54. My candle in the wind

Published on 2 November 2023 at 12:43

© 2023 Robert Sickles

Liberty State Park in New Jersey is adjacent to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s also where you can walk through a remarkable memorial named Empty Sky.

Empty Sky honors the hundreds of September 11 disaster victims who hailed from New Jersey. It is symbolically proportioned to remind one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and is situated with a straight view across the Hudson River to Ground Zero in Manhattan. As is its intent, the memorial created a moving experience for me, and the awful events of 9/11 returned to mind. But something completely unexpected came up for me. Maybe it was the metaphor of a burning tower collapsing on itself, destroying innocence and changing everything forever. I believe that day was when it became clear that I had not faced up to the aftermath of my sister Janet’s suicide 45 years earlier.

Oh, and I should mention that I was touring the Empty Sky memorial in the company of Janet’s son and daughter, my dear nephew and niece whom I hadn’t seen since they were very young. Just a couple of triggering forces at play in that moment.

It's been inevitable that I'd write about this, but how to approach it? It couldn't be just another biography of someone in my life, but I couldn't find the on-ramp to my emotions. Then a classmate of mine whom I admire showed me a copy of a letter he’d written to the spirit of our long-deceased friend... very touching. It inspired me, maybe that’s the sort of approach I’ll take to writing about my sister. 

Dear Janet,

So much time has passed since you left us. Your life in California half a century ago seems like a foggy dream. Your children were raised by their father back in New Jersey to be bright and creative individuals. They're both grown up with families of their own, your three grandchildren are beautiful adults now, and you even have two great-grandchildren! I suppose you already know about all that.  

You would love my Linda and our family, though I bet you'd doubt I had anything to do with bringing them to my life, considering what I looked like and how I lived when you saw me in '73! The world is such a different place, most of us can barely keep up with the head-spinning changes. Nowadays if you want help figuring things out you need to find a 14-year-old. I’m still young at heart though I look like an old man. I keep sampling new things. And, get this, Sis, I’m a writer now!  

That line in the theme song from the movie M*A*S*H was wrong: suicide is painful, particularly everything leading up to it and following it. Mom and Dad must have been hurting badly, but they told me not to fly down, better to wait a while. I had a lot of questions, but honestly, we never even had an open talk about your death. They wanted to wipe the slate without showing me their tears. I guess that was our parents' way of dealing with the shame of a suicide in the family.

I regret not being there when they cleaned out your apartment. I wished I could have saved some keepsakes for your kids and me, but I was too late. All I knew to do was to reach out and build a relationship with your two children after so many years of not seeing them. And indeed, it was the best thing I could do. It’s so amazing to me that they responded well to their long-lost Uncle Bob! If you were there watching us when we met, hugged and cried, you know that a great healing was begun on that day. 

But the truth is, my old stink-heads of pain and guilt over your final years are always lurking.  I've allowed your spirit presence to be more like a haunting. Every day the sun rises to proclaim what is, but sometimes I am focused on the shadows, what is not.  My memories of you should not be of shadows, right?

I feel melancholy when I scrape old paint, it’s like reading the same book and hoping for a different ending. I know I’ll be scraping and repainting it again before long. Then I get angry. Couldn’t I just do it once and be done with it? Did you know that I carry guilt for your death because of what you told me? The last time we saw each other, it was supposed to be a happy reunion. But I was shocked. You said I was the reason for your unhappiness, and for Mom & Dad’s too. I was so green and trusting, why would you lay that on me only months before you ended it all, Janet?  

Washing a window should make me happy; it’s symbolic of gaining some clarity—but I only get a short moment to figure out what I’m looking at before the glass becomes obscure again. I grew up thinking we were best friends, that you really liked having a little brother. Quite a shock to see you so bitter and resentful. What did I do? And what jaded you?

I look through the family album—Look you and Roger holding me up! Lots of sweet memories there. Remember when we were pals? You taught me to draw and play games. You and Roger cared for me when Mom was working. 

Everyone knew you were talented and smart. So stylish and pretty, the belle of the ball! Then I watched you become a beautiful woman with a family. That was natural and wonderful, but since I was only 10, it felt like you’d lost interest in me. And again years later, more intensely, when you took you own life. 

How did you end up feeling so alone and hopeless, that a bottle of pills was your only choice? I was unaware then, but of course, I understand now that you were mentally ill. All that melodrama, paranoia, delusions and grandiosity… it was all so confusing to us. Mom and Dad, Roger and I didn’t have the tools to grasp what was happening. There’s the root of my guilt: Shouldn't I have seen clearly a way to save you?

The way I’ve perceived family and love, my self-esteem, manhood—the effects of my decades-long burden can be hard to discern and describe, dear sister. Anyone would tell me it’s unfair and wrong for me to carry that.  I agree. I need to make progress. It’s time for a new perspective. I'm getting clear on some steps, baby steps, that I intend to be mindful of the best I can. Writing and publishing this letter is definitely Step One for me!

Second, I know my guilt is my creation, not something you caused. 

Third, I release you. I undo my thoughts of you as less than whole and perfect. You were doing the best you could at living on planet Earth, a messy place for any of us. The way you lashed out at me and the rest of the family, and then ended your life—that was your part in the play we were all enacting. Let's move on to the next act. It’s good for me to allow that, release is good for both of us.

Fourth, I must also behold myself as whole and perfect. I face those same truths about performing the best I can on the Earth Stage.

And fifth, I want to live here and now. If I keep going over it in my head—rewriting a play that has already ended—I’m focusing on the past, rehashing what we should have done. Being present is my gift to you, to myself, and to everyone else.

Go in Peace and Be in Love,

Your brother, Bobby

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7 months ago

This is beautiful Robert ♥️♥️

Camille Fastle
7 months ago

Lovely Robert, thank you.

7 months ago

Oh Robert. Did not know you were carrying such a heavy load. Great first steps. It is never too late. Dave

7 months ago

I am so grateful to know that you are beginning to peel the onion and allow yourself to feel this traumatic time in your life. Loving another , as you did your sister, and then losing her has been so painful for you. Your thoughtful insights have obviously been healing for you and I believe are felt by your family living on this earth plane and beyond.

Carol Christiansen
6 months ago

My brother and I were never close after teenage years and really drifted apart. Fast forward 30 years when I got call from his partner that he died in his truck holding a bottle of vodka. He had become a hoarder and lived a life alone, a mere 3 miles from me. What regret for me. The only thing that I found when cleaning out the house (had to wear closed toed shoes was a Yoga book he had bought for me with a gift certificate for See's chocolate. It's in my bookcase.