Melissa is found.
She is all the colors of a fierce California sunset.
She is cold to the touch.
The right side of her face is stained plum where it rested on the floor. The underside of her torso is the rosy marbled violet of a mackerel sky. Her belly is draped with a spray of sea-green.
Her legs are a galaxy of bruises. Her right knee is orbited by a blurry pair of gray-pink shadows, which are surrounded by a constellation of smaller lavender smudges. Her left calf is wrapped with a Milky Way of mauve. Both shins are peppered with pink and purple contusions.
Her fingers are dry and blackened; her nail beds are a glowing cyan. Her usually gleaming toenails are haphazardly trimmed; her calloused feet are filthy.
The inside of her stomach is studded with tiny amber speckles. Her intestines are brimming with blood. Her spleen is as dark and shiny as a concord grape. The folds of her brain are a quiet russet.
Her eyes are cloudy. Her lungs are dusted with the sooty remains of cigarette smoke, the branches coated in a white froth like the foamy waves at the San Diego beaches where she used to walk her dog.
My sister Melissa dies on Christmas Eve, but her body is not discovered for a week, so her official death date is New Year’s Day, 2015. Until the medical examiner’s report, including autopsy and toxicology details, arrives six weeks later, we don’t know what happened.
The grammar of the report is a brutal drumbeat marking the dissolution of her body: this part is that color, this organ is that texture. Melissa is dead. This body is a corpse.
I skim the document as soon as I get it, and when I see that her eyes are described as light brown, I am elated: It’s not her. Melissa’s eyes were sky blue. Everyone knows that.
I learn that even the bluest eyes begin to fade to brown just forty-eight hours after death.
Amanda is lost.
It’s late afternoon and the December darkness has already settled into the mountains, obscuring the winding roads that I trace and retrace, searching for the entrance. My GPS stopped working as soon as I turned off the highway. Though I’ve been here before, I still can’t find it. Finally, I see the sign for Sky Lake Lodge, a Tibetan Buddhist center in the Hudson Valley. It used to be a biker bar, and confused men on motorcycles occasionally pull up, then peel out. I’m here for an annual meditation retreat that starts after Christmas and ends a few days into the new year.
As I push through the door, I’m suddenly aware of how fast my thoughts are spinning, skipping ahead of registration details to sort out which room I’ll be in and what’s for supper and what time I have to get up tomorrow because I definitely need to fill my jumbo travel mug with coffee before we start meditating. I drop a pen and it skitters across the sign-in table. Everyone has to volunteer for chores, called rota, and I choose shrine-keeping because I have never done it. Also, I don’t want to clean the bathrooms.
After dinner I head to bed early. I’m used to the amber glow of my city streets, and the country darkness feels unnervingly still. I stare in the direction of the window until I can make out the faint lump of a hill, lying like a body across the horizon, and the charcoal sky behind it.
Early the next morning, we begin. The leader of the retreat is an elfin woman who wears her white hair pinned into a bun on top of her head and laughs with the joyous open mouth of a Muppet. The word for meditation in Tibetan, gom, means “to become familiar with,” and we are trying to become familiar with our turbulent minds and the possibility of calming them like a pond, allowing murkiness to settle until the water is clear and we can see straight down to the bottom. This kind of practice is fundamentally about waking up, so we meditate with our eyes open. We follow our breath as an anchor to the present moment, and when we notice we have drifted off in thought, we take a fresh start. We can take unlimited fresh starts.
The problem is I can’t find my breath. I want to let go of thoughts and all I can think about is Melissa, who died four years earlier. I’m fixated on the position of her body when the police found her. Was she facedown? I can’t remember. It’s important to me that she wasn’t facedown. I push these thoughts away.
Start again. Breathe. All I’m becoming familiar with are family ghosts, who are already free to wander around my mind whenever they like.
Start again. Breathe. Wonder why this is happening and wish it wasn’t. In Buddhism, there are four reminders to jolt us out of the confusion of the everyday. One is, “Death will come without warning, this body will be a corpse.” I’ve seen T-shirts that say, “This body will be a corpse.” Should I get one?
Start again. I never saw Melissa’s last apartment, so I try to imagine it. After her final stint in rehab, she had been living in a halfway house with other women who were also trying to stay sober. She told me she was afraid of getting her own place because every time she stepped out of the protective cocoon of rehab, she started using. This time, the last time, she kept one foot in the world of the halfway house, attending meetings and taking drug tests, as she spent nights in a sunny new apartment. A balancing act. But as she predicted, even as she tried to defy the prediction, she picked up again.
I read the medical examiner’s report only once, and now all I can remember is that there was blood all over the place. A blot on the bathroom floor.Droplets on the couch cushions. Dried puddles soaking through the carpet. Crystals of blood encrusting her black pants. A stain on the mattress, which was not covered with a fitted sheet. Was she sleeping on a bare mattress?
