Stevie and I were excited; a mammoth understatement. I was nine and Stevie, only six. Though Dad had died the year before, kids recoup, and Mom agreed to our usual tradition. We were allowed to sleep on the couch, end to end, one night before Christmas watching the tree lights with “visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.”
In the sunken living room, called that because it took two steps down to get into it from the dining room, the Christmas tree stood in all its splendor, smack dab in the middle of the gigantic picture window that looked out over the flower garden and driveway. The thick, floor-length curtains were closed, keeping out the dark chill, but the room sparkled with glowing colors from the fat bulbs twirled round and round the tree. Tinsel sprinkling from branches swayed lightly against the tops of presents.
We knew there’d be more. Santa hadn’t come yet, Christmas was a week away, but we were thrilled as each day brought us closer. And now, to our delight, we were to sleep right by the tree, Stevie curled up at the other end with the pillow he brought from his bed and me at my end, both with our own blankets. The long couch cradled us comfortably; I didn’t even feel his feet. And the tree! So pretty! How could sleep arrive when I was so full of excitement over the coming holiday, thinking of each gift I’d made for every brother and my mother?
After inspecting the pretty packages one more time under the tree—we’d already memorized to whom, from whom—we hopped back under our covers. Nothing new, we knew them by heart, heavy, light, shakes or not. The only thing left to discover was when they were opened, the culmination of all the weeks leading up to the big day. It’s no wonder we didn’t drift off to sleep till well after the rest of the household.
Stevie fell asleep before I did. Except for the tree lights, all the other lights were off and everyone had gone to bed: Mom, Tommy, Don, Danny, Seth, Chet, and Paul. “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Tommy, the eldest at twenty, and the brother I looked up to most, was home from college on Christmas break. We were all together! Somehow, finally, my mind fell into happy Toyland slumber.
Something woke me. It was dark, the tree lights were off, but something wasn’t right. Something was very wrong, but felt so good, confusion anesthetizing all ability to speak or move. My child’s mind couldn’t make sense of what felt so dreamy tingly down there but seemed so abhorrent. Was that my adored, eldest, most loved brother’s head between my legs, sucking and licking my peeing spot? Not a sound was heard. Santa spoke not a word either, but this wasn’t Santa. It was so quiet, and though bewildered, I didn’t cry out; my body became mesmerized by the very pleasing sensations yet disoriented into petrified stiffness. Then his head just disappeared. Up the chimney he arose? He must have crawled off.
Stevie and I awoke the next morning, hungry for cereal as if nothing had happened, full of kid energy for the day. But something had happened. Something had permanently altered within me, dimmed, unsure of myself or the world around me, my mother and the brothers I loved so dearly. They were my world, but it all shattered. I shattered. A cataclysmic shift, an avalanche had occurred with the nighttime brother, inside my belly where the edges no longer met, couldn’t meet, there would be no more crossing, no making sense of it and no telling. He made sure of that.
Tommy changed. With the morning light, I lost my brother. Malice and anger filled the eyes where love had once been. I knew not to tell from the frightful mix of menace and hate, and I didn’t. What could I say? What words would I use to describe what my little girl brain couldn’t comprehend anyway? And maybe what I perceived to be as hate was fear, apprehension of my telling, not that it made any difference.
Being the oldest carried weight in the family. We looked up to him, the only one besides me to have his own room, the first to do things like dating, working, then going away to college. I only wanted to please him, to make him love me still, though he didn’t anymore, or didn’t seem to.
I tiptoed around “it,” afraid of waking the beast because Tommy could get very angry. He had snapped at me before just for tugging at his sleeve during a phone call. Though in his defense, the phone call had been of utmost importance for a student home on holiday. It had been to his new love at college who later became his wife. But the sinister being in the house that morning was not Tommy, the brother I would do anything for. He had become something else.
The earth split; his eyes pierced me with a spear of hatred, but only me. I fell through the crack, falling, falling, then steadied when his voice softened with apparent kindness, sweetly toned toward Stevie, until Stevie left to get dressed. Then the thing, posing as Tommy, turned again towards me, reeking of malevolence which shed off his body like dried snake skin. The hissing, threatening eyes never matched the syrupy smooth words.
This dissonance of tone and action became a pattern, a way of life; the beast changed colors like a chameleon, but also changed shape depending on people and circumstance. I never got a hold of the real Tom again. Others did, but not me, and no one else noticed the schism or the way he played it to perfection.
A child grows though, and the sister he had power over and controlled by the use of psychological force found a partner outside of the so called “family.” His sweetness became so thick it couldn’t be stirred and sat in my stomach like cold hard stone. Samuel came with me to Tom’s house in the city for fancy dinners he and Tara cooked, elaborate and expensive. But it was too late. No longer a child, in my early twenties, I watched him. I observed it all, sensing the phoniness, feeling it, seeing it, yet never knowing how to make it real between us again.
Being the eldest, starting college when Dad was still alive, he received a solid start financially. He passed each hurdle, every year in college, one after the next. The entire family flew to New York City to see him graduate cum laude at the Waldorf Astoria, a huge undertaking for Mom. The expense of flight tickets and hotel costs for all eight of us must have been substantial for a woman recently widowed. But he was her firstborn and Dad would have been proud too. Tom followed Dad’s footsteps into the legal arena.
He continued on to law school, graduated, then passed the Bar and was invited into a prestigious law firm where he later became partner. The rest of us struggled with college and several didn’t make it, some only through a semester or two, one not managing life at all. But Tom succeeded with honors and aplomb.
