* Featured Artwork by “Tears and Blood” by Ann Marie Sekeres
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. —Mark Twain
Her scraggy sweater and ripped jeans appear out of place on the velvet-tufted chair where she sits. The room is uncomfortably quiet despite the energy, palpable and fierce. A brooding presence, my sister is her own weather system. The aura of Laura forms an impenetrable force field, a gathering storm, even in the soft elegance of my parents’ Victorian parlor.
The aura of Laura, designed for defense against us, the nuclear family, intimidates my mother, my father, my brother and me. We lower our heads, like beaten dogs, to prevent triggering her fury—a bad day, money problems, the feeling of being cheated out of our parents’ hard-earned wealth—the unfounded rage that bloomed in her adolescence and tapped its roots deep.
Throw in the dynamic of Laura’s kids on this Easter Sunday. All three—aged from high school to college—have joined us in the parlor. The two eldest text one another, giggling, with only a mahogany coffee table separating them. The youngest one is clinging to his mother like an abandoned primate and kicking his foot into my mother’s chair. Amid the uneasiness, I look to my father and attempt to convey, this is absurd; why bother.
My sister begins speaking to the kids about the trinket they lifted from the Chinese restaurant the night before when I notice the inked letters splayed across the fingers of her right hand. I squeeze my eyes closed, startled; the inked letters burn like sunspots on the back of my eyelids. I see “Forgive” etched into the tender skin on the inside of her forefinger. “M” is inked on the inside of her middle finger and “e” on her ring finger. She can choose to reveal the phrase, as she has done now, or seal them away within her very flesh.
The tattoos are new; what could only be a cry of repentance intended for the world to see. An apology to Steven, her husband, too late; an apology to reunite her with her kids, an apology meant to resonate with volunteers at the suicide prevention hotline. I wonder if the words bring her reconciliation or display the pain she bears.
She and I were close when she fell in love with my college boyfriends. The two of us were irresistible. Fit, pretty, flirty—big sister/little sister. First Michael, then Rene. When Keith came along and I briefly married him, the distance between her and me began to build.
I gaze at Jake, the eldest, giggling with his sister as he texts with the speed of a kid born with a smart device in his hand. His person had burgeoned from my sister’s belly in her snow-white mermaid-ruffled wedding dress when she married Steven. They later made it clear that Jake was their baby, theirs to rear with no outside influence. They even heralded a you’re-not-allowed-to-come-to-the-hospital-after-the-birth kind of thing. The youngest siblings in their own families, the two of them felt cheated and neglected growing up, and having their own family and keeping us away from them was payback. Their stance became: us versus them.
My mother had a short fuse and had already endured my own rebellion. By the time Laura immersed herself in a bad crowd and started doing drugs as a teenager, the two of them fiercely clashed. As for Steven, he had come along as “a surprise” more than a decade after his closest sibling; his mother was well into middle age and his father didn’t have the patience to rear another child.
Of Laura’s kids, Emma came two years after Jake was born, and Zak, shortly thereafter. We were seldom invited to the kids’ activities. Steven flourished as a volunteer in the community—Cub Scouts, Brownies, PTA, chaperoning. He worked the contractor desk from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Home Cheapo and developed a gregarious rapport with every builder, plumber, and electrician within a twenty-mile radius. He also assumed care of the kids and finances while my sister pursued her G.E.D. and then a nursing degree. They moved out of a crappy condo and into middle-class America in a four-bedroom house on the other, better side of town.
Time whizzed by. The kids’ pictures on the wall changed. From baby and toddler to Jake in his Boy Scout uniform, Emma in her tutu, and Zak posing with his fifth-grade class. The pictures reflected what we didn’t know—the ins and outs, the trials and triumphs—of their lives. My parents and brother and I continued to crave being part of that extended family.
We got proactive, pursued opportunities to celebrate the kids’ birthdays. They were strangers, listless with “yes” and “no” responses to our questions and slumping in their chairs. Laura and Steven had succeeded at driving a wedge between us, good and lasting. Taught them to resent me because of my divorce, Chris for not being married, and my parents for their financial means and success. Ultimately, for our desire to be a part of their lives.
My brother and I grew callous. My parents didn’t relent, and Laura and Steven became receptive of Mom and Dad taking the kids off their hands; it gave them some well-longed-for freedom they had foolishly opposed. The kids stayed overnights at Mom and Dad’s and were shuttled to and from residences and extravagant meals and activities.
Then, communication began to wane again.
