Brilliance stifled

Hello on a Monday evening from the study,

If my sister were alive, she would be celebrating her birthday tomorrow. She would be 61, but she lived an entire decade less than that. I have often thought Kris was the most intelligent of the three siblings in the adopted family where I spent a difficult, but still reasonable childhood. She was artistic, creative, musical, whimsical, and loving, but she hurt deeply at the same time. As we were adopted together, and are actually biological siblings, we both depended on and simultaneously feared depending on the other. I think she was closer to our older adopted brother than she was to me. However, I am not sure that was apparent to me until after we were adults. His premature death at 26 was much more profoundly difficult, and, as such, more devastating to her as she was struggling to live her life in the service. I also think it played more of a role in an ill-fated marriage, and subsequent annulment, than I might have realized until this very moment.

I know growing up if there was a person who felt the brunt of our mother’s wrath or anger it was her (having a grammatical moment of whether it should be “her” or “she.”). From shortly after we were adopted, when she began to struggle with the far-reaching effects of the dramatic change in parenting to her more deep-seated need to find our biological parents, and especially our father, Kris had a streak of being “the other,” which seemed to compel her forward; she was much like Dorothy following the yellow brick road. She had to get to Emerald City, believing that a wizard might get her back to her version of Kansas. I remember twice in elementary school, she took matters into her own hands, running away hoping to find our elusive parents. We knew names from early on. We knew our parents were divorced, but we never really had a location. We had a direction (south of Iowa) and most likely a state (Texas, where I was born). Both times she ran away, it was about the time when we were to be receiving our report cards, and she was likely to have a grade, or grades, that were going to cause a problem at home. Looking back, our parents were probably pretty reasonable regarding their grade expectations. In fact, I would probably be more strident on my grade responses, and had higher expectations, but I would like to believe I would have not been as abusive in my reaction. I have often commented that God was probably wise when I was not allowed to have children. I will say the second time she made a pronounced dash to discover our missing biological progenitors, she did “go big to go home,” by jumping on a freight train. She was a determined denarian, but her sense of direction was a bit skewed. The train was headed north, probably to Canada. She was found in an engine miles away from a home that caused her so much personal trauma. It was after that it was decided that we needed to consider family counseling, but that did not go very far. When some of the struggles came to light, the creator of those struggles felt trapped and refused to return. What ended up happening would have life-long consequences for both my sister and the family.

As she began to grow beyond childhood, the change was difficult for her and she never really wanted to be the typical adolescent. For me, the person who worried too much about what others thought, I did not know what to do with my atypical sister. Amazing what I knew and understand today that I did not realize then. Long before she was perhaps even aware or could articulate, and an entire decade before she would tell her family, I think she understood she was different, but that sort of difference was not discussed in the 1960s or early 1970s. What I have been able to plainly see and have for decades was my sister was a lesbian. She did everything she could to cover her changing physiology and had little desire to make any attempt to appearing feminine. As her 14 month older brother, I found her embarrassing and I was also embarrassed that she could pretty much kick my butt at most anything, be it musical, intellectual, or physical. I was quite sure if we ended up in a fight I would lose, and that was into junior high. What that did for us was create an certain estrangement that isolated us both. All the more reason she was more comfortable with our older adopted brother. What we did have in common was our church youth group, and we were able to find our own niche. It was between my junior and senior year of high school that we probably made some progress in really beginning to appreciate each other once again. She was the only person home that summer because I had moved back to our grandmother’s house. Working at the bakery  with a shift that began around 5:00-5:15 required transportation and my mother was not going to get up at any such hour to take me. That was a traumatic summer as my father would have a heart attack and I did not come back home until almost Thanksgiving that year, and only after my father pleaded with me to return. By the time I returned we were in a new school (which was much larger) and I had little chance to run into her. By the end of that academic year, I had graduated and was soon to begin Marine Corps Boot Camp.