One small detail: there was a smear of blood on her hand. The medical examiner noted that it was probably from rubbing her nose as blood poured out of it. My kid sister bled out on Christmas Eve with no one there to wipe her nose.
Melissa is dead.
Four years earlier, when Melissa’s husband Sam called me on New Year’s Day, I knew it was bad news from the way he said, “How are you.” I had a terrible cold, but I said I was fine. He was outside Melissa’s apartment with the police and I thought, “This is it.”
At their wedding, a besotted Sam said that every time he looked at Melissa his “heart shuddered.” As she rotated in and out of detoxes, rehabs, and halfway houses, he put a legal separation in place to protect their assets in case she got into a car accident. They hadn’t been living together for years, but they were still enmeshed—toward the end, they had what Sam called a “marriage via text,” an arrangement he said he loved. He was fine with waking up to a barrage of hate-texts, but I was not, so I told her I was blocking her until she got sober again. I knew she wouldn’t remember what she said, but I would.
When Melissa was using, worry hovered just below the threshold of my conscious thoughts, never not there. When she was sober, especially after our parents died, I mostly liked having a sister. She taught me rehab slang like “future tripping,” which meant focusing on uncontrollable things to come rather than one day at a time. She told me stories about the people she met, like the roommate who asked her about the difference between arugula and a rugelach. The actor I had never heard of who got kicked out for having heroin mailed to him in a bottle of shampoo. The woman who got three DUIs in twenty-four hours—I said I didn’t think that’s what “one day at a time” meant. Melissa laughed and said, “She ended up in prison. Not jail. Prison.”
Sam told me that when the texts from Melissa stopped on Christmas Eve, he knew she was dead. He had been visiting his family in England for the holidays, and though he had returned to San Diego on New Year’s Eve, he couldn’t bring himself to check on her until the next day. He asked the police to go with him because he thought he didn’t have a key to her new apartment, but when they got there, he remembered he did. They made him wait by the door, and when they saw her, they told him not to go inside. As the gurney passed through the doorway, he placed his hand on the black body bag shrouding Melissa’s leg. Even now, he recounts this scene with a strange, tender smile.
I would not have touched the body bag.
Amanda is waking everyone up.
In the afternoon session of the first full day of meditation, memories of Melissa continue to flood my mind. The two of us running around our suburban backyard before dinner, the cool grass on our bare feet, Melissa with shiny blond hair and the wobbly trot of a toddler, me, dark-haired, sixteen months older, more controlled. Suddenly, there was a scream—she had stepped on the hot metal grill my dad had placed in the grass after he pulled it off the hibachi. Mom held her as I watched three white blisters puff up in parallel lines on the side of her chubby foot. Did Mom hold her? I might be making that up.
Melissa had an astounding memory. Vast swaths of my life are blank to me but Melissa could probably reconstruct them, even secondhand. Once she had to remind me about the time my black cat got sealed into the wall of my bathroom in my post-college apartment in Brooklyn. Plumbers had to open and close a hole to get to a pipe. I was looking for him when I heard a meow from behind the patch in the drywall. “How could you forget that?” she asked.
Despite how much of her life was spent drifting out of consciousness, I thought of Melissa as the archivist of the family, the keeper of stories.When we were both visiting our parents, maybe five years before they died, we were just about to sit down at the breakfast table when Melissa said, “Remember the time Dad kicked a hole in my bedroom door?”
I stood still, holding my coffee. “What?”
Dad looked up from his newspaper, baffled.
Mom, setting plates on the table, said, “That’s true! I had to buy a new door.”
Melissa told me that when she was five years old she had crept down the stairs to ask for a glass of water as a way of breaking up one of our parents’ booze-fueled shouting matches. Dad chased her back up the stairs, and when she locked her door, he kicked it, leaving a hole in the flimsy particleboard.
As I think about this, I realize I’m holding my breath and let out a deep sigh. That big man tearing after that little girl in the dark hallway. Melissa, my brother Scott, and I could all hear the arguments, and each of us would make occasional sorties to the kitchen to disrupt them. As grownups, we discussed these scenes once, and we all agreed we thought they would kill each other. But I don’t remember Dad kicking Melissa’s door. Could I have slept through it? Or did I forget it?
Though I often believe I have a terrible memory because I can’t recall much of the past, the work of memory is primarily to forget—there’s simply too much data to recollect everything. Maybe my foggy memory is a blessing and Melissa’s detailed one was a curse. Maybe taking drugs to try to sleep through it all was a kind of sanity.
Start again. Breathe.
At the end of the first day of the retreat, one of the staffers has to leave for a family emergency, and I am given the task of ringing the morning gong at 6:30 a.m. I use a rin, a small bronze bowl sitting on a scarlet satin pillow that fits in my palm, and a wooden mallet the size of a fat pencil. Even though I’m not a morning person—for my entire life, my family made fun of how late I slept—this is a great job for me: Melissa used to call me Commanda Amanda when I got bossy, and she called me that a lot.
