Content Warning: This article contains references to suicide.
I’d never seen my sister do the dishes before that day. But after we all started to realize that the whole quarantine thing was going to be our new normal, my dad told us we’d all be expected to “help out around the house.” So there she was, unloading the dishwasher like it was something she’d been doing for years: something like her regular meltdowns, or glaring at me for giving her cat attention. Everyone was still in the kitchen, except my brother, who was unsurprisingly asleep. My mom was still making her own dinner, my dad was still eating, and I was rinsing my plate. Earlier, I’d asked my parents what they thought she would think of my decision. “I don’t know,” my dad shrugged. “But it shouldn’t matter.” I nodded as if that were actually true. We were all stuck together indefinitely. If she wanted to be upset, we were all going to face some consequences. Her unhappiness tended to seep through the walls, covering every room in the feeling that if you weren’t as miserable as she was then something was wrong. As I slipped my dishes into the sink, she turned to me.
“Emma, are you going to Wesleyan?” she asked. Act normal, she’s just your sister.
“Yeah!” I blurted, somewhat awkwardly. Was that too cheerful? Too enthusiastic? Did I sound happy enough? Am I bragging?
“Nice,” she smiled. And everyone exhaled slowly, not even realizing we had been holding our collective breath in the first place.
Once a week in middle school, we had “Late Start Wednesdays.” Class started at 10:00 a.m. instead of 8:20 a.m. It was one of those Wednesdays and I was awake before I needed to be. The air felt thick and the light in my room had the sterile gray glow of a doctor’s office. I heard soft sobbing from across the hall. I froze, and the pit forming in my stomach sunk in a way that melded me to my mattress, making any attempt to get up useless. I listened, afraid to move. As long as I could stay trapped under the comforter that protected me I wouldn’t have to hear what was wrong, and it wasn’t a question of if, but what, because I knew immediately that something was horribly wrong.
I lay sweating in my cocoon of warmth, not daring to remove a single layer and have the rustling cause me to miss some key piece of information. I heard the sound of my parents rush down the stairs. Then there was the slam of finality on their way out of the door and to the airport and onto a plane and to Connecticut and to the hospital and to my sister, who had been getting bad but was now much worse. I didn’t know what to think when they told me she was in a coma after being rescued from the pills she had swallowed to end her life. There was no feeling to attach to my comprehension; I was numb.
My sister, older by almost eight years, was more of an abstract concept to me than anything else. Yes, I saw her every day before she went off to college, but I didn’t know her favorite color; I didn’t know the names of her friends; I didn’t even know her phone number. We had never talked about any of those things. It was never part of our necessary interaction. Our relationship did not extend past her eye-rolls when I said something she deemed stupid at the dinner table. How was I supposed to react?
My mom is too tired, in every sense of the word, to go with me and my dad on the tour. I can tell it’s harder than she thought it would be to be here. The taste of my sister’s experience still lingers in the air and falls over this place like a blanket of snow, muffling its essence. I can’t recall now whether or not it was sunny, but clouds seem to hover over my memory of the small town anyway. My dad and I walk the length of Main Street to O’Rourke’s diner where he is welcomed by the owner, Brian O’Rourke. He is a large man with an equally large grin that he greets us with. Everyone there looks like a regular.
We walk up to the school for the second to last college tour of our east coast trip and I see the campus for the first time; I’ve never been despite having two generations of my family attend. To me, it looks rundown like everything else: old buildings and bare trees sprinkled over a green lawn nestled next to ugly apartment buildings. I can’t seem to stay captivated by the tour guide’s monologuing so I look around. The one thing that sticks out to me is the people: three-dimensional animations amid a flat, colorless background. They run to meet each other in groups, on benches, under trees with pink blossoms. They wear dangly earrings and bright plaid coats. The students at Wesleyan University are definitely alive and well, regardless of the actual institution’s seemingly dreary exterior. We veer off from our charted course and my dad happily shows me an old building that used to house one of their secret societies. He knows where things are and how to get to them, but also eager to see what’s changed. He looks comfortable here and it’s at that moment that I remember: before it was her school it was his. I’d never even thought about how my sister’s overdose had transformed something he’d associated with nothing but good memories into a place ridden with pain. He had felt at home here once, too. I don’t think I could ever live here though; there are so many shadows.
