One of the most formative moments of my life was the afternoon my older sister first tried to kill herself.
I was sixteen, a college student, in the middle of a studio art class I adored. My cell phone rang and I took it into the hall. It was my younger sister, in a rush she told me our older sister had intentionally overdosed, that our parents had revived her, that the ambulance was on the way. “Should I come home?” I asked, numb and unsure what to do. “There’s no point,” she said. “You’ll be home after class anyway, and Mom and Dad won’t be home before then.”
So I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, and went back to work.
I had long been used to taking a deep breath and doing something hard because my sister needed me. To keep her safe and out of trouble I had stolen our parents’ car time and time again. “You know I’ll crash it and die if you don’t drive,” she said, and she was right, so I did. I drove my underaged sisters over state lines to sit soberly watching drug use I could not understand enjoying, only to drive everyone home before my parents noticed their car missing. I learned young to sit in silence and listen when she came into my room to rant a mile a minute about hallucinogenic-fueled epiphanies on death and life; I learned that being present and receptive and kind was all I could often do for somebody hurting.
When she survived a serious car accident, her car drifted across three lanes of the freeway, rolling through the ravine and nearly taking off half her face when the airbag deployed, I took a deep breath and went back to work. I was in Chicago, she was in Michigan with our parents. There was nothing I could do for them, or her. All I could do was not think about my grief or rage or fear, and keep moving.
My mother emailed me half a dozen times in the weeks leading up to my wedding, warning me how suicidal my sister had become, what she thought the odds were of my sister living until the wedding, and telling me, “If she kills herself the week before the wedding, I don’t think you should cancel.” I assembled centerpieces and folded programs, and it wasn’t until half an hour before the wedding began it was clear my sister was alive, attending, and en route.
She tried to kill herself again when I was pregnant with the twins. I was maybe ten or twelve weeks along, and she took a bottle of aspirin or something, her heart rate was terrifyingly low for a very long time, and I could hear in my mother’s voice on the phone how weary and frightened and resigned she was. “I’m coming,” I said. That was another formative moment. I got on a train and went to my parents, where I sat in silence with my sister on the porch as she let cigarettes burn down to her fingers without raising them to her mouth, and I gently urged her to sit if she fell asleep standing up.
In the years of my youth and early adulthood the idea that I would have a real, meaningful relationship with her, that I would be friends with her and trust her and spend joyful hours with her as mature adults, was not something I could believe. She was mentally ill, though she denied this vehemently. She suffered from addiction, although she did not believe this was a problem. She was belligerent and self-destructive. She was also brilliant, her wit and comprehension and intellect so mind-shatteringly broad, she seemed to me proof perfect that there was danger in being too smart, that too much intelligence was itself madness, that the brain could not withstand the burdens of understanding so much.
She remains the smartest person I have ever known.
Around the time my twins were born, she got on methadone. Although she would never ascribe her choices to any external factors like addiction treatment or the birth of her nieces, I believe they were two critical facets in the prism of her transformation. She loved those babies on sight, despite generally hating babies. She enjoyed not getting dope-sick, being in more control of her life. She did get in control of her life, more in control than I ever guessed she could be. She shared her writing with me, in which she was frank and painfully honest about the traumas she could not begin to see as anything other than facts; rapes, assaults, homelessness and disease, and the rage that burned in her at these experiences in her youth that gave way in adulthood to an aching sadness she never seemed willing to acknowledge.
But she wasn’t sad, really, she was neurotic. She had bouts of agoraphobia and mania, she became easily overwhelmed. But she was also kind. She was also sweet. She was thoughtful and demonstrative and although her brain was never something I had the capacity to understand, she used it for compassion.
During the last years, when she lived in Chicago, she and I saw each other often. She babysat. We went out to eat on whims. We were friends. We were part of each other’s lives. My children never saw the version of her I had been so used to having in my life. In the last decade, I didn’t tell “Shana Stories,” tales of her arrests and brilliant insanity, the outrageous hijinks she got into, the infamy of her adolescent misdeeds. I didn’t want to sully anyone’s opinions of her. She was amazing. She was brilliant. She was hilarious and charming and passionate and talented. She wasn’t my fuck-up older sister. She was awesome. We didn’t always get along, but I had the older sister I believe I would have imagined when we were small, if little children imagined mundane adult lives.
