We never expected my father to take care of us after my mother died, and we were right. Mom was 53 when colorectal cancer killed her. She left me three girls to raise and a household to run. I was 16.
My sisters and I grew up in Manhattan. Dad worked as a doorman and brought home a paycheck. He ate meals alone and went out on Saturday nights to the Copacabana with his friends. His impeccable clothes and constant hand-washing were at odds with the disorder that comes with kids—the toys on the floor, Cheerios stuck to sweaters, apple juice dribbling down chins. My father liked infants for the same reason he liked cats: He could sit with both of them for hours as they napped on his chest, not talking or demanding more.
When my mother got sick, I saw pitching in as an extension of my normal eldest sister responsibilities. I didn’t mind at first. But as her symptoms worsened, so did my childhood. Soon Mom’s world shrunk down to our apartment and the one-block radius surrounding it because she could walk no farther. New items appeared on the regular list of things I fetched from the store, like oversized packages of adult diapers. My errands also grew more involved. Instead of just picking up milk or bread, I took over all the grocery shopping. I’d arrive at the supermarket armed with the weekly sales circular marked up by Mom’s red marker. A complex system of circles and stars mapped out the items she wanted me to buy. I liked strolling down the aisles and felt like a grown-up as I plucked items off shelves and occasionally slipped in an unauthorized purchase, like a bottle of Mystic fruit punch we couldn’t afford.
In the middle of my mother’s illness, my family moved from New York City to the Poconos. Mom had wanted to move for a long time, and so did I. Back then squeegee guys still ambushed cars headed for the Lincoln Tunnel. My father was mugged, and he armed me with mace when I went out alone. The stretch of Ninth Avenue where I lived couldn’t compare with the suburban idyll of my favorite sitcoms, and I longed for all the references—station wagons, shopping malls, Dairy Queen—that spilled from the mouths of my television families. The Poconos would be the perfect launching pad for my new life, I decided. I’d crush on the boy next door and share secrets with his sister, my new best friend.
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But then Mom was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. She wasn’t just ill anymore—she was dying. Actually, the doctors said she should already have been dead. I wasn’t going to have much time for DQ.
My accident happened while bike-riding with a friend—exactly the kind of outing I’d dreamed of. The brakes quit as I barreled down a steep road. I blacked out and have no memory of falling. Seconds later someone hovered over me, asking if I was OK.
“Yes,” I said, though I wasn’t. No, I didn’t want to go to the hospital. We didn’t have a car, and my mother was dying.
That night, though Mom hadn’t been upstairs in months, she braved the steps to wake me every two hours to check for a concussion.
“What’s your name? What’s seven times seven?”
Cancer had wreaked havoc on her lower body, and a heating pad covered in yellow floral fabric lived permanently on her recliner. She couldn’t sit up easily or lie flat. My back throbbed from the pain of the accident, so we took turns sharing the numbing heat, but it was never enough. Cancer trumped a sprained back, and she needed it more.
We never had a formal discussion about what would happen after my mother died, but Mom spent two years preparing me to take over. I helped her cook Thanksgiving, assembled Easter baskets, broke up my sisters’ arguments, and attended their school performances in her place. I learned how to unclog a toilet and where to get the best price on heating oil. I thought of this arrangement as one long babysitting stint. But some days I locked myself in my bedroom and calculated that I wouldn’t be free of caring for my sisters until I was 24, when the twins would turn 18.
One day after school Mom showed me how to write a check. I received an allowance of $5 a week, but soon I’d handle all of the family’s finances and master forging my father’s signature to pay household bills.
Mom sat in her recliner and readjusted her heating pad. A cigarette rested in an olive ashtray beside a crowd of prescription bottles. Mom’s turquoise sweatshirt hung off her shoulders, and her thin legs dangled like twigs below the hem of her nightgown. She looked like an old woman with her stooped form and labored movements, but also like a baby, with only peach fuzz left on her head.
On her lap she held a shiny navy folder. Papers peeked out the sides, and she handed me a stack. The top sheet showed a grainy black-and-white reproduction of a pale blue check from her Citizen Savings Bank book.
“I made them so we can practice.”
The week before, my mother showed me her system for paying the bills: a hand-drawn grid on a sheet of loose-leaf taped to the wall.