The next day, I get up extra early and prowl the dark halls, dinging the bell, marveling at the purity of the tone as it radiates out into the morning chill. I take a silent step as each chime fades, calmed by the rhythm. I hear rustling behind the bedroom doors as I pass them. Sounding the alarm, I am inviting everyone out of their warm dreams and into this sharp life.
As we sit for morning chants, I notice that some cushions are empty, but I figure that those people decided to sleep in, and good for them. In the afternoon, a staffer pulls me aside and tells me I need to ring the bell louder. A lot louder. “Like it’s a migraine,” he says.
I was trying to wake everyone up, but I botched it.
Melissa is remembered.
A few hours after Sam called me from outside Melissa’s apartment, I called back and offered to take care of the funeral arrangements. I had planned the funerals for my husband, mother, and father, but they were so deeply connected to their communities that I knew where to have the services, how to celebrate the dead and, perhaps, to comfort the living. Melissa’s life, as far as I could see, was piteously small. She had Sam and their spoiled dog, Bingo, but I didn’t even know if she had friends in San Diego, and she was out of touch with her childhood pals from DC. Eventually, I decided we could have a memorial near the dreary former coal-mining city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where my dad was from, and where a critical mass of his big- hearted family still lived. I texted Sam and when he replied, “Scranton in January is on my bucket list,” it was settled.
On the bitter morning of the memorial, black sheets of ice coated the parking lot outside the banquet hall. I showed Sam how to walk like a penguin so he wouldn’t slip; he told me to stop talking so he could concentrate.
Though I didn’t want to, I was the only person who could have possibly delivered the eulogy. Melissa and I had not lived in the same city since I went to college, and we had grown apart, especially when she wasn’t sober, and that was more often than not. Cobbling together a narrative of her life with so many blank spaces presented a challenge. The spaces I did know about were so dark.
I started with a memory of the two of us as young kids waiting in the station wagon for Mom to come down. In a plaintive voice, Melissa asked, “Manda, do you like me?”
Me, not looking at her: “Yes. I like you.”
“No really, do you like me? Like if we weren’t sisters, would you like me?” Still not looking at her: “YES. I like you! But if you keep asking me that, I’m not going to like you.”
I recalled the time Mom left us in the station wagon outside the little market at the bottom of the hill so she could run in to get milk. Melissa scootched over to the steering wheel and pretended to drive, knocking the gearshift into neutral. The car began to roll backward down the sloped parking lot, until a man opened the door on the driver’s side, hopped in, and hit the brake, the door still open. Mom dashed out with the milk and said, “Don’t tell your father.” When he got home, I shouted, “Dad! Melissa drove the car!”
I remembered how Scott, Melissa, and I all went to public elementary school, but in seventh grade we switched to a private school. Scott was three years ahead of me, and he loved it there, where he was a middle-of- the-pack guy. I was two years ahead of Melissa, and by the time she arrived I had settled into the fringes of my small class, secretly taking diet pills and doing artsy things like photography. Melissa arrived and was immediately welcomed into the cool crowd, and soon the most popular girl in her class was at our house for sleepovers. I told the people at the memorial that I was not at all jealous about this decades later.
I read out loud some of the things her classmates had posted about her on Facebook. One said that “when Melissa arrived, the party started.” Others mentioned her “gorgeous aqua-blue eyes,” “infectious laugh,” and “intelligence and wit, her love of art and books and music, her kind heart.” No one talked about the tenth-grade ski trip when she and a friend hid a case of beer in the dropped ceiling of the motel and the whole class was suspended. The other student’s parents pushed for her to be given a break; Melissa was expelled.
At the end of the eulogy, I noted that the name Melissa was rooted in the Latin word for honeybee, and though she sometimes buzzed with sweetness, she left us with a bit of a sting. And before I knew what was happening, I let out an eerie howl that must have echoed past the double doors of the banquet hall into the frigid mountain morning. It was as if it came from someone else, and I remembered I had heard a sound like that once, when I called my husband Rob’s parents at 1:00 a.m. to tell them their son had died. My cousin Brian rushed from the back of the room and held me.
After a buffet lunch, we piled in cars to go to the graveyard where my parents’ ashes had been spread three years earlier. It was located at an intersection that used to have a police station, a bar, and a funeral home on the other corners. Brian commented that it was a full-service Irish Catholic destination. We added Melissa’s ashes to the gritty pile.
I had asked Sam if there was anything he thought I should mention in the eulogy. Weeks later, he said he wished he had told me to mention Melissa’s courage. Every time she picked up, she returned to recovery, showing up at meetings she had previously attended, now counting sober days again. I wished he had remembered in time for me to tell everyone.
