Niece? No, Baby Sister.

My eldest son complained to me this morning that keeping a baby brother happy is a lot of work. I can only empathize with him since I never had a little brother. I technically never had a little sister either.

I was the youngest child in my parents house until my brother who was nine years older had a baby. That baby, a little girl, came to live with us.

I was thirteen. She was nine months old. Sure, she was cute in many ways, but deep down, in my selfish teenage psyche, I really hated her.

I hated pushing the baby's stroller at the mall. The worst would be those moments my mom would tell me she was, " Going to just dart into Gantos for a second," and I'd be left sitting on a bench with the baby. I saw the disapproving looks from the soccer moms walking by. I read in their eyes that they thought I was just another black teenage mother, another statistic.

I hated babysitting. Whenever my parents had to go somewhere, anywhere, I ended up babysitting. And when it's your relative, living in your house, you aren't getting paid for all those hours. Sometimes it felt like it was hours alone in the house, changing diapers, feeding the baby, putting her to sleep. It made me not want to have kids of my own.

But most of all, I hated that baby because I felt like so many years of my life had been spent driving with my parents to various rehab centers and prisons, all due to the issues brought on by my brother's drug addiction. At the time, it felt like the baby was yet another extension of my brother's shit. And I was tired of it. I wanted no part of anything having to do with him anymore.

But it wasn't my decision to make.

On the day my parents came home with her, there was nothing to do but suck it up, smile and say how cute my niece was. As time went on, it became clear that neither my brother or her mother would be able to have themselves together for long enough to take care of her.

I had a little sister.

That baby is now a grown 21 year-old woman. And she suffers from bipolar disorder and a form of schizophrenia. She's not able to live on her own so she stays in a special home for people with mental illnesses. I don't want to say the word "institution".

She called me last night. Just to say hi and tell me that she'd gotten my youngest a birthday present. She apologized for it being so many weeks late. She's also excited that she finally got her own MP3 player. I asked her if she'd downloaded any Depeche Mode yet, and she laughed as she told me no.

I don't know if she'll ever have a normal life. I don't know if she'll ever be able to live on her own.

It breaks my heart to remember how much I hated her as a baby. If I could have seen all these years into the future, I would have tried to love her more, hold her more, hug her more.

I suppose it's never too late for that though, right?


Jameil said…
nope. just start now. i don't think i ever hated my little sister but she did drive me INSANE!!!
Anonymous said…
Hi Liz,this really touched something in me, reading about you, your brother and his daughter...

no it's obviously not too late--you wrote this with an unflinching honesty about your young self--and the way you wrote tells me that you do love her--so just keep on loving her...

Anonymous said…
Liz, do you remember that time almost 11 years ago when I was in Evanston for a week? I called your parents' house and your niece answered the phone sounding so polite and grown up, I was really impressed. Just wanted to mention that. We all feel guilty for feelings or actions toward a family member at some stage, I'm sure, but I'm also sure she knows you love her.
Liz Dwyer said…
I think I was that annoying little sister that drove my big sister insane! :)

So nice to read your comment. It's funny but I intended to write about something totally unrelated this morning, but this just came out. I do love her dearly. It's only recently that I can even acknowledge how much I didn't when I was younger.

Of course I remember when you came to visit! That was so much fun. I remember I totally wished you lived in Chicago. I didn't remember you got to talk to her though. That was before a lot of her mental health issues began to manifest themselves, but she's still got that polite, grown up thing going on.
Liz: I must concur with the sentiments you suggest, echoed by your readers. As you cannot change your past without a complicated plot device that defies physics, concentrate on being now the things you wished you had been all along.
Anonymous said…
that schizophrenia thing in young people is so sad. i also have a relative, a cousin, who is both bi-polar and schizophrenic. he is always going to be "institutionalized." there's no way around it.

and i just think about what he was like 7 years ago - a top athlete traveling on a minor league team. that was probably the last experience he'll have out in the world. so, so sad.

As long as she's still here, it's never too late.
Jen said…
I'll echo Kahnee. Hug her all you can!
What a sad story, Liz. Especially knowing that your brother isn't around anymore. I feel so bad for this young woman, your sister/niece, who was possibly damaged before birth by her parents' addictions.

But happily, you are still alive and she is still alive, so it's not too late. It sounds as if she is reaching out to you so you must have been a more loving big sister than you knew.

