For My Sister Sheila: An Elegy. From “Temenos”

20 Aug


Sheila: An Elegy

            Sheila was my sister. A year and a month younger than me, she was the best brother I ever had. My first memories are of her and the games we played together at the small house where we lived on Carmen Street in Flint, Michigan. Daddy always made sure we had a big yard to play in, and I remember the day he had the chain link fence installed to keep us in the yard and prevent us from playing in the street. But that fence couldn’t contain my sister and me.

            Not long after Daddy bought the fence, the vacant lot next to our home began to fill up. A construction crew had dug and poured a footing for the home a lady named Martha planned to move there. The mound of dirt lining the trenches provided a perfect battleground for us. Even at the ages of 4 and 5, we knew about war. We watched the movies and the news of Vietnam on television. I started Kindergarten in 1967, so we got to see plenty of footage about the war, about people dying, about people being bombed.

            We took our baseball bats with us to that vacant lot. Bats made perfect rifles. We also carried along a big bottle of Bayer’s Children Aspirin, the little orange tablets that tasted like orange sherbet to us. We roamed over the mounds of dirt, shooting little Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers as we moved strategically around our fortifications, and every time we got shot, we took an orange flavored aspirin to heal our wounds so we could continue to fight. Sheila liked those aspirins; she kept getting shot, and pretty soon the get-better pills had all disappeared. So we went home to see if Mom might have anymore.

            I don’t remember a whole lot about what happened next. I even called Mom to see if she might remember. She said she had wanted to take Sheila to have her stomach pumped, and Dad refused, saying it was children’s aspirin and she would be fine. We had no insurance because Dad was self-employed, so going to the hospital pretty much required us to be dying or severed from an appendage. Mom told Dad Sheila had better be fine. If anything happened because they didn’t take Sheila to the hospital, she would never forgive him.

I felt as if I was to blame. I don’t remember getting a spanking for our offense, but I do remember sitting next to the couch where she lay under a blanket and praying she wouldn’t die. I also remember that I never found another bottle of Bayer Children’s Aspirin where I could get my hands on it.

That was the first time I watched my closest friend endure something that I could not help her with, and the experience was the first of many where Sheila would endure travesty after travesty for which I could do nothing.

In Michigan at that time, kindergarten kept for a half-day. We lived close enough to the school for me to walk there and back. I missed my sister at first, but soon became caught up in my new world of education and friends. Sheila waited for me at the fence gate every day and insisted I tell her what happened at school. All she knew about school was what I told her, but I tried to share with her all of my new world: how we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, how they taught us to count to one hundred, how we got to go outside and play at recess, and how I traded things Mom sent in my Superman lunchbox for really neat goodies that we couldn’t have. Sometimes I saved her Snickers bars or other things I traded for, and I gave them to her as soon as I walked home. She had to eat fast before Mom discovered us and took the candy away.

Coming home every day shortly after noon gave us the rest of the day to play and explore. Sometimes we even played school, where I served as the teacher and she played the student and I gave her homework and helped teach her the alphabet and numerals. I played the roll of a dedicated and stern taskmaster, always seeking to impress upon my student the urgency of learning all I could teach her if she were to ever graduate from Kindergarten and make something of her life–like I had.

Dad always came home late in the afternoons. He sat on the couch and relaxed as he watched Walter Cronkite tell of the Vietnam War, the anti-war protests, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the battle raging for civil rights and equality. Momma cooked supper and then placed the food on the table. After Cronkite finished, we sat and ate.

All of those voices and all of that rage seemed to plant a seed in Sheila’s young mind. That seed lay dormant until she reached her late teens, early twenties. But then it seemed as if the rage sprouted and took control. Watching her was like watching all of the voices on television, and once again, just like when I was a boy, I did not understand. I did not understand the rage, or where it came from. And I did not understand what to do to help her deal with her rage, with the voices.