Amanda is stuck.
The second day of the retreat is the same vortex of swirling memories, but I can begin to name some of the feelings: terror, guilt, frustration, sorrow. In the afternoon I tell one of the teachers that a hurricane named Melissa is bearing down on me every time I take my seat. He says that’s okay, and I can let that storm system be the focus of my meditation instead of trying to follow my breath. At least the part of me that thinks I’m doing something wrong can relax a bit.
One of the Buddhist teachings that appealed to me when I first began my studies a few years before my parents died was the notion of the bardo, the intermediate zone between life and death. When Melissa was dead but not officially dead, she hovered in a kind of bardo, and each year I discover anew that in the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I also find myself in the bardo of Melissa. Usually there are enough distractions—people, parties, presents—to make the memory of her death fade into a gray haze that clouds the holidays, and I begin to perk up a little on January 2. From a distance, the bardo has a kind of elegance, suspended between two points like a walker balanced on a tightrope. But on the ground, on my meditation cushion, being caught between life and death is excruciatingly visceral.
Since I don’t have to worry about feeling my breath anymore, I wonder why this visit to the bardo of Melissa is so raw, so present, years after her death. I usually spend Christmas with Rob’s sister and her family, but this year they went to Ireland and left me alone. Before I went to the retreat, I tried to clear off my desk so as not to return to a jumble of clutter in the new year. Sorting a stack under a Post-it marked To File, I came across a folded piece of blue paper with Do Not Destroy printed on it in blocky letters. When I opened it, I remembered it was the receipt from Melissa’s cremation, which I had arranged. I stuck it back in the pile, which I left as it was.
In addition to long sessions of sitting meditation and walking meditation, we attend dharma talks. This afternoon we learn about the tradition of terma, in which a sacred text is hidden in a mountain, to be discovered later by a person called a tertön. The terma itself can be a fragment as small as a syllable, and the meaning that unfurls can be as long as the Bardo Thodol, published in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a series of prayers to be read for the deceased for the forty-nine days after their death. The Bardo Thodol is essentially a guidebook through many dazzling and fearsome stages of death and the opportunities along the way to achieve enlightenment. It coaches the listeners through a wild phantasmagoria of demons while calling for support from family and teachers. To read the bardo prayers for a dead person is also to read them to yourself, creating a hall of mirrors of presence and absence.
I wonder if the cremation certificate was a terma, and if unfolding it unleashed the images of Melissa that crowded in on me when I became still. And if the medical examiner’s report was also a terma that I transformed from the forensic rendering of her abandoned body into a kaleidoscope. The dead can send messages across space and time.
Melissa is asleep.
One of the last times we talked, wildfires were creeping closer to her neighborhood in San Diego, and Melissa could smell the smoke. She had also been sick, with a fever, so she went to see a doctor and got a prescription for sleeping pills. Her voice wavered as she repeated, “My whole world was on fire.”
I thought, “Liar liar,” but I didn’t respond. I blocked her calls.
After her first rehab, Melissa told me that every day she would walk down the hill from the house where she and Sam lived to buy a big jug of vodka. She moved on to pills and didn’t drink again until the sunny apartment, where the medical examiner notes a bottle of vodka on the coffee table, one-fifth full.
The report also mentions “prescription medications in the kitchen, in the bedroom nightstand, and in the bathroom medicine cabinet and drawers” and “numerous bottles of over-the-counter medications atop of the nightstand, on the kitchen counter, and in the bathroom medicine cabinet” without further detail. The toxicology report lists zolpidem, the generic for Ambien, and a handful of other kinds of sedatives. Sam is a research scientist for a biopharmaceutical company and thinks the sedatives were sold as Ambien from what he calls “illicit online pharmacies.”
But Ambien didn’t kill Melissa. At one stint in rehab, she told Sam she had been taking twenty-five to fifty Ambien a day, and a lethal dose is more like two hundred pills. I know because I looked it up after one of her many tearful late-night calls when she told me that she was feeling suicidal and was tempted by a full bottle of Ambien. I convinced her to throw it away. From my house in Brooklyn, I could hear the pills as they plinked into her toilet in San Diego, and for a moment I thought I had helped.
I’m embarrassed that Melissa’s drug of choice was prescription sleeping pills. How could she be addicted to sleep? People understand alcoholism, meth, and opiate addiction, uppers and downers. Ambien is a hypnotic, a class of drugs that includes sedatives like Valium and Xanax. Like oxycodone, it was marketed as a less-addictive drug than others in its class, but it is now known to have a similar potential for abuse. Taken as directed, it should knock most people out for the night. At the levels Melissa was using, it can cause euphoria. Rob and I were both prescribed Ambien—he called it “the velvet hammer”—and even though I loved prescription opiates, I never took more than the prescribed amount.