“Pretend you were paying the oil bill. First, you’d put the date, then on the line that says ‘Pay to the order of,’ you’d write Pennywise Oil Company.”
I wanted to get back to the episode of The Cosby Show waiting for me in the other room. But I followed Mom’s directions and wrote in my neatest handwriting. I studied my signature. It looked too practiced, like the signature of someone who had just learned penmanship a few years ago. My letters didn’t slant like my mother’s, with the ease of someone who had signed her name for years.
“Good,” Mom said, looking over my shoulder. I made three or four more checks out to imaginary payees until I got the hang of it.
That November, she died. I walked downstairs one morning to find her hospital bed empty and stripped. Her body had already been removed, my aunt said. In two days we would see my mother again lying in the casket she had picked out weeks before. She had already paid for her own funeral.
I went upstairs and woke my sisters by tugging off their covers.
“I have some bad news,” I said, as though we’d run out of milk. Instead, I was to announce something like a nuclear bomb going off. “Mom died.” I’d already come to loathe expressions like “pass away” and vowed never to pretty this reality with euphemism. In the weeks ahead, when creditors called to collect on unpaid medical bills, I’d relish giving it to them straight. “Is your mother home?” they’d ask. “No, she’s dead.”
But my bluntness startled my sister Joelle, and she fired back, half-irritated, half-fearful, “You’re joking.”
“No, I’m not,” I giggled in a fit of nerves. I was not a giggler. I cried easily. But that morning I laughed harder and repeated that our mother had died as my other sister Shauna sobbed.
Candor became my trademark move. As Christmas approached, my father and I scrambled to cover the gaping hole my mother’s death had left—logistically, emotionally, and financially. Dad didn’t have much money to give me for my sisters’ presents. What I was able to put under the tree looked paltry, even after I strategically propped up a few flat packages to give the illusion of abundance. Sensing disappointment on Christmas morning, I told my sisters, “You know Santa isn’t real. Dad and I had a lot of funeral bills, so I hope you understand.” I was certain they already knew the truth about Santa. They were savvier than I had been at that age. And anyway, I couldn’t risk them thinking they were bad or undeserving. It was tragic enough to lose your mother at 10, let alone think Santa had punished you with crappy presents the same year.
“What?” my sister said, looking confused and wounded.
“C’mon, you knew,” I said, annoyed at myself for underestimating their naïveté. I had become not only a poor substitute mother, but also official bearer of bad news, guiding my sisters through a world of loss.
For the last two years of high school, I lived a double life. I was quiet, responsible, and a straight-A student. No one really asked me much about the life I went home to, and I didn’t want to talk about it anyway.
My father continued working in New York, a 2½-hour bus ride away, and spent most of the week there while my sisters and I stayed in Pennsylvania by ourselves. On nights he didn’t come home, I prayed nothing happened, like a fire or break-in that would alert the authorities to our questionable arrangement. In addition to the “no punching your sister” rule, I instituted new ones for our changed circumstances: No opening the door to strangers. Not even if it’s a cop or a fireman—especially if it’s a cop or fireman. Never say “Dad’s not home” if someone calls. Say “He can’t come to the phone right now.”
After Mom died, I had more freedom than I’d ever had in my life and no idea what to do with it. Mostly I just bought previously unauthorized purchases at the grocery store, like gummy worms. I never had to worry about getting in trouble again, but I liked to imagine that Mom had just gone somewhere for a while and would be back. Dad made that easy enough. After reporting to the Social Security office to collect on our mother’s death benefits, we didn’t talk about Mom again.
But her absence was always felt. With Mom gone, we had no one to serve as a buffer against my father’s temper. She’d often taken the brunt of his outbursts. A typical argument with my father stemmed from any number of minor annoyances, such as his dislike of the TV shows we watched, the food I cooked for dinner, and the scent of our nail polish. Fortunately, distance helped. We saw him weekends and maybe one night a week. My father never stayed longer than he had to, so the periods we spent with him came with a definite expiration date that helped us all manage our time together.
