How Pedophilia Turns Gold to Lead

My sister’s death was caused by the incest and victim blaming in my father’s family.

My sister Andrea Leiderman, Mountain View, California, 2005. Photo courtesy of Andrea Leiderman. Photo by Hayes Alexander.

We meet in the parking lot of the Chevy’s in Gilroy — a chain of pseudo-Mexican restaurants in central California, a notch or two better than Denny’s. It’s easily identified by a sign near the freeway and close to the road, which is why my sister chose it. She gets out of the car. She comes over and embraces me.

“I finally got my sister back. I never thought I would.” She smiles, and the smile is comfortingly familiar, although there is something wrong with her eyes.

“You always had me,” I say to Andrea. “You just didn’t know it.”

Andrea looks different. Seventeen years have passed since I last saw her. She is forty-five now, three years younger than me. Her eyes are faded, rheumy. They don’t look the way they are supposed to look, the way they used to look — blue, clear, alert. She was beautiful once, and I want her to be beautiful now. Instead her skin is pallid, limp, toneless. I want to help her, to fix it, make it better somehow, as though her life could be made right with a simple gesture, like the retying of a bow around her waist when she was a toddler or unbuttoning the top button of her shirt when she pulled at the neck because it was too tight.

She had lost weight, she had told me over the phone, a hundred pounds. By the time the doctors diagnosed the cancer, she had been unable to eat for some time. They had told her she had an ulcer, that she had irritable bowel syndrome. She is still heavy. Normal fat, she called it when she had described herself to me, not really fat. She got really fat, she said, after she married eight years before.

Andrea was not always fat. As a child, I had been the chunky kid in a household where to be chubby was considered a personal failing, worse, even than bad grades. From my father, extra weight earned remarks about hiring Omar the Tentmaker to make our dresses and unfavorable comparisons to children of friends. My mother engaged in constant visual editorial — catching my eye then patting her own ample lower belly, rearranging her shoulders and tucking her butt under to demonstrate how I ought to stand in order to conceal any sign of lumpiness, regardless of whether anyone else was in the room. Shame, embarrassment, and rebellious sneaking of chocolate inevitably resulted. But Andrea, a lissome, delicate blonde did not start gaining weight until my father’s uncle molested her at my elder sister’s Bat Mitzvah party. She was eight then, I was eleven, my elder sister was thirteen. Everything changed that day. I blame the events of that day for Andrea’s cancer, for the fact she is in the prime of her life, and she is dying.

The operation that finally revealed Andrea’s disease resulted from a trip to the emergency room for severe stomach pain and vomiting. She had been having stomach trouble for months, she told me, and despite repeated visits to him, her doctor had told her she had irritable bowel syndrome, a peptic ulcer, nothing serious. He recommended over-the-counter antacids. An ER doc and the on-call surgeon figured out the real problem. A month later, a surgeon removed the colon tumor, but by then her cancer had spread from the primary site in her colon to her liver and her lung, to places they could not cut. She wanted to have another operation to remove the secondary tumors but the doctors said no. No surgeon would operate on her now. Once cancer has metastasized, she told me, regardless of where the tumors are, no one will touch you. The mortality rate is ridiculously high; and if the surgeon knows you already have multiple metastases, chances they will find innumerable other organ systems infested with tumors is astronomical. So she was put on chemo, the last-ditch treatment for inoperable colon cancer. The results, I knew, had not been promising.

“Two sites with secondary tumors that aren’t responding well to chemo,” my own internist told me, “I hate to say this to you, but that is going to be only the tip of the iceberg.”

Andrea’s hair, once a cascade of blonde curls, is gray, thin, short. I can see her scalp through the strands. It is flecked with white flakes of dead skin, like an old woman’s. She does not look like my sister. She looks like someone who is ill. She looks like someone who is dying.

“You look the same,” she says. “Do I look the same?”

“Your hair.” In spite of myself I blurt out: “You look horrible”. I am instantly sorry. Her face falls. Seventeen years passed and I am still her older sister. What I say matters. It is a horrible responsibility.

“Do I really?”

“No, no, I mean, your color. You used to have a lot of color in your face, it was pink and your hair was blonde. You had a lot of color in your skin. Now it’s gray.”

“At least I have some now. You should have seen me three months ago.”

