As we all know, life throws us curve balls. Some of them can turn out to be, in the end, a very positive, rewarding, and enlightening experience. Sometimes the fear is what we are running from and not the tasks at hand, the planning required, or the outcome.
My sister and I grew up in a household that was dysfunctional at times. I’m sure many of you reading this could say that about yours. On the whole, for me, my childhood seemed pretty normal, but my sister’s was not. My sister, Sue, is three years older than I. She had a lot of trouble in school getting decent grades, doing homework, and was bullied and picked-on. I found her problems difficult to understand growing up. There were incidents that landed my parents in the principal’s office, and a lot of yelling occurred when they got home. My parents were punitive….but I don’t remember what kind of consequences Sue suffered besides spanking until the teenage years when my father began hitting her (Yes, striking her!). I just tried to block it out.
I didn’t seem to have the problems she had…I had to work to get my grades, I was quite shy, and somewhat fearful about the world. So I generally did what I was told and kept my head down. Don’t make waves. But I got relatively good grades, had friends, and lived my life. Having three years between us, my sister and I didn’t really have much in common, so we generally did our own thing.
Our early childhood consisted of happy times too: having a “story house” that Mom and Dad made out of a large cardboard box. It had a window, and curtains, a door, a rug on the floor, and a little light that we would use when we read our Beatrix Potter books. We had newts, fish, box turtles in a backyard pit, and nursed many a bird or other animal that was found hurt by the egg man, the bread man etc. The animals were brought to our house to save.
My parents were both hard working folks, and I don’t think they understood my sister’s problems. It was frustrating for them, and they were embarrassed.
My sister had struggled through high school, but managed to graduate after summer school. She was very gifted in art, but even though she won a contest of “draw this picture” in a magazine, she didn’t want to go to New York by herself to study. It was scary and from what she saw of her trip to check it out, she wanted no part of it! So she interned in an orthodontics office and learned the art of dental hygiene “on the job”.
Over her working career she found it difficult to work in one office for a long period of time. She had trouble when faced with all the tasks she thought should be done in the office, to narrow them down to the tasks that would best get the patients seen, treated, and out of the office. She had trouble prioritizing, and couldn’t separate “the forest from the trees”.
She also had a number of relationships, none of which worked out to be permanent loving relationships, none that led to a lasting marriage, a home, or a family….things I know she wanted. She made some poor decisions that cost her money, and in her early 50’s was homeless for over a year, living in a Salvation Army shelter. By then I was long since married (to my high school sweetheart after college) and raising a son, living in upstate New York. We lived in different states, had our own lives, and didn’t communicate much.
At the time I thought some tough love might do her some good, she might learn something from the situation. I had no clue what I could do to help her out of such an awful life, we did not have much money to spare. Luckily for Sue, an old friend stepped in, went to legal aide, and had her declared disabled which she was due to increasing problems with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The COPD actually contributed to her being evicted from her apartment in the first place, which I didn’t know.
My parents had moved to Florida to retire on a “shoestring budget”, and my sister was without family in New Jersey. The thing that changed with the homeless experience was not Sue learning to manage her life in a different way, it was me. I realized that my sister had severe learning disabilities (ADD), and that was at the root of my sister’s inability to keep her life on track. My son was diagnosed with ADD and so was my husband in adulthood, but their forms weren’t as devastating as my sister’s. My husband had learned how to manage his and to pick a career that enhanced his gifts, and my son had the opportunity of assistance in school, learning his strengths and weaknesses, and how to keep himself organized enough to succeed in college on a 5-year model. My sister didn’t have that opportunity. No one knew when Sue was growing up that there was such a thing as ADD. Instead she assumed that she was a screw-up, and was branded as stupid! She grew up demeaned and had no self confidence and little self-worth. She tended to hang around with others who felt and were treated the same way. It was a natural consequence.
If she had been born 30 years later, she could have been a successful vet tech (she has a gift and love for caring for animals) and an artist for her hobby. Sue can make something out of nothing, a skill that has served her well, having had very little income to support herself. With her poor self concept, lack of understanding of her ADD, poor health, and a lack of skills in an area that would keep her productive, she continued to flounder. I had to accept my sister as she is, with the talents and the shortcomings and try to work with her to make her life better.
Now comes the reason I have told you this story. Throughout my older adult life, I have realized that someday I might have to rescue my sister from homelessness…perhaps in old age because of illness, or sooner. From very young I have been obsessed with money because I remembered all the shouting that happened in our home when it was bill-paying night. I worried about having enough money, and in our adult household, I was the one who kept everything on track. With Jim getting Alzheimer’s at 45, and dying at 64, he had to cut his earning life short, and so did I in order to care for him at home. I was terrified that the Alzheimer’s and taking my sister in would put me in dire straights!
