rest of my coffee, still warm and half full, into the trash bin before the turnstile and boarded the train for 52nd Street.
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I saw my dead sister drinking coffee early in the morning on the train to 52nd Street . . .
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Paul Williams