Sisters fight. Brothers fight, too. Siblings fight! There is no way around that.
My big sister Mary and I fought often, and vociferously. She was older, beautiful, athletic, and had a job; I was bright and mouthy and jealous of her on every level. We had a lot of fun together; we also had bitter disputes.
We shared a tiny gable bedroom and slept in the same double bed. While we might have been able to avoid each other in the daylight hours during difficult times, there was no escaping the fact that come bedtime, we’d be stuck in the same narrow space together until the Angelus rang at 7am the next morning.
It was not uncommon for us to vent anger by physically destroying each others’ property: we each had a shelf in our bedroom, and on bad days when one of us felt aggravated beyond endurance, we’d run upstairs and “sweep” the others’ shelf to break as many treasured objects as possible. I recall Mary had a collection of little, brittle plastic animals and in sweeping them to the floor, I rejoiced in hearing the tiny plastic legs pop and break.
“I’m going to wreck your shelf!” I would shriek, and then tear upstairs into our room to do the deed. Mary would race after me, usually arriving too late to prevent the carnage. It was ugly, but effective. Sometimes just threatening to wreck her shelf would make her back down in an argument. She wrecked mine more than once, too.
At this time I owned a baby doll named Anne. Anne had a stuffed rag-doll body and a plastic head, arms and legs. Her eyes would open when you sat her up, and close when you laid her down. I adored Anne and became attached to her in an almost supernatural way. She was my baby, and I loved her.
One night at bedtime, Mary and I were involved in a heated, horrible argument. Mary shoved me out of our room and attempted to slam the door – but Anne was on the floor and blocking the door. Undeterred, Mary kept slamming and slamming the door on the hapless Anne.
“Stop! Stop! You are killing Anne!” I screamed hysterically. “You are killing Anne!”
Finally with one giant slam, Mary pushed the door closed – leaving Anne’s body on one side of it; her head popped off and flew into our room on the other.
I was stunned into silence. My beloved baby Anne had been decapitated in front of my eyes.
The bedroom door opened and Mary was standing there with Anne’s head in her hands.
“Oh, Rita, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed, her eyes full of tears. “I did not mean to do this. I am so sorry.”
I took Anne’s head out of her hands and walked past her into the bedroom. I fell asleep that night cradling both pieces of Anne, her plastic head and her rag-doll body. I was devastated. It was an awful night, an awful fight. I don’t remember that we ever fought that viciously again, actually; I think that fight ended our physical altercations forever.
Twenty five years later, I was happy to be having a too-rare visit with Mary when she grew very quiet, cleared her throat and announced, “Rita, I am so sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” I laughed, expecting a joke. Mary was a great tease.
“I killed Anne. It was a terrible thing. I am so sorry I killed Anne. Can you forgive me?”
“Mary – what? – of course!” I answered incredulously. “That was almost 30 years ago, we were kids! I forgave you long ago.”
“It was terrible!” Mary sobbed inconsolably. “I have felt awful about it all these years. I killed Anne, and it was terrible.”
“Well, I forgave you long ago so do not think about it any more,” I assured her. Actually my heart ached, to think that she had been feeling so badly over so many years. We both cried, and we hugged, and decided to officially put that unfortunate episode behind us.
Except, Mary couldn’t. It became a joke between us: any time conversation lagged or there was any silence at all, Mary would interject, apropos of nothing: “I’m so sorry I killed Anne.”
Sitting at a red light: “I’m so sorry I killed Anne.”
Waiting for our order in a slow restaurant: “I’m so sorry I killed Anne.”
Mary’s voice floating in the dark from the next room at midnight: “I’m so sorry I killed Anne.”
When Mary was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, we discussed how Alzheimer’s patients often get “stuck” in a certain place and time in their minds. I told her my best hope for her was that she would get “stuck” in her happiest memory with her beloved husband Al.
Silently, I feared that she would get “stuck” on something unhappy, such as her abusive ex-husband or the belief that she killed Anne. I never mentioned that to her, but I fervently hoped it would not be the case.
Why have I bothered to recount this sad tale? For two reasons:
First, parents should not let kids engage in such bitter fights, painful physically and emotionally. Some fighting is normal among siblings, but I have often pondered sadly the thought that Mary was actually more harmed by the Anne fight than I was – I grieved Anne and got over it. Mary felt guilty for 30 years. I wish that someone in charge had put a stop to that stupid fight.
Second, what Alzheimer’s patients get “stuck” on may be something of a number’s game. The more happy memories a person has – and the fewer the sad ones – perhaps the better the odds they’ll get stuck on a happy memory. Who knows?
I hope her last conscious thought was of Al.
Photo credits: Debra Sherman