We’ve ran through sprinklers carving our hearts on each other’s souls.
We saw tears become smiles that our dreams make a reality. We’ve seen each other through the pain, crawled, walked, and then ran to visualizations beyond us.
My older sister Cindy held my hand till the trauma of a day became the peace of a new tomorrow. Hoping to grow old holding onto memories like fireflies we used to catch in jars releasing them later lovingly.
Our younger years yawned into spreading teenaged crushes, hopes, and vision into our 20s feeling our way through hopes and goals among the brighter stars. Before we could blink there was our 30s as we let go of a crumpled past. We talk like there’s no tomorrow neither time nor distance or difficulties stop our hearts from being intertwined into the bond that yesterday’s failures or success could break apart and sever our ties. She turned 40 two years ago and next there’s me. When did we think this was so old? She spreads hope and even through the darkest hours makes the brightness even better. Through all the airport shuffles, drives, games, play, long talks spread out over phone lines, letters, cards, and scrapbooks, to emails, technology and still we are the strongest of sisters, the most resilient of siblings, the most courageous of friends. She is my model, what I aim to be and parts of her give life to me. Letters have yellowed; cards live in boxes, while our love’s not contained so tidily.
As a child Cindy became my hero. She fluffed my pajamas in the dryer before bed, sewed my Girl Scout badges on my uniform, comforted me when the kids made fun of my glasses, skinniness, and shyness, and read me bedtime stories. She also became the surrogate mom in our newly formed mini-family. When I was 11 to my surprise and fear Cindy could take no more sexual abuse by our dad and told our mom about what had been going on for years, something my mom claimed to know nothing about at the time. I felt so alone as I went to live with my mom and Cindy requested to be sent to a foster home of her teacher’s.
Then, three years later, my first day in a mental institute at 14, my mom, step dad, and sister, Cindy brought me to the facility at the direction of the children’s’ home I was in. Cindy, being such a great salesman she could sell ice cream to Eskimos, tried her best to make me feel good about the fact that at least I had my own concrete room and privacy. I called Cindy a lot but sometimes had to wait my turn. I wrote stories and poems, was quiet as a mouse, did all my chores, and worked my way up to all my levels, becoming the good little patient on the adolescent wing. It was what everyone wanted except my sister who just wanted me home.
The sad day came when Cindy left for college and came to see me, disappointed to see I was still living in this Decatur hospital. It was hard to say goodbye to her knowing she would write but with the knowledge that she would be in another state starting her collegiate years. She later became a successful therapist and though I could not sue a therapist who made my situation worse since she was only a behavioral therapist and there was no license to be yanked, I could look at my sister and marvel at her gifts. If it hadn’t been for my sister I’m convinced I would’ve wound up in prison, a prostitute, or dead. She was my sanity, my saving grace, my reason to go on. She kept me alive and hoping and everyone needs that.
Despite my utter fear of him, I turned my dad in for sexual abuse for the first time at the age of 15. Holding my hand, Cindy, drove me to the AGAPE Church of Christ Agency which placed abused and/or neglected children with church members.
When I was in a juvenile home my saving grace was Cindy.
She visited, called, wrote letters, and got the staff to let me come visit her in Florida twice. Once during spring break on a visit to her dorm in college I attended some classes with her, one of which was a Psychology class. The professor brought up the topic of group homes and asked the class if anyone knew what those were. They all sat in silence and I looked at my sister. I wasn’t about to raise my hand and say, “Yes, I’m quite familiar with them. I’m in one” so I just looked down at the floor, awkwardly. Cindy and I talked about it later and about how weird that experience was. She even went with me to acting lessons once when she was visiting for the summer. She also picked me up with her boyfriend when she visited from college and we’d all go out to eat and see a movie frequently.
I pushed the envelope later that year when my sister and I advocated with the staff for me to be able to work my first real job at Six Flags, riding with an employee. Then there was the counseling staff who managed the facility. Dale, the director of the home, later worked with my sister and told him, “I never could figure out Terri. She was an intellectual delinquent.”
One day my fate was set through no control of my own. Sharon, one of the residents, on the way back from an outing in the van, sitting in the back, started whispering to me crazy stuff like setting the group home, a government facility, on fire. I thought she was just kidding, just high on drugs or something but then she pointed to some gasoline cans she had stolen and stashed behind the seats.