She just might surprise you if you open your heart to her now.
Liz Dwyer said…
If I had that complicated plot device, I'd be a rather wealthy woman, don't you think? It is nice to think that I can have a different kind of relationship with her, but it's also complicated because there's probably never going to be a time in her life when she's just "normal", whatever that really means. I guess I need to figure out what realistic relationship we can have given her situation.

Exactly. Like your cousin, I really doubt my niece can ever be out on her own in the way that I'd always imagined she'd be. And the medication she has to take has such awful side effects. It has quite literally changed her physically as well as mentally.

Kahnee & Jen,
True. It's never too late, thank goodness. I'm glad I made a point of making sure I got to spend time with her when I was last home. I guess talking to her last night made me remember how I used to feel so many years ago.

Yes, the effects of narcotics really noticeable throughout her childhood. There were definitely developmental delays. I remember her being almost two and still not walking.

I was never outwardly cruel or mean to her when she was younger, but there was, especially after I left for college, a definite detachment from her. But, I had a lovely time with her when I was home over Labor Day weekend. I want to have a closer relationship with her now, but I think I just worry sometimes that she'll decide to leave the place she's at, stop taking her medication and then show up on my doorstep.
Anonymous said…
Exactly -- it's never too late.
Mes Deux Cents said…
Hi Liz,

You are an amazing writer. Reading your posts always elicits strong emotion in me.

Also I really admire your willingness to share personal thoughts even when those thoughts are painful. That is very brave and you are one of my few blog mentors when it comes to that.

This post made me think about the power love has to heal. If indeed you had a strained relationship with your niece (I say if because she may see it totally different, little ones normally worship older siblings/ aunts etc) all that will be healed with your love for her. I'm sure of that.

I wish your neice luck, thankfully she lives in a time when drug and other therapies have made great strides in helping those who suffer from mental illness.

Anonymous said…
Liz, Don't be so hard on yourself, your feelings at the time would have been perfectly natural with all that was going on in your life. What's important is that you have grown from it and are able to empathize with your oldest son. And yes you were a bad little sister but it didn't stop me from loving you!!!!
none said…
That is rough. I can't say I would have felt any differently.
Ian Lidster said…
Never too late, and you did what you were equipped to do at the time. Nobody can ask any more than that of any of us. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it, mainly because I believe it.
Like the other posters's not too late.

Thank you for sharing such a personal story with us.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thankfully, right!

I also think about what her experience would be like a generation ago, especially since one of my older relatives was schizophrenic. I think she probably does see things in a totally different way. At least, I hope she does! And thank you for saying I'm an amazing writer!

Hello! I'm still a bad little sister! LOL! And thanks for saying that. You know more than anyone else what I mean.

I always wonder about my parents taking on another baby at a point when they probably thought they were finished with that. I am sure it's been harder on them than on me since they became the ones primarily responsible for her.

Yes, I can only hold myself accountable for what I knew/was capable of at the time. Good point.

I got a little card to send to her today. I hope she likes it. :)
Anonymous said…
i was thinking about this post because i saw family members today. one of them is the sister of the cousin who is schizophrenic. she had him over for thanksgiving -- just the two of them because he's overwhelmed when there are too many people around and because he's now started stripping in public. ohhhhh my gosh. stories of him are just about the saddest thing to me right now. i mean literally, there's a lot of crap going on. but, these stories just leave me with this well of sadness.

if i have the story right he was using meth which lead him to this state. and, you know, being home i've heard about meth over and over again. and there are billboards about it in very prominent locations. i just don't hear about meth the same way in chicago. so, it really makes me wonder what's happening here in minnesota. and if there's a higher usage rate here or something.

in any case, the way people talk about it here it seems to be making quite a dent in the youth and young adult population. one Baha'i woman was telling me about the kids in her neighborhood who are slowly disappearing... kids that used to come over the play at her house or used to greet her on the street and how she just doesn't see some of them anymore. and then she'll find out their using meth. it's like it's wiping away person after person.

and that's how i feel about my cousin. like he's been wiped away.

sorry to take up so much space. i just had to share.

Liz Dwyer said…
I'm so glad you shared. The crystal meth crisis is so very real. It's literally stealing the souls of the folks who get caught up in it's web. Some major drama went down this weekend with my niece and it's so very sad. Even with all the medication she takes, she still does these completely insane things. She's a danger to herself and it's so horrible.
Kari Carlson said…
I think what you said about souls being stolen is why this so sad. I feel like we should change my cousin's name. Because, when we talk about him I don't feel like we're talking about HIM. I feel like we're talking about someone else.

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