Elizabeth, My Surrogate Sister
It is the anniversary of my cousin Elizabeth’s death. She was killed by a drunk and stoned driver in 2002 on Labor Day weekend. A tragedy that stunned me profoundly. I think of her regularly, and always on Labor Day, and wonder what might have been had she lived. What more might we have shared?
She was eight years older than me and did not live geographically near me. It was not until we were both adults that we became close. I was an only child, so she was the closest I got to having a sister. How I wanted a sister! How I still want a sister! A sibling is not only a built-in playmate and confidante, they share your family history. How amazing it would be to have someone to share the burden of aging parents and mid-life questioning. Did that really happen or am I crazy? Cousins are also uniquely special. They share your broader family history, while offering you a chance to experience your family through an expanded lens of memories and perspectives. A different connection can emerge.
One of my first memories of her as her own person was when she visited us one summer. She must have been 16 or 17 and I would have been 8 or 9. She slept late. That is my main memory. I wanted a sister and companion! I didn’t understand the teen clock. My parents wouldn’t let me wake her up early. Elizabeth was always a night owl, while I was always a morning person. My parents threw a party (a rare occurrence) during her visit to introduce her to some people her age. I remember being jealous that my favorite baby-sitter and she hit it off. I desperately wanted to be older and didn’t understand why they didn’t want me tagging along.
My parents and I visited Elizabeth in 1980 when I was 17 and she was 25 and living at Twin Oaks, an intentional community. I always admired her idealism and her desire to live according to her values. This visit made a big impression on me. I had very little exposure to other ways of living other than how my small family lived with its controlled and orderly routines. A community of people and families who lived with limited privacy, ate communally and shared resources was eye-opening and mind-boggling to me.
As adults, we cemented our bond during our times together at family weddings and funerals, sharing confidences that we shared with perhaps no one else. Her sister-in-law’s too-young death from breast cancer. Her wedding. My wedding. Her niece’s wedding. My family was so small that I felt compelled to value my relationship with Elizabeth at any cost. She was extroverted and social, idealistic and spontaneous – quite a counterpoint to my shy and careful reserve. I adored her. As any little sister would.
One of our most obvious differences was in our weight and our approach to food. She was sometimes quite heavy, especially when younger, struggling with overeating and what she considered to be an addiction to sugar. I was sometimes quite thin, struggling with over-exercising and an overly controlled rules-driven approach to eating. Our dialog about weight and eating was one of the first truly intimate and honest exchanges about the psychology of eating that I had with anyone. I came to see our struggles as the flip sides of the same coin. Heavy or thin, we are all connected in our challenge to balance a healthy enjoyment of eating and a confident sense of self and body image.
She found the perfect career for her personality as a nurse-midwife on the Texas-Mexico border. Her intelligence and her nurturing empathy endeared her to all. At her funeral, the church was overflowing with people. Hundreds of people, from near and far, shocked by her senseless loss, wept and mourned this wonderful woman with so much zest for life. I learned how to be a friendlier and braver person from her.
Elizabeth left a 10-year-old daughter who will be 21 this month. She is beautiful, with her own (but similar) personality. Curious about people and the world, gentle and determined, intelligent and adventurous. When Elizabeth was killed, I vowed to stay part of her daughter’s life. Aside from sporadic but heart-felt support of MADD, it was the best way I knew to deal with my shock and my grief. While our connection ebbs and flows, through emails and occasional visits, our attachment is genuine. I still cannot fathom why Elizabeth was killed. I can only hope and trust that my relationship with her daughter will stay strong and serve a purpose. I can see the essence of Elizabeth shining in her daughter as she grows into her own distinct self builds her life. Elizabeth would be so proud.
Don’t drink and drive.