Thursday, April 7, 2011

Losing Siblings

"I'm the only one left. They're all gone."
 An elderly relative is telling me of the recent death of her 91-year-old sister. I listen as she fondly describes growing up with four siblings and the emptiness she feels now that they aren't around anymore.

I am confused because I only knew her to have three siblings. "Oh no," she says. "There were five of us -- I had a baby brother who died when he was a toddler." She tearfully recounted, "I remember playing with him and how devastated we were when he got sick and passed away." I can tell the hurt is still strong for her some 80 years later. That is the nature of losing a sibling.

Some siblings are lost through death, others to squabbles and disagreements. Sometimes it's minor, and sometimes it's major, although it seems to me that when you're standing over a sibling's grave, most conflicts will pale in comparison.

Many times, money is the culprit in family disagreements, especially when it comes to inheritances. In my own family, I saw my mom's two older brothers fall out and stop speaking to each other. They were each in their late 60s when the dispute began. It was over an insurance policy that had probably been cashed out 40 years before and had little cash value.

The brothers went to their graves without speaking -- each living over 10 years with no contact. The one who outlived the other did go to his brother's funeral. At the grave he was heard saying, "All he had to do was pick up the phone and call me." At that point it was too late.

Unfortunately, sibling rivalries and disappointments can last a lifetime.

I also remember a beloved aunt who severed ties with her family. She was the eldest of the seven kids, and we all called her "Sister." Sister was sort of the rebel of the family, and from what I heard, she kept tongues wagging most of her life. She lived where she wanted to live, dated whom she wanted to date, and had a hair-trigger temper. I remember her as my most "fun" relative.

Sister left her native Texas in the '40s and moved to San Francisco, which she loved. I live in "the City," she would say in a condescending way to her siblings who had settled across the bay in Oakland. On weekends, Sister and I would traverse the town enjoying all San Francisco had to offer: the Fillmore District, Castro, the Wharf, Nob Hill, Cable Cars, the tour boat to Alcatraz, Chinatown, and Candlestick Park to see Willie Mays! She loved the city and passed that on to me. Also, she taught me to drink foreign teas! We would have tea parties where she would serve using her "good china."

Sister had a dark side, which I saw more of as I got older. Today, we would probably diagnose her with some mental illness and say, "Oh well, Sister forgot to take her meds." However, in those days, whenever she would go into one of her rants, they just said, "Well, you know Sister is crazy!"

Years later, when she was near 80, Sister decided that she was done with her family and moved to Nevada. She left no forwarding address. I remember one of my last conversations with her when she told me that as far as she was concerned, she had no family. "Everybody needs family, Sister," I chided her. "Not me," she said. She had just received a sizable inheritance and took off to spend her remaining days at the slot machines. We never heard from her again.

A couple of years after she left, one of my uncles went to Nevada to try to track her down. He had heard that she was in the Reno area and had gotten into an altercation with someone and pulled a gun. Apparently, the police were involved, and she was institutionalized and died a few months later. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But, I have to admit, this is the way we thought she would go out.

I've thought of still trying to find her, or at least where she is buried. I'm sure there was a police report on her in Nevada (probably one of many). But she's gone -- has been for over 20 years. I've since lost all my other aunts and uncles -- her siblings.

My mom is the only one still alive of the seven kids. Every now and then, I hear her say tearfully, "I'm the only one left. They're all gone.."

Sister and I.  Circa 1960.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 4/7/11)