One of the side effects of Ambien is memory loss, a.k.a. blackouts. There are documented episodes of people doing any number of activities in an Ambien blackout: sleep-walking, sleep-cooking, sleep-shopping, sleep-driving, sleep-fucking. Other side effects include muscle weakness and an unsteady gait (that explained all the bruises on her legs), talkativeness and amnesia (the incoherent phone calls and texts), mental confusion, and uncontrollable shaking (after Dad’s funeral, I saw her fill a giant mug with boiling water for tea, not noticing as it splashed on her hand as the cup shook).
Once Melissa said her brakes failed and the car slammed into the back of her garage; I assumed she just plowed into it while she was using. Multiply episodes like that times three thousand miles away times twenty to fifty Ambien a day and you get to the place where I decided I couldn’t talk to her when she was using. It didn’t help her, and it was crazy-making for me. She might have been in a blackout, but this time I was cursed with remembering.
Amanda is taking care.
At the merciful end of the second day of the retreat, a fellow student trains me in shrine-keeping. He tells me to be as elegant and dignified with my movements as I would be if the head of our lineage was watching. The shrine is sacred but not as removed as the Catholic altars of my youth, though it reminds me of them: a wooden platform with gold trim, symmetrical flower arrangements, the focus on a central image not entirely of this world. But instead of a martyred Jesus, we have a mythical king of the enlightened society we are trying to build.
I clean the objects on the shrine with a feather duster: a crystal ball, sacred texts wrapped in brocade. I check the contents of the narrow wooden incense box and add a few more sticks. The peppery scent clings to my fingers. I take four used matches from a white porcelain bowl and wipe it clean. The smokeless lamp oil in the two long glass candles is supposed to be filled and level, but though I keep adding a bit more to each, I can’t get it right, so I decide it’s fine to leave one two inches lower than the other.
The water in seven glass bowls gets poured in a bucket but can’t go down the drain and into the septic tank. I heave it off the balcony into the crisp darkness and hear scurrying from an unseen sentient being below. I wipe the bowls clean and put them back on the altar, upside down and hanging a bit over the edge so they dry without steaming up. Tomorrow morning they will be filled to the brim and set the width of a grain of rice apart. Precision is a kind of mindfulness I appreciate, but sometimes it just seems fussy.
I attend to a small protector shrine, a shelf where a tiny brass chalice holds a tea offering, which also gets tossed off the balcony. A framed image of a monstrous Mahakala looms above, a hefty figure with bulging white eyes and fanged red mouth, surrounded by cinereal flames. He is said to be dark with the brilliance of ten million black fires of dissolution, but to me he recalls the grotesqueries of black-faced minstrels.
The Mahakala is the guardian of the lineage and of our efforts to wake up, embodying a fierce love like that of a mother yanking a child away from the edge of a road. No time to explain, just instant action, scooping the child out of harm’s way. He has four arms, one holding a skull cup filled with blood, which is meant to fortify us because it reminds us of death, and the three others brandishing sharp weapons to cut through delusion. I know he’s an emblem of courageous compassion, but I’m scared of him.
And though I know better, I wonder what I could have done to steer Melissa away from danger. Though I became sober years before she went to her first rehab, I never asked her about her addictions. She was extremely volatile and didn’t want me in her business. One Christmas, when I tried to rally the family to do an alcoholism intervention for my dad, she bristled. “You think your sobriety is better than mine because you go to meetings, but I’ve been sober four years!” I did think that, but I didn’t say it. Weeks later, I got an email from her confessing she had stolen some of my Ambien. She was using the whole time she berated me for judging her.
I notice the Mahakala is wearing a headdress with five white skulls, representing afflictions that are transformed into wisdoms. I pretend there is one for each member of my dead family: Rob, Dad, Mom, Melissa, and Scott. I wish my compassion had been fiercer.
Melissa is in the bubble.
The last time Melissa and I were together was at the Betty Ford Center in California. To the regulars it was the Betty, and this was Melissa’s second time there. She was at her best when she was in rehab—they called it being in “the bubble”—I think she liked the structure and the limited number of decisions to be made.
Though she had been in four or more other treatment centers, a few detoxes, and at least one seventy-two-hour psych hold, this was the first time she had invited me to attend a family program. The goal of the program was for people to learn how they can support the addict and maintain their own well-being, but I had been sober sixteen years by that point, and I thought I had a pretty good sense of how it worked.
I hadn’t seen Melissa since a couple of months after our mother’s stroke, when we were both living at our parents’ house. Two weeks after our father’s funeral, she sent for Bingo, her cockapoo, to be flown out from San Diego. As I drove them back from the airport, he whined frantically in her lap, and I shouted at her to please put him in the back seat. She didn’t answer and stayed folded over him, her face buried in his black fur. She did lift her head to point out when I took a wrong exit, taking us in the opposite direction of home.
