Sometimes I think I knew her thoroughly, inside and out. That she was, in some sense, predictable. At the same time, I know that I always looked for something in Penny that didn't exist; that simply wasn't there. It feels to me as though we never connected in a tangible, understandable way. . .something I feel I am able to have with other people; just not my own sister.
Her death certificate states the date and time of death to be April 23, 1975, shortly after midnight. But my date is April 22nd. I lived on the west coast, two hours earlier, when I got the call.
I'm not certain whether we ever got "the facts" surrounding Penny's death, but over time it came together this way:
She lived in a small town, Owasso, Oklahama, in an apartment with her girlfriend, Nancy. Four young men broke into and robbed a physician's office, and brought drugs to Nancy and Penny's place. Details are sketchy after this point. We were told that Penny was going to call the police (I don't know. This still seems unlikely to me.), and in order to stop her, one of the men tried to drug her. The drug he chose was epinephrine. He injected it into the vein in her right arm, which showed up in Penny's autopsy; proof that she didn't administer the drug herself. Within twenty minutes, Penny's heart stopped, and the other kids called the police or an ambulance, and scattered.
I refer to them as kids, because Robert, the young man who gave her epinephrine, was only twenty-five-years old. Two others were twenty-one years old, and the fourth was only seventeen. [As an aside, Robert was charged with murder. Then the charge was reduced to voluntary manslaughter. In Oklahoma at that time, the mandatory sentence for voluntary manslaughter was six years. Robert never went to prison for killing my sister. At all.]
As you can imagine, the whole thing had a surreal, nightmarish quality about it. The blundering (I'm being kind, here.) small town policeman who called my parents simply stated, "Your daughter is dead." For the first forty-eight hours, we thought Penny had taken her own life. She was, after all, alone, when they found her. She had been suicidal in the past, and was hospitalized more than once for clinical depression. That was where we, as a family, lived for the two days before the real horror unfolded.
I also have an older brother, Mike.
Here's how our relationship goes: Mike calls me, usually at some odd time of night, and leaves me a message. A year, or sometimes two years, later, I return the call. Or every few years I write him a letter, and he answers it, point by point, numbering my paragraphs and returning it to me with his reply, and says things like, "The hostility you have felt from me your whole life is all between your ears." He affirms me in what I'm doing, and asks a few questions about the family. He's honest about the way he avoids family pain, anger, and misunderstanding. And then he mentions that he's had a stroke, and has trouble walking. He spends twenty-five dollars to overnight the letter to me from someplace far away in the world. (For some reason, he feels an urgency about it.) The last one came from Pohnpei. (Feel free to google that.)
He is now in Arizona, and one of the more recent communications from him came in the form of an official document: Anatomy Gifts Registry, a legally binding form which states that when he dies his body will go to Medical Research, and I think it says we get his ashes. Or I do. The envelope is addressed in his handwriting, which is the only way I know it's from him. There's a return address, which may or may not still be current. When I received it, I called his daughter and said, "Would you like a copy of this?"
The last time I saw my brother, two years ago, we sat on a patio and tried to have a conversation. I took my granddaughter for a short walk, and when I came back Mike had gone into the house and gone to sleep. So I left. I should probably add here that he has some dementia going on, and is in some physical pain.
The next day, the very last time I saw him, he was seated in the front seat of a car and I was shoving Lilia into the back, into her car seat. I tried to say good-bye to him, and he said "uh-huh." It was a true inconvenience for him, because he was focused on getting to an AA Meeting, and we were making him late. He didn't even turn around. It's odd, I know, but in many ways we're closer than we've ever been. But you can see why I don't jump on those return phone calls.
So, it's clear, isn't it, the reason I've always felt as though I'm an only child?
I know mine is not the only family like this; a family pretty much blown apart by we don't know what, exactly. But, as you already know, this is the family that I love. And, we just are.
If you've had enough, feel free to stop here. If not, there's one more thing (below); one more perspective on my relationship with my sister. As with any significant relationship it's all there in layers. It continues to change and shift, depending on the light cast on it at any given moment, and I continue to try to make sense of it. It will be there for the rest of my life, I know.
Penny Sue was born six weeks late, on Flag Day, 1954, the hottest day on record for the month of June. A shock of blond hair sat in a fat curl on top of her head, and she had a dark little mole on her neck, right in front. She watched us through startled blue eyes, as if to ask, Who are you people? And what am I doing here?
I don’t remember wanting a little sister. If I did, it was all over the moment they brought her home. Mother always said that if Penny had been her first baby, she’d have been an only child.
It was not a joke.
For the first eighteen months, Penny wailed and whimpered and clung. She refused what most babies need—food, and sleep, and routine. Mother held her all day long, and handed her off to Dad when he got home from work. What Penny needed, it seemed, no one could give, or even figure out.
She eventually adjusted, I guess. Or we just got used to her. Over the course of Penny’s life (about twenty-one years), she was always there, needing. Something. In between fits of need, she charmed us. But she couldn’t out-charm death. Her death came as both a shock and a relief. Mother said, "At least I no longer have to fear getting that phone call in the middle of the night."
The phone call did come. In the middle of the night.
It’s a kind of blur to me; Penny’s brief, bewildering life. Yet, I was, and am connected to her, deeply and irrevocably. We are sisters. What she gave me is a more honest sense of the self I would have hidden, because being her sister brought out the worst in me: rivalry and rage. At the same time, she still somehow charms me. No wonder I tried so hard to hate her.