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Watching a piece on morning TV about a mother’s will to save her son, Nickolas, led me to thoughts of my own family’s sacrifices to save my sister. Her kidney disorder became life threatening and would require years of treatment and two surgeries. It was 1957. I was five when the dance lessons ended and I was sent to stay with my grandparents. I returned to a houseful of stuffed toys – all for my baby sister, the person who’d already usurped my place in the family.

For the next decade, life for me consisted of hiding my remaining treasures from this wild child who destroyed only my belongings during “nap time.” Records were broken, books were torn to shreds, ViewMaster slides were poked out, all while my mother scolded me to be patient because my baby sister was too young to know better. My mother was also consigned, during these years, to chasing the crying sick one around the kitchen table because Vicki needed to, but wanted not to, take her medicine. This drama was repeated daily, morning, noon, and night. Our lives were consumed with the focus and chaos of this child’s illness. The expense, in every imaginable respect, drained our familial resources.

That memory path always plays out for me into what Vicki became and how she, accordingly, has treated others throughout her 55 years of life. Wouldn’t you think a kindness, a generosity, a sacrifice might result in gratitude? Or, better still, a desire to replicate those gifts? From those earliest years, I was experiencing a ruthless personality. She destroyed things. She also destroyed our family, and later her own would suffer. She seemed to have learned more about taking and hoarding than she did about loving and giving and protecting and cherishing.

Adult evidence of this first appeared to me, soon after the arrival of her son. Vicki complained that Jason had rejected her from birth because he wasn’t a snuggling baby. She rebuked child development advise from family, friends, books, and professionals, continuing to treat her son as a ungrateful burden, which intensified after her divorce and the onset of her son’s health challenges. From his earliest years, the boy suffered with allergies and asthma. Still, following her divorce, Vicki took her son to live with our mother, a lifelong smoker. Emergency room trips became a regular part of Jason’s life, and Vicki’s resentment grew with the years. I felt alarm that she seemed to lack a mother’s protective instinct.

Never was this more apparent than when she decided to marry for the second time. Steve boasted to his future mother-in-law that he would never adopt Jason because he did not want “that child” to bear his family’s name. When I questioned my sister about Steve’s hostility and its impact on her son, she made it clear that my concerns did not interest her.

Soon after the marriage, Jason began running away. At seven years of age, he no longer felt safe in his own home. As had happened to his paternal grandfather decades earlier, Jason would suffer the savagery of parental alienation attendant with being a lesser man’s stepson. And so, when he was overwhelmed with grief and anxiety, he ran through the night, crossing dangerously busy streets, in his pajamas, and he came to me. Although I could see the damage his mother and stepfather were doing, I nonetheless, returned Jason to his home each morning after, something done of duty, something I deeply regret.

A few years later, Vicki took Jason’s inheritance, a gift left to him by his great grandfather, to spend as down payment on the two-bedroom house she and Steve still live in. More than once I asked if she had repaid that debt to her son. She told me Jason lived there too, so that was repayment enough.

When Jason was just ten years old, in mid-1996, Vicki and Steve began calling me about institutionalizing Jason. The calls always came in after Erin was in bed, but with Jason in the room so he could hear his parents’ end of the conversation. They were begging me to help them put my nephew away. This was unthinkable. Jason was a bright and kind boy, yet his mother and Steve were destroying this poor boy’s life. He’d been coming to my house with his mom for years, often asking to play chess with my computer from about age 7. And he was thoughtful, considerate, and generous, traits my sister and Steve had always criticized as “irresponsible.” I had just begun dating my future husband. He witnessed two of these calls and supported my desire to have Jason come to live with me. When the 3rd or 4th call was made, I told Vicki and Steve that I wanted Jason with me. Vicki told me that would never happen because I wasn’t fit to be a parent and I had no idea what a problem her son truly was. As I said before, these calls always occurred with Jason in the room. I could hear him crying and begging to not be sent to an institution (just like Steve’s father had done to him after his mother abandoned the family).

The phone calls stopped. The subject never came up again. Jason remained at home where he was gradually imprisoned  by psychiatry. Each year brought with it another in a revolving set of behavioral disorder tags ranging from hyperactive to bipolar. He was drugged, hospitalized, shocked, and finally dropped out of the Pasadena public high school he’d long feared attending because of the on-campus violence, finally attempting suicide.

These same years went quite differently for Steve and Vicki’s daughter. Erin attended expensive private schools, was lavished with praise and attention for any and all of her interests, and was given the second bedroom in their tiny house (while Jason was relegated to sleeping in the kitchen). She would later squander her college years, while her parents paid her every expense, drinking, drugging, sleeping, sexing, and growing ever fatter. Not much has changed for this favored child. She found someone willing to marry her and to continue feeding her everything all the time.

