I was on the phone with my mom a few days ago; just catching up about the basics. I had mentioned that I was meeting a new friend for lunch and that I was looking forward to it. She asked me a couple questions, mostly, “What are you going to eat? Where is she from? How did you meet her?” etc. I had said that it was funny, because I felt that we had a lot of similarities: grew up in rich suburbs but were definitely not rich kids, left high school early, went on for advanced degrees, love cheesy horror movies, blah blah blah. Mom was all, “Well you know there’s probably some sort of spiritual alignment of the universe and crystals, candles, and spells,” or something weird. And then she asked me, “Does she have any siblings.” No, I replied, she was an only child. “Oh,” Mom said, “Well, that makes sense. You’re sort of an only child.” It wasn’t the first time she’d said something like this; I had heard the phrase before and just sort of sighed loudly and moved on. But this time it gave me pause.
“But I’m not an only child,” I responded, not wanting this conversation to launch us into an argument, but unable to let it go all the same. “Oh, you know what I mean,” Mom countered. But I kept at it. “When you say things like that,” I started, “You minimize the experience of my loss. It’s like you’re erasing my history and taking away the ownership of my title as a sister. It was a huge part of my development, and continues to be a guiding influence in my life.” Mom sort of apologized, in this way that I knew I had surprised her and threw her for a loop. In the thirteen years since I’ve seen my sister, I’ve barely spoken about her. In a lot of regards, I’ve kept her hidden. But I haven’t forgotten about her.
It’s a terrible thing to think that it might be easier if Emily had died. If it was tragic and we mourned and we were able to regard her with love and affection, as someone who was taken from us who we miss every day. I don’t know if it would be any less painful or not, but at least there would be a finality to it. There wouldn’t be some person walking around, sharing my likeness and my blood, who I know is leaving a trail of chaos wherever she lands. It wouldn’t be the sort of familiar rift that tore apart so many people that I love, and I would have a deeper understanding of the cruelty of the universe, perhaps. People die, it’s just reality. But Emily’s not dead. The last I heard, she was living in New York.
The first few years of my life were pretty straightforward. I lived in a two-parent home on Long Island. I had a big sister, five years my senior, and my life was safe. My parents’ often played the song Our House, by Crosby Stills & Nash, so emblematic of our little unit, right down to the two cats in the yard. And everything was easy. For a little while, anyway.
Emily started acting out when she was about 7. Little things, like stealing school supplies from other kids in her class, or lying about a grade she got. Things quickly progressed; I remember being around 4 or 5, and Mom caught Emily filling her pockets with things at Marshalls, how we dropped everything we were buying and left the store, Mom screaming in the car on the way home. When she was in 5th grade, Emily accused her teacher of touching her inappropriately. My parents, wanting to give their daughter the benefit of the doubt, enacted a painstaking and demoralizing investigation of the teacher, who swore up and down that nothing had ever happened. Eventually, after getting caught in various lies, Emily admitted that she’d made the whole thing up. Following this incident, my parents relationship started to dwindle, I was dragged from therapist to therapist, often having to sit in the waiting room by myself while one specialist to the next, gave their insights into what was wrong with my troubled sister.
When I was 8 and Emily was 13, Mom was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. Dad, who had moved out two years earlier, moved back in to take care of things. It was a dark, terrible time. Mom was in and out of the hospital for treatment, she’d be doing a little better, and then she’d get sick again. My grandmother came to stay. At night, I slept with Mom’s pillow because it smelled like her. I was often excused from school so that I could stay home with my Nana and go visit Mom in the hospital. I remember thinking, at that young age, that Emily might be good now. That since our Mom was sick, she would just stop acting out and let everyone be. But Mom’s sickness was fuel for her; she told teachers and friends at school that she was dying, she talked about it all the time in this way, that even then, I knew was sinister. While we all waited with bated breath to hear good news about Mom’s prognosis, it was as though Emily was hoping for the worst, so that she could use it to her advantage. When Mom did eventually get better, by some miraculous feat of nature, Emily continued to tell people she was sick. She even told some people that Mom died. Someone in my class, whose brother was the same age as Emily, expressed her sympathy to me.
As is the norm in small towns, Emily quickly grew a reputation for being a fuck-up. She would terrorize students and teachers alike, and lo and behold, I would have teachers who knew about her, and dreaded my appearance in their classes. My own needs were often put on the back burner while my parents catered to my sister and continued reaching out to specialists and gurus, refusing to put her on medication based on my mother’s holistic beliefs. There was always something going on: Emily had stolen some precious bauble from a family friend’s home; Emily made up a terrible lie about an acquaintance; Emily had run away from home and no one could find her. In the background, I was an awkward, shy little kid, constantly writing in my notebooks, sent to play outside or with the neighbors so that my parents could figure out their shit.