We have both brought husbands. Although I am separated from mine, and we have filed for divorce, I asked him to come with me, as a buffer in case I needed one. He still lives in our old house in the Sierra Foothills and works as a civil engineer on huge water projects all over the state. He is a Vietnam veteran ten years my senior. He’s an unrepentent cocaine addict, which is why I am leaving him.

Andrea’s husband, Hayes, shakes my hand. He is a computer scientist from Stanford who works at National Semiconductor. He is black, and a better man than either my elder sister or I managed to find for ourselves. Marrying him was, I assumed at least in part, Andrea’s backward slap at my parents —right-speak, pseudo-intellectual, pretend liberals, outwardly supporting all the 60s causes: NAACP, SNCC, the ACLU. Privately, at dinner, my father spoke contemptuously about schwartzes (the derogatory Yiddish word for blacks) in the cities ruining America. His hatred was profound, glittering from his eyes like razors.

“Visigoths,” he would say, snorting, talking while he chewed, “the barbarians who came in and destroyed the Roman Empire.” He came from Chicago, from the same transitional South Side that has since produced far finer men than he was: Barack Obama, to name one.

My mother, usually drunk by then, would titter, hanging on his every word. To her, his mouth never stopped being the Bible.

Andrea and I were not close as children. My parents, especially my mother, pitted us against one another. Andrea’s perspective about who I was — the bad child, the screwed up child, the child no one liked — did not change until she went to Vassar, where one of her professors, a woman I myself had known in college, was profligate in her praise of me. She told Andrea how talented I was. She told Andrea she was part of a line of great women, of which I was the originator. She told Andrea she should be proud I was her sister. Something changed in Andrea then: I became somebody who other people respected. Andrea began to like me, to be interested in my fledgling career as a writer, in who I was.

But now, even three decades later, I find myself hesitant to trust Andrea. I still do not trust my two other siblings not to reveal my whereabouts to my parents, whom I do not intend to see again. Ever. My ex-husband, John, has accompanied me as a punctuation mark between then and now, a witness whose presence I hoped will thwart treachery. Besides which, he owes me a favor. Andrea is meeting John for the first time, and probably the last. John stands awkwardly a little apart from us, looking at the horizon, his hands on his hips. He is as awkward as a teenager and as sullen.

Andrea pulls up her blouse a bit and pushes down her pants, revealing an enormous scar, at least two inches wide. It goes up her midriff, and disappears into the top of her trousers.

“See?” she said. “This is what they had to do.” She unbuttons the top button of her blouse, revealing a rectangular lump under her skin. It is the new chemo delivery system, and I don’t ask for details of how it works.

We go into the restaurant and sit down. She is smiling, happy to see me. When I ask her why she had been so dogged over the years in trying to reach me, — she had sent letters and emails periodically — she looks at me quizzically.

“Because you’re my sister.”

“I never knew you cared.”

“How could I not?”

I bite my lip and look away. For a moment I think I will have to seek refuge in the bathroom or else risk tears. I am acutely aware, now more than ever, that I lost something in having to leave: my relationships with my sisters, difficult though they were. I want to start screaming like a child: ‘it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.’ But that’s a lesson we’ve all learned, isn’t it. Life is not fair. Get over it.

By the time Andrea was born in 1959, there were already three of us under five years of age. By then, my parents had grown exhausted of children. In a way, Andrea was lucky — even if she did watch too much television, and read Enid Blyton instead of East of Eden. Andrea’s was more a childhood of benign neglect. My parents did not pay her much mind, and she got on. My mother was good enough to her. My father was indifferent.

All of my siblings, but perhaps Andrea in particular, as the baby, and as the child who was closer to my mother than the rest of us, had an uncanny ability to observe and call out the family connivance. One evening in the early 1960s, while we still lived in Boston, my parents were going out for the evening and we had a new sitter. As my mother swished out the front door wrapped in her seal-skin coat, reeking of perfume, her face recast under a coating of pancake makeup, the sitter asked: “If they’re bad, can I spank them?” Andrea, who was three or four years old piped up: “You can’t hit us, but you can hit our sister.”

Andrea was my elder sister’s right arm — all Deborah had to do was say ‘frog’ and Andrea jumped. My mother braided her long blonde hair every morning. She was golden; she could do no wrong. Then when she was eight, she was molested and everything changed.

The news of Andrea’s cancer was conveyed to me by way of a long-time family acquaintance I myself had not seen in over twenty years. She had located John at his office in Fresno and left him a phone message after working hours.