Managing situations is pretty much what we all did. During the eight years I raised my sisters, I never mothered them. I made sure the house didn’t burn down and that everyone had a bowl of spaghetti at dinner. A combination of delayed grief and teenage invincibility powered me through, but I didn’t have the ability to nurture myself, let alone those girls. When a caring college professor hugged me one day, I realized that no one had done that in four years. In my family I occupied an awkward, indeterminate place, somewhere between sister and mother, daughter and wife. That undefined space still shapes my relationships with my siblings and father 17 years after my mother’s death. I’ve accepted that this strangeness will probably never go away. I don’t have any children of my own yet, in part because it’s still hard to wrap my mind around ever having that staggering responsibility again. I feel sorry for those little girls who lost the most important person in their lives too early. I wish I could have been a better replacement, but that was never going to happen.
I was only six years old when it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was early one summer's morning. Daddy came into our bedroom without a sound and sat down at the edge of my bed. He didn't look like Daddy at all. He looked so small and scrunched up, like a crumpled piece of paper.
For a long time my two older sisters and I sat there in our pyjamas, nervously looking at each other and waiting in silence for him to speak.
Finally, in a strange strangled whisper, he told us that my brother, my sweet little Sam, had died last night in his sleep
The sounds of screaming filled the room. But I...I just froze. I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. No! A voice screamed inside my head. Sam! Sam! You wouldn't leave me! You wouldn't!
Above the cries I could hear Daddy telling us that Sam had gone to a better place where he wasn't sick anymore; he was happy there. But I refused to believe him. Sam was happy here with me! He loved me and I loved him. I knew it was all a horrible dream. I would wake up soon and run straight to Sam. I would see him lying in his bed and I would hold his hand and kiss his cheeks and love him forever.
Even though Sam was only four, almost two years younger than me, and even though he had a disease called Tay Sachs and couldn't speak or laugh or play, he was my very best friend in the whole world.
Every day while he lay in bed I would sit with him for hours, stroking his soft cheeks and singing him songs. Daddy said he was like my little dolly. But he was so much more than that -- he was my everything.
He was part of me and I was part of him. It couldn't be that Sam had left me all alone and I would never see him again.
It was hard for me to breathe. I was so scared that this terrible dream was not a dream after all.
But I could hear Daddy's voice saying over and over inside my head. "Sam's gone. Sam's gone." The words became louder and louder and my heart began to beat faster and faster and there was nowhere to hide and it was hard for me to breathe and I was so scared that this terrible dream was not a dream after all.
I looked up at Daddy. How I wished he would tell me that this was all some big mistake. But when he looked back at me I saw one small tear escape from the corner of his eye, like wax from a candle dripping slowly down his face, and I knew it was true. That cruel word "death" had come and taken my brother away.
I fell onto my bed and cried. I felt all the happiness and laughter inside of me sort of...fly away, and a black, ugly feeling crept in. It spread itself over every part of me, it sank into my bones and it crawled inside my heart. And I thought I would never be happy again.
"All for the best"?
After a short while lots of people that I had never seen before started coming into the house. One by one they came in with their heads held low. I wanted to speak to Mommy. To ask her what was going on. Who were all these strange guests? Why was everyone talking so quietly? It was all so confusing, so frightening. All I wanted was my Mommy to hold me, to look after me, to tell me what was happening, but now she was surrounded by strangers and seemed to be somewhere far, far away.
A large woman came over to me, grabbed me by the hand and made me sit next to her. "Poor little thing," she said, patting my leg. "You're brother was very sick," she told me, as if I didn't know. "Things will be much better now that your Mommy won't have to look after him anymore. It's all for the best. But your Mommy's very sad right now. Can you understand that?" she asked as if I were a little baby.
I stared back at her, unable to speak.
"Try not to bother her right now. Maybe you can go and find some toys to play with," she said patting my leg again before she got up and walked away.
I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs to that woman: Just because I'm a child doesn't mean I don't have any feelings of my own! Don't you dare tell me that this is for the best! This is the worst thing that could ever happen in the entire world! My brother may have been sick but I loved him with all of my heart!
Nobody noticed me, crushed into thousands of pieces in the corner. Then suddenly I was told that it was time for me to go to school.
But nobody heard me. Nobody noticed me, alone and crushed into thousands of pieces in the corner.
And then, all of a sudden, I was told that it was time for me to go to school. I was buckled up in the back of a neighbour's car and in silence we drove to school.