She spent most of her time in the guest room downstairs, where she said she watched the History Channel. The door was always shut. A FedEx package arrived and she explained it was medication (I hadn’t asked) as she hurried away. One day I noticed a halo of magenta marks around her left eye. She said she tripped and fell on the gravel by the driveway. I imagined how my own hands would have instinctively flown up to break my fall and how she must have been dead weight to land on her face like that. I was trying to sort out Scott’s care and my mom’s medical situation—eventually Mom was moved from the hospital to a nursing home—and Melissa was just another thing to worry about.
I kept thinking, “What is wrong with her?” but other people being incoherent and confused was such a part of our family life that I couldn’t really see the obvious: she was using. There’s a rehab parable that says that if a frog is dropped in boiling water, it will hop right out. But if frog is dropped in room-temperature water that is slowly heated, the frog will stay until it boils to death. My family was five frogs in a pot. I was the only one who got out.
Finally, she decided to go back to San Diego, but Bingo needed paper- work from a vet before he could get on a plane. I had moved from my room upstairs to my parents’ airy first-floor bedroom. One morning, I was still asleep when Melissa, somehow an early riser for someone taking sleeping pills round the clock, pushed the door ajar and started talking. I opened my eyes as she said she was going to go to the grocery store to get food for Scott. When I replied she should figure out how to ship Bingo home because that was the priority, she reared back and shouted, “Stop yelling at me, you fucking cunt!” and slammed the door.
No one had ever called me a cunt. I had never called anyone a cunt. Now fully awake, I sat up and texted Sam that she had to leave immediately because she was using. Sam said that if she was, she should leave because it was not safe for her. I didn’t care about her safety—I just wanted her gone. Somehow Sam managed to get her and Bingo on a plane in the next few days.
The next month, I decided to take my mother off life support. When I found out Melissa wasn’t going to come to Mom’s funeral, I was so angry and ashamed I wanted to throw up. I felt betrayed that I was left to deal with everything, but also relieved I wouldn’t have to worry about her faceplanting in the driveway. When people asked me where she was at the memorial, I said she was sick.
With help from my cousins, I packed up and sold my parents’ house the next spring, a year after Dad died. I decided to stay in the area to take care of Scott, so in June I rented my own sunny apartment in DC with a view of the Washington Monument and started to look for a job. And in a month, I was slammed so hard by a wave of depression that I could barely get out of bed.
I kept the shades drawn and slept most of the day and night. I started a secret Twitter account to post suicidal thoughts, but I couldn’t bring myself to write even the briefest note. I had weekly therapy sessions on the phone with my psychiatrist in New York, and despite the heaviness in my body and the murk in my mind, I had the clarity to say, “This is really bad. I need help.” I was going under. We upped my antidepressants and I looked for a psychiatrist in Washington.
When I heard the message from the Betty Ford Center about attending family week, I surprised myself by immediately deciding to go. I’m not sure how I managed to book a ticket or get on a plane, but my family was always big on jumping in to help.
On Monday morning, we got to meet with our addicts before we started the program. I was excited to see Melissa, but before we hugged, the first thing she said to me was, “Mom would hate that.” I was wearing a pink T-shirt, and Mom despised pink—she would shout, “Pink stinks!” to our little cousins wearing princessy clothing. After the hug, Melissa stepped back and her expression darkened. “I’m just afraid you’re going to come here and take over my recovery.”
By the time I joined the rows of families in metal folding chairs in a room the size of a college gymnasium, I was seething. I had dragged my depressed ass to this fancy desert and everything was the same as it had been when we were teenagers. When the facilitators asked us to say how we were feeling in one word, I waited while everyone else said “worried” and “scared” and “hopeful.” I said “angry.” The man sitting next to me flinched.
The program was mostly presentations and small discussion groups. I showed off my recovery lingo and became a mini-facilitator for my group. On the second day, a doctor explained the biology of addiction. He asked, “What organ does alcohol affect?” and I thought...the liver? “The brain.”
I stopped acting like I knew it all.
One day Melissa and I ate lunch together. She informed that me everyone played roles in the alcoholic family and she was the scapegoat, acting out to create a distraction, and the mascot, using comedy to ease stress. She didn’t have to say that I played the roles of the would-be hero and the enabling caretaker.
She told me that her first addiction was stealing, and though I was surprised to hear her frame it this way, the memories clicked into place. She was notorious for pilfering things when we were growing up—I had to put a lock on my bedroom door to keep her from raiding my jewelry in high school. When she was on a college semester in Italy, she stole a student’s credit card and got arrested while she was trying to use it. After college, when she was living in DC, my dad called to tell me she had cashed my mom’s checks at a bar for a total of eleven thousand dollars. My mother never looked at the statements, and they accumulated in paper bags in the Jacuzzi. My father sounded broken. I thought Melissa had probably spent it on cocaine, and Sam, who had never heard about this, confirmed that there was a big coke scene in the bars where they met. These were stories I didn’t tell in the eulogy. These were memories I think she wanted to sleep through.
