The prompt for today’s 8-Minute Memoir via Ann Dee Ellis: “Day 8: Birthdays. 8 minutes. So easy.”

It was so not easy.

lisa and daddy

The real Day 8: Birthdays

My writing advisees often get a sticky note with with words “Don’t duck” written on them. In this case, I ducked. Not in the writing of the piece but in my decision not to post it. It has been nagging at me since, and because I abhor hypocrisy, especially in myself, this is the real response to the Day 8 Birthday prompt. As I said in the first post, this wasn’t easy, and it took longer than eight minutes.

My baby sister Lisa died when I was nine years old, two days after her eighth birthday. She was eighteen months younger, and as much a baby the day she left this world as the day she came into. When my mother was pregnant, she contracted rubella, also known as German measles. Rubella is a mild disease for the infected person. In an unborn child, it can create birth defects including heart problems, microcephaly, intellectual disability, bone problems, and lack of growth. Lisa had all of these. She was born with profound birth defects that kept her an infant in body and mind for all of her life.

Lisa was always a part of my life. There is part of my early life that didn’t include her sunburst red hair, milk white skin, soft laughter and very vocal crying. When I was a preschooler, we lived in Florida, and my mother stayed at home to take care of us. All of us helped take care of Lisa, my big sister more than any of us kids. When I was four, it was my job to watch Lisa when my mother had to do some chore, to shake rattles for her to grab, to make sure she didn’t roll of the couch, or choke. Lisa suffered from seizures, and if she began to shake, we had to put a spoon in her mouth to keep her from swallowing her own tongue. If the seizures got too bad, my mother would use the spoon to give her a dose of phenobarbital to quiet them. It was my job to fetch the bottle, then hold Lisa’s nose so she would have to swallow. If you got too close, she would bite your finger and not let go. It wasn’t so bad when she was two and had milk teeth, but as she grew older and grew adult beautiful white adult teeth, she would cut blood.

Having an infant wore on my parents. Neither of them were educated, and neither had the coping skills to care for a special needs child. In the days before Public Law 94-142, there were no services provided by the state, so all care fell on my family, especially my mother. In this less enlightened era, people openly shunned us when they saw Lisa, even our relatives. There was no one who would or could watch her for long, and her care became an unending task. My mother had her faults and her weaknesses, but her strength was the love she felt for her children, and if she resented Lisa, it never showed. My sister was part of the family, and things worked okay until my mother talked my father into moving close to her family in North Georgia.

My father liked Florida a lot. He managed a 7-11 and was moving up the ladder. He came home after work and was around on weekends, except when he went out to the dog track with family and friends. He didn’t want to leave, but the neighborhood had gotten dangerous, and my mother missed home. Home meant lots of good things, but it meant changes. The only job my father could get was as an exterminator, and on weekends and evenings, he painted houses for extra money. My brother and I would soon join him, and then later, so would my big sister. With money tight, my mother got a job as a spinner at a carpet mill. She worked third shift so she could be home with my sister. She left for work soon after we went to bed and got home after we were getting ready for the bus. When we got home from school, she was usually napping with my sister, and after dinner, she was nap again. My mother spent most of my childhood sleeping and working. We learned to take care of ourselves while we were helping to take care of our sister. I don’t think we ever thought twice about it. It was the way things were.

We moved a lot back then. The longest we stayed in one house was two years, and we switched schools often. There was always a feeling of impermanence, of disconnection. The only constant was family. That changed too, a few days before Lisa’s birthday birthday. Her convulsions had been getting stronger recently, and the medication wasn’t working as well. Her tiny body would shake, and arms would draw back in what I later learned was a pugilist’s pose. The bright mischief in her eyes had faded and the laugh she had made since I could remember was a rare, quiet thing. Lisa was prone to pneumonia, among other illnesses, so my mother took her to the doctor, and he gave her bad news—news that she didn’t share with anyone. We had a bakery cake for Lisa’s birthday, and as usual, I got to eat her piece after she got her one bite. Everything seemed normal, and my mother pretended it was.

On the morning of February 10, I awoke to the sound of voices coming form my parent’s room. The purple light of dawn was coming through the sheer curtains, and I thought it was strange that my mother was home from work so early. Then I heard my sister laughing and as I would swear later, her saying words. They too quiet to her, but I knew she was having a conversation and distinctly said, “yes.” I smiled and faded back to sleep. An hour later, I awakened again, this time to the sound of my mother screaming my sister’s name.

I tried to to find out what was wrong, but my father met us kids in the hallway and shut the door behind him. He sent us back to our rooms and told us to wait. My parents got dressed, made a phone call, and my mother told us to wait for an aunt to come pick us up.

We waited hours at my aunt’s house. The phone rang many times, and my aunt make more than a few calls, all of them received or made in low whispers than couldn’t hide the concern in her voice. She tried to hide the truth, but even a fourth-grade boy could tell what was happening. On the last phone call, my aunt looked out the window and hung up the phone without a goodbye.

In the driveway, my mother and father got out of the car. They were alone.

When they came inside, my mother’s face was puffy. No surprise. She was the definition of mercurial and wore her moods on her sleeves. My father, though, was stone. Weathered, chiseled from granite, never moving stone. His eyes were red, and when he looked at us standing together, hoping for good news, the tears broke from him like steel melting. We melted too. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry, and it would be the last. Even on the day years later when a self-congratulatory physician happily told my father had stage four lung cancer, he only nodded and said, “I guess that’s that.”

Lisa’s funeral was a horrific thing for me, a story for another day or maybe for a day that never comes. The weather was brutal cold the day we buried her in the Chattanooga National Cemetery, hide on knobby hill that looked down on threadbare trees, in a grave that would one day also serve as the resting place for both of my parents. The image of thousands of white marble gravestones sweeping up the frigid hill has never left me, and I’m sure if I were to return, there would be many thousands more.

I don’t remember many birthdays from childhood, neither mine or my brother’s nor sisters’s, but I remember that one. I remember, too, the photo we took of us on the front porch, my mother in a platinum blonde beehive, holding the cake and holding Lisa, all of us wearing smiles–even my mother who, by keeping that awful secret inside, gave the gift of Lisa’s last birthday and allowed us to celebrate it with her.