Dad’s calls, messages went unanswered. Things had been going well with the kids, but we slipped into envisioning my sister or Steven there, listening to my father’s voice laced with worry please just call and let us know everything is okay and rolling their eyes. The kids watching them.
My parents’ concern deepened. Dad took it upon himself to drop by the house. The surprise visit enraged them. Laura and Steven talked to Dad through the screen door, telling him to go away and respect their privacy.
My parents felt helpless and hollow. The negativity Steven instilled in the kids about me and my brother’s marital status kept us numb and far away.
Following six months of fruitless attempts at contact, my father didn’t care about enraging Laura and Steven—they’re my goddamn flesh and blood—and made his way out to the house. He didn’t find Laura. She worked the second shift. Dad found Jake behind a closed door lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. He found Emma and Zak, too. They were in the basement watching TV next to a pile of dirty laundry that towered toward the ceiling. Steven snoozed in the darkened master bedroom, buried under the bedclothes. He still worked at Home Cheapo, but his role as the kids’ primary caretaker had sputtered out. Jake told Dad about the screaming matches that raged between his parents.
“Mommy kept pushing Daddy to put in for a promotion and work more hours at Home Cheapo, but he didn’t want to. This made Daddy sad and tired.”
When Laura arrived home and Steven remained behind the closed door of the bedroom, she told my father Steven had let the bills slide. She had opened an envelope imprinted with their bank’s stationery a week before and learned their mortgage had crashed into default.
Mom and Dad wrote checks to keep the family in their home. Dad began dropping by the house several times per week, asked what he could do to help. Each day when Steven returned from Home Cheapo, he walked right past Dad, pulled the shades in his room, and went to bed. He retreated there, I’m guessing, waiting for Laura to show up civil and loving. Return to being the team they used to be: us versus them.
Weeks passed before Laura called again. November 23, 2006—Thanksgiving and a date indelibly branded in our minds as those tattooed letters on my sister’s fingers. Mom, Dad, my brother, my husband, Dennis, and I were staying at a B&B in Killington—a fun-loving ski town. My dad’s whole face lit up when he glanced at his ringing cell phone. It’s Laura calling, he told us.
“A police lieutenant just came to the door,” she said, her voice clear and matter-of-fact through the receiver. Dad had the phone mashed to his ear but I could hear every word she said. “They found Steven’s body in Weston.”
The blood drained out of Dad’s face; bile rose in my throat. Laura kept talking. The phone came away from Dad’s ear. Now Mom, my brother, and my husband could hear, too. “He hanged himself.”
Dad, our eternal patriarch, is one of the strongest men I have ever known in character and physical strength. This was his kryptonite. He said nothing.
Laura kept on. “The lieutenant said he was a coward.”
Dad blinked in slo-mo.
“I told him, ‘I certainly hope you treated his body with respect.’”
She seemed put off about the whole thing, angry, I thought, and now she was concerned with how they handled his body.
“Come to the house now, okay?” she said and then hung up.
Dad provided the directive. We moved from stagnation to hustle, packed our things, my breath short, the movement of my limbs feeling as if underwater. Steven hanged himself. My mother did not hustle, a woman of social graces; she leaned on the banister in the foyer, sobbing, muttering how could he do such a thing. My brother, Chris, stood, his things tossed into a Stop and Shop paper bag at his feet, formerly chatty and filled with the holiday spirit, rubbing the heel of his hand into his eye. Dennis held my hand as we watched Dad cross over the threshold three, four times, casting our stuff into the back of the minivan.
We filed into the van and my attempt to secure the door closed fell short, leaving a profuse vertical line of light, a division between normalcy and the perverse. The awareness of my own body was muted. My perception came in as snapshots. Dad opens the door wide, slamming it closed. Dad thrusting down the transmission stalk. Our upper bodies pivoting forward. The van reeling backward into the mailbox. Dad stomping on the brake, his brain hiccupping, stymied under duress, trying again. Pull-the-stalk-into-Drive. The van catapulted forward. Dirt spitting up gravel on the busted mailbox.
We embarked on the four-hour ride back to Massachusetts. The van’s interior, deathly silent; the vibe, weighty. The mountains, terrain we had covered time and time again, sprawled out endlessly before for us, surpassing their usual proportions. We scaled and scaled, too much for the van’s transmission, any transmission, to climb with speedy efficiency.
It was only a matter of time before one of us was going to break down and scream, beat our fists against the van’s upholstery in disbelief and frustration.
