It’s the third holiday season without my second oldest sister, Naomi, who died on August 29, 2010. She’s always on my mind, but more so lately because Christmas is coming. I know, everyone is born and everyone dies. We all lose loved ones. We all feel their absence. We all mourn. Still, I think of Naomi many times every day. She was born two and a half years before me so, up until her death, I never knew life without her.
When we were little, I believed Naomi knew “the secrets of the world” and was willing to share them with me:
Oxnard, California, circa 1966
Eat these berries from the mock orange tree in the yard and pretend we’re being poisoned by an evil witch? Sure! Unfortunately, the fruit from a mock orange tree is poisonous, and we all end up in the hospital having our stomachs pumped.
Lansing, Michigan, circa 1969
I’m a first grader and, after a day at Delta Mills School, Naomi reveals that our dog, Silver, has a radar in his tail; that’s how he always knows where we are, even when he has his back to us. Amazing!
I also never wanted to be without her:
Oxnard, California, circa 1965
Naomi has the mumps. I’m told to leave her alone because she’s contagious. I don’t listen to my parents or my grandmother. I sneak into Naomi’s room and sit with her as often as I can. Within a week, I have the mumps, too.
Madrid, Spain, circa 1967
Naomi’s going on a weekend ski trip with her friend Elizabeth. I insist that she take me with her, which is impossible. Elizabeth is Naomi’s friend, not my friend. I make such a fuss, weeping inconsolably, that eventually, it’s decided Naomi can’t go away on the trip because it’s the only way to stop my hysteria.
Another time, Naomi is sick and stays home from school. I pretend I’m sick so I can stay with her. I’m ashamed to admit I brought her to tears by badgering her to play with me when all she wanted to do was sleep.
Lansing, Michigan, circa 1970
I’m home from school with a bad cold. It’s Naomi’s turn to pretend to be sick. We stay home alone all day. We climb into bed and leaf through my copy of Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever!, giggling at the illustrations for hours. Our dad comes home from work early and is furious Naomi’s kept me up all day. We laugh under the covers once he goes downstairs. We’re co-conspirators.
Lansing, Michigan, circa 1972
Naomi finishes reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I ask her to read it to me, one Saturday morning, while we’re sitting in the garage with Silver (by now, I’ve figured out he doesn’t have a radar in his tail.) I become so engrossed in the story that every time Naomi wants to stop reading, I beg and cajole her to continue until she’s read the entire book aloud. On Sunday, her voice is almost gone.
At times, I experienced terrible fear for Naomi:
Grand Ledge, Michigan, circa 1983
It’s summer, and I’m home from Indiana University. A thud downstairs wakes me up in the middle of the night. After a few minutes of silence, our dad calls up the stairs, “Marlise, call an ambulance! Naomi’s not breathing.” My heart’s pounding in my ears while I dial 911. The dispatcher asks, “What’s wrong with your sister?” I want to scream, “How the f__k should I know? I’m not a doctor!” Instead, I manage to keep my voice steady and say, “She’s not breathing! I don’t know what’s wrong with her. That’s why we need an ambulance.” I ride with Naomi to the hospital. She tells me she’s afraid of dying because she’s not a Christian yet. I’m terrified, but tell her she’ll be fine.
Fort Lee, New Jersey, circa 1987
Naomi’s been visiting for a couple of weeks and acting incredibly erratic. She’s not sleeping. She’s agitated and yells at me every time I come home from work. Her speech gallops on rambling, tangential rides, rich with symbolism that only makes sense to her. I suspect she’s having some kind of breakdown. I look up the word manic in the dictionary. I sneak out of my apartment at around 3:30 in the morning to find a pay phone so she won’t hear me call our dad. “I need your help. Please come get Naomi,” I say. “There’s something wrong with her.” “I wish you’d try harder to get along with your sister,” my dad replies. I hang up the phone, lock my car doors and sit in the dark.
I also experienced overwhelming protectiveness toward Naomi:
Bloomington, Indiana, circa 1983
It must be 2 a.m. when Naomi calls for the second or third time. “Please, Marlise, you have to help me with this short story! If you don’t, I’ll fail my creative writing class, and I won’t graduate on time.” I’m exhausted from my classes, homework, and depression. “I can’t, Naomi. I have my own work to do.” She starts to cry. “Please, please write a story for me. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” I can’t bear to hear her cry. “Okay. I’ll send you a story.”
