She doesn't answer the way others do. If I ask "Why did you do that," she might say "Broccoli." Another time she may answer, "Just because." I can never predict when she's with me and when she's taking a journey none of us can join. That's partly why my schizophrenic, developmentally disabled sister is both interesting and frustrating to live with.
Recently she told me she resents me and my ability to function. She's jealous I could marry, bear children, paint, draw, write – comprehend life. She hates me for knowing what she doesn't, and hates me even more when I teach her a concept that upsets the delicate balance of her understanding.
She didn't used to discern between commercials and programs: The two ran together for her and each was equally real. I patiently showed her the distinctions in an attempt to enrich her life. The result was more resentment – she felt embarrassed, and it's my fault.
The fine lines blur for my sister, and many of the wide ones as well.
She lies. She lies about what she can and can't do and what she
understands. Sometimes I can tell she's lying; often I can't.
"Do you know how to peel potatoes," I ask, offering her a chance to help make Thanksgiving dinner.
"Oh, yes," she replies, with an artificial emphasis on "yes" that reminded my ex of cheap porn actor dialogue. The assisted living group my sister lived in for eighteen years realized they couldn't teach her. Instead, they made her into an actress. She's learned to laugh when others do – whether in the living room watching TV, or in social situations.
She has a repertoire of exchanges she draws upon in conversation: how are you; fine, thank you; how is your (wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter); it sure is (hot, cold, wet, dark) out today; have a good day; take care. Unbelievably, these few phrases allowed her to fake her way through twenty years and countless situations before she came to live with me.
"Okay, peel these potatoes for me while I get the pies made."
She lifts the potato ever so carefully, as if her thumb might burst through the skin if she pushed too hard on it. Suspiciously, cautiously, she stares at the peeler for a full minute before picking it up and setting down the potato.
Turning it over in her hand a sacred number of times, she inspects the peeler. It passes some cryptic test and she cradles it in her palm. She stares at the
blade, hard. She's getting that shifty look again. Her eyes move rapidly from side to side, then her gaze flashes back to the peeler. I wonder if she's considering plunging it into my heart.
"Are you okay, honey?"
Blinking, she grudgingly looks away from the peeler and fixes her shifty eyes on me. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you. How are you?"
"Do you need me to show you how to peel a potato?"
"No, thank you." She turns away, now shielding the potato from my line of sight with her body. Her arm moves in a rhythmic motion. I assume she's peeling the potato and forget about her while I prepare the pies.
About an hour later, I have five crusts made and three pies assembled – two apple, one pumpkin – and I glance at her work area to check on her progress. There are four tiny chunks of potato peel on the newspaper in front of her and three large clumps of hair she's ripped out in frustration.
I remember my sister cried when she realized that my second grader surpassed her ability to do math problems. Until then, she hadn't realized the extent of her own limitations. She believed she led a normal life while in the assisted living group. When it closed, I took her in.
Her observations of our family soon made her existence intolerable. She'd ripped out most of her hair and clawed her face till it bled, then slapped herself until what skin wasn't bleeding was bright red anyway. Something inside her shut down. She became a ghost for nearly six months, under constant assault of the reproachful voices in her head – on a self-inflicted journey I could neither join her on nor bring her home from.
"That's great, honey. Thanks for your help. I'll finish up." I hug her. "Why don't you go watch some TV now? I think Rugrats is on."
"Oh, yes," she gushes, and scurries out of the kitchen.