It’s a story I’ve told so many times, but here are the parts I left out.
As she sits there, huddled under the comforter on my bed, my sister argues with me about the object of my current obsession. “Why are you settling for this guy who doesn’t treat you with respect? Why not date someone who is kind to you, who has time and wants you?”
I try to counter, to explain again how amazing he is, how when we’re together he is present, attentive, sexy and he does want me. I attempt to distract her with the task at hand – which shirt with which skirt for my conference? Do I really need five pairs of shoes for a week-long conference on shame and vulnerability?
Flustered, I turn the tables on her. “But what about you, Trace – what are you looking for in your dating life?”
Her response is subtle, only alarming well after the fact. “I don’t know that I’m going to make it.”
I glance at her as she says this, take in her unwashed hair that stands up at odd angles, the sweatshirt she’s likely been wearing all week. Her face is expressionless.
Her words are a loose thread that I notice, but leave untouched.
For the last several months so much in my relationship with Tracey was a test of some sort. When I asked how she was doing her most common answer was, “Not very good and I don’t want to talk to about it.” When I asked more direct questions about her safety, whether she was at risk of hurting herself, whether she had a plan and the means, she shut down the conversation, refusing to answer my questions.
This was delicate territory as the younger sister with eleven years and five siblings between us, and as a licensed mental health therapist with my own clinical practice. I had to choose either to back off from those lines of questioning in order to keep her as close to me as I could, or risk pushing her even further away by not respecting her boundaries. I mostly chose to back away.
She throws a pair of leggings at me, hitting me in the chest with them. “Put these on with that black tank top and the purple cardigan.” Apparently next up is a lesson in leggings. “You think you need to wear a skirt over these to cover your butt, right?”
“Yeah, it feels more comfortable that way.”
“But you don’t need to, your legs look great and so much longer without a skirt cutting them in half.”
I do what she says, and she’s right, in her annoying know-it-all big sister way. I take notes as she packs my suitcase so I’ll remember what to wear when I got to San Antonio for the conference. Without her help I’d have packed jeans and black t-shirts, maybe one skirt with a black and grey striped shirt. And definitely only one pair of shoes. No color, no variety. Dull, boring, safe.
Safety. I wasn’t attuned to her physical risk in the moment. I didn’t know her edge was so close, had been approaching for weeks or months.
Every day of the conference I post photos on social media so she can see that I’m following her instructions about my outfits. I even wear the ones most outside my comfort zone early in the week instead of hiding in my drab, casual clothes. I call her from the balcony of my hotel overlooking the San Antonio Riverwalk to gush about the conference.
When we talk I am careful with my language, make myself swallow my usual phrases about her day going well or whether she’s having fun, because that isn’t the tenor of her days. She’s depressed and struggling.
That thread from before snags at me, unravels all the way through my chest as the weight sinks in. I can feel the bottom edge of her words, can sense what she might mean. She’s desperately unhappy and can’t find her way out of it.
Until she did find her way out.
Five weeks after we played dress up in preparation for my conference my sister ended her life on a lonely Wednesday in March. Our other sister and I found her the next day, dead in her apartment. It was a Thursday, my day to be in contact with her. She planned it that way, I know she did.
Tracey had a check-in call every day with one of her seven siblings. This plan had been in place for years, as part of the discharge plan from her last stint on an inpatient psych ward. It changed the structure of our sibling connections forever. Tracey was the hub, connected to each of her siblings in ways none of the rest of us are with each other.
I never went more than a day without talking or texting with her and I definitely never missed my Thursday. Often I’d pre-empt her calling me, because it’s who I am, and because I’m hard to reach during my days at work. That week, I saw her on Monday and called her on Wednesday morning just to say hi. She didn’t return my call, which wasn’t all that unusual given that it wasn’t my day.
I started calling her Thursday morning, left messages on her voice mail at 9 am and 12:30 pm. No return call, no text to say she got my messages. At 8 that evening when I still hadn’t heard from her, my concern took over. Texting with our other sister to see if she’d been in touch with Tracey, I found out she hadn’t. We checked with our brothers to piece together who had talked with her and when. It didn’t feel right, I felt a churning in th pit of my stomach and my fear took root.
Tracey knew when I didn’t reach her that I’d go looking for her. She might not have known that Lisa would be with me, but she knew I would come for her. And she knew it would be too late.
Meg Weber writes memoir and creative nonfiction, crafting collections of true stories from the pages of her days. Meg’s writing waits for her with surprising patience while other elements of life demand her time and attention. Writing is one more thing pulling her focus, but it is also the thing that allows her to show up in all the other areas of life with authentic integrity. Meg’s memoir writing gives voice to the ways her life continues to unfold outside the boundaries prescribed for her. She writes about transgression, about creating her own home in community, and about finding her way back into connection with her family through tragedy.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.
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