My Sister Kathy

Posted on November 10, 2010

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I’m thinking a lot about Kathy these days. She died in 2005. I miss her. I’m sure she’s missing us, too. There’s a lot to know about her life and even more that I continue to learn from my relationship with her. I’ll do my best to share those things that mattered most to me.

Kathy called herself the “black sheep” of the family. I think the rest of us agreed. She started getting migraine headaches when she was very young, and went through a lot of her young life taking one medication after another to try to ease them.  In the end it turns out that she was bipolar. My brothers and I (maybe I should just speak for myself) were scared of her sometimes. She’d hang my one brother over the banister at the top of the stairs and threaten to drop him. She’d lure that same brother out to the roof and then lock the window so he couldn’t get back in. She’d tease me a lot about the “ball” on the end of my nose…the one I see in every picture of me since she pointed it out. She stole my friends or fought with them. She was a very good athlete and it devastated her that she was not allowed to play on the boys’ baseball team. She swam on a swimming team and excelled at the backstroke.

Whenever she was able to be physical she seemed to be better able to manage her silent yet complicated chemical disorder.

Then she went away to private school in Maine. Her room, if I remember correctly, was dark, if not black. There was a red bandanna hanging over a light which made the mood in the room very creepy. She gravitated towards the “dark side ” of life. Mostly because she was terrified of it. But like a moth drawn to a flame , in some ways it consumed a part of her spirit. I know that she started experimenting with drugs and drinking. It was hard to see her growing so dim. She was living in a world that scared me. But, we were all living in craziness in the 70’s. She LOVED the Rolling Stones. Especially Mick Jaggar. She probably found his irreverence attractive.

I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I wish I had.

Later, when we were grown she and I finally found some common ground. We both had eating disorders. She competed with me in that, too. She won. I got over it when I found a purpose in life. I believe she died from it. She and I both wanted the world to make sense. Being sensitive  to people and sort of insecure we both chose to stop eating to feel like we could control SOMETHING. I think she was close to being beyond help because her brain chemistry had changed so much. For her it wasn’t a choice to be well anymore. To be hospitalized for years of treatment might have helped. She’d been hospitalized a few times. On the one hand I understood what she was going through and why she chose it. On the other I resented the problems it brought into our family, mostly for my mother who was so compassionate and patient with her. I visited her in the hospital and was furious with the doctors for not getting it. I understood the emotional war going on inside of her was manifesting in the eating disorder. She just needed to hear how people saw her…her REAL self. You know how it feels when people tell you the good that they see in you and not the problems right in front of you? She was more than her body.

But she was stuck because it became her identity.

There was a lot of quiet chaos in our family because  none of us knew why she made the choices she did. We all learned to hold our breath during family get-togethers, or to avoid them all together. Was she going to bring contention or be the life of the party? We never knew. She seemed like sometimes she wanted to destroy herself and, like a sinking ship, bring everyone around her down at the same time. But being a family member meant she HAD to be where we were. So we fumbled at creating boundaries that we could live with and still have her a part of our lives. She was so hurt by that.

She felt so judged and misunderstood.

Every birthday and Christmas meant excess. She’d bring so  many presents that the kids couldn’t possibly enjoy them all or be sufficiently grateful to her. She loved them so much. She just didn’t know how to make them love her. I loved watching her tear up when she got a spontaneous  hug or thank you from one of the younger kids. She’d be so MAD if no one thanked her.

She really was desperate for love.

One of her favorite things to do was to play with the kids…AND get them into trouble! She was everyone’s favorite because she was so childlike if not childish. I was always so uncomfortable watching the mad dash to her car when she was arriving for a visit or getting ready to leave. Someone would always ask her for money (she’d trained them well), or get in her car to enjoy her for as long as she’d let them stay.

There’s so much that I’ve learned from Kathy. Sad to say I can’t apply that knowledge to my relationship with her. But I’ll pass it on to you in hopes of having her life continue to make a difference.

I love doing family history research. Putting families in order for us and other people. It never fails that when I give the completed research to someone they start telling me about all the skeletons in their family “closet”. There are no perfect families. But we ARE perfectly organized as a safety net for each other in a chaotic world that sometimes hurts to live in. As unfeeling as it sounds, I wouldn’t have made Kathy’s life any less painful for her or the rest of the family. I reflect and I see that I was given the opportunity to choose to love someone who at times scared me, disrespected me, and disrupted what I thought would’ve been a “better” family experience. I’ve learned that even in a home where unconditional love exists there are human beings who are free to make choices and are still desperate to feel loved, accepted and needed. And I’ve seen that my focus has shifted from trying to HELP someone to trying to SEE them and to tell them that I get it. But the boundaries remain. My happiness and peace are important, too.

Sad, but the two – acceptance and self-preservation, have to coexist.

And there is no way around the pain in that.

So, I’ve learned love is not conditional.

I know that it’s important to be honest about who you are.

Most importantly, that we are all children of God. He makes no mistakes.

I’m learning to enjoy my journey here and know that some of the pain just has to be tolerated. A lot of the pain I’ve experienced has been inadvertent and unintentional. Most of it will fall away when I slip into the next life.

And Kathy. Thank you for the sacrifice you made to come into this world with a less than perfect body that in no way lived up to the vibrant spirit who is who you have always been and always will be.

In many ways you are my hero.

Kathy’s Memorial with brothers Chris and Mike, and Mom. Kenney was born 2 months later!

Betsy Cross

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