Last of two parts
I said goodbye to my sister in early December at Napa Valley Memorial Park, where she was buried, surrounded by immediate family. She was 71.
Christine lived a long, but limited life. My brother Bennet remarked to me after the funeral: “She had a hard life.”
Her life was spent entirely within the confines of our family home. She never married, and never lived on her own.
As a child Christine developed epilepsy, a neurological condition that seriously constrained her ability to live beyond our family.
Christine was an adult by the time I was born. Nineteen years separated us, though our birthdays were only four days a part in October.
One of the most haunting memories I have from my own childhood was seeing Christine writhing and shaking on the bathroom floor of our house.
Her body convulsed uncontrollably atop the cold porcelain tiles, completely in the thralls of a grand mal seizure.
I didn’t always have to see Christine to know she was having a seizure. She would often emit a loud wail during these episodes — a sound that would reverberate through the hallways like a lost ghost crying out through the void.
When she wasn’t having grand mals, Christine would lapse into a catatonic state known as petit mals, where she would stare into space and disappear somewhere far, far away.
She might be standing in the kitchen when a petite mal came upon her. She would just sway back and forth for minutes at a time. For all I knew it might have been an eternity for her.
She would remain this way until she snapped out of it on her own, or someone called to her. She would return back to earth, but not necessarily back to us.
Between the seizures and the medication she took for her epilepsy, Christine lived like a hermitic zombie within our house. She spent most of my childhood in her bedroom with the door closed.
Oftentimes I only saw her when she came out to eat something. We never talked. She would just float by, seemingly unaware of who I was.
It was difficult to feel like I had a sister then. Her brain was in such a perpetual fog that I didn’t know how to reach her.
There was so much distance between us that she seemed more like a boarder renting a room in our home than an actual member of our family.
Things continued this way for years, even decades. I grew up and left home for college and beyond, figuring Christine would never be more than a specter in my life.
Much to my surprise she started to come to life in her 50s.
I once came home for a visit and was shocked to find out that Christine was not in the house — that she was out for a walk through our old neighborhood on Hardman Avenue.
When my mom told me this, I couldn’t comprehend it at first. She’s outside? Going for a walk?
You might as well have told me she was strolling on the moon. That was how unbelievable this news was.
I asked how this change had come about. My mom said Christine just decided one day to leave the house and walk somewhere. The decision was completely her own, and she was doing it by herself on a regular basis.
We had medical serendipity to thank for this unexpected development. Christine’s longtime doctor had retired, and her new neurologist decided to make some adjustments to her medication.
This produced two huge improvements. First, the grand mals began to subside, as well as the lesser seizures. In time they stopped altogether.
She spent the last decade of her life completely free of them.
Second, she regained mental clarity. A light I had never seen before in her eyes was suddenly there. She could comprehend her surroundings, and with this newfound awareness, her desire to see more than just the walls of our home kicked in.
Even after my family sold our home and moved to the other side of Napa off Redwood Road, Christine kept going for walks. The completely unfamiliar locale didn’t stop her from wanting to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine.
Her life within our home also expanded. As our mother got older and developed her own serious health problems, Christine was able to step up and help my brother Adrian care for mom.
She also cared for our other brother, Bennet, who is developmentally delayed and also has spent his entire life at home.
Christine made lunch everyday for Bennet, and helped in other ways such as with laundry and feeding the cats.
When I moved back to Napa three years ago, I finally got a chance to learn who Christine really was as a person.
Despite limited education and a sheltered life, she was bright and inquisitive. She followed the news and would ask me about politics occasionally.
Last year on Election Day, Christine — for the first time in my life — asked me who was going to win the presidency. She was not a fan of the guy who did.
I also got to learn about two of the things she loved most: puzzles and Star Trek.
Original series, Next Generation, Voyager, she watched them all, over and over again. She was a big fan of Capt. Janeway, the first woman to helm a starship on television.
Christine also loved to put puzzles together. Every night after dinner she would sit down in the family room and bring order to jigsaw pieces. She could spend hours doing this, focusing intensely on the picture coming into shape.
For someone who spent a huge portion of her life staring into space, oblivious to everything and everyone around her, it was remarkable to see her so focused, and content.
Sometimes Christine combined her two loves. She would turn on the small TV we had in the family room and have a Star Trek episode running in the background while she did her puzzle.
She liked animal or nature puzzles. For her birthday this year I got her one of a lion painted in fluorescent colors. Her face lit up when she saw the box.
“Such bright colors!” she exclaimed, marveling at the image staring back at her.
Christine died in her sleep two days after Thanksgiving. I’ve spent the days since then looking at the table where she used to work her puzzles.
The table is empty now. So, too, is the chair she sat in. There is no puzzle in process.
After spending what felt like a lifetime without a sister, I got the chance these past three years feeling like I had one.
I wish I could have had more.
Editor’s Note: Noel Brinkerhoff is the editor of the American Canyon Eagle.