I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit.
“Liddy, what’s going on?” I asked my older sister who sat across from me at the kitchen table, scratching her arms until they looked raw. Lydia had been home only six weeks from a three-month stay in Harbor Fields, a psychiatric hospital.
“Dr. B gave me the wrong medicine,” she said. It was obvious now that her psychiatrist had prescribed, for the second time, the wrong medication and Lydia was having an allergic reaction. Her skin itched and her eyes appeared frosted.
It was a Saturday morning in November, Lydia’s 21st birthday, a day I had planned for all week, thinking I could make everything better for her, make up for the months she lost at Harbor Fields. I was 16, anxious, and in charge, our parents away for the day picking up our brothers from college. I’d made confetti birthday cake with pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles, the kind Lyds always made for my birthday when I was little, before she got sick. “Make your wishes,” she would say, “a sister-wish too,” she’d add, which meant a wish for something for both of us.
Lydia and I always made a big deal of each other’s birthdays. When I turned 13 Lydia bought me the eye shadow kit I had wanted from Woolworth’s. My mother wouldn’t buy it but Liddy had saved her allowance. “Check under there,” Liddy said, pointing to my pillow when I went to bed that night. I pulled out the pink plastic case. Inside were four squares of glittery powder the color of Easter eggs. Lydia showed me how to apply the eye shadow and made my eyelids look bluebird blue. I looked in the mirror and for the only time in my life felt almost as pretty as Lydia.
It was past noon now, the medication mix up ruining my birthday plan. The pills were having an impact—Lydia did not want the cake, she dumped it in the garbage, saying “not now.” She insisted on eating grapes fast, two at a time, telling me they had to keep each other company in her belly, while she paced around the perimeter of the braided rug.
I left two more messages with Dr. B, following up with calls to CVS to see if the prescription had been faxed in. By 3:00, when there was no call back and no prescription, I told Lydia to get in the car. “We’re going to Dr. B’s,” I said. I sped north on Round Swamp Road. Dark haired and dark-eyed, her eyebrows plucked into thin crescents, Lydia sat in the passenger seat, picking her cuticles.
As I drove, anger boiled inside of me. Anger at Dr. B and anger at the mental health system that had done little to help Lydia. Her stint in Harbor Fields had simply sterilized months of her life. There, she lived like an inmate, as animated as a potted plant, the drugs having diluted her once vibrant personality. During her stay she was labeled bipolar and given so much medicine that her speech slurred and her hands shook.
I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit. I remembered when I was six and Lydia eleven and Lydia saved my dollhouse, which had drowned when a hurricane flooded our basement. The dollhouse floated in the murky water but Lydia waded knee deep to rescue it. Late that night, in the room we shared, I woke to the sound of her blow drying the miniature wood furniture, using a toothpick to get the mud out of the thumb-sized drawers.
Not long after the dollhouse rescue Lydia got noticeably sick, rocking wildly in the chair beside my bed late at night, whispering to the doll she kept on her lap, writing the same sentence line after line in her velvet-backed journal; something is wrong with me. The worse Lydia got, the more passive and quiet I became; an onlooker watching her wither. My role was to stay calm in the midst of her cracking psyche. I was the steady sister, the perfect child my parents would never have to worry about.
The drive to Dr. B took half an hour. I wondered what I would do when we got there, what I would say. We pulled into the parking lot. “Come on Lyds,” I said grabbing her hand. The elevator didn’t come, so she followed me up eleven flights of stairs. There was no receptionist. I tore into Dr. B’s office. He was in session with another patient, a 40-something woman sitting in a stuffed chair, stunned and staring at me while Lydia stood open-mouthed at Dr. B’s door.
“I called you twice,” I said. “It’s Lydia’s birthday for Christ sake and she’s not going to be doped up on the wrong medicine.” I shook the plastic bottle of pills like dice in front of Dr. B’s face. He was a little man, an old man with pitted skin and I wondered how the hell he could possibly relate to any of Lydia’s issues. “He’s a quack,” I said to the woman in the stuffed chair, my voice rising in the room.
“You calm down,” Dr. B said, putting his arm around my shoulder, pointing me out to the reception area. “Call the prescription in now. I want to see you do it,” I said. My heart double pumped. “I’ll have your license for this,” I shouted as I slammed the door and raced down the stairwell with Lydia, laughing now. I laughed and cried at the same time. “No doctor is going to screw up your birthday, ” I said, empowered and exhilarated for having yelled at Dr. B and for having stood up for my sister.
“Do you think he’ll call it in,” Lydia asked. “He will,” I said. We drove directly to the CVS and waited an hour for Lydia’s medicine. We went home and changed into miniskirts, then met our cousin Marybeth at Ole Moles, Lydia’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Over guacamole and bean burritos Lydia told Marybeth “the story of the break in on Dr. B” as Lydia had already begun referring to it. “She called him a quack,” Lydia went on, gesticulating wildly, happier than I had seen her in months. This time Lydia ate her cake and her hands did not shake, I brushed a stray bit of chocolate frosting from her cheek. When we left it was dark, our old blue Cadillac with the taped up glove box lit below a streetlamp. Lydia got in, looking like a kid next to me in the big bucket seat, her tie-dyed shirt loud against the black leather.
Author’s Note: This moment took place 25 years ago. My beautiful sister is my mentor and my hero. She has her MA in social work.
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