From the time my sister got out of the shelter, I had been sending her money to help her keep herself “liquid” or at least not too far behind in her payments. I was not, however, privy to her full financial picture living out of state, and my sister didn’t tell me everything. We had replaced her cars that no longer ran, paid for repairs, etc. After Jim died I continued to help out where I could, but I still didn’t realize the true state of her affairs. When we visited we couldn’t go in her apartment because we were both allergic to cats (asthma) and Sue rescued cats. I didn’t really understand how she lived.
I had seen a therapist about my fears, and had come to the conclusion with the therapist’s help, that I could help her without us both living in the same home (my sister and I live very differently, she likes the TV on all the time, and I like silence, etc. I was afraid that being in the same home would make both our lives miserable). My therapist made me realize that I deserve to have my life, but that I could help Sue at the same time.
So a few years went by, and I got a call in February 2018 that my sister lost an eviction suit and she has to be out of her apartment in less than a week. She also had no money. She had known this was in the works since December but was afraid to tell me and was trying to fix it herself, which hadn’t worked. (She had spiraled into deep depression, which led to unhealthy living conditions. She also had too many animals, her only source of unconditional love. She had also lost the friendship of the gal that helped her out of the shelter.)
I made arrangements to have my dog looked after, and drove to New Jersey to pack up my sister and move her up here in less than a week. That was the only way I could handle things. None of this long distance stuff anymore. I bit the bullet and did what I had to do, giving my sister an ultimatum that she had to get rid of all her animals. She had no choice if I were to help her.
After 4 months of living with me temporarily, we paid off all her debts, cleaned up her credit somewhat, and transferred health care, social security, license, registration, etc. After months of looking, Sue qualified for a HUD senior housing apartment which allows her to live in a small but very nice apartment 20 minutes from me. Because she is such an animal-oriented person I thought she should have 1 pet. Sue chose a Shih Tzu/mini Poodle puppy. I knew she would get depressed if she didn’t have an animal to care for.
Time and money has been spent, but I always used to think of my parents in heaven and how they would want me to help her. But this time has meant a lot more to me. She is my sister after all, she is family. I have lots of friends here in New York, but now I have family, especially for holidays. We will spend our last years with each other. We have become so much closer, and there have been a lot of surprises in the mix! I am helping her better manage her finances. I have a clear picture of what she is spending and how her life is going since she is in a nearby town, and I can hopefully catch problems before they get out of control.
One of the really surprising things about getting together now is hearing her description of things that happened when we were young, and how we have two very different remembrances of our childhood. I learned that I have a very selective memory. There was much more abuse that happened to my sister at my father’s hand….most while I was at college that I wasn’t privy to, but some while I was in the home. There was also much more discord between my parents when I was young probably that led to me being shy, fearful, etc., but I don’t have memory of that. I selectively deleted some of the negative behavior between my parents from my memory to “protect myself”. My sister being 3 years older, couldn’t do that, and so she was a nervous wreck each day wondering if there would be a family to come home to. It gave her stomach aches, eczema, constipation, and a lot of illness issues caused by anxiety! She was severely beaten by my father on numerous occasions while I was away at college because they were embarrassed by “what the neighbors would think” for some things my sister had done. This all happened and I had no knowledge of it until now! My sister never told me the extent of what she endured either. I did not know, and I felt so terrible! I would have confronted my parents if I had known. Perhaps I would have rescued Sue then to get her out of the house, I don’t know. I wasn’t given the opportunity. My mother let it go on (and probably was beaten too). I have a lot of guilt about that…how I failed my sister. I also have a lot of negative feelings about both my mother and father that I didn’t have before, because what I remember is so incomplete! Hopefully my sister and I can strengthen our bond, love, and understand each other more fully.
I’m sure my father had ADD, and was probably beaten by his father. You tend to give what you get. I remember his description of sitting at his dining room table and being yelled at by his father, a patent attorney, because he didn’t get a “right answer”. My dad also had polio and missed over a year of school that he had to make up. That is no excuse, but at least I understand probably where it stemmed from.
Things are not always as they seem. We all can manipulate or wipe out our memories to “better protect ourselves” from something that scares us! I understand that about myself. Over all, this experience has turned out to be such a positive one. I have my sister as family for our old age. How wonderful! And luckily my husband and I had good jobs and lived frugally so that I am able to do for Sue what I can without hurting my future.
So what I feared a good part of my adult life has turned out wonderful, a gift! And I learned that memories can be skewed and edited or forgotten when we are young in situations that cause us fear and anxiety. I am so thankful that we have each other now.