Paris, France, circa 2000
We’re celebrating Naomi’s upcoming 40th birthday. We walk down the aisle in a darkened movie theater to see “Being John Malkovich.” It’s been 13 years since her diagnosis of bipolar I disorder (formerly known as manic-depression). The meds she takes wreak havoc with her metabolism, and she’s gained almost 100 pounds. When we pick the row we want to sit in, Naomi accidentally steps on the foot of the man behind us. She apologizes as the man and his companion sit down. I hear him say dismissively, “Quelle cochonne (what a pig).” At this point, my conversational French is quite good and in my fury, I want to turn around and say, “My sister is ill and taking medication that’s made her gain weight. Mister, you are the pig!” Instead, I remain silent. If I make a scene, Naomi will intuit that he insulted her. I want to punch him.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, circa 2002
It’s the third or fourth week of Naomi’s hospitalization in a Christian mental health facility. I stay for a week at our dad’s house so I can visit her. In the mornings, I drive 90 miles to work in Southfield at the advertising agency that’s contracted with my company in Saint Louis, Missouri. In the evenings, I drive 140 miles to the hospital in Grand Rapids. After I visit with Naomi, I drive 50 miles back to Grand Ledge.
Tonight, I’m trying to have a serious conversation with Naomi about how she needs to get better before they will release her from the hospital. She doesn’t want to join me in this reality. She’s laughing and dancing and not paying attention. I’m worried. I’m angry. I don’t know how to get her to concentrate on what I’m saying. I lose my temper. “That’s it. If you’re not going to listen to me, I’m leaving. I’m not going to help you anymore!” Naomi starts to cry and falls on her knees, clutching my hands. “Please, Marlise! Please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here.” I promise her I’ll be back. I cry in the rental car. The next morning, I get up and drive to Southfield again.
Maybe two weeks later, I’m at the hospital in Grand Rapids to bring Naomi home to her apartment in Grand Ledge. We’re scheduled to have a conference with her doctor before she’s released. We sit on one side of the table and wait. I’m shocked by the psychiatrist’s cruelty. She barely acknowledges me, preferring to focus on Naomi while she threatens her. “If I ever see you in my hospital again,” she says, “I’m going to shoot you so full of Thorazine that you’ll be—.” She starts to mimic a side effect of tardive-dyskinesia, flicking her tongue in and out of her mouth while she twists it to one side. I’m stunned but, since this is a private hospital, I’m afraid that if I speak out, this doctor won’t release Naomi. Naomi and I look down at the table. I’ve been holding her hand but now I press my calf against her calf. Naomi knows what this means. Stay quiet. Let her say what she wants. I’m taking you out of here today.
I wasn’t prepared for Naomi to die just six weeks before her 50th birthday.
Lansing, Michigan, August 29, 2010
It’s been about 18 hours since an aneurysm burst near Naomi’s brain stem. So much blood entered her brain fluid so quickly that she had only the most primitive brain functions left by the time she was admitted to the neurological ICU unit at Sparrow Hospital. There’s a breathing tube down Naomi’s throat. Despite her minimal brain functions, I wonder if her spirit can still hear me.
My oldest sister, Miriam, and I sit with Naomi all night. When we’re in the hall talking to the nurses, we hear Miriam’s husband, Jacob, reading to Naomi from The Bible. His voice is so sweet that Miriam starts to cry. Later, I read all of Ecclesiastes to Naomi. It’s her favorite book of Scripture. I’m on my knees in the chair I’ve pulled up next to the bed, hanging halfway onto the rail so I can keep my hand on her arm. After I finish, I read the entire Book of Ruth aloud. Now I’m the one who’s losing my voice.
Quincy, Massachusetts, 2012
It’s a blue sky day and I study the wisps of clouds through my office window as I peel an orange. Naomi always saw something in the sky beyond clouds and weather. Every shape looked like something else. Her imagination served up a never-ending array of natural Rorschach ink blots. There! A seahorse. There! A dung beetle. She was always able to hang on to her childlike creativity, even when I’d chide her about balancing her checkbook or keeping track of her doctors’ appointments.
I wonder if Naomi ever learned anything of value from me? Probably not, but oh, the things she taught me; the things she still teaches me.