Was this an act of spite to get at Laura? Retribution?
Two hours into the journey Dad sensed we were all on the verge of that breakdown and pulled into a Dunkin Donuts. The five of us made a tearful reprieve over cups of tea and poked at a half-dozen chocolate honey-dipped with plastic knives. Laura’s cool utterance he hanged himself, daggers to our hearts that still didn’t make any sense.
How could this happen to Laura and her kids?
We sat there at the three small tables we dragged together to make one. I don’t know how long. I stared at the bottom of my Styrofoam cup, dry for a long time, looking for the same things I searched for in Dennis’s face as we made a mad dash out of the inn. Confirmation of a dream, a cruel joke, or a twisted power trip typical of Laura.
If she didn’t need us for our quotidian love, why now?
Like zombies, we boarded our ride again on this day that leaves a shadow on Thanksgiving year after year. We say, “Remember when the kids came over for a bit on Christmas Day? You know, before ‘the hanging.’”
We poured out of the van in blind panic upon arrival at Laura and Steven’s house, my brother and I overwhelmed in an unanticipated and compelling effort to get our arms around the kids. We found them in the living room—three numb lumps on the sofa. Jake, thirteen, Emma, ten, and Zak, eight. Their faces were dry; they had run out of tears. In time, we would all learn our tears are everlasting.
How do children wrap their heads around the rejection, the violence, the abandonment?
Laura appeared with a checklist in hand. Cremation, memorial, people to the house. She had already been to the morgue. The first few words she said to us, she said in front of the kids. They remain lodged in every one of my cells’ memory.
“He hanged himself with such conviction that he nearly took his head clean off.”
A high-pitched tone rang in my ears. I embraced it. I didn’t want to hear anymore.
In her signature style, I watched her slip her arm through my father’s and storm off to the bedroom, yelling, “He’s left all this mess.” She wasn’t referring to the memorial, his cremation; she was referring to the bills and the unfinished work of family. The strife. She wasn’t referring to the heartbreak of her children. This was about her, about her pain and burden. Steven had let her down at the ripe old age of thirty-six and it just plain pissed her off.
We joined the kids on the couch. My brother and I held Jake and Zak. Mom put her arm around Emma and clutched her so tightly to her breast I thought Emma would squirm away.
Mom’s death grip is trying to melt away the pain.
Laura unleashed a tirade we could hear in the living room. The subtle bass tones of my father’s voice interjected. Hell hath no fury like Laura scorned. Dad and Laura stayed in the bedroom for well over an hour, talking finances, talking about “Steven’s problems.” A sticking point for Laura was that Steve wouldn’t replace the stove, three out of the four burners gone. He couldn’t have at least managed that since he worked at Home Cheapo.
When Dad emerged, he sank his tall frame into the couch. Laura pried the kids away from us and shuffled them into the kitchen. Dad sat gazing into his lap. When he spoke, his voice was journalistic, trance-like. He summarized Steven’s demise for us.
“Laura and Steven fought last night. Steven left in a rage around midnight. Called half an hour later. Emma picked up the phone. He said goodbye. He said he was never coming back. He said he loved her. Laura took the phone from Emma. Steven told her that your mother and I would take care of her. Then he hung up.”
My sister here in front of me, in the outdated hippy clothes she’d worn since high school, sits with Zak, stroking his head. I glimpse again at the letters engraved on her fingers. Steven’s death had morphed into grief and loss and remorse; it had just taken time. The sentiment had emerged, breaking down through her anger, penetrating the force field, the aura of Laura.
Perhaps the days passed, and a great heaviness grew inside of her, a gnawing guilt, and she knew she could never free herself from it, the ligature around her own neck unless she reconciled it. Maybe, little by little, she began to see the extremeness of her actions against him and the heaviness began to lift, leaving behind its inevitable scar. And through asking for forgiveness, she began to assimilate the fragments of life again in a way that might make her whole.
I will never know. The intimate conversation will never take place, it’s too late, it was too late at the time of Steven’s passing. My failure in caring for her, embracing her into me and my brother’s intimate circle, is forgone; the anger and hurt from her youth, irreversible. We are strangers. Her vulnerability remains largely hidden from me and the rest of my family, only revealed by a sleight of hand—those dark letters on her fingers.
Seems I, too, need the inked letters “Forgive Me” engraved on my fingers—for my sister to see.
Lisa, your story is so heartbreaking, personal yet familiar. You deftly paint the portrait of complex and flawed family members we will all recognize somewhere in time.