By the time I was twelve, my father was in prison for embezzling money from his clients, and my mother was a functioning alcoholic working as a telephone clerk in a jewelry store. During my teens, my father was in and out of prison on a variety of convictions. My mother periodically binged and called in sick. I worked part time to be sure I’d have something to eat and clothes to wear.
I put myself through college (University of California) working twenty hours a week and then enlisted in the army. I was newly married and assigned to the National Security Agency in Maryland when I got an emergency call that my mother had gone on a bender and was unable to work. I immediately flew to Oakland, closed down my mother’s apartment, packed her and her possessions, and brought her back to Maryland to live with me and my wife. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Virginia, where her mother now lived, and resumed her career as a teacher. A few years later, she died of lung cancer, the consequence of years of smoking. She never stopped drinking.
My father, while I was still on the west coast, had taken to forging checks against my bank account. So I changed the way I wrote my name in my checking signature (added a “III” to the end of my name) and went out of my way to assure that he had no idea where I was or how to reach me. Five months after my mother’s death, I learned that he had been killed in a bar brawl.
All these years later, I find myself pondering to what degree my parent’s descent was due to Suzanne’s death. All I know for sure is that the death of one of my children would unhinge me. My guess is that my parents would have fared much better had both of their children lived.
And I find in myself a tiny pocket of emptiness that once was filled by my sister. As I age, I understand better that the death of a loved one leaves a void that is never filled.