Returning to Jason’s childhood, every Christmas season, Steve demanded that a live tree be erected in the house, perhaps to console his own sadness at having lived in an orphanage for so many of his childhood years. Vicki, ever indifferent, forfeited her son’s health by failing to intervene, to protect her son. And so each December, the perfect little house in Sierra Madre was decorated to perfection, resplendent in outdoor lights and all the other adornments due the season. And Vicki’s son? Jason spent each of those holiday periods in an emergency room with life threatening asthmatic symptoms. This cycle was repeated for some twenty years, ceasing only after Erin came to visit one Christmas and also became asthmatic.

But fracturing her son was not the only evidence of Vicki’s endless passion for destruction. Throughout the three decades that her mother suffered from a debilitating disorder, torticollis, Vicki expressed her intolerance by seeing her mother only when “necessary” and complaining to all who would listen that her mother fell insufferably short of acceptable, in a range of areas, as a mother and a grandmother (a pattern also coursing through her shattered relationships with her father, stepmother, two brothers, and me).

And so her mother was invited to her home only for those holidays when she was unable to configure an escape from the “obligation.” The last year of our mother’s life, Vicki notified me that this year, 2005, Mother’s Day was going to be all for her, that she was not doing anything for her mother. That was the same year Erin refused to send a college graduation announcement to her grandmother, and Vicki told me that it was up to Erin and she was not going to intercede. I will always feel that I made the wrong choice there, having decided to attend the graduation ceremony, despite my disappointment in Erin. I feel I betrayed my mom. She sat at home while the rest of us celebrated something not deserving of recognition. Erin exemplified the worst of her parents that day, as she so often does. On that day, she loudly referred me as her “crazy aunt,” said not so much as a joke, as a statement of fact concerning my flawed character.

Our mother often told me she figured Steve kept Vicki too busy to spend time with her own mother because he was jealous of his wife’s family, the likes of which he’d never known. I’d always defended Steve, believing Vicki made her own decisions, including keeping too busy to even pick up the phone to visit her mom, for her own reasons. I now see how my mother’s observation was probably spot on, if not a key factor in the deal. It also explains why Steve argued with me about cultural events everyone living at home, in California, in the 1950s and 1960s experienced (yes, Steve, “The Wizard of Oz” was televised during the winter holiday season during those years). His home, and thus his experiences,…..different, and he remains angerly vigilant, lest the cracks appear.

Like Steve, Vicki has her own perverse need to pretend for the world that hers is a perfect life. Isolation was replaced with attention, as she could always find the time to see her mother whenever I came down to visit. She told me, when I asked, that she saw and spoke to our mother regularly, something she apparently couldn’t imagine I might ask my mom about. But I did. I called my mom every Sunday and we spoke at length, exchanging stories and news, mostly about the family. So I knew, and it saddened me greatly, that Vicki rarely saw or spoke with our mom. These variances also confirmed that she lied to me as she felt necessary for appearances.

And then our mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Vicki was on hand every day. It was another obligation. And so she sat and watched and waited. What she didn’t do was advocate for our mother. When it came time for the treatment consult, Vicki and Steve allowed the primary physician and the oncologist to run my mother into a corner. Mom accepted the usual course of radiation and chemotherapy without seeking a second opinion, believing time was “of the essence.” Vicki and Steve sat by not so much as advocates but as obliged family unable to ask for much, perhaps unable as well to care much. This is how it all feels for me to this day, in my gut, in my broken heart.

And so it was that this “conventional” treatment course tore my mother’s body to shreds and brought her life to a hideous, needlessly painful end one month after her diagnosis. There is so much more to be said about the systemic failures which hastened my mother’s death, but I will cover that elsewhere. For now, I want to stay with my sister’s history of intolerance and anger, usually performed as indifference toward others.

My mother was to be cremated; she had made all the arrangements the year before. My sister seemed to be charge. She was in touch with the agency consigned to carry out the final arrangements, so I relied on her for the details. I’d set myself up – again. How difficult could it have been to have found out when the cremation would take place? Though she had promised to find out for me, it wasn’t until I’d returned home that Vicki managed to tell me she wasn’t sure about the date, adding that it didn’t really matter. I would later be told the date. It was either that same day or had already occurred, through the haze of time, I’m not sure anymore. To this day though, that oversight remains a painful reminder of how little my mom and I ever meant to Vicki.

Then there was my mom’s memorial. It was awful. Vicki and Steve dictated all. His sister spent hundreds on pounds of deli food few ate. She spent more on plastic picnic wear, all in dark blue, a color my mother didn’t like. Then Steve addressed the guests: it was crap. Something about what my mother liked. I only know that he didn’t get much of it right. It was awful and I could hardly bear any of it. Jason wouldn’t speak to me because, days after my mom’s death, he’d sent me fowl, threatening emails about what a horrible person I am. When I told his mother about this, I was finally let in on another of their family’s secrets: Jason was bipolar. Vicki had concealed this from her mother and me for some number of years. As it turned out, even some of our cousins knew, just not my sister’s mother, or me. So there I was, in a situation that was just pure crap on so many levels. It wasn’t what I wanted for my mother. None of it.

