When my father smiles, the wide gaps between his teeth are on cartoony display. His family could afford braces for only one child, and, as the girl, his sister’s looks won priority. In adulthood, Debbie was the homeless woman with perfect teeth.
The last time I saw my aunt was Christmas 2007. I was home in North Carolina for winter break during my senior year of college. I’d just completed my second term of French, and, on Christmas day, I was arrogant in my use of rudimentary language skills to make snide remarks to my French-fluent mother. A gruff smoker’s laugh interrupted my stilted chatter, and Debbie piped up in proficient French. I was shocked into silence—chagrined because I’d been talking about my aunt and beyond surprised because, being homeless and an alcoholic, Debbie was the last middle-aged person you’d expect to recall lessons learned in high school.
That Christmas, my aunt brought in her suitcase two white mice that quickly took up residence in the guest room closet, presumably pleased to be no longer homeless.
At one point, Debbie made me tea, and, to test the heat, she’d sipped from my cup. I took the cup but never had a sip myself. Taking me aside, my dad demanded that I stop treating her like a homeless person. “Dad, she is a homeless person,” I said.
That Christmas, Debbie told us that, while she was living in “the forest” – a phrase so Disney-movie-inspired we all found it darkly hilarious – her morning wake-up call involved overly friendly raccoons scratching her gently on the nose.
During her visit, Debbie never smelled homeless. She smelled quite fragrant, minty fresh, in fact. She’d been reduced to satisfying her alcohol addiction with Dollar Store mouthwash and remnants oozed from her pores with her sweat.
Until he passed, my grandfather offered Debbie some monetary support for her flophouse lifestyle with an ever-changing group of fellow addicts and enablers packed into overcapacity roach motel rooms or near-condemned dank one-room apartments in Wildwood, N.J. But when he died, Debbie refused to be taken in by my father and retreated to “the forest.” When winter chill set in, the cops in Cape May arrested forest dwellers on loitering charges, or whatever outstanding warrants were on the books, to protect them from the elements.
In the weeks prior to that holiday, my father had been to New Jersey three times to try to have Debbie transferred from county jail to a state facility that would dry her out. Each time she was released on her own recognizance and returned to the forest, disinclined to take up the “square” lifestyle my dad’s help required. Travel costs put a strain on my parents, so my dad forced the issue and transported Debbie and her few belongings southward just in time for Christmas.
By New Year’s, my dad had secured Debbie a job as a grocery store butcher, but it wasn’t long before she was fired for getting drunk at work. Eventually, my parents worried that Debbie might pass out with a cigarette in her mouth and burn the house down or that she’d offer shelter to other, more unsavory former forest dwellers. Going with their contingency plan meant setting Debbie up in a cheap motel across the border in South Carolina near the Mitsubishi plant site where my dad worked as an environmental engineer.
My father encouraged Debbie to search for employment within walking distance of her motel. One afternoon, Debbie was refused an application at Sonic. So, she panhandled enough for a dram of cheap vodka and, in short order, earned a citation for drunk and disorderly conduct after peeing on the lawn in front of Sonic in full view of diners and passing traffic.
Soon enough, Debbie made friends and moved from the motel into a small tent city in a warmer forest away from her brother’s questions and surveillance. It was an outcome that was expected, even inevitable. Debbie was going on 40 years held hostage by addictive impulses. Her drug and alcohol habits were full-grown by her late teens.
Over the past four decades, my dad unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate his sister countless times. Once, when I was a baby, he’d bought her a ticket home for a sobriety try. Debbie made it into the car he’d arranged to take her to the airport but did not make it on the plane. Outside departures, she found a cabbie who offered her a fare-free ride. She should have been skeptical of this beneficence. The cabbie was counterfeit and piloting a stolen taxi. My aunt was arrested as an accomplice to grand theft auto.
Debbie died of esophageal bleeding on Thanksgiving morning this year. She was dead on arrival at the hospital. Her bender must have been unprecedented in scale for her not to have noticed the persistent blood in her stool and vomit. On the phone with my father, the coroner said that the cause of death was without a doubt a complication of alcoholism, but protocol demanded that an autopsy be done the next day to exclude foul play.
My aunt was 56 years old when she died. Though, in a phone call with my dad on her birthday the month before, Debbie announced she was 57. My dad corrected her miscalculation, wondering when she’d lost the year and how it was that she’d managed to lose only one.
Over Labor Day weekend a few months before Debbie’s death, my dad and I road-tripped south to shuttle my rescue cat from New York City to Zirconia, N.C. Our drive-time conversation meandered enjoyably, and a couple of hours in, we got on the topic of where my dad’s and Debbie’s fortunes had split.
On her deathbed, my grandmother made my father promise her that he would go to college. She had a brain tumor that went undiscovered until a routine eye exam, at which point treatment options were strictly palliative. A hail-Mary brain surgery was attempted at the very end, but the operation’s only effect was to put her into an irreversible coma. My dad and his sister had only a handful of weeks to adjust to the reality that their mother was dying. My father was 15, and his sister was 13.
Owing to ignored and unaddressed learning disabilities, my father’s high school test scores and transcripts were not a sight to behold. His guidance counselor told him that he wasn’t smart enough for higher education. Most in his position would have taken this opinion as fact, but my dad had no choice but to press on. He was the first person in his family to hold a college degree. As it turns out, my dad’s mind was made for chemistry. He was published in Nature at the age of 23, before he’d even finished his master’s in chemical oceanography.
On our car ride, my dad and I imagined together what Debbie’s life might have been had she been guided by a deathbed promise as he was. Then, my dad confessed that, after all these years watching his sister live terribly, something in his heart had shifted. He was now having a harder and harder time summoning sympathy for his sister. He used to feel for her what he would feel for a diseased puppy left to fend for itself. But suddenly, his sympathy couldn’t surmount her wasted life.
Recalling a recent visit with her during her last stint in rehab, he said that she seemed like a caged animal. She did not revel in her success and seemed tortured by the restlessness and boredom her clear-headedness produced. At the halfway house, it was a matter of days before she fell off the wagon. And, it was a matter of weeks before drinking mouthwash put her in the hospital. The doctors told my dad that the day Debbie embarked on her next bender would likely be her last. Her resilience exceeded expectation, but only by degree.
The Friday night after Thanksgiving, my parents stayed with me in Brooklyn. My dad’s audible fidgeting on the air mattress made it clear he wasn’t able to sleep. I followed him into the kitchen and got him a bowl of cereal. He said that he couldn’t stop thinking about Debbie alone and cold in the morgue, only a sheet covering her post-autopsy, sewn-up flesh.
There was nothing I could say in response. There never has been. But, having been my dad’s sounding board for things related to Debbie, I’ve learned that love is bearing witness.
That’s how my dad has always had to love his sister. He’s given her help whenever he’s had the opportunity, but mostly he’s had to show his love by bearing witness. Living every day with the knowledge of his sister’s voided life. Feeling the fury that the facts of her life ignite. Knowing that he will never feel anything but angry love for her.
He doesn’t simplify or ignore or move on from or gloss over or swallow back memories. He refuses to look away, refuses to sugar coat, refuses to accept or deny. He refuses to forgive, and he refuses to forget. He refuses to say there weren’t other possibilities, constant in his refusal of the solace of fatalism. And, with her death, he now refuses the comfort of the clichés on offer.
He loved her by bearing witness. And, in his grief, bearing witness is how I love him.