The moment John delivered the news to me, time folded in itself. In the strange compression and inversion of time that accompanies traumatic memory, it was as though almost forty years had not elapsed between the time Andrea was molested as an eight year old, and the present, a present in which she was dying of cancer. A straight line connected the two things; they were as entwined and inseparable as body and mind.

It was 1967. There was a huge family gathering in honor of Deborah’s Bat Mitzvah at the Leiderman household — transplanted now from Boston to California. My grandparents on both sides, and hordes of family from my father’s side, including Eddie, who was only a few years older than my father, his wife, Millie, and his waif-like daughter Linda who, a few years later, after an outlandishly lavish wedding in southern California, was not able to consummate her own marriage. It took only a little common sense to realize that long before he’d molested Andrea, he’d molested Linda.

Lots of people, lots of exotic catered food: quiche, bubbling chafing dishes of little meat balls, stuffed mushrooms, runny cheese. Gifts of records, books, expensive pearls individually contributed by relatives for Deborah’s add-a-pearl necklace. My father’s sister, Lois, seated on an ottoman, puffing away on a slim little pipe because she thought it made her look coolly bohemian. My grandmother on my father’s side dressed in a garish brocade suit making sniping remarks to anyone who would listen about my grandmother on my mother’s side, a simple, unhappy woman who had never had a life of her own and never learned to drive. She had been married to my alcoholic grandfather since she was seventeen. My grandfather called her ‘dearie’ and led her around by the wrist. My father’s mother detested him as well, and he detested her. Privately he called her ‘Jesus Christ on roller skates.’

It was evening. My mother’s maid and strangers wearing white aprons were serving canapes on rented sliver trays. There were petits fours — I remember distinctly because I had never seen them before. Glazy icing, little mounds of pastel beauty, side by side on trays next to the five-gallon coffee maker. My mother’s peacock blue dress was too small for her. My memory of her at her parties will always be the too-tight sound of girdle-and-hose, thigh-rubbing thigh. She never was thin. My mother Gloria in the dining room wanting to know where Andrea was. Where she had gone. And Deborah? She had disappeared too. Somebody was leaving, looking for the Bat Mitzvah girl, and then, it was noted, both sisters had been missing for a long time.

I was told to look in the bathrooms. My sisters weren’t in the upstairs bathroom, nor in the parents’ across the way, so I went downstairs. I walked down the hallway that led to Andrea’s and my brother’s bedrooms, calling out their names. The bathroom door at the end of the hall was closed. There were sounds of Andrea crying. Then her voice hissing from behind the closed bathroom door: “Who is it? Who is it?” Deborah emerged, closing the door behind her. She stood in front of me.


“You’re wanted upstairs.”

“Who is it?” came Andrea’s voice.


“Don’t tell her, don’t tell her!”

“Tell me what?”

“Shut up!” her voice emanated from behind the door; she wanted to be heard and not heard at the same time.

“Why is she in there?” I asked.

“Uncle Eddie did something to her.”

The bathroom door swung open, and there she was. When she was little, people called her the china doll. Yards of blonde hair cascading down her back, blue eyes, fair skin. She was beautiful, even when furious. She was wearing a pink dress with daisies embroidered on the front, a bow in the back, and she was hysterical. Tears streamed down her face. She swung her fists; she wanted me to leave.

“Why did you tell her? Don’t tell anyone!!” Deborah walked to the end of the hall and closed the door. It was one of those stupid Pella fake-wood sliding doors, always broken, keeping nothing out and keeping nothing in.

“What did he do?” I asked.

“Touched her when she was in the bathroom.”

“What, just came in?”

“He didn’t know she was in there; she can’t remember whether she locked the door…..”

By then she was really angry, swinging her fists at both Deborah and me. Truth is, I’m not sure those bathroom doors had locks but it did not matter. Of course he knew she was in there. He had followed her downstairs. What would he have been doing there, wandering around our hallways, using our bathrooms, when the rest of the party was upstairs, and there was a guest bathroom right there?

Deborah went upstairs. No one told. That much we agreed to. Perhaps we already knew that telling would be futile. There would be an alibi; the adults would win.

In the months and years that followed Deborah’s ill-fated Bat Mitzvah — a day my sisters and I never spoke of again — Andrea grew fat. My father ridiculed her. She responded by developing a virulent hatred towards him. She swore at him. She refused to reply when he spoke to her. Although he threatened her, he never actually got violent with her. He told me she was imitating me. He accused me of teaching her the art of animosity. By the time she left home for college, Andrea probably weighed close to two hundred pounds.

