TW: drug use, addiction, death.
Having risen several inches since the recent storm, the river’s level is high. Its rushing stream should be sonorous, but instead it is just a hushed drone mumbling in the back of my mind as I watch it bustling by, silenced by the overwhelming odiferous wave of decay and manure. They pulled out one thousand tires, tens of mattresses, car parts, animal carcasses, batteries, and other debris from the brown sludge last year in their efforts to “clean up the city”, yet standing here, I cannot tell. "Clean" is certainly not a word to describe the scene in front of me, and I fear the length and depth of this embodied water hides more than any volunteer group could ever uncover. I wonder if anyone would even want to. Some secrets are meant to remain hidden.
I am not even ten feet from where water meets the land, and this is where they told me she was staying. This was her “camp” as the officers say, her “home” as my mother had called it, parroting my sister’s words. This is where they found her.
There is a structure, not a home, but a collection of large branches intentionally stuck into the ground with several tarps strung over them. Glass bottles and cans are stacked and organized around a nearby tree. Garbage bags stuffed to the brim with an assortment of things like clothes, blankets, shoes, trash, and canned food are scattered around the small hillside. Several bike frames and various parts are turned over on the ground. The place looks like a junk yard, except for a small area where steps are molded out of dirt, leading from the tent to the water’s edge, a border decorated around them with neatly placed stones and a small plant holder filled with soil; a wilted stem indicates there was once a flower sprouting from it. Mud is everywhere.
When we were little, we were not mud kids. Coming from a middle-class suburban home, we were just a regular family of four who spent a lot of their time in their house together. We ate family meals every evening and had family nights, playing games or watching movies together on the weekends. My sister and I liked to play with dolls and ride bikes and draw pictures and play with yarn. We read books from the warmth of our beds, which were laden with blankets and soft, plush toy animals. We stacked pillows along the walls of our beds.
On rainy days we would drag all of the wool and cotton and fluff out into the living room to build forts with our furniture. Being five years younger than Callie, I always followed my sister’s instructions on where to put the pillows and blankets and how to arrange the chairs so there’d be a nice open space inside the fort for us to sit in. Callie would run around the house collecting flashlights (since she was tall enough to reach them from the closet) and grab her favorite book. We’d stowaway inside the fort for hours, and she would read me chapter after chapter of Harry Potter, explaining any big words or scenes that made my face contort with misunderstanding – she wanted to make sure I was with her throughout the whole magical wizarding adventure. She had patience with me, and I would point out small words as she read, pinning my finger on words like “the” and “to” as I slowly started to recognize the pattern of letters. She’d congratulate me, the proud big sister she was: “Good job, Cece!”
After my sister went to high school, our lives seemed to separate entirely. She spent more time with her friends than with me, and when she wasn’t with them, she was locked up in her room, draining the landline. She didn’t want to build forts with me anymore, saying that was “kid’s stuff”, and she’d rolled her eyes when I stumbled over new words in my early chapter books.
I remember the first time she yelled at me when she caught me trying on some of her clothes, telling me to get the hell out of her life and leave her alone. Later that night she’d apologized, another moment I’d remember forever, the way she said “I love you, you know that.” But the thing she didn’t realize was I didn’t know that. I was too young to understand that you can be that mean to someone you love, and then just apologize it away like it never happened. That was the moment I felt the divide between us solidify. I went from having a big sister to being an only child. I gave up my efforts to persuade her to spend time with me, and instead learned to play by myself.
Our mother had comforted me and assured me, “This is normal, Cec. She’s just at a different stage in her life than you are right now. When you’re older, you two will pick up right where you left off.”
What my mother was trying to say was a high school girl striving for independence is no cause for concern. Normally, this is true. But in Callie’s case, we didn’t find out until later just how wrong we were. No one could have anticipated what was unfolding gradually and silently within my sister.
She never did come back to me to pick up where we left off, at least not really. I was still in Junior high school when she moved out of the house to live with her boyfriend. She was an adult, and I was a child. What could I offer her?
Once or twice, Callie had invited me out for a spa day to get our nails done together – having her nails manicured had become a priority in her life since her senior year in high school. She wanted to share this with me, to have some “sisterly time,” using her regular routine activity as a chance to bond, rather than inquiring about my interests and asking me what I wanted to do. She would have gone with or without me, but she’d said she wanted to make an effort to “get together” once a month to see me. It had felt like how I imagined a parent with only partial custody might make an effort to see their child. She’d asked me about boys and girlfriend drama, things that I was just being introduced to, but hadn’t quite grasped yet through personal experience. It wasn’t like she’d really known, or even cared to know, anything about my life. Her questions, her interests, seemed to further the divide between us, making her feel more estranged now than when we were still living, however silently, under the same roof. She’d seemed like such a different person than the one I grew up playing with.
