Clippings: For my sister, Meigan, on her birthday
Two days ago, my older and only sister would have turned 60. Instead, she’ll always be 43.
Much has been said about the opioid addiction problems plaguing Vermont. But it hits you differently when it’s not just a state statistic or a headline in The New York Times putting addicts in Rutland or Barre or next door where we all like to think there’s just cows and golden glowing leaves. My sister died of a heroin overdose at 43. This last part is ironic. She almost died of a heroin overdose as a teenager. She was no longer living at home. It’s a long story, so we’ll just say she emancipated herself early. But as my mom years later told me, one night my then-teenage sister sort of “appeared to her,” like a ghost or a message or a vision, and my mom knew she was in trouble. And indeed that very same night — one state away, somewhere in Norman, Okla., living God knows where or how — it turns out my sister had almost died of an overdose.
When the call came, so many decades later, at 5 a.m., to say that “her old bad habits had caught up with her,” I wasn’t expecting it. She was happy. She was married. She lived in a ranch house — how settled, how ordinary is that? It seemed that she’d moved away from her chemically propelled lifestyle. But she was dead just the same. I still have the police report, which I’ve pored over, again and again.
Like a lot of folks who end up battling addiction, my sister was forced to grow up way too fast. The oldest daughter out of five children, her childhood seemed to have ended soon after our dad died when she was six. By eight, she was shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, looking after the rest of us. By 12, she was hanging out with kids from the local college. By 15, she ran away from our small farming town in Kansas for San Francisco, just a few summers after the Summer of Love.
Meigan was a blues and rock ’n’ roll singer in always-local bands. Her voice — sort of like Janis Joplin’s or Bessie Smith’s or Lucinda Williams’s (to whom I am sure we are linked down some long-lost branch of our Southern family tree) — was often so real it cut just to listen. She was generous to a fault. And she was fearless. Case in point was when she invited to her grade school birthday party, a little girl with no friends, who’d been labeled “slow” and “different” and ostracized as only the playground can so cruelly do. After the party, when the girl’s mother picked her up she told my mom that her daughter was so thrilled. No one had ever invited her to a birthday party before. Meigan had that kind of courage — to love and include somebody that everybody was supposed to shun.
My sister grew so wild in high school that my mom, at her wits’ end, packed her off to a girls’ home run by a religious zealot so besotted with a twisted version of Old Testament-style punishment that even the state of Texas finally shut him down. But when I visited her there, just a sixth-grader, she told me serenely how she’d learned the Hebrew word for eagle and that she’d gotten really good at plucking chickens. Then, when she was called on to testifyin church, she gave a bang-up blues rendition of “Just as I Am.” She was in “prison,” but she found a freedom within herself.
Meigan made a patched together living singing in local bands and Dumpster diving and trading in vintage clothes. In fact, we had her cremated in one of her best finds ever: a green sequin tuxedo suit. One of my cousins even took a picture of us all together, around her lifeless corpse clothed in that sparkling green tuxedo. Grief will make you capture strange images. If I rifle through my cedar chest, I can pull out more of her finds:a red crepe 1940s cocktail dress, a stunning silvery gray 1950s swing coat that grazes my calves, and a delicate lace jacket circa 1911 by the look of it.
The summer she overdosed, heroin was in the news nationally. There was a kind of heroin coming up from Mexico that was far more powerful than any previously available. Different versions of our family tragedy played out weekly for a while there on national television. It is a grim reminder that drug addiction links us in an international unholy web of lives devastated — not just by illegal drugs but the violence that fuels the underground industry they feed and the poverty, fear and despair that suck so many into its vortex.
I cannot change my sister’s story, I cannot rewrite her life so that everything that was brilliant and loving in her could still be shining and all the grime would just have washed away.
When I taught high school for a time, I did my best to be there for “troubled” students because maybe if somebody had been there in some different way for my sister when she was a teen things might have gone differently. The newspapery part of this essay, the public service announcement, if you will, is the importance of looking after all the kids in our care, in our schools, in our communities — because we know if we have opioid problems, we have stressed families and kids who need our attention so that their best selves get to shine.
I named my older daughter after my sister, Meigan, because of her fierceness, because of her generosity, because of all the ways that she, the older sister, took care of me, though only four years older. My sister — the smartest of our bunch of five, who included a brother who went to Cal Tech, a brother who became a doctor, three Phi Beta Kappas — was a high school dropout, who finally got a GED. Thanks to her, I got to be the “normal” (boring is how it seemed to me at the time), over-achieving “good kid.”
My own daughter Meigan has had a blessedly ordinary childhood. We’ve worked like the dickens to make it so.
As a sort of talisman for my sister, we also gave our daughter Meigan the middle name “Quetzal.” My husband, a travel writer, became enamored with this brilliantly plumaged, almost legendary bird of Central America, where they are a symbol for freedom. Quetzals, reputedly, die when put in captivity.
Above all else, my sister, Meigan, was a poet. She was always writing, calling me up at 2 a.m. to read me her latest in a drug-slurred haze, going up to total strangers, reciting her poetry in bars while she played pool, holding people mesmerized.
So I will leave you with her words, always so much more eloquent than mine:
“Que milagro, beloved, we are still here.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at firstname.lastname@example.org.