How the Death of a Child Shapes a Family
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This is the story of the Mellishman family. Louise and Lenny have three daughters. Lydia is the eldest, then two years later, Eleanor was born. Two years after that, Joyce was born.
The defining family dynamic is that Eleanor was born with cerebral palsy complicated by a severe seizure disorder. She doesn’t walk or talk. Ultimately, she is institutionalized at the age of nine and dies a year later.
Lydia explains the aftermath of her sister’s death by using an orthodontia metaphor learned from her father, a dentist: “You are born into malocclusion. Into an unlucky family with a disabled child, then a dead child. The hole caused by her absence will eventually cause everything and everyone to shift, and drift, the same way teeth do, after an extraction.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that these things happen:
- Lenny and Louise ultimately divorce.
- Lenny dies of an overdose, possibly accidental, possibly not.
- Louise gets all caught up in advocacy for disabled children.
- Lydia gets as far away from home as she can when she graduates from college – leaving Boston for Los Angeles.
- Joyce feels invisible and alone.
As the book opens, Lydia is moving back to Boston after almost thirty years. Both sisters are newly divorced, and they will live together temporarily in Joyce’s apartment. They have a lot of pain to manage in their togetherness.
As Joyce tells us: “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking that my sister should apologize for leaving me behind. Especially since Lydia’s not even the one who owes me anything – she got as little as I did in terms of emotional support. If anyone owes both of us something, it’s our parents, but they’re both dead now, so it’s too late, and even if I allowed myself that equation – of being owed – it doesn’t seem fair to hold them accountable for payment. It never has. No one could blame them – two good people who had cared for a disabled child for almost ten years at home, then institutionalized her, then grieved when she died only a year later of the flu, of all things – for not giving us their full attention. How could they have?”
Wrenching situation, right? Thank goodness its fictional…but then we get to the author’s acknowledgments where we read these two paragraphs:
“My parents, Bernie and Bernice, suffered the loss of their first daughter, my oldest sister, Sheryl when she was only seven years old. She was born with osteopetrosis, a rare and fatal bone disease, and lived at the Walter E. Fernald State School from about the age of three until she died there. Despite their grief, or maybe because of it, they continued to support and fundraise for Fernald long after she was gone, which kept all the remarkable Fernald League families we’d grown up with in our lives for decades.”
“When I told my sister Linda that I was going to write a novel about two sisters who move in together as adults and finally come to terms with how the death of their other sister shaped their family, and them – fictionalize, of course! – she said: I trust you. Could there be a better gift than that? It’s just the two of us now. In a way, like survivors of a small, quiet wreck, it’s always just been the two of us.”
And finally, the book’s poignant dedication is:
For Sheryl Anne Zigman [April 28, 1958-November 2, 1965], who left home before I even knew she’d been there.
What can I say but this: It appears the author is very qualified to write this book and I was quite willing to view her as an expert as she pulled at my heartstrings.
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