My Sister's Brother
“Would you PLEASE set the table!” Mom laughed with a smile. That was our job. I got water for four and my sis Becky, four years older, did the rest. It wouldn’t be Mom’s kitchen without the sound of lemons being chopped on the wooden cutting board. “Tonic is SO expensive!” she laughed as she poured on more gin. Mom always laughed while fixing her gin and tonic. And at most other times too.
In Southern California in the 1970’s, the most popular kitchen décors were the Harvest Gold or Avocado Green color schemes. In addition, the carpeting throughout the spacious two-story, four bedroom house was 25% shag-wool and 75% camouflaged horrors.
At the dinner table, Mom gleefully proclaimed, “Mr. Laichas has been keeping me so busy! He is the most brilliant attorney I have ever worked for! Most legal secretaries can’t type as fast as me. I go as fast as the machine, 100 words per minute!”
Mom spared no expense proclaiming how happy she was. The gin didn’t hurt. But even lightning fast typewriters need to be oiled. It’s a good thing Mom can type that fast. If one of her kids were drowning, she could always throw her typewriter in the water to save them. After all, it could spell out the really hard words, such as, “My husband Charles sexually abused and raped our daughter Linda from age eight to twenty, but we just pretend it never happened.” The words that she could never say while laughing. After all, you might spill your gin and tonic. And tonic is so expensive.
My big sis Linda, twelve years older, was noticeably absent. But we had a special relationship. I felt different; loved; relaxed, when I was with her. When I was twelve, we invented a secret code. One of us would squeeze the other’s hand three times. This meant “I love you”, one squeeze for each word. Then the other would return with four squeezes, which meant “I love you too.” Linda and I found a way to connect with each other that required no words. It was our code. It was perfect.
On a Sunday afternoon when I was 12, as the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of cut grass filled our neighborhood, I watched a golf game on TV with Dad. I was drinking root beer, while he had his typical Lucky beer in the stubby brown bottles. He did all the talking, and very little at that.
Lucky beer had rebus puzzles under the bottle caps; a riddle to decipher from a picture. The puzzles provided fun for me since being with Dad made no difference. Pfffft! Lucky days are here again. No place to go but up. Some of the puzzles were easy to solve, but others took some effort. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Bombs Away!
I simultaneously longed for and dreaded spending time with Dad. I felt nothing. Something was missing. The beer inventory continued its steady decline and the alcohol began to take its toll. The more he drank, the quieter I got. We pretended. Holding his Lucky beer bottle, Dad stared at me with bloodshot eyes. Surely he did not recognize his own young son sitting right before him. His face snarling at me now as his gaze grew nastier by the second.
Suddenly, the entire room began to shake. The earth tipped over. “Shame on you!!” he shrieked as droplets of Lucky beer sprayed out of his sneering face onto mine as he shook a long finger an inch from my nose. The words pierced right through my small body and brain like flying shards of broken glass. I found myself spinning like a top, thrown into a hurricane of molten shards of metal, unable to tell which way was up. Gasping for air, unsure whether to inhale or exhale. But I stood like a statue, gruesomely still. Looking straight ahead. Not breathing. Not blinking. Frozen. Boy. Is born.
One Saturday that summer, Linda and I went to the beach. We always traveled light, with towels and a cooler. Linda usually laid out reading a favorite book, as I dove into the water. Afterwards, we went out to dinner. Linda began drinking but that wasn’t odd to me, I always felt safe with her. Linda and I both just took things as they came. I was not one to question anyone else’s behavior, especially someone older. And everyone was older.
Arriving at her apartment, she fixed another drink, although I barely noticed. We watched TV and she fell asleep on the couch. After an hour she woke up, but was suddenly different than ever before. She looked at me with an angry stare and grimaced, “What are you looking at?” I didn’t know what to say. Why was she acting like this? I said nothing and felt even less.
Suddenly, her angry demeanor lifted and she became playful and full of laughter. I was taken aback and suddenly started to worry. But I didn’t challenge her. I could never question anyone. Instead, I did what I had learned to do. What I had been taught without so much as a lesson plan. Like the child that I was, raised in a home with unspoken rules, I never questioned others. I pretended that everything was fine.
Then Linda got up, took my hand and led me to her bedroom. By this time she was half joking. I went along. What are we doing here? Why is she acting like this? I felt like a robot of some sort. I recalled one of my favorite TV shows: Lost in Space. I always wondered if there was an actor under the robot suit. Maybe now the robot was me.