My family always came together at the end of the day for the evening meal. I tried to continue the tradition with my own children. But for many families today, this ritual is impractical. Both parents work and children attend daycare or go to school. Meals today are an inconvenience; meals are no longer a time when families come together, thank God for the food they have, and without any interruptions spend fifteen or twenty minutes as a family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, which doesn’t mean she didn’t have a job. She had a difficult one, because in 1965 she had a set of twins, and in 1967, the year I began Kindergarten, she had Billy.

One day Daddy came home early from work. He arrived shortly after I got in from school. His presence seemed odd, but what he did next etched itself into my memory like a scar. I remember him going to his bedroom and bringing out a double-barreled shotgun, and a Winchester 30-30. I watched as he loaded them both and then stood them by each side of the door. The box of shotgun shells and the half-empty box of rifle shells he placed on the television. He then pulled the rocking chair away from the wall and over in front of the television and turned on the news.

I remember a bit about that day besides what I have already described. I remember Walter Cronkite being on much earlier than he normally was. I remember the words assassination, and Memphis, and Martin Luther King. I remember the words race riots and Detroit.

Now I know that King had been assassinated Thursday, April 4th, 1968, on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. I have even been by that hallowed ground. I know that race riots occurred across the country after his murder. In Detroit, 38 arsons occurred that first weekend, and black Americans rioted in Flint, Ann Arbor, and Lansing. I also know now why my father came home early that Friday after King’s assassination, and that I must have watched or heard at least part of the story as Walter Cronkite told of these events.

Like Martin Luther King, her dreams were never realized. Unlike King, Sheila never had a grand dream. Her humility in accepting her role as a second class person who didn’t matter still stirs my heart to sadness. Her needs and wants were simple. She yearned for friends, but could only find those who would use her for a place to stay or for a free meal. She yearned for children, but her pregnancies all ended with a miscarriage or a stillborn child. She yearned for a good husband, but he stole her prescriptions and sold them on the street, and when she became unbearable from being off her meds, he’d file charges against her and have her arrested so he could have her home to himself. When we evicted him he burnt her house down. After a court battle and an annulment, we took the insurance money and bought her a home that she got to see on an occasional weekend—a home the authorities released her to so she could die with her family. She would never own a car, never know what it was like to just go get in and drive away out into the countryside and turn up the radio and drown out all of the noise around you. I brought her cigarettes on too few occasions, and she would hug me like it was Christmas morning. She loved Christmas, not for the gifts she received, but for the gifts she gave, and she always found something for each of us. But like King, she left us too early. And like King, her memory still inspires and stirs to excellence the ones who knew her.

But all I knew then was that my sister and I were safe from the people who rioted across the country; that my baby brother in his crib and my twin sisters who also wanted to play school with us were in no danger. We continued to play kindergarten in our back room, and we didn’t worry about a thing. If anyone came to riot at our house, Daddy had his shotgun and would be waiting for them at the door.

At least until Momma called us to the supper table.

The news coverage of the Vietnam War scared me. I didn’t know what a war was. All I knew was what I saw in the movies. In the movies, which at that time were all about World War II, people lived in fear of being bombed. Nearly every movie I watched had scenes where the air raid sirens blared and planes flew overhead and bombs dropped and exploded, destroying the homes and lives of those in the movie.

I lay awake one night crying, waiting for the bombs to fall. Daddy heard me crying and came upstairs.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I don’t know what we’ll do when they bomb our house,” I said.

“Who? Who’s gonna bomb our house?”

“The Vietnamese.”

He laughed. “The Vietnamese won’t bomb us, son.”

“But they’re the enemy. We’re bombing them. They’ll bomb us back. It’s only fair.”

“They don’t have the airplanes to get all the way across the ocean to get to us. And we live right in the middle of the country so they would run out of gas before they ever got here.”

“That’s what Sheila said.”

She hung her head over the side of the top bunk and looked down at us. “I told you so. Now can we go to sleep?”

I learned that day to trust what Sheila said.

During the next year, many changes happened. Ms. Martha moved in next door. I can’t remember much about her, except that she seemed to live alone, and anytime we were thirsty, we knocked on her door and she gave us a Dixie cup full of sweet, cold, Kool-aid. Her house became a first-aid station during our war games, especially since we could no longer acquire our get-well pills.

