Saturday, June 11, 2016

My Sister's Eyes

The first call came in October, and more soon followed. When I picked up the phone, I heard a vast, unending sorrow in my sister’s voice. “Jenna,” she began, and then fell silent. It was the saddest word I ever heard.

My sister Lesley has suffered from depression and anxiety most of her life, and last fall brought new worries about memory and Alzheimer’s. But in January, she discovered cataracts that were complicated by a strange condition: the zonules holding her eye lens in place were loose. 

Doctors said my sister needed complicated surgery, which had to be performed by both a cataract surgeon and a retina specialist, because otherwise the retina could fall during the operation. And, by the way, they said, she could lose her sight.

I promised to be with Lesley during the first operation at New York Eye and Ear Institute and arrived on June 1. The retina surgeon came out halfway through when his part of the operation was finished.

“We don’t usually see this kind of thing unless there is a trauma of some kind,” the surgeon said. “Was your sister ever battered?”

I swallowed, looked at him, swallowed again. “Our mother had a lot of anger issues," I said, for want of anything better. "But would getting battered as a child affect what’s going on with her eyes now?”

The surgeon nodded. “Unfortunately, yes,” he said. “Though we can’t do anything about it at this point. Our job is to fix what happened.”

When  I shared this with my niece, she was skeptical, and I don't blame her. But even the chance that the stage was set for this issue by beatings in early childhood sent me into a tailspin. I'm still in one, to tell you the truth.

I am eternally grateful to both of my sister's surgeons, who are exceptional at what they do and  at the top of their game in every respect. Hearing one of them ask questions about abuse forced me to remember much that I would prefer to forget. When I tell people what was said, they ask if a husband or boyfriend could have been the culprit. I can tell you my sister shares everything with me, and I would know if that was the case. I can also tell you that both of us have a "no-tolerance rule" about abuse ever since we left home--and stuck to it.

Lesley was born seven years before me and by all accounts was a colicky baby. My mother tells a story of my sister crying at the breakfast table until my mother became exasperated. “I picked up the bowl of oatmeal and dumped it on  her head,” my mother would say. She would smile after she said it.

As a child I didn’t understand how a mother could do that, let alone report it with such equanimity. When I was little, I witnessed my mother hitting my sister but don't remember it well. I can tell you that when you are four years old and suddenly someone is being hit and you are watching, you think, "What? Why?" And there is no answer that makes sense to you.  I remembered getting hit too, and the feeling of being tiny and diminished and helpless and very far from God.

When I reached the age of 11 the abuse escalated after Lesley left home for college. I remember being hit, kicked, and bitten by my mother  in addition to getting my hair yanked and my head pummeled by the stiletto heel of her high-heel shoe. (Is that why I have trouble with high heels?) What I am recounting sounds bad, but I believe it was worse for my sister.

I'd like to say things got better, but that didn't happen until I left for school at the age of 18. Over the years both my sister and I struggled with depression, but theater and writing helped me get through it in ways I don’t think my sister had access to. She is a talented sculptor and draws beautifully, but art has never comforted and blessed her the way my work does with me. 

That's not to say Lesley hasn't had good times. She earned a master's degree in occupational therapy, worked as a group therapist, was a superb guidance counselor to inner-city kids, adores her daughter and loves to read and meet up with friends. She has married several times and certainly has no regrets about any of her relationships. As you might expect, she and I have both gone through years of therapy, with the goal of not repeating our mother's mistakes. 

Lesley believed our mother had borderline personality disorder and I would tend to agree she could get angry on a dime and you never saw it coming. "If I had it to do over, I'd never have children," she would say. When my sister or I said something that displeased her, we'd be treated to a string of curses that would end in wishing our own kids would be as rotten as we were. She would also defend her actions by saying she needed to "teach us" how to behave, but violence doesn't teach you anything except how to hate yourself.

At the same time, I want to honor both parents' memories. I feel guilty sharing this with you, because it's not honoring my mother's memory, and I would like to be able to do that. I am not saying my mother was evil. Her skills at parenting were lacking, and that has had serious consequences for my sister and me.

I'm also not writing this post to say "poor me." I had a great relationship with my dad and he leavened some of the craziness I grew up with. And though I'm more susceptible to stress than I want to be, I'm extremely grateful for my fantastic, caring, understanding husband, incredible friends and my writing career.

There is some good news here too: our mother got better as we got older, mellower, gentler, and more generous. She wasn't always angry and could be very supportive when  she was in a good mood. 

But damage is damage, and now a doctor says my sister's eyes have likely been damaged because of battering. His words brought home the fact that children are more vulnerable to physical violence than adults and violence in early childhood can have long-lasting physical effects, in additional to the emotional ones. I'm writing this because I believe dignity and safety should be non-negotiable rights for children as well as adults. But especially, truly, especially, for kids.

Were I to meet my mother right this minute, though, I don’t know how I’d react. She has been dead 16 years and yet when I saw what's happened this week, it feels like she never died at all.  It feels like those terrible days have come back to haunt us.

I understand it must be uncomfortable to read some of this and I was unable and unwilling to write about it until now. I wish it weren't part of my history, but it is and whether or not I like it, I have to deal with it. I hope this post will allow me to let it go.

These days, I think of other children being abused and can't help but feel terrified for them and about them. I sometimes talk to parents when I see it, complimenting their kids and seeing how far they’ll let me go in getting them to see what they are doing. But I don’t do this enough and keep thinking I need to do more. Trouble is, I don't always know what to do.

As a child, tween and young adult, there were occasions where I got slapped or hit or even beaten publicly. A friend witnessed it in my own house when we were in high school, though at the time people didn't report such things and she and I always kept it as "our secret." I don't believe abuse should be kept secret any more.

The signs in airports and on subways that say “if you see something, say something,” shouldn’t just be about terrorists. They should be about child abusers, too.

Today, I'm asking you to step up if you see a child or children being beaten, whether it's at an airport, a grocery store or even the home of your closest friend. If you can’t talk to the parent, write down their license plate number or mention something to a store clerk or something. Use your eyes so so no kid loses hers.

That kid could be your sister.