When we arrived home everyone filed out of the van only she lingered behind, mysteriously.
“What are you doing?” I questioned.
“It’s the only way we’ll get out of here,” she said, gesturing to the gas cans.
“Are you crazy?” I asked, now scared of this girl.
I backed away as I watched her pour a bunch of gasoline in the basement.
“Yeah, that should do it,” she said, smoothly.
She didn’t light a match. She just moseyed her way upstairs inside the house, leaving me to smell the fumes.
I told a house parent they might want to check out the basement, but that was all I said and I went to my room.
When they discovered what she’d done and determined it was her she was arrested, of course but I was dragged to a counselor’s office for questioning where my dad sat and demanded to know my part in this scheme. I told them I didn’t know anything about it ahead of time, which was partly true. I didn’t know she was serious, I didn’t know she was going to pour gasoline in the basement but she had implicated me somehow and was determined to drag me down with her. Since the staff didn’t believe me they kicked me out and I went to live with my dad who continued sexually abusing me for three weeks until I escaped his clutches once again with the help of Cindy. This was July 1983 and my dad was getting ready to buy me birth control pills so he could have sex with me finally. Once again, Cindy came to the rescue and after trying to move back to my mom’s and being turned down by my step dad, we went to the Department of Family & Children’s Services (DEFACS) and as the realization set in finally that my own parents didn’t want me, I was placed in an emergency shelter where I was to live for a year in between one other foster home. This time we sat in the lobby of the DEFACS awaiting our turn to speak with a social worker. She ushered us in professionally and told us about my soon to be new foster parent, Doris Strickland.
“They’re on their way to come get you now,” the social worker told me after a phone call. “You can just sit out in the lobby with your stuff and soon Mrs. Strickland will be here.”
Surprised, my sister and I went back to the lobby and waited for the arrival of my latest foster mom. It wasn’t long before the glass door opened and a heavyset woman with glasses and a ready smile pushed open the door.
“Are you Terri?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said, hesitantly, clutching my familiar bags.
“I’m Doris,” she said as the social worker rounded the corner.
“Oh, Doris, you’re always so prompt,” the social worker said as Doris pushed her eyeglasses up on her nose.
“I’m Cindy, Terri’s sister,” my sister said, holding out her hand to Doris who took it, amused.
Before I knew it, we were off, me saying goodbye to Cindy once again, her promising to visit, call, and write, which I knew she would, and me getting into a car with my familiar blue, battered suitcase. I don’t remember if Doris and I had much of a conversation on the way to her house. I know I was shy and intimidated by her stealth and the prospect of where we were going.
I didn’t see my mom the day in July or Cindy when my parents signed me over to the state in court.
One day inside a box I received from my dad who I had turned in for sexual abuse were black and dead roses, shredded baby pictures of Cindy and I, ripped up stories and poems I’d written, and a big note addressed to me from my dad that read: “Thank you for ridding me of you at last.”
Another day while living with Doris, she met Cindy and dropped me off at a meeting point for her to pick me up so we could visit. By this time Cindy had a different car, giving up her old “Rocky” yellow Nova and now driving a blue Chevette, a car my dad had bought her right before I escaped him this last time. We spent the day together, running around, eating, shopping, and going to the beach, whatever. I hated to say goodbye to her so as always she made it not only bearable but fun. As we waited in the parking lot for Doris to pick me up again, Cindy and I were cracking up about various inside jokes and stories from our past and present.
“Hey, remember that Fig Newton commercial?” she said, suddenly inspired to be silly, and proceeded to imitate it.
“Here’s the tricky part – “The big, Fig NEW-TON!” she mimicked, dancing around.” What’s tricky about that?”
She had me belly laughing and soon she joined in as our laughter bounced off the black asphalt of the parking lot against the trees lining the school yard where we waited for Doris’ familiar truck to round the corner.
When it did, Cindy hugged me tight.
“I’ll call you tonight,” she promised and I knew she would.
My sister Cindy called from college in Florida the first day I was in the hospital after I tried to kill myself in February 1984, upset and crying. She had called my mom immediately after talking to me and found out my mom, who lived about 20 minutes from the hospital, was too busy partying with friends to come see me. This infuriated Cindy and she vented to me, disbelieving my mom’s behavior.