School started and I officially moved up to the first grade, and Sheila started Kindergarten. Even though she would only be attending half a day, she would still get to walk with me in the mornings. I will never forget that first day of school for her. Before we walked out the door, Daddy brought the two of us together.

“Son, your sister begins school today with you,” Daddy said.

“I know. I can’t wait to show her around,” I said.

“This is your sister.” He pulled Sheila and me both into his arms–up close where he could whisper into our faces. “As long as you are alive, she is your responsibility. As long as you are alive, son, she will never stand alone. You take good care of her, and I will always stand behind both of you.”

Then I was too young to understand what Daddy was saying about standing behind both of us. Later in high school, when Sheila and I stood and fought battles together, Daddy kept his word. As long as I stood by my sisters or brothers, I never had to answer to him for my actions.

I wish I could say I honored Daddy’s commandment. I can say honestly that I tried, although I can’t say I did the best I could. Sheila died on Valentines Day in 2008. Through the years that will follow my sister’s death, I will question my self and my actions, and I will wish I had done more. In all fairness, I did plenty. During the later years of Sheila’s life, as her brain succumbed to the schizophrenia that stole her from us, all of my family stepped up at times and stood by her. But, all of my family can also say they could have done more. Still, Daddy’s words have been repeated to my oldest daughter the first day her younger brother tagged along with her to school, and those words were repeated to both of them when my youngest son finally started school.

And I am proud that my middle brother Billy had the same talk with his son, Jake, when Paige, Jake’s younger sister, started school. My father’s words created a bond between my sister and me that would be tested severely by her sickness. But I tried, and to this day, I continue to try by sharing with the world the horrors of the way we treat our mentally ill and by trying to call attention to the need for more and better care. Maybe some day my actions can make up to Sheila the many times I failed to keep my promise to her and Daddy.

Other changes happened during the sixties that we didn’t quite understand. Our Grandpa Howard passed away. I remember how he always gave us dollar bills. Mother still has the last one. He always brought ice cream to the house and insisted that Mom give it to us while he was there so he could watch and laugh at us as we got it all over. My last memory of him involves his bringing ice cream and him sitting and laughing at the twins in their high chairs as they spread their ice cream all over their trays and then dumped their bowls on their heads.

Grandpa kept an apple orchard there in Flint, and I remember riding with Sheila through the rows of trees on a flat bed trailer pulled by an old 8N Ford tractor. Grandpa would stop and my cousins helped us load the bushels of apples, then we’d haul them to the front yard. The bushels were too heavy for either of us to move by ourselves, so Sheila grabbed one handle and I grabbed the other, and we managed together to heft them up onto the trailer where Lanny, our cousin, arranged them and placed them in order. I remember watching as people pulled into the driveway and bought those apples. More than anything, I remember the sweet smell of that yard as it filled with Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and McIntosh apples. No matter how many bushels of apples we moved to the front yard, they always seemed to sell.

I also remember sneaking around and stealing apples off the top of each bushel and eating so many that I became sick.

One day we went to Grandpa’s house and things seemed different. I watched my cousin Suzie break down crying as some of my mother’s family carried her to the back. I crawled up in Daddy’s lap.

“Why is Suzie crying, Daddy?”

“Your Grandpa died.”

I got down and walked back through the apple orchard. No one I knew had ever died before, and no one bothered to take the time to try to explain death to me. I understood Grandpa had gone on to be with Jesus, and that was good. But I also knew I would never ride on the trailer through the apple orchard again with him driving the tractor. I walked through the rows of trees and cried, heartbroken and alone.

Sheila found me at the back of the orchard. She put her arms around my neck and hugged me.

“Why are you crying?”

“We won’t get to see Papaw anymore,” I said.

“Yes we will. He just went to heaven. Mommy said heaven needed someone to take care of their apple trees. We can ride the tractor again when we get there.”

That suited me just fine when grandpa died; it suits me just fine now.


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