I always feel as though I should start every blog entry with “I know hardly anyone will read this and it’ll probably come across as self-indulgent navel-lint-picking, but I’m posting it ANYWAY.” So, that said, if you’re still reading this, I apologize in advance for what will probably be a real downer of an entry.
My sister Elizabeth passed away on August 16 or 17, 2022. Due to the circumstances of her passing, it’s impossible to say exactly when.
She was my oldest sibling, three and a half years my senior. She and I were not especially close, not by a conscious decision on either of our parts. She lived in Florida and I live in Vermont and we only spoke a few times a year.
See, Elizabeth was on disability, suffering from schizophrenia and related disorders as well as the effects of a lifetime of doctors saying “Let’s take you off THAT drug and try you on THIS one.” She was quiet and calm and never seemed to have anything to say. “Hi, Elizabeth, it’s Jay, how are you?” “Oh, I’m fine.” “You doing anything interesting lately?” “I’m taking some art classes.” “Everything going okay?” “Yes.” Etcetera. There was never any news to report, never any questions from her about how I was doing; her statements were responses to my direct questions, offered without elaboration. Every call was like that, try as I might to draw her out and get her to show something other than just blank, flat affect.
I felt guilty as heck for not calling much more often, but each time I did call, no matter what I said or asked or did, the answers were pretty much the same. I am certain that she was more outgoing in person with people she was taking art classes with, or with my cousins who she had dinner with a couple of times a week, or with people from church. I don’t feel like I really knew her any longer — I only knew what I could deduce or infer or see from my calls and occasional face to face encounters. Perhaps she just didn’t feel like opening up to me. I’ll never know.
Elizabeth was adopted. My parents had been married for several years and had tried without success to have children. They adopted Elizabeth in 1964 and, as so often happens, then things started happening. My sister Julie was born a year after Elizabeth, then I was born two and a half years after that, and then finally my brother Rob was born three years after that. Elizabeth got good grades in school, was a Girl Scout, took piano lessons and dance lessons, had friends — an absolutely typical childhood. Then, at some point in late in her high school years, schizophrenia symptoms set in hard. She became a very different person very quickly, not by choice but because her brain was all of a sudden betraying her. I remember many bad nights when Elizabeth was completely out of control, upset and raging, detached from reality and mired in incredibly dark black depression.
It did not help that the state of mental health care and treatment in the early 1980s in the state of Virginia was not at all what one would have liked it to be. I made reference above to doctors changing her medications frequently; that’s not an exaggeration. Each time she was passed on to another psychiatrist for a medication evaluation she would come home with a completely new set of prescriptions having been told “I don’t know why they had you on THAT and THAT”. Six months later, she’d get switched again. Over time, she became quieter and quieter and more just sort of … there.
The medications and care helped somewhat, but all thought of her heading off to college (she did graduate from high school) were pretty much abandoned. She had a few boyfriends who were of the “skeevy, no-count” variety. There were at least two times that Dad and I had to drive up to wherever she was currently living and rescue her from whichever abusive boyfriend she was sharing a mobile home with. One time we got a call from her informing us that she and her current guy were in Melbourne, Florida and she needed our help to come home because he’d wrecked her car. And so forth. It was no kind of life and I would give anything to be able to go back and somehow stop all that from happening, somehow. To bring her previous self back and to set her back on the course to have a happy and full life.
Eventually she wound up just living with my mother and father at the house we all grew up in, then at the house in Florida that they retired to in the mid-1990s. Mom and Dad retired to the town Mom grew up in: Brooksville, Florida, a relatively sleepy little town a couple of counties north of Tampa. Elizabeth qualified for Florida Medicaid and continued to get Social Security disability payments. She did take a lot of art classes — she was very fond of painting plates and bowls. She did watercolors and colored pencil drawings and all manner of other things.
And so things went for sixteen years or so. Then Mom passed in 2011 and it was just her and Dad in the house, with my wonderful cousin Anne living across the street and looking in on them and helping out and doing endless errands and meals. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Dad was a very short-tempered man and had very little patience, empathy, or tact. He endlessly bullied Elizabeth and hectored her every chance he got. “You didn’t go for a walk? Why not?” “When you go for a walk, you need to do more than just walk halfway down the street and back, Elizabeth!” I’ll spare you the whole litany, but essentially, Elizabeth couldn’t do anything right in Dad’s eyes.
When Dad passed in 2016 the house was sold (thanks to an enormous amount of work by Julie and Anne to get the place emptied out and cleaned and into shape where we could actually sell it) and his estate divided among the four kids with a chunk going to Anne. Elizabeth moved to a subsidized apartment and for the first time in decades, was in a position to really make her own decisions. She could drive, she had a car, she had money inherited from Dad (although, to avoid making her ineligible for Medicaid and disability, it was put into a trust and disbursed by a trustee as needed). She continued to take her art classes, had dinner twice a week with Anne and her sisters Cathy and Mary and our aunt Esther, and as far as I knew was doing more or less okay.
I hate that “as far as I knew”. I never once in the six years between Dad’s passing and Elizabeth’s passing went down to Brooksville just to visit her and see how she was doing. I did make at least one trip down after Dad’s death to do a few things relating to the house. That’s something else I feel very guilty about, by the way. I guess at the time I kind of justified leaving a lot of the grunt work of getting the house cleaned and repaired and sold to my sister Julie and my cousin Anne on the grounds that they were willing and available and I had a busy work travel schedule at that time. (I’m an ass.) I should have done much more.