The next month I went to see Cindy again at college and met a guy, Danny who I had a crush on immediately. A few weeks after that I was back in Florida, this time with my mom and step dad, who traveled to see Cindy graduate from college. Cindy couldn’t make it to my high school Baccalaureate but she, my mom, step dad, aunt, other sisters, and nieces attended my high school graduation. I graduated from the same school as Cindy only she graduated with honors and earned her Masters in 1986. Cindy and I spent a lot of time together the summer I graduated from high school and she worked in town while I took a job at the Parks and Recreation Department close by as a secretary.
Once years ago while I was pet sitting for my sister in Florida, her cat disappeared for five days only to be found by Cindy upon her return. The cat was sitting casually on a lady’s porch, not a care in the world. The lady, who my sister likened to a witch, very creepy, said something along the lines of “I’ve got my husband buried in the backyard.”
With that, my sister gingerly picked up her cat and said, “I’ll just be taking her home now. Thank you.”
That cat took a few days to get back to “normal” after that adventure.
In 2001 I got an email from Cindy about our grandma who was terminally ill. The email said nothing had changed:
She looks just terrible to put it bluntly,” Cindy wrote. “She was never conscious or anything like that – just had feeding tube and was chock full of Morphine. It’s pretty sad just waiting for her to go and now the forced feeding is probably prolonging the inevitable. I guess it’s hard to get a big family to agree, or even a small one for that matter. Just for the record, don’t do that to me; please if I can’t come back on my own with God’s help. I think we were a good distraction for Mom and Aunt Sybil if nothing else and I’m the closest distance-wise.”
When I think of my childhood I think of the safety of Cindy. The two of us would lie under the tree and look up at the lights as the twinkled and talk about things like what we wanted for Christmas. On Christmas Eve Cindy would read me the story in the Bible of how Jesus was born, and then tuck me into bed. We watched all the TV. specials together -‘ Rudolph, The Grinch, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, The Drummer Boy, Frosty The Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas; etc.’ Cindy, her best friend, Rhonda and I would rehearse Christmas carols two weeks before December then carol for about a week in the neighborhood. Every year we would have ‘The C, T & R Show’ (The Cindy, Terri, and Rhonda Show) made up of Christmas skits and songs and performed for our parents. The rest of the year Cindy and I did ‘The C & T Show’ of non-holiday skits. I’d always wake her up a bunch of times during the night before Christmas and finally in the morning she’d say, ‘Let’s go see what Santa brought.’
When I was 9, we had two Christmas celebrations – one with my step mom and her kids and one with my step dad and his kids, which became a tradition. We’d always entertain ourselves as kids by playing Sorry!, Trouble, Parcheesi, and Life during Christmas break – over and over. Cindy and I would always go ice skating and make creative gifts like collages and homemade coupons. My mom, step dad, and I always went together to pick Cindy up at the airport when she’d come home from college break for Christmas. Cindy and I saw “The Nutcracker” around Christmas once and would always go to a candlelight service at a church at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve.’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ is a favorite holiday film of Cindy’s and me. We saw it when it came out and still make jokes about scenes from it.
Later when Cindy had her own apartment, her cat Eunice would always like to bat the ornaments around. One time Cindy had a garage apartment once that opened onto the roof from the bedroom and at Christmas she had a gathering that year. It was small but beautiful with all the lights.
Cindy, a Virgo, was true to her sign – studious, neat, and responsible. As an adult she often kept various miniature stress-reliever toys on her desk at work. Cindy sent me a great card once with a picture of me on the carousel at age seven. I remembered those scared eyes yet fighting spirit.
When I was pregnant I wrote up a list of some good childhood memories to give my daughter one day like playing office/school/store with Cindy, her and her friend’s spook house in the basement, Cindy teaching neighborhood kids arts and crafts in the basement, going to Lake Lanier and Lake Alatoona, Camp Inaghei, Cindy sewing my Girl Scout badges on my uniform, selling cupcakes and cookies in the neighborhood with Cindy, sneaking in bed with her as a child, and playing hooky with my stepsisters and Cindy.
Sisters like her have been the best kind of therapy.