I received the news that my sister Clea had died from my mother. Mom is incredibly capable and strong in crisis; it was she who had called me only fifteen months earlier to tell me my father had passed. She told me how Clea had been found unconscious by her 11 year old daughter; how she’d been taken to hospital but her heart was too badly damaged for her to be saved. She’d never regained consciousness. Emotion overcame me almost instantly. I remember what I said to Mom, through tears: “I was a terrible brother.”
Clea lived a very rough life and in the process the damage she sustained, emotionally, physically, left her essentially disabled, living on the system, doing her best to raise her three children. My parents adopted Clea as an infant through an interracial adoption organization, a very progressive thing to do in the late 60s. As a mixed race kid in a small New England town in the 70s, she was virtually the only brown face. Can’t have been easy, but then, I was relentlessly bullied all through my childhood for being gay. I don’t know if I was tuned in to what things were like for Clea, consumed as I was with saving my own ass. As a young teen, she was the victim of a sexual assault, which led to the apprehension of her attacker, subjecting her to a trial in addition to the trauma she had suffered. Clea was never quite the same after this; acting out, running away, getting into trouble, increasingly impossible to manage… hospitals and halfway houses followed. As an adult, she struggled to keep her family together, helped stalwartly and selflessly by my Mom, as she tried to raise three kids. And over time, the physical challenges began to mount—obesity, heart surgery. We lost her at 46. I think we all knew, given her condition, that she was in a precarious state. But the loss of her, so young, after so much turmoil, and with three kids to find their way without her… it was staggering. And the pain for my mother of losing this youngest of her children was, and continues to be, acute.
My brother and I have busy careers, mine in New York, his in California. As all consuming as my life in pursuit of acting work is, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that my pursuits and the distance from Clea made it easier for me to be less connected with her than I could have been. I tried to provide moral support for my Mom mostly, because she was Clea’s parent, helper, cop, arranging her life to help her daughter subsist. Clea was enormously lovable despite her many issues—had a great sense of humor, surprisingly wise insights… she was a very sympathetic and cherished friend to a community of people she lived in that I really knew nothing about—until I met them at her memorial. I loved Clea. But I think I felt helpless, overwhelmed by her situation, and at times, if I am really being truthful, I carried around judgments about her and her choices which got in the way of my reaching out to have a stronger relationship.
This was the ‘terrible brother’ I saw myself as and I still carry with me the wish that I had just checked in more, been more engaged with her, let her know I loved her more. I don’t think any loss of a loved one happens without there being unfinished business to work through—business between us and ourselves. The loss of a sibling, I have found, is a special kind of loss. A loss which will always seem too soon… brothers and sisters are meant to be witness to each other’s aging, to be family for each other when they, one day, are the only family they have. Siblings are there to turn to and say, ‘remember that?’
Loss, which forever changes us, also brings with it the opportunity to change for the better. I have the opportunity to be a more engaged uncle for my sister’s kids, who are doing remarkably well, growing up very fast and creating their own family as siblings. I have the chance to be a strong brother to my one remaining sibling, and to continue to be a friend and loving son to my Mom. Clea and I grew up together and we contributed to each other in ways acknowledged and yet for me to discover. I wish there had been something I could have done to make my sister’s road easier, happier. I wish she could have seen her kids grow. The losses of close family I have experienced in the past couple years have taught me that it is up to me to define what these seismic events mean for who I am going to be as I move forward in life. Holding on to regret or self blame achieves nothing, and perpetuating the unfinished business will never allow it to be finished. Loving my sister for who she was, acknowledging and celebrating that she was a survivor of enormous inner strength who fought for so long against powerful obstacles… I can be proud to have been her brother and let the rest fall away. I think she probably thought I was a great brother, and I know she was proud of me.