Over the next four years, as we moved through the morass of settling our mother’s estate, a series of escalating betrayals would finally, irreparably end my relationship with my sister and her family. The lies, acts of vandalism, broken promises, fraud, deceit, it all culminated in the theft of items left in my mom’s townhouse. I’d purchased her home from the estate, at an inflated price arranged for by Vicki and others. It was easy. I’d trusted my sister. That was a mistake. Vicki and Steve had promised to care for the home in my absence, and so had the entry keys. It couldn’t have been simpler for them and it all went down a few weeks before Erin’s wedding, to which Vicki had uninvited me after she and Steve began plotting the theft weeks earlier. I couldn’t breath when I saw the truth of it. Then I became violently sick. Steve told me, when I phoned, that I would never see my belongings again. But he was wrong. Months of time, buckets of tears, and piles of cash brought it all back to me.

But first Steve, his obese sister, and his attorney had to collect the trunk and other effects belonging to Steve and left behind during the May 2009 theft. That encounter included a bizarre exchange between Steve and me. He was staring, longingly, at a nearby townhouse and asking what had happened to the woman living there. I had always understood there was some distance between Steve and his marital vows: His professed need to work late most weekday nights for years didn’t hold water for truckloads of reasons. For one, I still had his confession of infidelity, sent in a letter shortly before he and my sister were wed. Then there was the problem about Steve’s car. When he and my husband were working on the same campus, it was noticed that Steve’s car and he seemed to keep different hours, with the car missing on nights he claimed to be working late. And I won’t bore you here with the one about the day my sister discovered credit card receipts in Steve’s pocket for blow jobs he was purchasing from prostitutes. My husband and I had long suspected Steve was involved with other women, including this neighbor woman. The peculiar questioning, paired with Steve’s overall lost demeanor, seemed to confirm what I hadn’t known definitively before.

When my things were returned, Steve hadn’t the manhood to show up. It was Vicki and her attorney, returning the loot at the Pasadena Courthouse a few days before Christmas 2009. Still, I suppose Steve and Vicki got what they wanted, finally. Steve had succeeded in burning all remaining bridges between his wife and her family. Now they could hoard it all – no sharing of all the goodies of their family.

The boy I could not have loved more is no longer a presence in my life. The years we did our Christmas shopping trips together (a special time for us), the day we saw the elephants bathing at the zoo, the funny way he pushed himself up into my old VW bus, the day we spent at the Temple City festival fair (after Steve yelled at Jason for????), the walks, the talks over coffee, my dash down the 5 to rescue that kid who was let off the train midway along the trip north…………I miss you terribly. I’m so sorry for all that transpired to cause you so much injury. I’m so sorry your mother wasn’t willing to go to any lengths for you. I should have done more, too. I’m sorry.

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As a subscriber to Politico online newsletters, it troubles me to find that they are co-mingling health care policy reporting and health insurance company funding of these reports! So, this morning I posted the following to Politico’s ‘Community’:

In noticing this quite recent change in the Pulse’s banner, I have to wonder how this funding revelation may be influencing the reporting contained herein. Not only do these emails cover health care policy news, they select & frame these stories – & would have the reader believe such decisions are ‘objective.’ But can that, in fact, be the case when, at the bottom of these messages, I find the following:

** A message from Aetna: This Open Enrollment season, go to the one place online that gives you easy-to-understand information to help you make the connection between health care reform and your health insurance benefits, http://www.BeSmartAboutYourHealth.com. This new website helps you find:
• Tips like how to review your health benefits in 60 minutes or less
• Definitions for key health insurance terms
• Links to other resources that provide insight on specific health insurance benefits and health care reform

Sashi was lingering, slipping so gradually into dementia and frailty. That decade was dotted with visits to a string of emergency rooms: A decision deemed cheaper than providing appropriately for his deteriorating condition, he was left, all day, at home, alone, where he sustained repeated injuries necessitating medical treatment. Then a fall into a busy highway, as he attempted walking to his daughter’s job, forced an anonymous call for protective services. And the final years, now in safer digs, began.

Time and the once vigorous man whittled down to weeks and less than 80 pounds. We knew the window was fast closing. Even so, time now seemed to pass interminably slow. And then the news came – Sashi had slipped off in the twilight of Memorial Day’s dawn. Tad’s sisters busied themselves. With bank accounts drained, burial arrangements made, Tad became merely an accessory to the final event: the eldest child, only son, expected to eulogize his father, then sit down and stay out-of-the-way, a role so well-ingrained that it now permeated every facet of his life.

Sashi remained….somewhere above ground for several days, as arranged by his acknowledged daughters, until June 11. The leopard skin daughter led all through the day and then, finally, it was over. But, of course, for those of us who have seen what comes next, we know, don’t we? Now comes the ice-cold shock, in waves, of so much more loss than even a parent’s death can herald.