On the same day my sister Maureen died, her caretaker, Karen, shared that she had been talking to our mother, calling her name many times, not in distress. Later, she held Karen’s hand and said, “I’m going to go down the road,” to which Karen answered, teasing, “Usually you don’t even want to leave the flat—how come now?” Maureen had struggled with bipolar disorder and for over 15 years she had barely left her home. Tightening her grip she repeated that she was “going down the road” but would wait for her son to return before doing so.
I lit a candle for my big sister five days ago, minutes after getting the news. She died just before midnight, in her son’s arms, in a different time zone, just as I was stirring to start my day.
I knew it was coming, like day comes after night, knew it was likely to be swift—pancreatic cancer being a fast moving river. Her words at the time she was given the news of her illness struck me: “My daughter died in 2019 and it looks like I’m going to go in 2020”. She wasn’t far off. It had been a month between diagnosis and death, just like my brother and not too different from my dad, yet, when I got the call my sadness was profound.
My sister was a born teacher. She had the gift of making learning fun, engaging all the children’s senses, injecting humor and creating joy in the classroom.
She was glamorous. I’m sure many students she taught must have had a schoolboy (or girl) crush on her. Beneath her wide, warm smile was a joyous, tropical style. She wore long bold-printed skirts, handmade sandals with a leather rose tucked between her toes, big carved wooden earrings designed by a local artisan, red lipstick and a hibiscus tucked behind her ear. She was my first creative influence and her passion for early childhood education made me want to become a teacher too.
I was surprisingly comforted when I heard Maureen had been talking to our mother hours before she transitioned. Like many of us who lived within Mama’s toxic love orbit, my sister was grateful to her, as well as inspired and damaged by her.
Unlike the rest of her siblings, Maureen was dependent on my mother who provided her with employment in her school, St. Margaret's, for at least two decades, but lorded it over her. Their relationship was complex: respect sat next to disdain; love communed with hate; gratitude resided with pain. It gave me a sense of hope and has left me with a little less fear of dying, to know that Maureen sought out our mother as she lay there in her last hours. She must have felt that she was traveling to a safe harbor.
It surprises me that the thought of seeing my mother - even a defanged version in the afterlife - would strike me as comfort. I did not grieve her passing. I’m not sure my sister did either. My mother, an entrepreneur and headmistress in 1950s Jamaica, was smart, determined, wily, fearless and far ahead of her time. She was ambitious for us. She was also cruel. Her death was preceded by a long course of dementia and when it happened there was no unfinished business between us. Long before the end I had grieved the loss of the relationship that might have been. I felt mostly a sense of closure and relief that this was the end of that era.
I had been the youngest of seven, the washbelly, of an aspiring middle class Jamaican family, with two sisters and four brothers until my parents adopted a baby when I was seventeen, just as my own latent motherly feelings began to surface. He was showered with love in the ways that babies are and after I left Jamaica the following year, as he grew into boyhood, my sister, just as she had done for me, protected him from my mother’s increasingly turbulent and destructive parenting.
Did Mama call out to my sister to join her? Did she have to convince her that it would be safe or was the glow of mother-love in the afterlife self evident? Since my own relationship with her was no less difficult, I have latched onto the idea that maybe my mother's pure love, like when I was born, awaits me when it is my turn to travel down the road.
I didn’t really say goodbye.
I couldn’t, and anyway, you wouldn’t have wanted me to. But how I wish I could have been there, in the quiet, to hold your hand after the time for words had passed. I will never forgive Covid for stealing that from us.
All that matters in the end is that you loved me and I loved you.
Your sister, Pum Pum \\\
This is the first of a few posts on the topic of “Going Down the Road” A journey through family.
US politics is disheartening and frightening, the planet is in climate crises and the pandemic feels as though it will never end. I am in lockdown in London (likely to earn a badge as one of the worst places to be right now given the government’s poor handling of the virus) where I met my first grandchild who arrived 3 months ago. I am in a tender place these days, writing often and feeling the weight of grief and sadness while holding on to hope for a better future.
:::Thank you for reading! //MP