I have learned since then — during my years of therapy, my years of support groups, my years of reading about post-traumatic stress disorders and toxic family dynamics — that many women who become obese were molested as children. The consequences doctors see in front of them are far downstream results of events that occurred decades before. The obesity, diabetes, smoking or other addictions are the sequelae of sins against children, whose origins are cloaked and mostly denied by both medical convention and taboo. Doctors are more comfortable prescribing medication and just getting on with it. For most of them, the humanity of the person in front of them is too time consuming to bother with.

Overeating, addiction to sweets or fats is no less a means to a self-anesthetizing end for trauma survivors than an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

The short-term benefit of obesity to a young woman is the belief she’ll be unattractive to men. A societally unacceptable body is a shield from pain and shame. The flesh itself becomes a way of distancing themselves from their physical bodies. Obesity also makes them difficult medically. Medical studies have shown that doctors demonstrate a consistent unconscious bias against obese women. Their ailments are frequently discounted or misdiagnosed. CAT scans and x-rays are harder to carry out. Internal images, nuances of anatomy are shrouded in layers of flesh just as the traumatizing events are shrouded in layers of buried shame.

A few therapists have asked me why I never tried to tell anyone what was happening in our household. The simple truth is I knew no one would believe me. Whom was I going to tell? Even when I was in high school, a teacher would have sooner quit or died than take on a Stanford parent — especially a shrink. Stanford faculty like my parents lived inside an untouchable glass dome, creating a hefty fortress of unassailable appearances. They represented all that was respectable, educated, upper middle-class and well-situated. I also feared retaliation. They had long ago defined me as the family crazy and could have at any point simply committed me to a mental hospital for the rest of my life. Back then people could still warehouse inconvenient relatives.

There were other pedophiles in the family besides Eddie. My father’s mother’s extended family — the Berman side, from Russia — was filthy with them. At least two other of her five brothers besides Eddie had molested either neices or their own daughters.

There was a certain character named Ike who was married to one of my father’s cousins, Rayna.

Ike was a lumbering, crude, ugly man. His face was as pock marked as a lava field. He wore a goatee. He reeked of cheap aftershave and bourbon and stale cigarette smoke. He was always working in some shady businesses. No one talked much about what he did.

Ike used to expose himself to Deborah and me when we were little, when we still lived in Massachusetts in the early sixties. Rayna and Ike and their children always attended the endlessly long family seders. Deborah and I would be put to bed with Rayna and Ike’s daughter Stacy. Later in the evening, while the other adults were downstairs visiting, Ike sometimes entered our room. Although Stacy was his intended target — even in the dark we could see he was doing something to her — he often exposed himself to us. We developed a sort of a perverted game out of the experience, ‘Ike’s penis,’ in which that part of his anatomy developed a persona of its own, going on trips, going to work, taking its children to school. I suppose it was our way of trying to defuse the revulsion of what we had seen.

I learned, years later, by way of a late-night public service announcement she’d made, that Rayna too was molested as a child by one of my father’s uncles. She’d left Ike when she realized he was molesting their own children. Hardly an unusual scenario. Another of my father’s many cousins, Mary Etta Berman, who lived in California and babysat for us sometimes when we were young revealed to me in my early twenties she’d been molested by one of the uncles. She made the mistake of sharing this with my father, who told her she was confused, that she was confabulating. She returned to Michigan where she grew up to be near her sister, who was divorced and had young children. She went to medical school and became a psychiatrist. She cut herself off from my parents. She never spoke to them again.

During the weeks and months following news of Andrea’s illness, it was as if close to four decades had not passed. I startled easily. I avoided being in public, in crowds, on the subway — I couldn’t stand to be jostled, to be touched. I mumbled when I spoke, looking down, fearful of the sound of my own voice. I felt vulnerable; I began once again to doubt myself, as I had as a child, a teenager, a young adult. I felt as though I were back in my parents’ house and could not get away.

I waited for several months for a decision about whether to write to Andrea. I had always thought I would see my sisters again — after my parents died. I envisioned meeting them for tea at the Palm Court at the Plaza. We would ask each other where she had gotten those shoes; we would make unnecessary observations about the other’s hair. We would talk about our childhoods, and what had happened to each of us, how our pasts had played out in our lives. We would compare, Rashoman-like, our experiences through the kaleidoscopic lenses of our personalities. But now time had run out. My parents were not dying, and my sister was.