I do know for a fact that I did not show enough gratitude to Julie and Anne for all that, by the way.
At that point in my life I was traveling for work 40+ weeks a year… and had my own major depression to cope with … and kept thinking “I should go down and visit” but years went by and I never did. Those periodic “How are you?” calls were about the extent of things.
Then I got a call from Anne on Wednesday, August 17, out of the blue. She was the bearer of bad news. Elizabeth had passed away.
Elizabeth hadn’t shown up the previous evening for dinner at Anne’s house and, worried, Anne had gone over to check on her. If I understand it correctly, Anne didn’t have a key to get in, and Elizabeth did not answer the door. The police were called to do a health check and the apartment manager had a key so they could get in — and upon entering, they found her on the floor.
There was no sign of foul play. There had been no prior indications that Elizabeth was at risk; everyone knew that Elizabeth had high cholesterol and high blood pressure and rarely exercised and, as we found out subsequently, seemed to live off ice cream and diet soda, but there had been nothing especially unusual in previous weeks that would have made Anne and Mary and Cathy say “Elizabeth, you should see a doctor”. (No autopsy was performed; I believe the coroner’s verdict was a heart attack.)
I flew down to Tampa first thing the following morning and Julie drove down from North Carolina. My brother Rob lives in western Canada and was not in a position to come down. Julie and I met with a funeral director to arrange Elizabeth’s cremation, and then we went to close out Elizabeth’s apartment, clean it up, figure out what could be donated and what would just be tossed out, etcetera. And that’s when I really wanted to cry. Elizabeth’s apartment was an absolute nightmare. Literal mounds of unwashed clothing. Trash everywhere. The apartment was almost impassable. It was, frankly, like one of the episodes of that TV show about hoarders. Elizabeth had been living in absolutely squalid conditions and even now, sitting here two months later in Vermont, I still want to cry just thinking about it. Her dying was bad; her dying without my having seen her in six years because I was always “too busy” was worse, but worst of all was knowing that she’d been living in that state.
I should have been coming down at least once a year to check in on her and see how she was doing and not just rely on her saying “I’m fine” and figuring that if she wasn’t fine someone would tell me. I don’t know how long things had been like that but I hated the thought of her living like that for even a day — and it could have been and probably was years. My cousins are terrific people but they had respected Elizabeth enough to let her make her own choices — I certainly don’t fault them or think that they should have been inspecting Elizabeth’s apartment on a regular basis. I should have been checking in on her. Not just calling, but being there in person like a decent person would have done. I know I couldn’t have been there to clean her apartment for her once a month or something, but I have to think there would have been some way to keep things from getting to that state.
If only I hadn’t been so good at making excuses. Yes, I’m mentally ill. Yes, I’ve got terrible depression that incapacitates me from time to time. Yes, I have a demanding job. Yes, I’ve got my own life to lead. That’s all a bunch of B.S. She was my sister, and I let her down.
The one comforting thing about that trip to Florida to excavate and clean Elizabeth’s apartment (which took days of Julie and me working together and making trip after trip to the nearby dumpster) was that the memorial service we held at Cathy’s house the following Monday was well attended.
Julie and I had tried to reach out to as many people Elizabeth knew as we could; folks from her church, people she’d been in art classes with, people from a few groups she’d belonged to, hoping that word would get around to the people we didn’t know to invite, and that somehow we’d get a respectable showing. On Sunday morning, we’d gone to the First United Methodist Church of Brooksville; she’d been a member for many years and had sung in their choir. People there were very sad to hear of her passing. We asked the new pastor at the church, who’d never had an opportunity to meet Elizabeth, if he could come and lead prayers at the memorial service and he was happy to agree. Next thing we knew, it seemed the whole choir was making plans to attend, with an electronic keyboard and everything.
Cathy’s house was absolutely packed and person after person shared stories about their time knowing Elizabeth and saying how much she’d meant to them and how much they would miss her. Some of her favorite songs were sung. The minister led prayers and said a few words. There was plenty of food there as well — no one left hungry. All in all, the memorial really was everything we’d hoped it would be, and more. We hoped that somewhere, Elizabeth was watching.
But that’s the other thing that really saddened me: I’d never seen the side of Elizabeth that everyone talked about. I had tried on so many occasions, while my parents were still alive, and via phone after they were both gone, to draw her out, to get her to really open up to me, and I’d never succeeded. Perhaps I was too much like my father in her eyes. I can understand her not wanting to share with me if I reminded her of the man who had hounded her all those years.
But in the end I’ll never know. All I know is that there was far more to Elizabeth than I was aware of… and that I let her down in so many ways.
In closing, I’m reminded of a quote from Bret Harte:
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”
More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”
Farewell and goodbye, sister. I’m sorry you’re gone.
Jay, your articulate writing made me feel your heartache. I have tears in my eyes. I’m so sorry you struggled with an additional burden beyond your own. While my brother didn’t have a mental illness, there was so much in your writing that I could relate to. Cleaning out the house, why, why were there so many medicine bottles? Why didn’t he let us know his heart was worse than he told us? Why didn’t he take better care of himself? Why didn’t I go across the country and see him more frequently? Please know, that beyond what modicum of healing which your story may help you, I so appreciate you making the effort to do it.
So sorry for your loss Jay
I’m so sorry. I’m sure your sister appreciated your regular check-in calls even if there wasn’t much to them, and that she knew if she reached out for more you would be there. If it helps any, she might have been content with her life in that apartment even though it looked awful to others.