I recently finished reading The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins, a Victorian Era sensation novel (similar to a Gothic novel but without the supernatural elements). The novel was first published in serial form by Charles Dickens in his weekly publication called All the Year Round. In her introduction to my copy of the novel, Camille Cauti, says:
Collins sets his sensational plots in what he called the “secret theater of home,”
a breeding ground for “realistic,” behind-the-doors stories he rendered as
thrilling as the extraordinarily weird Gothic domestic sphere.
I’m no Wilkie Collins but my story is certainly a behind-the-door story from the “secret theater of the home.” I like the idea of a story told serially. Here’s my first entry.
It was June 2002. I was 47 years old and I hadn’t seen my sister Joy in over 15 years. The staff at the group home had given me directions but since then road crews had taken down signs and added detours. Our map was not detailed enough to show small dirt roads miles off the nearest county highway. How would I ever find her? I’d come all this way–350 physical miles and immeasurable emotional miles to get here only to be lost again. My body was tight as a hunting cat’s but my mind was floating–seeing stars and shutting down.
I’d lost her once already on this journey. A month before, I had called the former Cambridge State Hospital ( now Minnesota Extended Treatment Options or METO) to ask for the phone number of Joy’s group home. I called the number I was given. Disconnected. I called METO back and while being bounced from person to person, I filled the moments on hold with the drumbeat thoughts of “lost in the system” and “fallen through the cracks.” I had waited too long and now I couldn’t even find her. She was at the mercy of the system....had been at the mercy of the system her entire life. And where had I been?
I may have lost her but the system had not. I was eventually given a working phone number and now, here I was on my way to see her. Somehow through backtracking and the process of elimination, we found our way. The gravel popped as we pulled into the drive and parked next to two other vehicles. Did my husband reach for my hand? I don’t really remember but I can say with assurance that his presence at that moment was one of the truest gifts he has ever given me.
The house was a simple ranch-style home indistinguishable, except for the wheelchair ramp, from the smattering of other houses we’d passed. Still, as innocuous as the house looked, I wanted to do anything but get out of the car and climb those steps. What if it was horrible inside? What if all these years of familial denial and absence had meant neglect and abuse for her? Every alarm system my body had was wailing. I felt light-headed, sick to my stomach, hot and cold. But at this stage in my life there was finally no going back. She was my sister. My relationship with her was my own. I was going to see for myself, judge for myself, speak for myself and let the chips fall where they may.