She gave me a tour of the grounds, pointing to the gazebo where she smoked and the gym where she loved to work out at 6 a.m. every day. I was impressed and envious—she was a morning person? Who exercised? My calves were sizzling in the afternoon sun and I asked if we could go inside, so she took me to the dorms and switched to social mode, introducing me to some of her friends. One young woman waved at us and Melissa whispered that she was involved with a guy who had just left treatment early. A uniformed man walked by with a German shepherd.
On the penultimate day of the program, our discussion group met in the facilitator’s office. Our addicts joined us. The overhead lights were off and despite the glare outside, the room felt dark. We sat in a circle and took turns, the addict and their family members facing each other in the middle.
We had been given instructions to say what we wanted from the other person and what our boundaries were, but I felt unprepared. When it was our turn, Melissa seemed distracted. Our knees were too close together. She wanted me to butt out of her recovery. I told her if she was using I would have to block her calls, texts, and emails. Our détente was shaky.
The next week, the young woman with the rehab boyfriend left to be with him. A week later, they overdosed and died. When Melissa told me about it, her voice rose and there was a note of desperation when she said that their deaths were a message to her to stay sober. I didn’t think their deaths had anything to do with her, but hoped she was listening.
Melissa relapsed as soon as she got back to San Diego, but after a quick detox she stayed clean for sixteen months. She helped me figure out a problem with Scott’s finances, and one night when we were chatting I spontaneously said, “You really got the brunt of the shit in the family, and I was part of that.”
Melissa tried to cut me off, saying, “No, that’s not true,” but I didn’t let her, and I started to cry.
“It is true! And I’m really sorry.”
She seemed surprised, and grateful. After she died, Sam mentioned that she told him that I had apologized, and it meant a lot to her.
Melissa picked up again eight months before she died.
According to Sam, except for the period following her time at the Betty, the last ten years of her life were horrible, beyond anything I could imagine, and he can’t say anything else. Though I want to know more, I don’t think it would help.
Amanda is older.
The morning after my first attempt at shrine-keeping, following my newly thunderous ringing of the wake-up bell, I take my seat in the meditation hall and notice someone has evened out the oil in the candles. I’m still obsessing about Melissa, and I scribble memories in my notebook, afraid I will lose them. The next few days are unbearable, but I stick it out, hoping something will shift, that the way my feelings have taken over my body will somehow alchemize into serenity.
But I just want to leave, like the couple who bailed on rehab. I look at my calendar and realize I have to be back in DC earlier than I thought, which means I have to go pick up my dog from Sam’s house in upstate New York a day sooner than I planned. I can leave in two days.
It’s New Year’s Eve, which is also my birthday. The retreat has settled into a silent phase, no talking unless absolutely necessary, which is a relief. During an afternoon break, I get a cup of tea and sit in a chair by a window, looking down at the icy water that gave the retreat its name, Sky Lake. On the window ledge is a small golden stand holding cards printed with lojong slogans, a kind of cheat sheet of instructions for Buddhist practice. The one on the top of the pack says, “Never give up on anyone or anything.” I know it means that everyone deserves a chance, like the people at the Betty. But I want to give up.
When we finally get the medical examiner’s report, we learn how Melissa died: she bled out from a rupture in her esophagus. I had heard about alcoholics dying like this—excessive alcohol consumption damages the lining of the esophagus, and it’s not uncommon for vomiting or even coughing to cause a perforation. In the last few months of her life, Melissa had started drinking again, on top of her pill habit. Sam is relieved the report says her blood alcohol level was high—he’s sure she didn’t feel anything. She didn’t know she was dying. Most of all, he is relieved that her torment is over. But it doesn’t seem to be over for him, or for me. We know she died.
Sam thinks that by the end of her last run, Melissa had given up. Her death was not suicide, but she stopped trying to live. He tells me that Melissa had said her “bottom was death.” I want to slap her when I hear this. The idea of a bottom in addiction is that when you hit your lowest point, you use that limit to push back up, like kicking up from the bottom of a lake. That depth may seem like the worst possible place, but it is a beginning, not an end.
If Melissa could hear me, she would tell me to stop criticizing her metaphor.
Melissa is masterful.