I stood outside the cold, green gates, watching the children play for some time before I finally forced myself to enter them. I wanted to run away, I was so scared, so sad, so lonely, but there was nowhere to run and no one to run to. I made my way inside, feeling lost and alone.
With every step I took, another little head turned in my direction; the staring, the pointing, the giggling, I saw it all and I made myself carry on. By the time I found my friends my face felt like it was on fire and my chest was beating so loudly it was as if someone was playing the drums on my heart.
At first nobody spoke to me, they only stared. But I was glad. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Then a girl from my class started walking towards me. Don't speak to me. Please don't say anything! I prayed.
But it seemed that my prayers weren't being answered that day. "The teacher told us that your brother died!" she announced for everyone to hear. "Is it true?"
No one said a word. They only stared at me as if I was some sort of alien and desperately waited to hear my answer. And right then I knew that I would never let any of them see me cry. And I never did.
In a short time the death of my brother became old news; my friends quickly moved on and soon forgot I ever had a brother.
But I did not forget.
I thought about Sam every day, I missed him so much. Many times, I would come home from school, run straight into my mommy's arms and burst into inconsolable tears. She would hold me close, stroke my hair and tell me that she loved me. She was always there for me. But still, the terrible pain inside of me never left me. My heart felt like one big bruise inside of me that ached and would never go away.
Without Sam I wasn't whole. A part of me was missing.
Night after night I pressed my face into my pillow so that nobody would hear me and I cried. I called out to God with all my might, again and again. I really thought if I begged hard enough He would bring Sam back to me.
And then I would whisper up to Sam, "I miss you. I love you. Do you miss me? I want you to come home. I'm all alone without you. Please come back."
And only once I was too tired to cry anymore would I finally fall asleep.
For seven long, lonely years I begged, I hoped, I waited. But He never did bring him back to me.
The years passed and eventually all I had left were some faded memories and a broken heart.
Imprisoned in a world of my own silence, my heart seemed to be barricaded behind locked doors.
After years imprisoned in a world of my own silence, my heart now seemed to be barricaded behind locked doors. My throat clogged up and my tongue stuck to my palate every time I tried to speak about my past.
High, invisible walls erected themselves around my aching heart, and though I had many friends, I was unable to express any of my deepest thoughts or feelings with them. I could not let anyone get truly close no matter how hard I tried.
Luscious gardens with beautiful roses encircled the wall, giving the illusion of a happy, cheerful girl, always smiling. But on the inside, I was crying.
It was not until I met my husband that I was finally able to become my true self. He saw the wall behind the roses, and brick by brick, he helped me to pull it down. And for the first time in my life I was able to open up. And after much persistent effort on his part, and much crying on my part, bit by bit I was at long last able to share a part of my soul with the other half of my soul. He listened, he cared, he cried, and he helped me to see that even though my brother was no longer here with me, he will always be a part of me.
He was always there
A year later I gave birth to our first child. It was a baby boy. He was the most beautiful boy, with his soft cheeks and blue eyes. We named him in the memory of my brother.
And now I look back on those years with increased wisdom. For so many years I cried to God. I put all my hope in Him. But then, as time passed and I grew older, I saw that God was never going to bring my brother back, so I stopped asking. I stopped speaking to God altogether. It seemed that He had abandoned me and so I abandoned Him in return.
It was my very calling out to God that kept me from falling apart.
It was 12 years later when I started to rebuild my connection with God. It was then that I realised that the foundations of my relationship with Him were in fact formed during those painful years. The whole time I had felt so alone in the world, but I was wrong. God was always with me. He was my hope. My life line. It was my very calling out to Him that kept me from falling apart. Because now I see that He was always there, holding me in His loving arms and kissing away my endless tears as I cried myself to sleep.
Though I may never know why this had to happen it does not mean I have to turn my back on God. I may not understand His ways but there is one thing I do know; God loves me, He loves my brother, He loves us all.
It only seemed like He deserted me when I give up on Him.
He didn't answer my prayers the way I wanted, but He never left my side. He never did abandon me. He stroked my cheeks, He held my hand and He caught my tears. He was my comfort. I poured my heart out to Him. I held onto Him and He held on to me. He never let go, and as long as I keep on holding on, He never will.
Written in the memory of my brother, Aryeh Leib