Eventually, I was old enough, at 12, to be my parents’ spy. I’d have to come right home from school and give a play-by-play report about what Emily had gotten up to until they came home from work. As latch-key kids, my parent’s worked until the evening, and instead of doing normal after school activities, I had to park myself in the living room and make sure Emily wasn’t getting into trouble. I hated this role, was constantly resented by Emily, who would often become physically and verbally abusive in the face of my “goody-two-shoes”-ness or would make me swear I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad about certain things. I occasionally would fall under her spell: Emily was smart, charismatic, and it was easy to fall for a lot of what she said. As an adolescent to her teenaged antics, her existence was a mysterious anomaly to me. She had boyfriends and grown-up clothes, kids who swore and smoked cigarettes on our front lawn, loud music and a life I was kept away from. And always, always, Emily had attention.
Eventually, she ran away and she didn’t come back. She ended up at a shelter for abused teens, convincing the staff that my parents abused us (they didn’t, ever). When a social worker came to speak to me, I had to sit through a series of painstakingly humiliating questions akin to “Does your Dad ever watch you undress?/Does your mother ever pass out from drinking?” I cried the whole time. The social worker eventually determined that based on the appearance of our house (clean, nice, suburban), that nothing bad was going on here. Of course, she was right, but the irony of how many terrible things that were likely taking place on well-to-do cul de sacs was not above my understanding. Emily was kicked out of the shelter and had to come back home.
After that, the chaos continued. I was a teenager myself now, and I was under constant surveillance. In all the years I had grown up in my house, I often felt invisible. I was sent away for summers, given orders to leave rooms while my parents were brainstorming for Emily, but now, I was older. I was always a good kid, but any sort of step towards misbehaving was viewed as a warning sign that I might be going downhill. My mother became an over-protective force of embarrassment, insisting that she know where I was at all times, without question, and that every parent of every friend was called on a constant basis. A particularly awful memory was a day in 9th grade that a boy I had an enormous crush on invited me to go to McDonald’s after school. I had told my mom that I was staying after for some extra help, (it wasn’t a complete lie, either), but afterwards I went with him to get a milkshake. Mom came to check on me, because “she could tell I was lying,” and when she didn’t see me at the study session, a friend told her where I was. The McDonald’s was just a few blocks from the school and it was no big deal, everyone went there after class. But not me, I was my sister’s keeper. Mom stormed into the restaurant and grabbed me by the hair. She pulled me out and into the car, screaming at me in the parking lot, a bunch of kids from my grade looking out the window at the scene and laughing. When we got home, Mom called me a slut. I knew she was acting out of fear, out of her inability to effect her older daughter in this way, but it hit me in a place that I’ve never quite recovered from. I love my mom with everything I am, but I didn’t deserve that.
That year, I got a beeper for my birthday, but when Emily gave out my number to all the boys she met at the shelter and promised them that I gave “good head”, I had to give it away. When she promised me off to one of them and had him corner me after school in the parking lot, I had to scream at the top of my lungs until my English teacher heard my cries and scared him off.
My friends were always fascinated by my sister’s existence. We lived in a white-bread upper middle class town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and nothing ever happened. My sister was a constant source of gossip and amusement. What had she done now? Their parents were always asking me, “How is Emily? Is she doing any better?” No was the answer. No was always the answer. Emily spent the last few years of high school running away and jumping from one group home to the next. There was always a story that garnered some sort of sympathy. And people who didn’t know about her always found her charming. She was hired as a nanny one Summer, she spoke endlessly about how much she liked it, and how sweet the kids were who she was watching. I remember a few calm weeks when we thought we were seeing some change in Emily. Maybe this job was good for her. Then I came home one afternoon and found that my shelf of beloved trinkets had been wiped clean: the only doll I ever loved, my favorite gold locket, my baby bracelet, a blanket I slept with every night. Emily gave them all to the kids she was nannying. I never got them back.
In my sophomore year of high school, Emily went on a popular talk show. She told the host a million false sob stories and none of us even knew that she had signed up for it. After it aired, everyone was talking about it. I wanted to disappear. Shortly after that my dad moved out, but for good this time. Without a second thought to what I had been through and what I needed from a parent, he moved to New Mexico. We don’t speak often.
I was a junior when Emily got pregnant the first time. She was 21. We’d already been estranged for some time, but all of a sudden there was a baby involved. I would talk to her on the phone and ask about it, part of me wanted to see her, part of me had not stopped caring about what happened to her.
In June of that year, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Joshua. I was 16, and enamored the moment I touched his little brown foot. My mother, in spite of herself, accepted her role as a grandmother and made it her business to keep this little boy safe. One day, Emily dropped Joshua off for us to baby-sit, and she didn’t come back. One thing lead to another, we found out that Emily had been pawning off her pregnancy like anything else of value she’d ever had in her possession. She had promised his adoption to nearly a dozen families, had taken money, food, shelter, clothes; anything you could possibly give to a young, needy mother. When someone finally filed a police report about what she’d done, which was decide after Joshua was born that she’d changed her mind and planned to keep him, an investigation began and Emily took off. My mother instantly became his sole guardian, determined to find him a loving family.