In the eulogy, I didn’t mention that the honeybee dies when it stings, that its defensive attack is suicidal. Melissa’s fear and fury would often overtake her, hurling her out of control. I knew she saw a psychiatrist in San Diego, and I wondered what her mental health diagnosis was—it’s common for addicts to self-medicate to manage their disorders. Our Aunt Claire, Brian’s mother, was bipolar, and my Aunt Marylou often said Melissa’s outbursts reminded her of Claire. The psychiatrist said he would talk to me only if Sam would be on the call. When we spoke, he said that Melissa had depression and anxiety, but he never saw a manic phase. He said she was bright and “masterful at acquiring prescription pills,” which Sam and I laughed about later. But I was disappointed. I knew more and it didn’t help.
Sam and I talked more in the weeks after Melissa died than in all the previous years we had known each other, and in the months to come we became family, but not the frogs in the pot kind. We were an odd pair, the measured scientist and the animated writer, but we fit together like old friends. Besides loving Melissa, we had a few things in common. He had gotten and stayed sober sometime after her second rehab. He felt at home with my cousins, and within a year he had moved up to the small town in upstate New York, an hour north of Scranton, where a bunch of them had settled. And he came to stay with me in DC regularly. On one visit, he pulled down a green two-volume set from 1905 called The Apples of New York. I had bought it at a used book store and it was one of my prized possessions, lavishly illustrated with glossy paintings of labeled specimens. Each page showed an apple in all its fullness, mottled skin gleaming, and also sliced in half to reveal its pale flesh and the dark seeds secreted inside.
As I flipped through the pages, delighting in each hushed jewel of a painting, Sam said, “These books make me mad.”
“What? Why?” I was mystified.
“Why are there so many kinds of apples?”
I roared with laughter and put the books safely back on the shelf.
That evening, after dinner, I confessed to Sam that I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt about Melissa. I knew, according to the Betty, that I was not responsible for her recovery, but I also knew she needed something she never got, and I wanted to believe I could have helped her carve out a quiet place to find it herself.
Sam was silent. Then he said, “I can’t believe you feel anything but rage toward her.”
I was shocked. “Why?”
He said, “She was a shit sister to you.”
I asked for an example. He didn’t have a specific instance, but he said that that at a holiday dinner table, my mom would dig at Melissa, and Melissa would lash out at me. As soon as he said it, I knew he was right, even though I also can’t name any particular instance. Meals were always tense, but I thought of us all as a pinball machine of anger. Now that I could see why Melissa attacked me, the tightness in my chest opened. The story I had about our relationship, the story that had structured so much of my life, had been suddenly revised.
“Sam, I think you’ve changed my life! I don’t know how I can ever repay you. Just name it.”
He thought for a second. “Actually, I want the books with all the apples.”
Laughing, I pulled them off the shelf. I got to see them when I visited his new house.
Amanda is writing.
A few months after the meditation retreat, I decide to try to write about it. I look at the notebook where I furiously scrawled memories of Melissa, hoping to pin them like insects. I pull out the blue cremation receipt, a record of the final flickers of her body. I admire how tightly the single printed sheet is folded, creating its own envelope, Do Not Destroy stamped on the outside. A strange commandment on a document of destruction.
I google her last address and find pictures of the low apartment building she was living in when she died. I search rental listings and see they all have cream-colored wall-to-wall carpeting. Sam had cleared out her stuff, and the next time we talk, I ask him if there was blood on the carpet. He says no, then corrects himself. The police had cut out the place where she had fallen. There was a hole where once had been a body.
And I dig through my email to find the medical examiner’s report Sam had sent me almost exactly four years earlier. Of all the many ways we have of writing in the wake of death, the medical examiner’s report is a particularly potent genre. No elegy could convey loss more powerfully than a list of your dead sister’s body parts rendered in dispassionate detail. That section was still hard to read: relentlessly clinical but also weirdly colorful. The repetitive simplicity of the grammar floored me, the structure of each sentence mirroring the next. This body part is that way. Each is functioning like a fulcrum, balancing two terms, the present tense creating the past. This body is a corpse.
And as I write I wrestle with the eternal present tense of death. I try to remember Melissa is past and I am present but I slip back and forth. My memories feel more real than today, and I ride them toward her.
I can’t find the slide of Melissa on the beach, a picture my dad took. I showed it to Sam when we were killing time in a motel before a family wedding. Melissa was young, roly-poly young, potty-training young. Younger than me, as always. Though I’ve searched for it many times, the slide is now lost.
But look at Melissa sitting on the sand. She’s disheveled, a strap of her one-piece bathing suit falling off her shoulder. Her blond hair is stuck to her head with seawater and grit. She gazes into the distance, her round eyes weary, the weight of an existential fatigue sinking her into the sand. She needs both of her pudgy hands to bring a heavy soda can up to her lips, but she is too tired to take a sip.
My dad, taking the picture, must have been close to her, on her level, almost on the ground, and she fills the frame. Behind and above her, I am leaning away with a small shovel, blurry.
I say to Sam, “Melissa is living her best life here,” and we laugh.
I remember the picture in black and white, but Sam says it was in color. Her bathing suit was red.