She was incredible, baffling, hilarious, utterly unique.
We lost my sister last week. It wasn’t suicide, or a drug overdose. Most likely it was a seizure, currently presumed as triggered by Covid-19. We won’t know for months, until the autopsy results come back. All we know is she didn’t turn up for our family’s virtual seder, though she was cooking a brisket, although she said the day before she was looking forward to seeing everyone, although she had virtual second-night-seder plans with her friends. With me and Mike going through so much, in the last weeks of her life she had ordered me a birthday present early, and sent dress-up costumes to my children. She had plans to be there, not only on Wednesday night but for years. She was planning on being alive, something still new and thrilling to her.
I have spent the last eleven years getting more and more comfortable with the idea that she wasn’t going anywhere. That she is gone is like a knife in my gut. I spent so much of my life getting ready for this moment, then peeling away all my defenses in order to enjoy how close to her I could become. I had no idea how raw I would be underneath that armor. I feel flayed. I feel hollowed out.
With the volume of dead rushing through the city morgues, with lockdowns and sheltering-in-place, none of the things one expects in the wake of the death of a loved one are true. We cannot sit as a family together and mourn. I cannot hug my parents, or my surviving sister. “My surviving sister.” It is only through the goodness of a dear friend who works in mortuary science that I was given a chance to view her body, shroud it, and say goodbye– but I did this without the rest of my family, changing gloves every time I touched her, my sobs muffled behind a mask, unable to wipe my tears from fear of touching my face. Hers was not a good death, and it was nearly two days before she was discovered, and I cannot say it was easy to see her. But the morticians did more than they needed to, in an act of deep kindness, to soften the blow. When I had done all I could to give her the dignity and drama she deserved, when I had told her I loved her, I always loved her, I always envied her and aspired to her brilliance and craved her approval, and that I was so sorry I ever made her feel she deserved less than that, I turned my back, took a deep breath, and I went back to doing what needed to be done.
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This is the closest thing to a funeral one can get right now. A true friend in the end-of-life business, some letters from your children to your dead sister, and strict PPE use. I was able to see her and shroud her in a way she would approve. I was able to look at her face and know what happened to her. I was able to let my mind see what it did not want to understand. I am so grateful even for that. And if you don’t understand the toll of #covid19, imagine watching your friend the former funeral director cry behind her mask when she tells you this weekend the crematoriums will begin working 24 hours a day. My big sister is really gone. And there is nothing that can fix any of it. But I got to see her for the last time, and somehow I managed to stand up again.
My sister is dead, and my family is in mourning, in all our disparate shelters. We’ll have a memorial, someday, when we are free to travel and gather. For now, there isn’t much I can do for my parents, my surviving sister. The community that came out en masse for me and Mike this summer, they are still there online and on the phone, but there will be no crew of friends carrying my burdens when I am too weary. There will be no coffee dates and long lingering hugs. There will be no parade of friends and neighbors with casseroles to fill my freezer.
What I can do is sit and listen when the kids come in and talk a mile a minute. I can tell them how brilliant their aunt was. How funny. How observant and incisive. How her vocabulary stunned me. How her talent awed me. How her complete self-possession inspired me. And when it’s time for me to stand up and advocate for my husband, when the phone rings and it’s time to schedule nursing care or chemotherapy, I will take a deep breath, and do what needs to be done.
If I am strong, it is because she made me strong. If I am ambitious, it’s because I knew there was no world in which I would achieve a fraction of what she could. If I am well-read or informed or opinionated, it is because I was always trying to keep up with her, always trying to match her, always trying to be somebody she would also look up to, somebody she would see as a peer.
Her friends tell me, she did.
She didn’t believe in an afterlife, but if her ghost is still wandering around somewhere, I hope I can make her proud.
Her obituary is here: https://www.mykeeper.com/profile/ShanaBorenstein/ If you knew her, please feel welcome to leave stories about her, pictures of her, anything. We miss her dearly, and every remembrance warms our hearts.
Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era is out now!
I wrote about my sister in the anthology, “My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends.” I also wrote about another fraught friendship when promoting that book, and the friend I wrote that about died in February. To have lost two such important people in such short order, in such tragic ways, feels like being waterboarded with grief. You can read about my friend Jac here: In Memory of JM Bates
Read my most recent post here: Singing Dayenu in a Hospital in the Midst of a Plague
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