I didn’t even know it was my last day of high school until it was over. It was only March 12th. We were supposed to have three more months. So, after getting cancellations for things I’d been waiting years to finally experience and receiving rejections from colleges I’d been waiting months to hear back from, I was dreading having to read the admissions email from Wesleyan. I’ll just do it really quickly, I thought, if I just rip off the bandaid, I won’t have built up any expectations. I opened it.
“Congratulations!” It read.
“Just remember,” my dad said later, “I am absolutely putting no pressure on you to go. Obviously this is great and it’s a great school, but I don’t want you to think I’m trying to influence your choice in any way.”
Maybe part of him wanted a sort of redemption for his alma mater, for at least one of his kids to see how great it could be. But in the end, he kept his word and never tried to sway me.
I got up from my desk and slipped on a sweatshirt I’d stolen from my mom’s closet a few years ago; “Wesleyan University” the front of it read. I hadn’t worn it in a while, ever since it was deemed socially unacceptable at the beginning of the year to sport merchandise from colleges you hadn’t even gotten into yet. I walked into the kitchen where I knew my parents would be.
“This is where I want to go,” I stated, displaying my sweater.
“Then that’s where you’ll go,” my dad beamed. My sister congratulated me the next day.
I should’ve been celebrating my commitment but instead, it nauseated me. On paper, the school had everything. There was the open curriculum, the concentration I wanted, and the inclusive community that everyone seemed to gush about. In reality, something still didn’t seem right.
I didn’t even notice I was crying until my cheeks were wet and there was that lump in the back of my throat. At that point, I couldn’t have made it stop if I’d tried. I’d finally told my mom why it was so hard to choose Wesleyan after realizing it myself. I kept trying to separate my sister’s experience from mine, as if by ignoring it it would no longer matter.
When my best friend asked if my sister’s past with the school bothered me, I responded defensively.
“Of course not,” I’d scoffed.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that until I got to campus and actually made it my own, it would be her school, just like it had been my dad’s school before her, and I needed to acknowledge that. I would be taking more baggage than just the suitcases I’d have to lug up two sets of stairs.
For god’s sake, she had tried to kill herself there. No wonder they let me in. They wanted a second chance. They wanted to draw me in and show me that “Hey, they weren’t so bad after all.”
As much as they could masquerade as my soon-to-be second home, they were still a business. I asked my mom why she and my dad didn’t tell my sister right away. She had walked into the room after I’d given them my verdict and they had stayed silent. They were as scared of her reaction as I was; no wonder we all stiffened when she congratulated me.
I’ve had to tiptoe around her my whole life. Now I refuse. I refuse to keep needing my sister’s permission to do anything, especially attend the college I want to go to. I’ve always needed the approval of the one person I would never get it from, but not this time. Her story has always haunted me. It was her ghosts my mom was seeing that kept her from going on our college tour. They’ll still be roaming when I get there, but I won’t be afraid of them.
“I’m so glad you said something,” my mom said, her own eyes starting to glass over. I don’t even remember the last time we’d cried together. “You know, you won’t even realize how her depression has actually affected you until you’re older. I’m so sorry honey, I’m so sorry for everything that we couldn’t do about it.”
She hugged me and the tears fell faster. I felt lighter somehow. I felt free.
Move-in Day is perfectly sunny and while my face is already rosy from having to haul everything myself in the heat, I’m glad the weather makes the campus look friendlier than when I last saw it. The buildings no longer appear flat and colorless; they’re more dressed up, as if ready to welcome this year’s fresh batch of students.
I’ve always had to control myself around my sister, careful not to be the next thing that set her off. I’ve gotten so used to her taking up so much space all the time that I’ve become smaller without even realizing it. This school is a chance for me to grow back into myself. And hopefully, beyond. Both of my parents are here this time, and while they can’t actually help me move in, they too seem ready for me to be here. They probably want me to find my own Wesleyan as much as I do.
Emma Kendall can be reached at email@example.com.