But this was different. There was no thinking. No feeling. My programming was complete. Numb and void of thought, feeling or action. A box containing a full measure of empty space. Frozen Boy.
As we entered her bedroom, Linda took off her clothes, and laughing, told me to take off mine. I don’t remember if I did myself, or she took them off for me. Time and space stood still. I felt a numbness of No-Thing come over me. I wanted to speak but couldn’t. Instead, the robot-void-boy that I was, went along.
But I should have done a million different things. I should have left. I should have run. I should have said “Stop.” So many damn shoulds! But I froze and did nothing. Everything was in a fog.
But this I do remember: Linda laid back on her bed and pulled me down onto her. My body was lifeless, my mind blank. She continued a sort of odd laugh. I just went along. After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity she pushed me off and still laughing, said, “That’s all, we’re done!”
I started to regain my sense of composure-if such a thing was even possible- I quickly got dressed and went to the living room. I went to sleep on the couch as she stayed in her room. The next morning we ate breakfast and didn’t discuss what had happened for the rest of her life. Now we were the Pretenders.
As I grew up, looking back on that sad and confusing day, I wondered what kind of a home, what kind of a family, Mom and Dad had created that their children’s very lives had come to this? The picture was now complete. Frozen. Man.
At age 46, Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent treatment that quickly became more and more aggressive. I traveled to L.A. from Phoenix to see her as often as I could. Becky took Linda to her doctor’s appointments and became her confidant, and daily touchstone.
A few months later, Linda was hospitalized. I went to see her and brought Mom along. Linda was smiling as always and glad to see me. As Mom and I were getting ready to leave, I maneuvered my way around the medical equipment to give Linda a hug and a kiss goodbye. I stepped out of the way so that Mom could do the same. Instead, Mom shook her hands in front of her and said with a smile, “No no, it’s ok.” I told Linda I’d be back shortly. Walking down the corridor of the cancer ward, I asked Mom what that was all about. Mom replied: “Oh Linda knows I love her, I’m just not very touchy-feely.” I was stunned. I realized full-on that Mom’s compassion was like the void of outer space. Only more vast.
After Linda had been sick for a year and a half, she was sent home. The doctor talked about six months to live, but it was hard to say. I watched her deteriorating over weeks. What hair she had was now gray and she lost half of her body weight. Mom would rarely visit.
One evening I sat at her bedside. Linda was very drowsy. I couldn’t tell if it was the side effects of the morphine she was on now or the cancer taking her away. Slowly, cruelly, deliberately. Linda moved in and out of consciousness, and drifted off to sleep. As she rested, I took her hand. I gently squeezed three times. Linda squeezed mine back. Four times. I love you too. We still had each other. We needed no words. I am My Sister’s Brother. Forever. A year after she died I wrote a guitar song for her. It’s called “Message to Linda.” It took me 41 years and 20 minutes to write.
Years after Linda and Dad were gone, I mustered the courage to go visit Mom alone. I wanted to talk to her about Dad’s sexual abuse of Linda, and how she died in an awful way. But I would have to face Mom and talk about the things we pretended did not exist. It was Mom and Dad’s cruel version of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
The bravery to talk to Mom grew out of my recovery from growing up with two alcoholic and deeply troubled parents. But now I had grown passed the denial and anger. Past the unbearable pain of losing Linda, who I adored.
Sitting at Mom’s dining room table with her Gin and tonic in hand, I bit my lip. I was seven years old all over again. Would I have the courage to ask the one question I had silently wondered about for half of my life? Finally I found a way to raise the “Dad-Linda” topic. I told Mom that I felt really sad about what had happened to Linda regarding Dad. Although I had long since grown up, I feared being crushed by a four foot twelve inch tall bottle of Gin. Or perhaps suffocated by laughter. It can be so heavy too.
As Mom sliced another lemon, she shook her head and said “Well, Linda never complained to me about Dad. If he was bothering her, she should have told me something. But she never said anything to me.” But then her demeanor changed. Looking down at the table, she said “I think that may have had something to do with why she got so sick, but I don’t know for sure” as she shook her head. For once, she wasn’t laughing. I surprised myself and shouted, “I think that’s exactly what happened.” I had been working in the field of child abuse prevention for several years, and my child protection voice came out. I never felt more certain of anything in my life.
Just then, Mom turned away, sitting, with her back to me, stared at the floor with a stark, blank face. She could not look at me. Then she softly whispered, barely audibly, “He must have been a monster.” My whole body went limp. Like a circus puppet whose strings had been cut, as my heart sank right through the floor.