I informed her husband, Hayes, that while I wouldn’t bring up unnecessary subjects, I wouldn’t lie and I wouldn’t pull punches. He encouraged me to be in touch with her.

“She really wants to hear from you,” he emailed me. “She really does.”

So I wrote. I recounted to her the story of the molestation, of what had happened to us. In her reply to me she wrote:

“I have long thought that you thought that you or one of us had been molested as children.” She added: “I remember as a child often waking up in the middle of the night knowing there was someone in my room. I would call out ‘who’s there? who’s there?’ I often wondered what it meant.”

We corresponded for several months. I did not let on at first I that I had left California. I gave my address as the post office box in North Fork that John’s family had used for thirty years. John picked up the letters, and forwarded them to me in New York.

One night I found myself lying in the bathtub in my Brooklyn apartment, crying. My parents had methodically destroyed my relationships — first with my siblings, then with a widening circle of people — my teachers, my friends, parents of my friends, the two men I had really loved and wanted to marry. They had represented me to myself and to everyone with whom I came in contact as a misfit, a square peg, a mental case, as someone who had something wrong with her, and who was destined to make a mess of her life. By the time I left, I secretly feared I was that person. That night, for the first time in decades I became enraged about my childhood. My parents had irreparably damaged my capacity to enjoy the most basic and essential of human experiences: to love and be loved — beginning with my sisters. I was living out my parents’ legacy. I decided that night I would see Andrea.

We sit at the table, at the Chevy’s in Gilroy and place our order. John and Hayes make polite conversation.

Andrea is seated beside me.

“The first time you left, you kept in touch with the siblings. You didn’t the second time. Why?”

Her question is a knife turning.

I left the first time when I was in my early twenties. I had moved to Boston after graduate school in English at Brown. My brother was living in Boston at the time also, getting an advanced degree. I got an unlisted phone number which I gave to Josh and to Andrea, who was living at the time in Washington. I told them I didn’t want to have anything to do with the parents. By then I was in therapy three times a week, which I could not afford. I had difficulty functioning at work. I was having flashbacks, dissociating, becoming confused about whether I was reacting to events that were happening now, or whether I was reacting to feelings bubbling up from twenty years before. I did not share details of my life with either sibling. After about a year, I began to be able to discern where I was in time. Then Josh gave my parents my phone number. They called.

“Josh,” I say. “I trusted the wrong person. I learned after the first time I couldn’t trust the siblings. Josh turned me in. I wouldn’t have come back, but my cover was blown.”

“I didn’t tell them,” she says. “We’re not all the same. We’re different people.”

“I realize that now,” I said.

After my parents called, my sister Deborah called. She was getting married. I was bribed with an invitation to be her bridesmaid. By then, hers and Andrea’s relationship had deteriorated, and Deborah did not want Andrea in her wedding. She told me I could choose my own dress, which my father would pay for — on approval from the bride. I allowed my defenses to subside into the deluded hope that something might have changed. I tried to be optimistic. A month before the wedding, I went back to California. Perhaps, I thought, it wouldn’t be so bad, having an outsider in the form of her husband might dilute the situation and improve family dynamics a bit.

I could not have been more mistaken.

“Josh can’t keep a secret,” says Andrea. “I can. Deborah is also a good secret keeper, if you want to be in touch with her. You said in your letter you hoped one day to be in touch with both your sisters. Do you want to be in touch with her?” I don’t say anything. My elder sister now had a dysfunctional family of her own. Her husband, formerly a geologist for the US Geological Survey, is also, unfortunately, a drunk, although as of this writing, he is ill with lymphoma. Deborah is an MD, a bureaucrat at the FDA. My brother Josh became one of those orthodox Jews who won’t eat meat and won’t drive on Saturdays. He’s now a doctor as well.

“Then when you left the second time, you didn’t stay in touch with siblings. Why did you leave again?”

“Because I wasn’t safe,” I say. “Coming back was a mistake. I realized that, and I had to leave. They would have killed me.”

“Mom and Dad told everybody it had something to do with tires,” she says. “They said that’s why you left. The second time. On account of a set of tires or something. You got the wrong ones or something.”

I think but do not say: my cutting off had something to do with tires the way the Holocaust had something to do with a shortage of soap.

