I have recently accumulated a bunch of hospital visitor’s stickers and they are in a neat stack in one of the cupholders in my car. For some odd reason it reminds me of when I was a Rockette in The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. For the Toy Soldier number we wore small red fabric circles on our cheeks affixed with Vaseline. This rather ingenious way of attachment meant we could take them off easily and only have to repair a small portion of our make up for the rest of the show. A few of us would then stick the circles to the mirror above our dressing table. Because we had new circles for every show by the end of the run our mirrors were almost covered with red dots. Some would make designs like wreaths or Christmas trees. Mine were in a nice straight line. I haven’t thought about that in years but it occurs to me to do the same thing with my hospital visitor stickers. I could add them to the “I Voted” stickers along the bottom of my bathroom mirror. But I don’t really want to remember these visits
I sit now, wearing my newest visitor sticker, writing this in the family waiting room while my mother has knee replacement surgery. It’s a fairly simple procedure – not even under general anesthesia – but when they took her to the O.R., I cried. I know she’s going to be fine, but it’s just too soon after my sister’s death to be back in a hospital, defined by a sticker.
For almost my entire life I have carried two burdens. They were sometimes forgotten, sometimes running my life, but even when I put them down I still knew they were there. Somewhere. These burdens gave fuel to my anger and a reason to feel sorry for myself. I carried them for so long they became a part of who I was. They were my story.
Burden #1: My Dad
My Dad is brilliant. He was a Marine, a Police Officer and then became a Marshall, all while going to night school to study law. He passed the Bar Exam on his first try. He has just one teeny-weeny problem- he is a major alcoholic. He sobered up for a bit when I was a teenager so at least I knew to go to AA when it was my turn. Then he disappeared. For 28 years I didn’t know where he was, but I figured he was no longer sober. Every once in a while I would do an on-line search to see if he was dead. For a long time I was confused about why he didn’t want to see me or his grandchildren. Then for a few years I was angry. Then I got sober and forgave him because he was an alcoholic and it wasn’t about me. Then I was angry again because I remembered I was an alcoholic, sober, and would never leave my kids. The years went by. My emotions went back and forth until a few years ago when something odd happened: I really forgave him. More important, I forgave myself for being like him. Still, it was there. Where was he and why did he deny me?
Burden #2: My Sister
We never got along. According to family legend my first sentence was, “I don’t know why we gots to have a baby sister anyway.” We were only fourteen months apart and as different as two people could be. We often thought we hated each other, but actually we loved each other fiercely. I always felt responsible for her. She was often lost and afraid. She was tiny. She was blonde, really cute and by age four she already spoke like a truck driver. When I was in kindergarten she was across the campus in preschool and one day she got lost in the cafeteria. Lost…. in the cafeteria. She was so upset they took her to the nurse’s office and called me out of class. I can still vividly remember walking up the stairs to the office thinking, “What has that kid done now?” I was five.
When my Dad’s alcohol spilled all over my family, I survived by trying to be the best at everything. It served me well, and I did my Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hours of studying dance and was able to make a living as a professional dancer.
My sister went the other direction. Drugs, alcohol, run-ins with the police, run-outs from home. She was smart, beautiful, talented, and a much better dancer than I was, but she didn’t spend 10,000 hours in ballet or practicing in her room. She spent it with dangerous people doing dangerous things. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t morally superior so much as I was afraid. Afraid of being out of control or being hurt. Afraid that I would disappoint my mom or my teachers. My role was to be good and (sorry to quote Mrs. Trump), “BE BEST.”
In our twenties my sister and I both married and had children around the same time. She was her happiest during those years. She loved being a mom and she loved babies. Then there were a lot of years that were not so good. Fast forward to five years ago when she began to show physical sings of severe liver damage. I offered to take her to AA and she said she didn’t need it. I offered to pay for rehab to which she politely thanked me and refused. I think she tried to quit on her own a few times but mostly she just lied about her drinking. Eventually I stopped going to family gatherings because It was too painful for me to see her sneak off to drink and pretend she wasn’t committing suicide in front of our eyes. The last few years we hadn’t seen each other very often. She sent me some texts on my birthday but I eventually became irritated and quit responding because I could tell she was drunk.
Three months ago I was checking the obituaries again to see if my Dad was among them and I found a phone number for his wife. Without even thinking about it I dialed the number. She answered! Shit!
Me: Is this Barbara Spicer
Me: Are you married to Doug Spicer? Is he alive?
Barbara: (now a bit suspicious) Yes, who is this?
Me: This is DeAnne Spicer.
Barbara: Hold on a minute. Doug, take the phone, it’s DeAnne Spicer.
Me: No! Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Me: (beginning to cry) Are you my Dad?
Me: Are you sober?
That’s the first thing I asked. The conversation was going to end if the answer was no. I was about to ask him if he voted for Trump but I decided it could wait. And I started sobbing. “I don’t care what you’ve done! I don’t care where you’ve been! I forgive you and I love you!”
When I told this story to my friend Wendy, she said, “Way to go, Poker Face.”
I asked if I could come see him. And four days later I was sitting in his home. He has had a very difficult time with alcohol, but has been sober fifteen years. I think he’s done it by never leaving his house. He looks the same and sounds the same, only older. He was never abusive to me in any way, or I would not have gone. I should say he was not intentionally abusive, but It does affect your developing psyche somewhat when as a twelve-year-old you can yell at your six-feet-tall, two -hundred-twenty-pound dad and tell him to “Turn off the stove before you burn the house down.“ Or, “Put the baby down and go to bed. You’re drunk.” He always did what I said, and that might explain why I am so bossy now. Still, I have memories of being young, before the alcohol took him over, and he was actually a good Dad. That’s the one I care to remember and that’s the Dad I went to visit. FYI, he did not vote for Trump, thank God, and is still a card-carrying Democrat.
After our visit, I felt like a piece of me that had been missing was back in place. I felt acknowledged by my father, and it made me feel whole. I know I would have been fine if it had never happened, but I am so grateful it did. It’s like I was playing the CandyLand game of life and I pulled the ice cream bar which meant I could skip a whole bunch of steps toward healing. I was found.
The last time I spoke to my sister was to tell her I had found our dad. I texted her afterward and told her to call me, but she never did. Then on December 10 I received the call I have been waiting for, I do not exaggerate, for forty-two years. My sister was in the hospital on a respirator. She died three days later of multiple organ failure caused by Alcoholic Liver Damage. She was lost.
I knew this would happen, yet I am still having a hard time believing she died. You expect your parents to die. You fear your children will die. How do you wrap your brain around losing a sibling? When I got home yesterday a box with her ashes was on my kitchen counter. They mailed my sister to me in a box and she was on my counter. What the fuck?
Those two burdens that I let define me – I was abandoned by my father and I have to save my sister – are gone. Gone. So, now what? Who am I now, and what will fill all this new emotional space? I haven’t a clue.
For today, I will wait until my Mom is out of surgery, get her settled, and hang out with her a bit. I like to talk to her when she has had medication because she says really stupid and funny things. Then tomorrow I’ll come back to take her home and get another visitor’s sticker. And then I’ll find all the other hospital stickers in my car and put them in my purse because I’m not saving them to stick them to anything. Instead, this time when I leave the hospital I will throw them all in the trash.