So That’s Why She Was So Grumpy
We’re back in Connecticut, mid-1960s. Lorna knows something’s up with Tina, her older sister, but what?
Sickness was a commodity in our family. The more of it you had, the more of Mom’s attention you got. We didn’t have much, so Mom’s attention was precious and worth fighting for.
In the Getting Attention Department, I was running dead-last. Except for the
occasional… frequent…predictable Common Sense Deficit Disorder flare-up (a disease that still hasn’t been adequately diagnosed or even recognized by any establishment with the authority to help us me do no further harm to ourselves myself or others), I was dependably good. Some might say eerily angelic. I could list my perfect-child behaviors or just give you my mother’s phone number; she’d be happy to verify my story. (When I told my son this, he immediately called her up and Mom told him how perfect I was. He wasn’t pleased.) What did all this goodness get me? Ignored. She didn’t have to worry about me, so I was back-burner material. Trouble-makers of the world get attention. Good girls get therapy. Later on.
Tina and Lisa weren’t hoodlums, they were just higher maintenance. They were both
stubborn strong-willed and prone to bickering. They didn’t play well together, either. Tina wanted to be in charge; Lisa didn’t like taking orders. These traits matured as they did. I played referee between the two for most of my childhood.
But sickness won the day when it came to garnering Mom’s attention. I can boast of having both types of measles at the same time, migraine headaches that developed when I was about six years old, and the mumps. The headaches prompted a visit to an ophthalmologist, who said my eyesight was fine (even though I cheated on the test because I wanted eye glasses to make me look smarter–but I wasn’t any good at cheating, so no glasses for me). The headaches didn’t hit back with enough regularity to cause further investigation. My case of the mumps was wicked bad, but Mom had Tina-duty at the hospital, so Lisa took care of me. She was five or six. Mom set up a step-stool so she could reach bags of ice in the top freezer section of the refrigerator when I needed a new ice-pack. I think nursing her big sister made her feel special. I felt totally gypped (no offense to Gypsies, especially since I was thinking of becoming one).
Lisa was pretty healthy until she got sick. She never had just a plain head cold; it always developed into bronchitis. I dreaded cold and flu season because she would start with that death-rattle breathing and Mom would come running. Her baby was sick. Again.
Tina had us all beat. I didn’t know by what, but whatever it was, it was big. She got special treatment all the time. When she was at the hospital, she had Mom’s undivided attention and all the doctors and nurses were at her disposal. I imagined her like the Queen of Sheba with servants all around her, tending to her every wish. When she was home, she had her own special food to eat at her own special times. We had to eat what Mom fixed for us and weren’t allowed to eat between meals. When she was grumpy, Mom told us to be nice to her because she wasn’t feeling well.
I wanted to know why she wasn’t feeling well. “That doesn’t concern you,” Mom said. But it did concern me. If I was going to compete for Mom’s attention, I didn’t stand a chance if I didn’t even know what I was up against.
When I was nine, Mémé came for a “visit.” Mom and Tina left for the hospital. Because Mémé was there, I figured that Mom wasn’t coming back the same day. I asked her if she knew what was happening. Apparently Mémé wasn’t part of the “Cone of Silence.” She told me.
“Tina having operation. She very sick in the stummy (stomach).” Mémé’s English wasn’t the best. I’m paraphrasing.
“An operation. Wow. I didn’t know she was that sick.” I immediately felt guilty about the Queen of Sheba imagery.
“Oui. She could die. We pray for her.” I’m sure Mémé thought she was being helpful.
My eyes got big and watery at the same time. I didn’t have any direct experience with death (excluding my father’s suicide, but he didn’t count because I barely understood I had a father, let alone he died) and now my older sister might die? “It’s not that bad is it?”
“Oui. Very bad.” Good old Mémé. She could tell the truth when she wanted to.
I went to Tina’s bed and got her favorite stuffed animal, a big floppy black dog. I hugged that dog all day and night and cried myself to sleep holding it.
When we finally got word from Mom that Tina survived the surgery on her stomach and that she would recover normally, I was relieved. Our little family was little enough; it didn’t need to get any smaller. To show Tina how much I loved her, I asked Mémé to tell Mom to tell Tina about how I went to sleep crying with her floppy dog. I hoped nothing would get lost in the translation.
When Tina came home after several weeks, she greeted me with, “You cried all over my favorite stuffed animal? If you ruined it, I’ll kill you!” Tina was back. Maybe they forgot to remove some of her grumpiness, but my big sister was back to stay. That’s all that mattered to me.
Surgeries are expensive for a single mother with no job. What happens next to Lorna’s family?