Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Butterfly Angel

 

My parents (and their previous spouses) wrestled strenuously with their personal demons and so my siblings and I grew up in the midst of constant drama and angst. Each of us has our own story of what we endured, with varying degrees of abuse and crazy aimed in our direction.

I was the younger half-sister that my parents attempted to anchor their “new” life around while they put their existing children on the backburner and this led to a lot of resentment building up against me from my sisters and brothers. With some siblings this resentment expressed itself with blunt aggression and rage while with others it was released with subtle slights and cold comments. And for a couple of my siblings there was no marked signs of resentment but there was always the emotional distance of being strangers, raised decades and geographical regions apart.

With my sister Suzie everything was different. Every interaction with her during my childhood was positive and love seemed to just pour out of her.

Suzie was a beautiful butterfly that floated into and out of my life on the wind with little or no notice. The first time she drifted into my life after I reached adulthood was just a few months after I turned 21. Our father suffered a heart attack in NM, where my husband and I also lived at the time, and Suzie raced into town with most of my other siblings to be by his side. We were sitting on my parents’ porch and Suzie leaned into me as we talked and she giggled over some coming of age story I was relating to her. “You are just like us. You are one of us.”, she said to me, and then repeated it for emphasis. Inside my heart did flip-flops because all I ever wanted my whole life was to be loved and to belong. Suzie and the others stayed in town for a few days and in my desperation for a connection with them I didn’t hesitate for a moment to accept the invitation to follow them back to upstate NY where Jonathan and I could put down roots.

Unfortunately the situation deteriorated quickly between my older sister A* (who had invited me to stay with her) and I and so I found myself and my faithful puppy Jenna on the other side of the country from my husband (who stayed behind to work and make car payments for a few months) and parents with no place to go, no money, no job, and nowhere to turn for help. In steps Suzie to rescue me and Jenna. Despite the fact that she had little money herself, four children to care for (with one under a year old), ongoing strife with her romantic partner, and often wrestled herself with the poor decisions she made, she took us in without question. She sent my brother to pick me up and bring me to her flat where she was already hosting another family member with nowhere else to go. That was Suzie- she would help anyone; take in anyone who needed her. I spent two and a half months living with Suzie, sharing a room and bed with my niece Genevieve. I learned the ins and outs of living on a budget and a colorful education on a lot of other items I’d never been exposed to in my sheltered childhood. Jenna adopted my nephew Henri as her own and slept in his room each night.

Those two and a half months were a crucial period in my life as I struggled with finding a job all the while missing my husband and reading weekly letters from my father within which he assured me of my failure. I was depressed and scared and Suzie held me up through it all. She encouraged me, told me how much she believed in me, and challenged me not to give up. I had a sister! I had a sister and we loved each other and I belonged. I belonged.

After I got on my feet and saved enough for my own apartment I moved out. A few months later Jonathan joined me in NY and as we lived a few towns over from Suzie and became involved in the busy routines of our own lives, we saw Suzie less and less. Regardless, she was always there for me when I needed her and I never forgot her advice, which she dispensed readily on a multitude of topics. One that sticks with me: “Never leave the house looking like a mess. Never. Put your best foot forward, even when you’re just going to the mailbox. You never know who is out there and first impressions are everything.”

A few years later Suzie moved to Michigan with her children and my heart sank. I didn’t want to lose the connection we had built, but I didn’t know how to save it. In retrospect, I realize this was simply my beautiful butterfly floating away on the breeze.

A couple summers ago, after many years of intermittent contact Suzie fluttered back into my life suddenly and unexpectedly. She called me, depressed, with nowhere else to turn. It was my turn to rescue her. I flew out to meet her in Michigan (shocked at how thin and sickly looking she had become) and flew her here to Virginia to spend time with us and get her back on her feet. It was a roaring success. Her tears gave way to her beautiful laugh and we had had so many wonderful days together, one after another. We talked about everything. We bared our souls and bonded even closer. Instant sister, just add water. I felt such joy and Suzie helped me work through some of my own childhood demons and burdens. She knew my crazy past from the inside out and could provide healthy, healing perspective in a way no one else outside the family could. She believed in me and she loved me unconditionally as her sister and I felt the same way toward her. She held nothing our father did against me and had nothing but happiness and pride for my success. I tried so hard to impress upon her that she was no different than I; that she could do anything she set her mind to, but after years of struggles and setbacks she doubted herself. Still, I think we helped each other learn to love ourselves better.

And then, just like that, Suzie drifted out of my life again. I had tried so hard to hold onto her- I begged her to stay in this area where she was blooming and plant roots. But you can’t nail a butterfly to board. She left for Michigan and I cried everyday for two weeks.

I tried to keep in weekly contact but Suzie couldn’t be corralled. We spoke every few months, on Suzie’s whim, and every conversation was a comfort to me.

A year passed and a random phone call from Suzie surprised me in the middle of my workday- she was in DC and needed a place to stay. Rescue 2.0. It was another fabulous summer with Suzie. She taught me gardening and how to negotiate with the home depot manager. Did you know you can talk the manager down 75% on plants past their bloom? Me neither. She listened eagerly to every detail of my travel tales and she introduced me to all of our neighbors whom I had never gotten to know in the 6 years we’ve lived here but who were sending constant invitations her way for BBQs, parties, and the like. She also spent a lot of time with our father who was frail and ailing and I think they were able to resolve some of their longstanding conflicts. As the summer wore on a panic welled up within me as I feared Suzie would leave me again. And of course, she did. This time she left with a strong sense of purpose- to organize her life, do some traveling, and then find a way to reconnect with her youngest daughter and be the best mother that she could be. I believed in her and wished her well. This time I only cried for three days because I knew that eventually Suzie would float back into my life on the breeze and everything would be just as it was.

But it never happened. Although she made good on her plans to travel and work on building a new relationship with her children, I never saw Suzie again. Our father died in March and she couldn’t bear the agony of coming to the memorial. I missed her so much and wished she could have been there, but I understand how painful it was for her. Over the summer she moved to Georgia to be closer to her daughters and help plan for the arrival of my grandnephew into the world. She will never see him because she died unexpectedly in a car accident on November 16th.

The news hit me so hard that I experienced a deep emotional shock and was absolutely taken to the bottom of despair. First my father, then my beloved Jenna and now my Suzie all in the same year. My Suzie! What cruelty to lose the only sister who unabashedly loved and accepted me!  What cruelty for her to lose her life when she was just starting to put it back together! What cruelty for my nieces to lose her when they are most in need (one with a baby on the way and one working her way through being a teenager)!

I am starting to come out from under this storm cloud of grief but I will hold a place for Suzie in my heart forever. Forever. And I will be there for her children and her grandchildren and their children in anyway that I can, anytime I can, for the rest of my life. Their mother was a butterfly angel who walked beside me and showed me the love of God.

RIP Suzanne Sylvain Davies 04/04/63 - 11/16/11.

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