“I would assume you didn’t know that part,” I said. “I hardly think they would have told you what really happened.”

The second time I left it took longer than I wanted — almost three years, simply because of the logistics. I was now once again living in the same state, not far away. I wasn’t prepared to make another transcontinental move because for once in my life, I had started earning decent money. Silicon Valley was booming. There was a lot of money around, and there were very few people who could write. It was a seller’s market.

I wrote a letter to my parents and informed them our relationship was over. I told them I wanted to be left alone, and I did not want them to contact me. I did not return their calls. I changed my telephone to an unlisted number. Then one day Josh showed up at my door. To collect me. He had always been a good boy, a good soldier, good at deciding which side he was on by assessing who had the power. He did this to his own college friends as well, and could not figure out why they soon shunned him. Something about his relentless need to take the part of the authoritarian parent was always beyond his understanding. I did not speak to him. I turned away and closed the curtain over the window. I moved to another apartment; I got another unlisted phone number. They tracked me down. I moved again. I moved five more times. I explain this to Andrea and she listens.

“That’s when you hired the lawyer?” she asks.

“Not immediately. It took me a few years to figure out I had any rights. It took me a few years to figure out anti-stalking laws could apply to anyone, not just ex-boyfriends.”

Unlike offspring from other emotionally wrecked families I’ve met, my siblings and I never hung together. We were rats on a sinking ship. We spent our childhoods climbing over each other, pushing each other back into the water, each struggling to keep his or her nostrils above the surface to secure for ourselves the last gasp of oxygen. My elder sister and my brother had continued to play along with my parents’ concocted reality. They were comfortable inside my parents’ Potemkin Village. Andrea never really understood the stakes. I had harbored a hope that we would be able to have a relationship once my parents died. But Andrea was going to die first.

I spent the months after I returned to Brooklyn alternating between panic and guilt. I sent her presents — a pair of hand-wrought pewter candlesticks shaped like a man and a woman, postcards, photographs of the bougainvillea-draped house in Kenya where we had lived for a time when we were children that I visited again with John in 1997. It was as if by sending material things I believed, magically, that I could hitch her to the world and wrestle her away from death.

We spoke frequently. After the conversations I was overwhelmed with guilt. I was deficient. I should have been able to save her from our past. As it was, I had barely saved myself.

A CAT scan at the end of June revealed the tumors in Andrea’s liver and lungs had grown. Her oncologist told her — abruptly and without compassion — that they had run out of options, and this was the end of the road.

“He had to do what he had to do,” she said in a wooden voice, the voice of a person annihilating her own feelings.

I wanted to start screaming. It’s you who count. What about what you have to do?

“What about clinical trials?” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “I know someone at a clinic in Detroit. He offered their help.”

“I’ll tell Hayes,” she said. “We’re exploring alternative therapies. I’m taking all these vitamins.”

In July, Andrea called me on her cell phone from a little league game in San Jose. Hayes coached, absent children of his own. I could hear the sounds of the boys shouting and cheering in the background.

“Why did you have to leave?” said Andrea. “Why could you not have just left the parents, and not me? I wouldn’t have told.”

“I wasn’t leaving you,” I said, “I know it seems that way, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t trust Deborah or Josh. I’m sorry I tarred you with the same brush.”

“I’m a different person from the rest of them,” she said. “We’re not the same.”

“I realize that now. I didn’t understand that back then.”

“We were younger then,” she said. “It’s in the past. Let’s not look at the past. Let’s look at the present. At least you’re back now. At least I got you back before I died.”

I started to cry. It was the first time she had acknowledged that she was dying. Until this point, she had remained determinedly positive. Hayes, she explained, didn’t countenance negativity. He believed in the power of positive thinking. Hayes’s denial had begun to anger me. His brand of optimism had ensnared both of them in dynamics that felt uncomfortably like those of my parents house: deny the truth; blame the victim as the source of the problem; and never reach outside the psychic circle of family.

“I don’t want you to die,” I said, crying. “I’ve been robbed of a relationship with my sister because of what our parents did. It’s not the way things are supposed to be.”

Then she started crying too. “Why did you have to leave me? Why didn’t you come back?”

“I’m sorry,” I said through tears. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I wish I could have saved you.”

Then we are both crying over the phone.

“What just happened?” she said after a few moments, through tears three thousand miles away, “what just happened?”

