My sister and I became foster children when she was just four years old and I a mere two months of age. In the first five foster homes we had been kept together. It wasn’t until we arrived in our sixth placement that things would change. We began life in this new home much in the same way as the others-a quick introduction, hugs all around, and the dropping off of suitcases. This had been the routine and Cindy and I were both accustomed to it.
I don’t recall the first few days in this new home but whatever it was that took place, it must have been significant enough for the foster family to be concerned. By about day six, the social worker was back. Cindy’s bags had been packed during the early morning hours and she had been told to get herself ready to meet with the social worker. She and I were not privy to the conversation between the adults so I have no idea what was said. What I do know is that Cindy left with the social worker without any explanation to her or me. What I didn’t know was that Cindy had already begun to show signs of a major mental illness. She was nine years old at the time. That would be the last time we were together under the same roof. For Cindy, that would be the last time she was able to live outside of the walls of a mental institution.
Because I didn’t know at that time what was to blame for my sister suddenly being taken away, I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together on my own. I did what many children do when they want to know something that the adults don’t want them to know about; I snooped. By listening to conversations and sneaking a peek at mail and other documents not meant for my eyes, I began to understand that my sister was thought to have something called Schizophrenia. I copied that word down and at the first opportunity I headed straight for the dictionary. I had only enough time to read the first sentence before I was interrupted by a call to dinner. That first sentence was all I needed to read.
As time began to move onward, news and information about my sister became more and more scarce. She would be allowed to visit only when the hospital deemed her well enough. Often times these visits would end rather abruptly. Cindy would start to complain about mysterious voices in her head telling her that she was evil. Sometimes she could fight these voices at other times she could not. I would watch in disbelief as she carried on conversations with what could only be described as invisible demons. It was at those times that the visit would be cut short and Cindy would be brought back to the hospital and not seen again for months at a time. During those early years of her illness, I can recall that when she came to visit she always had this small rectangular box that contained many pills of different sizes and colors. The pills were to be taken in different combinations and at different times of the day. Her medication regiment seemed to be different each time she came to visit; new pills, new schedule, new Cindy; each one worst off than the last.
Over the course of our remaining years of childhood and adolescents, Cindy and I would drift apart even further. As I moved toward adulthood and became more preoccupied with my own interests, Cindy became more and more dependent upon institutional life. Visits became less because she was too sick to receive visitors and eventually phone calls and letters trickled to a halt. A few years passed without word as to how she was doing. As I approached my twenty first birthday I began hearing news of Cindy through my last foster parent. Cindy had begun to feel that it was important for her and me to cultivate a closer relationship. Cindy had told my foster parent that because we had been foster children with no contact with our birth family that we ought to form our own little family instead of living separate lives.
Although her exact words struck me as irrational considering her situation, I understood what it was that she was seeking and so I made arrangements to visit her. In those few short years, Cindy had become well enough to be placed into what was being called a group home. The home was a three bedroom apartment that was shared by two other patients and overseen by four staff members. She seemed happy there. She was proud of herself for having become stable enough to experience life outside of an institution. Unfortunately it would not be for long. I don’t know if it was the stress of independence, a change of medication, or poor supervision, but whatever it was, within two months my sister was back behind the walls of a hospital and in crisis. I visited her weekly. I sat with her as she fought hard to silence the demons in her head. I sat with her when thoughts turned toward her memories of life with our mother. I sat and held her hand while her spirit did battle with a broken brain that refused to show any mercy. Such was her life for the next five years until the day she dropped a bombshell.
The visit started out the same as many others- hugs, small talk, and a chat with the charge nurse about how my sister was doing on that day. Then came the news; my sister was pregnant. Because she was living in a less restrictive dorm in the hospital, she had been allowed to comingle with male patients from another ward in a common day room. The staff knew that she had grown fond of one of their newest patients. Over the course of a few months, my sister was smitten. The staff of the facility acknowledged knowing about my sister’s budding romance but stated that they didn’t know that the two of them were having relations. One staff member told me that she thought that my sister had been sterilized. Cindy of course was thrilled with the idea that she was going to have a baby. As for me, I held my tongue.
As her pregnancy progressed she had to be taken off of certain medications that were known to harm developing babies. As the medications made their way out of her system and the pregnancy hormones surged my sister’s mental state began to rapidly decline. The ensuing months without medication left my sister completely delusional, tortured by the voices in her head and visions of phantoms around every corner. She had become so paranoid that in order for the obstetrician to examine her, the staff would have to place her into restraints; leather straps secured her hands and feet to the metal frame of a very sturdy bed for nearly every examination.
Three weeks before she gave birth, my sister would yet again pull a rabbit out of her hat. She told me that she had been having contact with a foster family from years past. A family that I did not remember due to my young age at the time we had been placed with them. Cindy never did give me the details of how she had come in contact with this family after all those years but the bottom line was she had made the decision to allow this family to adopt her baby. Part of me didn’t know what to make of it; another part of me applauded the decision. Keeping true to her word, my sister’s baby girl was handed over to a couple of strangers who, for reasons known only to them, had decided to renew old ties with a pregnant mentally ill ex foster child from years ago.
My sister would receive phone calls, pictures, and letters from the family who had adopted her child but it had become obvious to her doctors and to me that Cindy had sunken into a state of depression. The doctors again made adjustments to her medications and assigned her a therapist. For a while it seemed as though my sister was beginning to make peace with the fact that she given up her child. Life had returned to its normal state and would remain that way until January 3, 1999. That day had begun like any other for me. I was nine months pregnant with my first child and feeling very uncomfortable. I had spent most of the morning trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest the weight of my soon to be born child somewhere else besides my aching spine. Just shortly after 11 a.m. the phone rang. It was my foster mother of years ago calling to advise me that she had bad news. She advised me that the hospital had called her to let her know that Cindy was dead. She had died by her own hand in the early hours of that morning by tying a bed sheet around her neck and securing the other end to a light fixture in her room.
The staff did not discover her body until shift change around 7 a.m. As I sat there taking in the news I felt angry mostly at the staff of the hospital for what I perceived as their negligence. How could a severely mentally ill woman who is confined long term to psychiatric hospital go un-noticed long enough to do what she did and her body not be discovered until hours later? At that time, I was not in a position to pursue answers from the hospital. Not only was I about to give birth, I was living in another state, had limited financial resources, and worse yet, the hospital in which Cindy had died was a fairly new placement for her. She had not signed any paperwork that would give permission for the hospital to talk with me. It took many years to for me to make peace with the fact that I had no recourse, no way to hold a person, any person, responsible for my sister’s death.
When I think back on the period of time surrounding Cindy’s death, it isn’t hard for me to see how she could sink so low into depression to the point that she would want to end her life. I believe now as I did then that my sister knew that it was unlikely that she would ever be well enough to live independently. Although she had always tried to remain optimistic, she knew that she had neither the skills nor the psychological stability to live anywhere but an institution. I also believe that this point was driven home to her even harder by my own pregnancy. It was not much longer after she had given away her child that I found out that I was expecting. Although she never said it directly, I always felt that news of my pregnancy made her feel bad about her own child. I would be keeping my child, she could not. I received congratulations, she had received scorn. It took many years for me to accept that there was nothing I could have done to prevent her death. These days I take solace in the fact that she is in a better place, perhaps even smiling down on me as I write these words.