Cover of Tea for the Tillerman
Katie remembers clearly that when her older sister, Susan, had bi-polar episodes, more than she could count on one hand, Susan was always so loving to her. She was warm and kind, she would take her trembling hand and stroke Katie’s cheek softly, like a moth circling around soft yellow light. Susan would also apologize to her then, telling her how much she REALLY DID love her and appreciate her and they would be best friends for as long as it lasted.
Now, they fight often, usually on the phone or misinterpret what the other one says on e-mail. Katie takes things too personally, Susan thinks about herself first. It’s been an on-going battle for years.
“I won’t change” said Susan, defiantly. “I am who I am and you are a martyr” and finally, about a year ago Katie said, “I will not take any more pain from you.” It was hard and she cried but she could not stand the constant anxiety she felt when she was on the phone with her older sister, assessing her mood, her tone of voice, her impatience, the thick tenseness of her angry words. The proportion of pain to happiness was so unequal that she wanted to stop the bad feelings altogether.
There was pain, all the time, consistently flaring up old feelings; it felt like the same serrated knife that had plunged in her epiglottis when she was so, so sick except this pain stabbed her heart. Everybody hurts sometime, Katie thought but the pain from her older sister was constant. They had tried too many times to fix it without success. “I’m trying” Katie wanted to scream out, but Susan would not listen or did not hear her. “Look in the mirror” Katie yelled ” I’m not the only one who feels this way.” She was fighting a losing battle in which she felt so emotionally destroyed she decided to finally end the war. However, In a war, no one comes out unscathed.
That’s not to say that there weren’t good times too. In the past, among long bouts of feuding and not speaking, there had been good talks and family fun. When it was only about the two sisters, it was never a safe topic and tension filled the air like a smoke bomb which everybody inhaled, even the cousins.
They had exchanged roles when Kate was 15 and Susan, 21 when Susan first was “sick.”Kate became the older sister and Susan, the child. Even though it was the last place Kate wanted to be, she thought maybe Susan never forgave her for that. Not even when they sat in the back seat of their parents car, holding hands and singing “Sad Lisa” by Cat Stevens together, a song they had both listened to individually. It was NO ONE’S FAULT they all know rationally. No one. If anyone was to blame it was their parents who abdicated their position of decision-making to Kate. On the other hand, Kate had disappeared to them as a child. She was hushed when she tried to come in the apartment door because Susan was trying to sleep, their parents held different standards for the two sisters and it started then and never changed.
Things don’t always come out the way you want them to; it would have been sublime to be one happy family with equal part of love and nurturing. For a little while it was, when their father was alive and he was the moderator, Katie’s soul-mate of a parent. When he died, their mother lost a spouse, their daughters both lost a dad but Kate lost a friend and ally, someone who understood her sensitive personality perfectly. It became a war, two against one and Kate felt very much alone with two strong, self-involved women and herself. She survived for a number of years playing that game; she took it for as long as she could.
One Mother’s Day brunch, two years ago, she slid back from the table, wiped her lightly pink lipsticked mouth with the white linen napkin, collected her matching pink pocketbook from her lap, smiled sadly, and stood up. She would no longer participate in a war she didn’t believe in. She walked away but she couldn’t help it; she always looked back.