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I've had the better part of a day to think about what happened, and some of the shock is subsiding. I wasn't close to my sister. She was estranged from our family for 30 years.

But in the end, that doesn't matter. Yesterday, Mary died alone -- completely alone. She was found on the ground at a bus stop in Ann Arbor, Mich. The police report said "An elderly woman" was found in the street. I think those three words hit me harder than anything else: an elderly woman. This was the farthest phrase imaginable from what I would have called her. She was 58, four years older than me. I don't think 58 is really "elderly," but life had sucked a lot out of her.

I don't know how much interest there will be in this post. There's only so much you want to hear about someone else's relatives. But I wanted to write it all down. She died alone. Somehow, it seems like people should know who she was.

The anonymous good Samaritan who called 911 for her probably thought she was homeless. She dressed without any sort of style, in clothing that was chosen for durability and comfort, never looks, and her clothing was often grubby.

But it wasn't because she was living on the street. She worked as a caregiver for a paraplegic man -- not so much an employer, but a friend she had known for decades. The work was physically hard and very hard on clothing. Since she's gone, one of our great concerns is what is going to happen to David now. She worked for him for many years -- for nearly no pay. The care he received was better than he could have paid for with any kind of money.

The Mary I knew goes back to our childhood. She always had trouble socially. Today, her personality would be classified as "Aspberger's syndrome," a type of high-function autism that interferes with the ability to understand other people's feelings. She was big -- she was 5'9" by the time she was in sixth grade. And her social problems meant she was often physically aggressive. She was unusually bright. In the early 1960s, she was writing fan fiction for Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip and other shows she watched on television -- long before the word "fan fiction" had been coined. She wrote an opera when she was in high school. She played the piano and guitar, and had a passion for music and literature.

Sometimes, as the younger, smaller, less aggressive sister, she made my life unpleasant. As I went through school, all the teachers remembered her and all the problems they had had with her. The other children who had older brothers and sisters remembered, too. Sometimes she was a burden I had to carry.

But I remember something else as well. Many nights, after we were supposed to be in bed, when we would have been in trouble for staying up, I would get into her bed and we would pull the bedclothes over our heads. She had a flashlight, and she would read to me. She read most of the I, Robot books (she loved science fiction), and her own stories, or whatever she was reading for herself at the time.

The real trouble between Mary and the rest of the family started in 1968, after she went to the University of Michigan. She was only there for one year, and her grades were poor. She got involved in the Students for Democratic Society and the 1960s protests.

She ended her freshman year at U of M with grades not good enough to continue.

In the fall, she went back to school on academic probation. The grades didn't improve, and right before the term ended, she took off. We got a phone call from her on Christmas Eve, and didn't hear from her again for 30 years.

That was Armageddon for my parents. Twenty-nine years later, mention of my sister could still bring my mother to tears. Mom and Dad went on, but they didn't really heal.

The rest of the family knew that wound was still there. Sometime about five or six years ago, my youngest brother found a missing-person locator firm online. He went into Mom's records (secretly -- he didn't want to get her hopes up if it didn't work) and got Mary's Social Security number and turned it over to the agency. The answer came back: She was living in Ann Arbor, less than an hour away.

Contact was made.

I have only a sketchy knowledge of the missing years. She lived in Chicago with her partner for a good number of years, then broke up with her, and came back to Ann Arbor, where she worked as a security guard and other odd jobs before she moved in with David and took responsibility for his care. Long the way, she was an officer of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). She called herself an anarchist.

Taking over David's care was more than getting a job. Mary was in the car with David when the crash that left him a paraplegic happened. They had known one another for decades when she moved into his house. Her dedication to his care went far beyond a job. I think my parents would have taken her back into their home and given her an easy life these past five years. But she never would have left David to someone else's care.

Mary had a hundred stories to tell about her years away from the family. We were never certain how much to believe. There was a lot of hyperbole in her stories -- a LOT. She loved to tell stories. She continued writing fan fiction for many years -- she had a 600 and some page Starsky and Hutch novel she carted around from pillar to post. But she never got online -- she was deeply computer averse -- so she never found the audience she could have had. In the years after she came back to the family, though, writing was pretty much in her past. There wasn't time in her day for things like that. Her world was taking care of David -- seven days a week and close to 24 hours a day.

I remember the first time I saw her after we found her. I drove over to Ann Arbor and we went out to lunch (on my dime) and talked for three hours. But my first look at her -- from across a parking lot at the U of M -- hit me like a slap in the face.

She was shrunken. The sister I remembered was taller and heartier than me. I could see a vague resemblance, but I was shocked by her bent frame. She wasn't tall anymore. Her face was distorted by her terrible dental problems (no different than the problems most poor people in this country face getting only the dental work they can pay for). She was dressed in a heavy wool coat that had seen better days.

That first impression was quickly erased after talking to her. She was as big as she'd ever been when you listened to her talk. But she wheezed when she walked, and had a hacking smoker's cough. She talked about guns, and violence, and disrespect for authority. She laughed loud, and talked even louder. For our family of pretty much well-behaved liberal academics, she was a difficult thing to absorb. But we all put everything we had into it. We all understood how much this meant to Mom. Mary was trying too -- though I often wonder whether she understood why we had trouble embracing her.

Mary c. 2005 was an enthusiastic and accomplished cook. She looked upon cooking as the mainstay of what she did for David. She kept him interested in life by giving him new things to taste again and again. Cooking is the common ground where Mary and I could still find some sisterhood. For her birthday this past April, I gave her a Kitchenaid mixer.

She also loved her Siamese cats, and music. During her years in Chicago, she was part of a band, Leslie Fish and the Dehorns. She had a CD to show for it. She remained restlessly intelligent to her dying day. She got ideas into her head and would research them through the U of M libraries. She would call my mother on the phone and bend her ear for hours about her latest research project.

But in the end, I think we all knew she was used up physically. Her cough had only gotten worse in the past few months. Mother had helped her with medical costs to encourage her to see a doctor more regularly. But it was probably too late.

The last time I talked to her I was in the hospital with my own cardiac incident. It was about a month ago. She called when she heard about my hospitalization. She talked about a cardiac incident she had suffered recently -- but I was sort of out of it, and I don't remember exactly what she said. I had no idea that was the last time I would hear her voice.

How ironic -- I had a cardiac stress test yesterday and came away with surprisingly positive results. While I'm seriously overweight and badly out of shape, the stress test showed my heart is stronger than I have any right to expect it to be. I came home from the test and got the phone call. Mary was dead.

We don't know what killed her. There will be an autopsy -- Michigan law requires it when someone dies alone. We won't get the results for about a month. But I suspect her heart or her lungs gave out. The work she did -- transferring a 200-plus pound man from bed to wheelchair and back several times a day -- was more strenuous than she could take. It had worn her down. We saw it when she came over in April for her birthday.

She had no plans for the future. She'd never earned enough "on the books" to get much from Social Security. Everything she owned fit in one room of David's house. She lived in the stories she told.

It's hard now for me to say I will miss her. She was gone for so long and when she came back she never really "fit" in the family. But she was family, and we loved her even if it was sometimes difficult to like her.

She was my sister and she was a part of me. I think my love of stories and writing probably got its start under the covers of her bed when she read to me. I hope I've given some life to her story. There is a part of her that I'm carrying forward.

That's the best I can do.

Originally posted to elsaf on Sat Jun 04, 2005 at 05:28 AM PDT.

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