I believe my sister, Charlotte, was sent directly to us from heaven. She was only meant to stay here on this earth for a short time before returning. She had lessons to teach and I tried to be a good student.
Charlotte was twelve years my elder. My memories of her are when she stood tall beside me, her arm covering my shoulders like a warm blanket, and a smile across her face. She was always a larger woman, both in size and personality. We watched Sha Na Na together on Saturday nights and when someone spoke, she listened intently, always giving eye contact, and never distracted. That’s a rare trait in our world, to truly be a listener and not just waiting to speak. I miss that.
Charlotte was also the most complex person I have ever known. She had an intellectual disability, reading at around a fifth grade level, and she struggled with being bi-polar. There were times when she would be sitting next to us watching Little House On The Prairie, smiling at Laura Ingalls Wilder running through the field, and the next moment I would hear her through the wall of my bedroom crying, and then suddenly opening the door to yell down the hallway at my mom a storm of profanities that I only heard my father use, except she did not mean it. She truly didn’t because it was her untreated bipolar that became enraged.
However, her abilities were far greater than any disability or mental illness that impacted her. She was a natural empath, comforting her little brother many times because I think she realized what was happening to him. I think she saw and felt my pain, and realized that her brother was hurting. She was helpless in stopping it, but she could offer unconditional love, and that kind of love gives hope. Charlotte was an observer of life, paying attention to the little things, mindful in her actions, truly living in the moment. At least, that’s how I see her now through my almost fifty-two year old eyes. She embodied what I now try to practice.
Charlotte was one of my greatest teachers in life. She had such a profound impact on me that I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with people with disabilities. It’s why I used to volunteer in what was called, “The K-wing” at Lafollette High School with students with intellectual disabilities. Though that wing of the school was secluded and not inclusive as it should be, I still learned a lot. She is why I worked in supported employment for almost ten years, became a special education teacher years later, and why I am now transparent about mental illness. It is her that drives me.
Charlotte was able to experience having a job, her own apartment, and she met President Obama. Meeting the president was something we did not know until after she passed. I believe she didn’t talk about it because Charlotte put everyone on an even playing field, no one person better than the next. That’s the way we should all approach life.
Charlotte died on July 21st, 2010. There is hardly a day that I do not think of her, and I simply smile and thank her for being a part of my life, and in many ways, making me who I am. I don’t think we really know how she died. We were told it was, “Similar to a stroke, but in her stomach.” What I do remember is that just a couple of weeks before, sitting across from her on her birthday, I saw my sister return from the dark place in her mind. The demons subsided, allowing her to be present. She hugged and kissed us, made observations about the craziness of our family that were simple, practical, and was meant for us to be aware of our silliness, and she laughed. Oh her laugh was addicting. She meant it with a toothy grin. She gave us a gift that day because for months before that, the pills she was taking for her mental illness made her smile disappear. It came and went but mostly she seemed numb. Everything changed when she died, which often happens when people leave us. That’s part of life, always shuffling and maneuvering to adapt to death. It’s why I feel like after we experience loss, we are perpetually grieving. It doesn’t become easier, we adjust and realize that the person we lost is a breath, a memory, away and sits next to us whenever we need them. We can talk to them and they appear. It can be a beautiful experience to talk to the dead.
As she lay in the hospital bed and we watched her take her last breaths, Charlotte’s pain and darkness left her face. She was beautiful as she laid there and I do believe God came for her and took back one of His angels. Describing this experience is far beyond my writing abilities, but it was as if she was giving us one last lesson by showing us how peaceful death can be, and that when we lost Charlotte, we lost a sort of prophet. One who walked beside us to teach the lessons we truly need in life, the simple things that actually matter and make life worthwhile. The question is, are we wise enough to reflect on all she brought to the world? There are many, and I have taken all I have learned from her and put it into my work and writing.
Charlotte came to me recently. I was laying in my bed, sinking deeper into the darkness of depression, under the influence of a dangerous concoction of pain meds, hanging on and trying to survive. I grasped onto life the best I could but I knew I was in a ferocious fight. Either I would lose to the darkness or come out wounded. This would not be a battle without victims and scars. I fell into a deep sleep and had a dream. Charlotte came for me and took my hand and she held it gently, like when I was a little boy and she attempted to comfort me from the horrors that I was going through. She guided me down a path. I walked calmly next to her, not scared, but curious where she was taking me. It was to a woods where the trees swayed and a field appeared. I suddenly awoke and I was surprised I was in my bed, alive, because my dream was so profound that I sincerely thought I had died and Charlotte had come for me. It was a strange feeling and I lied there wanting her to come back because she brought me hope.
The next day, when I sat in a closed garage, using all of my strength to turn the key and walk into my house to live another day, I knew Charlotte was there with me, telling me to live. She guided me back into my house with a gentle nudge and smile, wishing for her little brother to carry on his mission in life, his purpose, which is basically to love a woman who I am enraptured with, show how people have abilities and not disabilites, and spread awareness about mental illness, trauma, and sexual assault. It’s enough and I think she would be proud. She sat with me on the couch that day when I fought to live. Once again, my sister helped save me.
Charlotte is an angel who was among us for a short time, but stays with us for an eternity. She left a path for us to follow and in many ways was the glue that held a family together. Since her death, there have been many splinters. That is the strength, the ability of one complex woman.