I didn’t look forward to a trip to Cincinnati. It would bring me face to face with sisters, which meant we would have to confront family history, tricky and dangerous territory where I fear to tread.
My sister Christine has advocated for my sister Angela’s care for many years now. Both are younger than me and Angela is the youngest of four siblings. She is afflicted by schizophrenia, a condition for which for decades she compensated with heavy drug use.
The last seven years, she’s lived in suburban Cincinnati. Christine moved here from her native Kansas City after she was married. For thirty years, she’s worked as a CPA with a local firm. She has two kids, now in their thirties, who grew up to be extraordinarily successful people. After the kids moved out of the house, Christine decided to start helping Angela, who had bounced from treatment centers and rehabs for the duration of her drug use. Seven years ago, Christine arranged for Angela to move from inept facilities in Reno, Nevada, to a half-way house in Cincinnati, where she could be closer to Christine.
Christine has been something of a saint in this relationship. She went through heartache and pain of watching Angela cycle through periods of bad-decision making, psychic breakdown, and heights of delusional mania. Angela worked against Christine, chafing at the drug regimes and confines of nursing and rehab facilities. Christine took on guardianship of Angela and managed her finances, first on Social Security Disability and then with Medicaid.
Finally, after years of effort, Angela evened out, accepted her surroundings, and stayed on her medications, which had been a problem throughout this travail. She has been on the beam, more or less, for several years now. This makes it easier on Christine, who for years has supplemented Angela’s finite and miniscule income from the government with her own funds. The better Angela feels, the less expensive her care is.
Angela needed a couple of urgent and necessary surgeries. Christine put out a call for help. She has several business ventures in addition to a regular job. Adding the immense amount of time that Angela needed while in the hospital to her jobs was just about as much as she could stand. A little help sitting with Angela in the hospital would help Christine out a great deal.
It was an errand I considered unsavory. Angela is my son Nick’s bio-mom. I didn’t know what I would face in terms of her claim to Nick or what kind of conversation we would have around Nick and his care. I also didn’t look forward to staying with Christine. None of the Dobson siblings are close. About the best relationship among them in the one Christine has crafted with Angela. Other than that, I don’t really know Angela or Christine, having divorced myself from them and my brother, as well as my parents, when I moved out of our childhood home in 1983.
The terrain of that home was contoured with violence, heavy drinking, and drug use. Not only did we have to deal with my parents’ alcohol habits, I started drinking when I was 11, graduated from on-and-off sneaks from the parents’ liquor bottles to regular drinking when I was 14, and ceasing to draw a sober breath when I was 18. Siblings also had their problems. My brother more or less followed in my footsteps. Christine, I don’t know much about, as I was concerned with my own inebriation. In there somewhere was plenty of weed. Poor Angela, from what I remember, was left alone to take the brunt of my father’s bad behavior.
The situation with drugs and alcohol in the house made for confusing and irreconcilable situations—my mother nursing a drink while beating me black and blue with a belt when I came home in a blackout when I was 15, my drunk dad railing against me when I came home drunk nights after being out with the boys or driving around drinking by myself, drunk dad hauling off and knocking me to the ground while I swigged beer sitting on the front of the car. I don’t have much recollection of how my siblings fared, though I remember my drunk mother dressing down my brother when he came home slurring and stumbling one night. It was then I was able to see myself and understand this was a sick situation. It didn’t stop me. I kept on drinking and sneaking around until I moved into my own apartment.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Cincinnati. I thought I would have to deal with uncomfortable and awkward conversations, maybe even some of them accusatory, as I was no angel in the childhood home. I was a bully, taking out on my siblings what was done to me. Plus, I was something of a prude in my teens and castigated my siblings for their bad behavior while taking part in my own.
But here’s what happened: I arrived at Cincinnati a couple of hours behind schedule due to a delayed flight. I went directly to the hospital, where Angela lay less than 24 hours after her surgeries. I didn’t run into uncomfortable conversations but found my sister lucid. She was funny and extraordinarily intelligent, something that was underappreciated in our childhoods together. We got on like gangbusters.
We spent the time of that first visit conversing about her care and treatment at the hospital where she now lies. She talked frankly about her medication regime and about what she called her “psycho meds.” She showed genuine curiosity about our lives in Kansas City and was especially interested in how Nick was doing. We went through some pictures of my recent trip to Germany and she showed interest in what I’d been through, what I did for the living, and how my writing was coming along.
Meanwhile, Christine and I didn’t go through any discomfort getting on with one another. She was straightforward with her assessment of Angela’s state of mind. We came back to Christine’s house in the woods in a suburb far outside of Cincinnati, had something to eat, and sat out on her expansive deck listening to the woods and enjoying the air. She took me for a short hike over her five acres of undeveloped forest and we played with the cool little dog Laddie, who has eyes like a human and a personality one can’t help but fall in love with.
The most important part of the day came after we retired inside and chatted for a full hour. Subjects came up like our shared family histories, what we remember from childhood, my dad’s present diminished state and continued bad behavior. We talked about the vagaries of aging and what our finances were. It was a discussion that we should have been having all along but for my reticence to engage in anything that has to do with childhood.
I spent about four hours at the hospital yesterday, getting to know and understand Angela better. Of course, I had a nap. (I nap every day.) Then, I spent a wonderful evening by myself, walking Laddie and taking in the countryside. I got a little writing done and binged episodes of Schitt’s Creek and watched Dave Chappelle’s most recent special on Netflix. When Christine came home from her evening nature walk that she hosts for people interested in more spiritual connections with the forest, we talked a while and went over what we would do today.
It was a wonderful end to a day that I thought, when I was in Kansas City would be a disaster. Due to the calamities of my past, I often imagine in worst-case scenarios, I think, to prepare myself if things really fall apart. It turns out that, in this matter, I’m my own worst enemy. My sisters are not going to sabotage me, they aren’t going to put me on the spot for my past transgressions. The bogeymen of my past aren’t going to haunt me this weekend.