Joshua stayed with us through the summer. I adored him. I couldn’t get enough of him. His baby smell, his wiry hair, his beautiful mocha skin, his laugh. Even when he’d wake me, wailing in the middle of the night, I felt I had a purpose. I loved him with every ounce of my being. As the summer drew to an end, Joshua’s adoption became a reality. My mother had found the perfect family, and one August morning, it became finalized. The day Joshua left, I was carted away from the house, stricken with such an immense depression that I didn’t speak for days. I had grown so attached to my nephew, and the pain in losing him was something I can still barely bring myself to think about. It was after this experience that I had made the decision to cut Emily out of my life. It was too painful, too toxic. The amount of people she had hurt and her lack of remorse was something I could just not tolerate any longer.
My junior year of high school was a complete blur. I barely remember it at all. I walked through the halls in a glazed over sadness and could not bring myself to talk about Joshua. I kept to myself, ended friendships, soothed myself with terrible teenaged sex, and coasted through my classes. When that year was finally over, and a door opened that allowed me to leave school and start college a year early, I jumped at the chance to get away. And I didn’t look back.
The last time I saw my sister, I was 16 years old. In a few weeks, I’ll turn 29. In the time since I’ve seen her, Emily has given birth to four other children. During each pregnancy, she has committed the same fraud: maliciously promising her baby to a multitude of families and getting money in return. Inevitably, this has caught up with her and she has been in and out of prison, jumping from state to state.
Mom has given up on Emily ever changing, but because she is a mother, and because she has no choice, Emily is always on her radar. She has been instrumental in finding safe homes for each of the baby’s that ultimately always get taken away from her. Four out of five of the children are in the same home; the same home with Joshua, who is now 12. Those four kids share their lives with my mom, knowing her as their Naunie, in an open adoption. I have not been able to bring myself to meet any of them, have not had the courage to speak to Joshua who I think about every day, who I cry for often.
I have hidden this part of myself away for a long time. I know that much of it is repressed, that I don’t bring it out because it scares me, it hurts and I know that it has the power to swallow me. When I speak about my depression openly, sometimes I forget that there is a source. Sometimes, I just blame it on the Winter. Over the years, Emily has reached out to me several times, but I don’t believe that she will ever change. I think that she is the kind of sick that will only leave more heartache in her wake.
A couple weeks ago, I was at my social work internship meeting with a client for therapy. My father called me, which is unlike him, as he never calls. I excused myself from the session for a moment, knowing something must have been wrong. “Something’s happened to your Mom,” he said. “A social worker called me, she’s been in an accident.” As a social worker, I know what it means when one of them calls to tell you there’s been an accident. It’s only bad news. I hung up with my dad and called my Aunt and then my Uncle. No one answered. I flew down four flights of stairs, dizzied and hysterical, out into the cold Chicago air. Without my coat, my keys, or a direction, I paced the street and finally called my mom’s cellphone, hoping that someone would answer. When she picked up the phone, sounding completely normal, I collapsed on the sidewalk and heaved. She was totally fine. There was no accident.
When I called back my father, he sounded nonplussed. Apparently, Emily had told a social worker in jail that my mom had been killed in a car accident, and she called my father to verify. My dad still believes that she will change, “I love her. She’s my daughter,” he says to me over the phone, while my heart is still beating out of my chest, the fear that something has happened to my mother still lingering in the back of my throat. I do not understand why he has never given me this love in return, why he has it reserved for a person who has only caused pain wherever she’s been. “She’s sick,” he says.
Emily has been a deeply buried secret since I’ve moved away from home. Every so often, she comes up in conversation, because despite my pain, my anger, my resentment, there is still love. There are moments, few as they are, that I remember fondly, things about her that I still see when I close my eyes: the shape of her hands, fingers long and slender, her tan unblemished skin. I’ll say, “That reminds me of my sister,” and inevitably, someone will say, “You have a sister?” And I’ll nod and say, “Yeah, but we’re not close,” and quickly change the subject.
I know that in my hiding, in my avoidance, I am stalling growth. I am pretending that this pain is not my own, that it belonged to someone else, who lived and died and started anew. But there was a child who lived in that shadow, and that shadow had a name, and it was Emily. She exists. She is a part of me. She is my sister, my blood. She is a stranger to me, and I will never understand her, and perhaps, will never forgive her for what she’s done, what she’s taken.
I don’t want to forget what happened, as hard as it was to go through it this way, to backtrack through the memories and put them to a page. I know the path I have chosen, in large part, is because of Emily: how I grieve, how I process, the profession I am in. Any time someone is surprised to learn I have a sibling, I don’t want to have to go into the details, to say, I lived this fucked up childhood, and this is why. But I don’t want to deny it either. I don’t want to wear it as a shroud. I don’t believe in things like, “I am better for it,” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but I do believe in letting go, and I am all for release:
Dear Emily, you are my history. You are my wound. You are my sad story. You are my painful scar. You are that dull ache, that persistent gnaw. Emily you are my sister. And I am not an only child. I was never a child at all.
Still, I wish you peace. Still I fill myself with love and hope you feel it.