My first year in the Corps was her senior year of high school. As seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, when Kris decided she wanted to do something, she did; when she decided she did not want to . . .  OMG!!. During her last year of high school, and more accurately her last semester, my parents were notified that she was in danger of not graduating because she was failing three courses. Over the years, my parents had tried almost every avenue possible to get her to invest in her education, but she had little desire to do so. It was not because she was incapable, or even that it was too hard, perhaps with the exception of math, and we were the same there. School had everything to do with her simple desire to do it or not. I think this might be one of the few times I had ever known my dad to get angry. Long story short: she turned things around and within 5 weeks she went from failing to earning two Bs and a C. That is mind boggling when she was failing barely over a month before. My poor parents. She did end up going to college, attending Luther College in Decorah, IA, where my adopted mother’s nephew was a math professor. I have spoken (or more accurately written) about this in the past. While I think she did reasonably well, she put in minimal effort like she did with most everything she approached. She also somehow ended up with a Spring Break that lasted a month versus a week. That ostensibly ended her nascent college career and she ended up in the service. Twice she would be awarded the Outstanding Service Person of her base. However, being gay and being in the service in the late 1970s did not work well.

Later in life she would take some classes at community college, which she took primarily creative writing courses. She was actually quite accomplished. She could do anything she put her mind to doing. What was most interesting about her was you could never predict what she might do. She was certainly her own person; yet, she often was much too willing to acquiesce to the demands of those around her. Part of that was her need to be valued. The aftermath of those early-life traumas, perhaps more appropriately sequelas, which caused her such problems that she never believed in herself again. Where I had fought against the never-ending upbraiding that characterized our childhood, for Kris it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her unpredictability hit an all-time high when she called me on an April morning and asked me if I was ready for a surprise. I remember responding, “Do I have a choice?” This was when my 39 year old lesbian sister informed me she was going to be a mother. . . .  Much like the ellipses, I paused and was silent. She inquired, “Are you still there?” And I responded, “I’m thinking.” I was having a complete mental breakdown in logic at that point. After a couple of questions, I stated and simultaneously asked, rather incredulously, “I know how this happens, but how the fuck did that happen?” Yes, I actually included that word. Her response was as surprising as the news itself, but there should have been no surprise. This was my sister who was way beyond the different drummer metaphor. For our father, he believed having a child meant she could no longer be gay. At least, I think that is what he believed. He never did know what to do with his only daughter. At least being a grandfather again gave him hope . . . for what I am not exactly sure.

During the past weeks, I have thought about her more than usual, I might say. I wonder where she might have gone and what might have happened had she lived longer. She did not take very good care of herself. Between smoking and diet, the repercussion of the two led to a premature death. I have often wondered how much was the addictive quality of the cigarettes and how much of it was mere stubbornness and her unwillingness to respond to what she should do. I have more of this in me that I might want to admit at times, but somehow, I made it. What I know now is she was brilliant and kind. She was insightful, but always willing to ponder and consider that path less traveled. If she were here now, what might I want to say? I think, first, I would say, I love you and I am so humbled, and perhaps jealous, of how smart you are (were). I think I would want to apologize for not being able to understand her better when she was young or when she was struggling to be allowed to be who she was. I remember when I went to see her, body lying on that table in the mortuary before she was cremated. I stood there crying and kissing her forehead and telling her how much I loved her and how much I would miss her. How proud I was that she had become a parent, something I have never done. I know there are so many things I should have done or could have done to foster a closer relationship with her, and I failed. I wish I would have stuck up for her more adamantly when she was so hurt by our mother. I wish I might have been able to demonstrate that I still loved her, even when I did not understand her. Astounding what we begin to see when we ponder and admit our own failings. What I feel now is an overwhelming sense of what if. . . . or if I had only . . . I guess in my own piety, I hope she can hear this or reach out and see this. Even now, I am not perfect, that is most assuredly the case, but I wish we could sit and have a cup of coffee and share our perceptions of that time when we were both told we did not belong; we were not worthy; we would not amount to anything. Kris, I hope you know you were successful in ways I never will be. I hope you know that I admire your intelligence and you unparalleled kindness. I hope you know that I am proud that I was your brother, but I continue to be so. I miss you and on this week of your birthday, know that I love you and I always will. I leave this song for you. It is not completely analogous, but the remembering is what it is about and today I am remembering you for the phenomenally brilliant woman you were. I love you.

Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Michael (the older grateful brother)

 

 

 

 

Author:

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration. We are working on a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write or ponder through my words.

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