A person could go insane with these thoughts, secrets, and memories. I try to imagine myself at twenty going after a younger sister sexually, or any child. I just can’t. Is it possible males aren’t accountable because they have such irresistible urges? Or because our double standard doesn’t hold them accountable?
Tom and I attempted to talk about the past on the phone in my late thirties. To explain, he said, “I was so young then.”
Not ready for excuses and a long way from forgiveness, I screamed into the phone, “You were twenty, home from college, you could have been prosecuted!”
Crushing the receiver down so hard it rattled the wall, I rushed outside for air and release, whacking at a tree with a bat till some calm returned and the red blackness of rage lifted. We didn’t discuss it again.
Years passed and we attended some of the same functions, a funeral, a wedding, but I wouldn’t talk to him, I couldn’t. The fight for my life continued. And there was no winning against an intelligent person slyly looking out for himself, only the loss of my own dignity and worth. Tom belittled me with comments interspersed so cagily that no one else in the family noticed, but the effects of his disguised put-downs on me were disastrous. His method reduced his crime to less than nothing; if I’m looked down upon as inconsequential, a sister unworthy of love or respect, then what he had done was no big deal.
And in my family system, it seemed to work. His diabolical, unrelenting manipulations hurt more than all else endured. I was stomped upon so repeatedly I couldn’t get up, yet did anyway, bruised but persistent. I felt trapped alive in a coffin with nails hammered down, scraping and clawing for a way out, fighting for a life with my head up and heart full.
He garnered sympathy from other family members because of the way I treated him, ignoring him, stepping away from his attempts to hug me as if he were dangerous. In the reception area at Shasta’s wedding, we gathered, sipping drinks, several siblings and their wives. He moved back from the group so I felt comfortable. It may have been the first time I allowed for the possibility that he possessed genuine empathy, not selfishness, but hope springs eternal. The deferential movement made him look magnanimous, more likely the goal.
There was a point, as I approached fifty, when we tried again to reconcile. We met at the old building where I took pottery courses.
He helped move my stuff that needed glazing to the back room and told me, “I used to teach a class here,” paused, then added as if with humility, “Just one though.”
And I thought, So you surpass me once again, here at a place where I found joy, my hands happy in the wet earth with women who laugh and play with me.
Our plan was to go have coffee together. I hopped into his little sports car and we zipped off to a coffee shop closer to his neighborhood. Though he owned a snazzy, expensive car, it was messy, with paper coffee cups strewn about, food wrappers, and books he moved so I could sit. We were lucky to have made it alive. I didn’t realize how nervous he was and we almost creamed into another car. Shaky, questioning doing this, we got out and he helped me negotiate our way into the place he frequented.
He seemed generous and expansive in his willingness to buy our coffee. “Want a pastry?” he asked, a little too eagerly.
“No, coffee will do,” I replied. We sat and chatted for half an hour or so before running out of banter. At my request, we didn’t talk about the past. I had wanted to begin where we were now, yet what he did seemed like it had happened yesterday. Why? I want to know why? There’s no hope for a connected, close relationship.
The ride back was calmer and without incident. He dropped me off. I watched him go, but felt empty.
Sometimes I feel pity. I replayed what he said once when we tried to reconnect, something about having the sister he wanted. I immediately thought, That’s not your choice, it’s mine. You lost that right to choose; it’s my choice now, under my control and you’re not ready, you may never be ready. Remorse means true sorrow, not concern over what your law partners, friends, and family would think if they knew what you did. You worry about you and your reputation, not me. And family members do know and don’t seem to care.
I don’t see him anymore since Mom’s gone. There were occasional get-togethers for brunch at her apartment and then times during her decline when we’d be together, sometimes for long periods in the hospital and that last night of her life. It seemed okay, like no rift existed, and during these emergencies, when life or death decisions had to be made, Tom was the steady voice of reason while my anxiety over losing her made me frantic. And though my biggest fights with her were about Tom and her wish for our reconciliation, there’s sadness in the loss of hope for closure for us both.
She was right all along, and not just for his sake. A victim as a child, I then became a victim of rage. I have luckily lived long enough to quell the fires and know what a peaceful moment is. And through meditation, my broken brain mends. Life is for giving, yet some things are unforgivable. Still I try. I forgave Tom for using my child’s body for lustful sexual pleasure. Harder is what came after. Dismissing me like I no longer mattered or existed killed something in me, or quieted it for a very long time. She, the essence of me I barely know, slowly comes out, showing her face in small doses to those I love and trust, a select few.
During my sessions with Raymond, I relayed my perceptions of Tom’s treatment towards me.
Raymond said, “If it’s true, that’s psychological abuse.”
Though I’ve thought of ways to torture and dismember Tom, and more him than anyone else, it’s in the past. I do not wish revenge, just peace. Though rage sputtered into ash, it reignites. I dance with her ghost shells, blowing away the swirling smoke, tamping it down, remembering its unwanted vapory clutches.
I impulsively sent a Christmas card to Tom the year after Mom’s death, the first in over thirty years, and a birthday card the summer after. And the very last communication since was a phone call where I apologized for ostracizing him, for not letting go sooner. I felt peace, felt all ties, even unholy ones, unravel, dissolve, evaporate. After fifty years, I have myself back again. I did what I had to do, what he does is up to him. The craving for a family will never go away, but lessens with time and the acceptance of what is and was. I long for a family, any family, just not mine.