Susan Donnelly


The light in the church steeple switched itself off at midnight, so I generally hung around at least until then. When the small stone structure was built, Mozart was still alive, although my sister would have taken little comfort in this. "Mozart? His first name was what? Who played in his band?" Ironically, she was not much older than Mozart when she died. Since she was my much younger sister, at one point I would push her stroller along the path through this churchyard, and we'd make up silly ghost stories. Now her headstone sits just off the path where her stroller used to go, and ghost stories are no longer funny.

I called her Miss Appleby, and when out of earshot of the official mother, she called me Mom. My kids called her Kimbo, and Kimbo lives on in my passwords. I swerved the car on side roads to make her laugh, and smocked all her dresses. Once I built her a playhouse with single-serving cereal boxes. A year later she'd managed to eat all the cereal, but didn't live long enough to have a real house. I could go to all those tempting kid's movies well past my time without risking adolescent censure—I was just there for my kid sister. I bought fancy band aids for her scrapes, and she told me her jokes. The official mother had lots of official duties, like bridge games, so my sister Kim and I maintained a regular but rather makeshift association. The official mother had properly banned all four-letter endeavor, like love. I was told that while I was saying goodbye, right before they came to close her casket, the funeral director (for whom this was surely a quotidian shtick) was crying. That made me think we really did have a good thing going, Kim and me.

Trying to best the official mother at anything, but especially at bridge or at malice, is a fool's errand, but Kim played a couple of masterful hands. She got fat, and she got AIDS, the former condition being a godsend when it came to the latter condition. Where she miscalculated, however, was having AIDS in the suburbs, especially suburbs of the upscale, socio-culturally petrified variety. Where keeping up appearances is a family value, things like AIDS must be categorically disinherited. The dentist, the minister, the town council, the maƮtre'd: they all claimed they would don gas masks or pass an ordinance if AIDS were discovered in their midst. So, does she or doesn't she? Only her pharmacist knew for sure.

Not that I could lay claim to any sort of sanguinity in this matter. A paper cut, a tampon, a sloppy kiss—these things could kill. After she was diagnosed, 12 years before she died, I stopped looking at my face in the mirror unless absolutely necessary, thinking I might see a lesion. I came into the kitchen once and found my sister sharing chips and salsa with my children and I passed out cold on the kitchen floor. The AIDS hotline said the virus has been isolated in saliva but wasn't spit-transmittable, so not to worry. In your dreams, hotline dudes. Blood took on a lethal quality normally reserved for more exotic biohazards, the Al Qaeda ones. When I patted her face in the coffin, I thought, "There's no more blood." Kim was an RN, and for quite awhile worked with AIDS patients as a visiting nurse. She possibly got infected this way, although it could have been the "bad" way too. This is still very important to a lot of people.

There was a time we were slapdash sisters when I was deep into babies and Kim was heavy into motorcycles. The latter which she unceremoniously kicked to the curb after acquiring her most prized possession, an RN. The second time Kim had PCP, the hospital called late one night to report she had had enough and pulled out the ventilator. The nurse felt Kim had a right to self-determination concerning her suffering. The nurses were always on Kim's side because she was one of their own. I was on my side and made them put it back in, but I also found her a new doctor. As soon as she got a little better, she said I owed her big time and I was to pay up with some real food. I snuck in fruit punch ice chips and mashed sweet potatoes, although in retrospect I wonder why I didn't go with her favorite, Krispy Kremes. She had a waist-high Get Well card, slathered with love and encouragement from colleagues and patients. Even though the neighbors complained, I kept that card in my front window until it began to fade.

Kim held onto everything except money, so we rented a cage in one of those storage places for her stuff. While she tried to pack it floor to ceiling, and I tried to sneak some of it out, my little boy rode a spare I.V. pole up and down the rows. Kim was hospitalized 13 times in the last 14 months of her life. Since her health insurance didn't cover ambulances, and since her hospital was nearly an hour away, this made for some wild rides. The official mother held down the fort back at Kim's apartment by pulling the plug on the refrigerator "to save electricity" without cleaning out the food. There were so many bugs I blew out the vacuum.

One time in an E.R. cubicle, they couldn't find a vein to pop to accommodate the morphine drip. Her veins were all used up. I watched for over an hour while first techs, then nurses, then supervisors, then doctors, they all tried to get that vein. My sister was moaning and there was killer blood everywhere but nobody even blinked. It was hell, but all I saw were angels. Later that night while trying to exit the parking lot, I realized I'd forgotten my token. I was so addled I got out and tried to lift the arm of the parking machine, thinking I'd gun it. A man appeared in the darkness. "Don't cry, honey," he said, "I'll hold it up and we can go to jail together."

So how does one grieve an unofficial relationship? Is this faux sorrow I am feeling for a faux daughter, where I still sometimes have to fake why she died? The official mother has shown remarkable resilience in this regard, which would posit equivocal relationships do not lend themselves to closure. Mozart set down scores to entire symphonies without a single erasure or dissonance; there is not much in his music that would indicate his father only served in an official capacity. My relationship with my sister was smudged, ambiguous, messy, and AIDS does not have the reputation for putting things to rights. But late at night I like to imagine that, while she was dying at least, we played in his band.


Susan Donnelly is a psychotherapist who has held clinical and administrative agency positions, and currently maintains a private practice in Ridgewood, NJ. She developed a cable TV program addressing racial justice, has served as a soloist, children's choir director, and is presently Chair of the Bergen County Mental Health Board. She has four children.