The Messy Answers I Have to Give When People Ask 'How’s Your Sister Doing?'


There is this conversation I’ve had that has repeated itself several times over the past few weeks:

Hey, how’s your sister doing?

Well, honestly, not good.

Oh…

Yeah, I mean, she’s better than she was two weeks ago but not better than she was when she first went into the hospital. So…

Oh, wow. That has to be hard.

Yea…

There are a lot of ellipses in these conversations. I suppose because ellipses represent the human tendency to trail off in dialogue when words are missing, when something is being omitted. I keep struggling to find the words to fill in the omissions, to wrap this up cleanly.

There was a time, early on in this experience, when my perspective was solid enough that I could stay in the moment. I could patiently wait until noon and 5 when visiting hours began. I could walk through both sets of locked doors, grounded and ready as I’d ever be, certain that under the delusional and paranoid thinking, my sister would still be there.

Even in those early weeks, I had a sense that the time might come when this could be labeled as chronic. When, instead of driving her back to her apartment where her containers of labeled art supplies wait, we’d be bringing her to transitional housing and figuring out how to manage this new space with the ground ever-changing. However, I never thought, even in the thick of those evenings when she muttered to herself while we paced the halls together, that we might lose her, that this month would be a benchmark for the rest of our lives.

Lately, there is a sick, desperate feeling washing over me. I can feel it in my gut. We are in the fifth week of Anna’s stay in the mental health unit of the hospital. Initially, I went into survival mode. I became emotionally numb and hypervigilant. I made phone calls, arranged my visits, created agendas for meetings and crossed action items off my list.

Now, there are no more action items. We are stuck in a horrible tension. There is nowhere else for her to go, and she isn’t getting better there. The only option is to wait.

In the waiting, the emotion comes. My parents check in daily with Anna’s beloved cat, still living at her brand new apartment. One day, my mom sends a picture of the cat, and I can’t stop crying. I took Anna to pick out the cat in the midst of many long, tortured conversations after deciding to let go of her needy dog. She wanted a companion, someone to love and take care of. She didn’t want to be alone.

I scroll through my photos and happen upon hundreds of pictures of her artwork. Her painting hangs on my wall, with her signature in the corner. We celebrate birthdays, and her absence is profound. She is here and not here at the same time.

The doctor talks about med changes. The nurses struggle with their words trying to communicate the challenge of dealing with her agitation and paranoia. The social worker tells me to hang on, be patient, it will get better. The mental health aides smile sympathetically when I arrive on the unit and offers coffee or water.

The message is the same. No one really knows. There are no answers. We omit the words because they simply aren’t there.

I’ve been experimenting in these conversations with showing my cards. Instead of trying to summarize everything in a tidy way, I leave it messy. I notice, strangely, I want to comfort the other person for feeling bad about my situation. I don’t like the awkwardness, the way we sort of lapse into silence without a smooth way to end the conversation. Yet, there is nothing else, no other options. This is muddled, complex and clumsy. It hasn’t ended, and so there is no end.

Image via Thinkstock.

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