“Something human,” I said. “These things happen sometimes. They’re human.”

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” I replied.

A few weeks later, the tumors invaded her voice box and she couldn’t speak on the phone.

“Oh, she’s okay,” Hayes said when I called. “It’s just that she can’t talk to you right now. But she might get better.”

“Right,” I said, “okay.” I was seething. We had reached the end. Now it was a matter of days.

The last communication I had from Andrea was a letter, written in mid-August. It was a chatty letter, even though she described having migraines daily. Her coughing fits were unrelenting. Hayes, she wrote, had devised a way to raise the back of the bed to make it easier for her to breathe. At the end of the letter she wrote:

“You keep putting multiple 39 cent stamps on letters when they weigh more than an ounce. You’re wasting money on stamps. Here are some 1 cent stamps. I keep them around because the rates are always changing. Just add them whenever what you’re mailing weighs more than an ounce.”

In early September, Andrea’s kidneys failed and she went into a coma. She died on September 11, 2005.

Hayes called me in the middle of the night to let me know she was at the end. He asked if I had anything to say.

“Tell her I love her,” I said. “Please tell her I love her and that I have always loved her.”

Some months later, my brother sent me an email to let me know I would not be welcome at her memorial service — because it might upset the parents.

I have not used the stamps. They remain in a drawer along with her hand-written letters. The photograph she sent me stands on my dresser. Even now I sometimes forget that she’s dead. For a few years afterwards, I’d wake up in the early morning, and a sudden unbidden voice will remind me: she is dead. And I would reply: Don’t be ridiculous. She can’t be dead. I just tied her shoes.

There is only one thing that redresses the wrongness of Andrea’s death for me: that at the end of her life we were able to express love towards one another and mean it.

A few weeks before she died I had a dream:

I am in a dim alley which reminds me of an image from the Radio Free Europe commercials on television during the early 1960s. There are puddles of water on the ground, their surfaces glinting from the light of a distant street lamp. A fat man stands down at one end of the alley. He is not my father, he is not Eddie, and he is not Ike, but an effigy, a sort of proto-man, an agglomeration of all three men, although I could not say feature for feature which one he resembles most. In some sense, my mother is there also, not as corporeal being, but as a noxious presence whose form eludes me. She is at once a poisonous gas and a venomous serpent hiding in the grass.

Then I see myself, or an image of myself on a stairwell, peering through the gaps between the turned-wood balusters along the staircase in my parents suburban Boston home. I am looking out into a pebbly darkness. I can see through an open door — more like an aperture, a lens, smaller than a door. I look at someone in a passage, the man, the same man, his face shrouded in darkness, the baggy lapels of his unbuttoned suit jacket not lying flat but hanging in a disheveled way like limp wings. The lapels and the man wearing them annoy me. He is a man who can make any suit look cheap, rumpled, shapeless. He slouches forward to light a cigarette. His face lifts for a moment and in the match light I can see his pocked oily face, his thin beard, his receding hairline. I can tell by looking at him he is a pedophile. He is a man who confines himself to dark corners like a scorpion in a dish cupboard. He is huge, fat, but he lurks, he is careful, he is quiet. My scalp tingles, and my whole body tenses. Then my sister is there too, now peering through the gaps between balusters, and I am no longer part of the scene, but an observer looking on. I am apart, although I can’t tell exactly where I am in relation to her or to him. He moves towards her, his movements slow, oily. He makes no sudden moves; he knows and he has perfected the science of approaching little girls so they won’t run away. He smells of cigars, of cheap aftershave, of bourbon.

He approaches — and I can’t tell whether he is approaching me, or approaching her, whether we are in the scene together or whether one of us is alone there with him and the other looking on. I am frightened, and I am angry. I try to call out, but as in many dreams, my voice strangles in my throat in that paralysis of sleep where one is unable to move, to articulate, to breathe out the words.

I struggle against the paralysis, gasping like someone under water trying desperately to break the surface. Then the sound of my own voice looses me from the hold of sleep. I shout out loud — I can hear myself shouting — in a voice so full of passion and rage, of leonine protectiveness, I barely recognize it as my own. I shout out loud into the darkness:

Don’t you touch her! Don’t you dare touch her!

Eleven years after her death, I finally had the courage to visit Andrea’s grave, in 2016.

Writer for NYT, Sci Am Nat‘l Mag Award. Climate, mental health, wild things. Newsletter

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