I found out about my sister’s addiction through an email during my last year of high school. My father, in his rage and despair, sent it out to all of our family members, a public announcement, the night before my senior prom. Black tar heroin were the words underlined and bolded, the words that rang in my ears as I sped out of my school’s parking lot, unable to collect myself enough to get to third period Calculus. I’d driven myself to a park high on a cliff that overlooked the levee and sobbed. I cried as if my sister had died that day, because in my mind, she already had. It was not common, nor was it easy, to come back from an addiction like that. At least, that’s what I’d heard. Needless to say, I didn't go to prom.
The next decade of our lives my parents devoted all their resources to trying to get my sister back, to getting “Callie” back - because that is what heroin does to a person: it buries them deep down within the shell of their body until they are an unrecognizable soul within a familiar face. My mother offered rehab, putting all her faith in the miracle of professional intervention. My father, who'd once been obsessed with Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of fixing pottery with gold, begged my sister to come home, thinking the house she grew up in would run like gold through her broken pieces, making her more beautiful and whole once again, like the innocent infant who'd made him a father.
But Callie had excuses for turning down both of my parents' offerings. And when she was fired from her job and became homeless, pan-handling and ripping off street bikes and liquor stores, my parents wouldn't - or couldn't - let go. They still sent her money; they paid for her food; they waited for her at restaurants while she spent thirty minutes in the bathroom; they believed in her empty promises, every January my mother excitedly clapping at Callie’s New Year’s Resolution to “get clean”, as if the striking of midnight could heal the years of needle markings along her arms.
I was not as patient with Callie as my parents were. I’d cut ties with her completely. I couldn’t handle seeing her as someone she wasn’t. I was devastated and angry – angry at her for choosing a life like this; for not knowing any better and making horrible choices; for leaving me behind; for not being a big sister. I was still hurt that she’d grown so far apart from me as a child when I needed her guidance the most, and then just when we’d reached an age that my mother swore we would reconnect, she stole that from me by choosing this.
I moved on with my life, living as I’d grown accustomed to, as an only child, coming home for holidays to just my parents. Callie’s absence was the unspoken topic of every gathering, only realized by the soft mumblings between my parents and the hidden tears my mother left in the corner of the kitchen. By Easter, she’d sobbed, She said this would be the year, and by Thanksgiving, hopeful again, She’s excited for a fresh start next year!
I, on the hand, had never been convinced or hopeful of my sister’s worthless weaving of words every year. I saw Callie for what she was: gone. And I’d, righteously or not, accepted it.
She chose this, I think, looking around at the muddy river, the trash, the pesticides from the farm steaming up out of the water. I imagine Callie’s perfectly manicured fingernails packed with dirt, placing rocks along the stairs she’d made and adding a flower beside them to create a homey feel.
Home, the word rings in my ear.
“You almost done out here?” the officer asks, standing behind me with his hands on his hips. Being Callie’s only surviving kin, he’d driven me out here to collect any of her personal belongings that might be considered sentimental.
“Almost,” I say. “Give me five more minutes?” He nods and heads back up the hill, giving me space to sift through the piddling items my sister has left behind to the world. I bend down as I step into the small space within the tarp shelter my sister built, feeling an eerie and unpleasant sense of de’ja vu - our memories of building forts together as little girls now tarnished with dirt and scraps from a dump yard, with years of brokenness and estrangement in between. I recognize nothing as a thing of value, let alone sentiment, and I am about to step out when something catches my eye, an object squished up against the far side of the tarp-wall where a naked stain-covered twin mattress sits.
When I find the officer at the top of the slope, he asks, “You ready?”
I nod. “What happens to the rest of my sister’s stuff?”
Candidly and without a hint of sympathy, he says, “The city will send a crew out here to clean up all that stuff. This kind of thing happens pretty often.”
Down the dirt road, the drive back takes nearly twenty minutes. I sit in the back of the police car, thumbing through the one item I deemed worth saving, a battered and wet copy of the first Harry Potter book. I have never wanted to imagine my sister as she was before she died, but as I turn the pages of the book, I imagine her sitting beneath her tarps, the rain and wind threatening to rip it apart, and I wonder if she remembered my first efforts at reading as I do, with her by my side.
Suddenly, the pages of the book stop beneath my thumb, filleting open to a page separated by a rectangular piece of wilted cardstock. When I pull it out, I realize it is not a piece of cardstock, but a photograph, its gloss withered with age. It takes me a moment to realize who the people are in the photo, their faces beaming with youth and unblemished skin. Their arms are slung around each other in a tight hug, and their smiles are wide. Then, it becomes stunningly clear who I am looking at: I see my five-year old face, her cheeks squished up against the other person in the photo. I see myself. I see Callie.
It is the first time I cry since the officers called me.