This Year, I’m Celebrating My Late Sister’s Birthday

AUGUST 10, 2014

Melanie_Berliet_Family

On April 5th, 2009, my older sister Céline died from cirrhosis after a prolonged struggle with alcoholism. She was 30.

Five years later, sadness still knocks me over whenever I’m reminded of her, and am forced to realize, yet again, that she’s gone. The scent of fresh baked brownies like those we once baked together, the sight of a hot pink t-shirt she would have purchased, or the sound of a stranger laughing as buoyantly as she did might trigger tears at any given time. But I’m not one to grieve on the expected occasions, like the anniversary of her death or her birthday. It almost seems too pedestrian to bemoan the brevity of her existence when I’m supposed to.

So as Céline’s birthday approaches this August 10th, I’ve decided there’s no reason I can’t celebrate the day that would have (should have?) been her 36th birthday. That is why I’m choosing to share this excerpt from my book, Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction with you. Everyone handles the death of a loved one differently, and this is my way.

Excerpt:

After being stood up several weeks in a row, the sight of my sister waiting outside Café Gitane, our favorite French Moroccan restaurant in downtown Manhattan, startled. She was as much a contradiction as the Menthol cigarette—at once minty fresh and destructive—she flicked to the gutter before bear-hugging me.

“You look healthy and happy! In case I haven’t said it enough: It’s really great to have you back, Stinky.”

Increasingly frustrated by my financial situation, I welcomed this reminder as to why I’d left Wall Street. It changed me for the worse, and Céline probably intuited that long before I did. Growing up, I began every school year with a teacher who had already instructed my sister. Adults and peers revered her for her sharp wit, indiscriminate compassion, and insightfulness. She paved the way for me. She never had quite the right haircut or outfit, but Céline could belt out Cat Stevens at exactly the right moment to make a girl who cared too much about the right outfit smile. She knew me. Why couldn’t I leave the serious talk up to Mom and Dad? It was their responsibility, wasn’t it? I was the little sister. Céline had promised Mom that she would change while they were in Colorado. Did she really need me to suggest rehab?

By the time our appetizers arrived, any resentment I felt toward Céline had evaporated. The Law of Siblings dictated that our relationship was never more than a few milliseconds of warmth beyond repair, even under the worst circumstances.

“Any special guys in your life?” Céline asked.

“Guys require energy I’m not ready to expend.”

Céline nodded. “Probably best to find Mélanie before searching for Mister Right.”

She had a way of articulating things about me I hadn’t even pinpointed quite yet. Tempted as I was in that moment to inquire about her own man plan—to assess where we were on the Richter scale by introducing that explosive, forward-looking word—I held back. Perhaps sensing my internal debate, Céline stood to go to the bathroom before it was too late. The clanking of keys against glass bottle from within her purse sounded then like the fire alarm for a mandatory drill we both longed to ignore.

Immediately, I regretted sparing her plan’s volcanic potential. I considered how to address that pesky noise—to clarify that she wasn’t fooling me. For instance, I might ask whether there was an Oompa Loompa clamoring for help in there. That was the kind of nonsensical reference to our youth that would typically makes us both laugh, so its potential for impact was great. But this wasn’t a joke. My admirable sister was retreating to the restroom in the middle of dinner for an extra swig of vodka, or three. I was supposed to do something. But what? Humiliate her? Reprimand her? Play the bigger sister?

Our eyes, behind which rested boundless reservoirs of memories—good and bad, beautiful and ugly, exaggerated and understated—challenged each other. My lips didn’t move. Hers did.

“Why do you always assume the worst in me?” she asked.

The last time Céline made me feel this powerless, she was 14, and she had lice.

***

From Céline’s bedroom doorway, in white ruffled pajamas dotted with pink hearts, I watched my sister scratch her head feverishly while finishing homework—the easy kind, I knew, since The Bangles blasted in the background. At 11 I had homework too, but no matter how old I got, my life was perpetually less interesting than hers. She wore a nightgown and our grandfather’s brown striped robe, which he’d given to her as soon as she’d noted that it “looked properly loved and lived in.” It was a dreadful piece of clothing and I didn’t envy it, but I did envy my sister’s ability to be fond of such a decrepit thing. I was also jealous of the summers Céline spent in France visiting our relatives, mastering the Berliet’s native tongue. The one time I accompanied her for three weeks out of eight, I became unbearably homesick and spent hours crying in various bathrooms, terrified that I couldn’t call to mind every contour of Mom’s face, as if my inability to do so meant that she might spontaneously vaporize. Céline thrived during her solo visits to Europe, reveling in the change in scenery, the Nutella toasts dunked into chocolat chaud, and the attention of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I was a baby when it came to adapting to new circumstances, maybe because I was so damn at peace in my existing situation. Reinvention isn’t something the satisfied seek, is it?

“Come here,” Céline said when she noticed me hovering. “I’ll check your head.”

Such bedroom hospitality was rare, so I usually welcomed it. But this time I didn’t budge, grossed out by the idea of tiny insects feeding off my scalp, certain that nearing my sister would guarantee the infestation of my lovely, bug free locks. Whether more disgusted or scared, I was unprepared for what came next.

In response to my hesitation, Céline screamed, “I’m not a monster!” Then she flung her chewed up black Bic pen at my face.

Though I ducked in time to avoid the plastic missile, I couldn’t back away from the torment I had caused. Confused and horrified by my sister’s reaction, I acquiesced to inspection.

Two days later, the school nurse sent me home with lice.

***

Non-confrontational by nature, I’ve always avoided conflict, even by admitting fault to end a fight when I believe I’m right. Céline knew this. Was she manipulating me into submission? How was it possible to be controlled by someone so obviously out of control?

Subconsciously or not, as soon as she returned from the ladies’ room, I diverted the conversation. “I want to be a writer,” I blurted. “But I’ve already been rejected by McSweeney’s ten times. It’s pathetic. I’m the Steve Baldwin of the writing world—doomed to embarrass myself trying to make it at something my sibling’s naturally better at. I should probably give up and become a Jesus Freak already.”

As Céline reached for a roll, I realized how validated I felt simply because she wasn’t mocking me. I knew to let her think undisturbed. Did I know my sister as well as she knew me? While Céline buttered and pondered, I considered the glaze coating her eyes. It was transparent, but impossible to see through.

 

 

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