Those Calls Had Come Before: An American Love StoryS

I chose to write about sisters because that’s the only story that is mine, the only story I have any right to tell.

On the morning my mother called me out of sleep, I had been holding my breath. Being Big Sister is a lifetime of holding your breath for terrible phone calls. Those calls had come before. When my Baby Sis was a toddler–even back then, so clearly and devastatingly bright and charming and daring–I thought the calls would only be about what my sister did to the world. As my sister got older, even with a Master’s, a beautiful face, and an arresting personality, my fears evolved into how the world would tend to who they thought she was.

I was called after my sister was followed by police who refused to call her by the proper pronoun. Called when she was taunted by men on the street. Called when she was assaulted by a landlord that yelled, “If you walk like a man and talk like a man, I’ll beat you like a man” (he lost that fight, by the way). Those calls were never about needing my rescue. My sister could and did handle her own.

Though I have spent over two decades bracing myself for what could happen to, or by my sister, I was not prepared for that morning’s phone call. Something was wrong with sister's girlfriend. In this story, we will call her "Danielle."

“Danielle is sick,” my mother said.“Very sick. I don’t know if she will make it.”

Out of all the things I could have had held my breath for, losing Danielle was the worst.

In a way, when they first met the summer of 2008, we lost my sister. There was a new girl on the scene. She was thin, beautiful, brown-skinned half-Cuban girl with shiny eyes, impeccable fashion, and bona fide Bronx-girl attitude. Danielle’s mother couldn’t, wouldn’t understand the relationship. My mother and I fretted that the relationship was too obsessive. For months, Danielle and Baby Sis drifted from couch to couch until they finally found a home they could share together (that is, after a long hunt to discover landlords willing to rent to "people like them"). Baby Sis later described that hellish, homeless summer as the “best era of her life.”

Together, they crashed sister brunches and family Christmases. They pursued degrees and mapped out dreams. Danielle would run an animal shelter, and my sister a youth center. They shared a cat named Major that they dressed him up and called him their child. I hated that cat with all of my heart. They watched bootleg movies and memorized the lines of R&B radio hit love songs. They planned elaborate dates and sent each other the corniest text messages. They prayed and found churches that embraced them. They fought each other. They fought for each other.

The day the landlord assaulted my sister, Danielle jumped on his back and scratched while my sister threw the defensive punches. The morning my sister was jolted up from her sleep having an unexplainable seizure that left her frothing, Danielle shoved her fingers in my sister’s mouth so she wouldn’t bite her tongue and made that first 911 call. Danielle was there at the hospital as she had been all night, when, several hours later, my mother called to summon me out of my sleep to go “see about your sister.”

What we knew then was that Danielle was getting ready for a family party when she got a massive headache, and she decided to sleep it off. We now know that as she slept, a vessel in her brain gathered and bunched. The blood vessel burst and the blood bloomed like wild cyclamen to the left and to the right. A wave of mini-strokes danced up and down her cranium and she sunk into deep, unshakable sleep.

My mother flew in from Florida and I from Charlotte to be with Danielle and Baby Sis. Our older sister trekked from Brooklyn to be with us afternoons on the weekend and nights after work. Danielle’s family was there, too. So were pastors and family friends and the “Bros”: a tight collective of studs, fems, and supportive straight people who also were my sister and Danielle’s village.

Suspended by the puppet strings of at least ten blinking machines, Danielle stayed alive for over two weeks while we nursed half-baked hopes for miracles.

She’ll wake up, the doctors assured, with a few minor impairments but her personality still intact. Then, they said there is brain damage that would alter her understanding of math and science, but she'd be able to talk.

At the height of it all, my sister woke up violently in the middle of the night dreaming that Danielle had exploded. Another night, she dreamed she was just wandering down a dark hallway screaming Danielle’s name. “I couldn’t find her,” she panted, “I kept calling and looking but I couldn’t find her.”

By the end of three weeks, one week after I found myself leaning against a dusted window of a Megabus back to Boston thinking we could buy more time, the doctor pronounced my Danielle was brain dead.

I thought about my sister returning to her shared apartment and contending with the sheer stuff of Danielle's: heeled shoes lined up in the closet; perfume bottles on the dresser; Major, who coils in the closet crying. My mother grieved as if she lost a daughter and I certainly lost the sister I begrudgingly inherited. I love-hated that girl like Big Sisters are supposed to. One day at the hospital, “Easy Like Sunday Morning” came onto the speakers, and my mother sobbed into a muffin and I had a similar moment. It is incomprehensible to us that the sassy girl who had filled our lives without us knowing would be gone, permanently.

“I feel like a scared child fearful of their first day of school,” my sister texted me the day the doctors removed all of the machines that had kept Danielle alive. “Screaming and crying and pulling on their mother’s legs begging her not to go.”

Right before Danielle got sick, Baby Sis was plotting to trick her. We used to tease after gay marriage was legalized in New York that my sister no longer had an excuse and, at the time, neither of them were having it. So she made a ring out of gold-fringed pipe-cleaner and planned on fake proposing, which would have hilariously scared the shit out of Danielle. After Danielle fell into her coma, Baby Sis asked me to walk back with her to the hospital room so that she could tell Danielle the joke.

Maybe I’m overemphasizing what I’m doing here–I am, after all, just one big sister in a world of big sisters. But as I stood there watching my baby sister tilt towards the bed with that ring in her hand, saying whatever it is you say to the person you love when she’s gauzed and tubed and as still as a broken clock, I didn’t know whether to hug her, save her, or weep, so I decided to just stand there like a tortured witness. And I think I'm supposed to tell you this, you other straight people. This is not a tragedy.

This is the story of a gay, black girl who wears fitteds, locks and J’s in a country that could not love that combination any less. Girls like my sister get presidential speeches and sermons, but aside from the occasional “Pariah,” they get no love story or love song to hang their (snap-back) hats on. This is in honor of my Baby Sis and the girl she loved, and what those two taught and continue to teach me, and us, about what it means to love. Whether this slips into memoir, political essay, or eulogy, you should know that the story Danielle and my Baby Sis has always been, an cracked around the edges, too black, too queer, too short, more hospital room than beach at sunset, American love story.

Candace Mitchell is a current law and public policy student. She intends on becoming a public defender once she graduates this spring, but is a sister-warrior/writer/activist always. Check out more of her writing on her blog, sisteroftheyam.com.

[Image by Jim Cooke]