I’ve been told in direct and indirect ways over the years that my stepmom Cindy and her children Chelsy, Carrie, and Cory were not, and certainly are not now, my family. I suppose on paper that is technically correct. After the divorce papers were signed and assets divided, I became an ally on the wrong side. But my experience of the situation differs slightly. You see, my first memories in life include these three blonde and energetic kids behaving as family. Perhaps that is part of where my confusion arises. I remember timidly standing across from them in the entryway of a Pizza Hut as a shy little four-year-old, my future stepmom Cindy standing behind her kids and my father standing behind me and my three sisters.
Other memories float up sometimes to meddle with facts. Chelsy used to count my ribs, her fingers tickling my thin skin, working their way up to my heart. Carrie used to ride horses and show me how to brush them and feed them carrots or peppermints. I remember road trips, Christmases in pajamas, birthday parties, and 4H fairs. I remember splashing in a bathtub with my twin sister and my brother Cory and standing in a row to brush our teeth with glittery blue paste. In fact, most of my memories from early childhood star my twin sister and my stepbrother. The youngest and most oblivious to adult tensions and dramas, we formed an innocent little band too busy with kickball or Nintendo to be bothered too much with the moody adults and teenagers.
But sometimes the drama permeated our shields of naivety. My memory isn’t chock full of only idyllic, happy moments. There were odd moments of mysterious tensions, erupting tempers, and feelings of sudden fear and confusion. I didn’t understand why Chelsy would disappear for weeks or months at a time. I didn’t fully comprehend why we would talk to a psychologist about how her absences affected us, so I stayed quiet and listened. I didn’t know why the police were at the door but I was excited and scared to find out they knew where we lived. I didn’t understand why when Chelsy reappeared with her pieced and tattooed friends, she would be so tired and angry. Or why the next day she would act so light and happy as though she were drifting through a dream where all her cares were taken away.
What I did know about Chelsy, I often misread and idealized. Eventually, I tried to emulate my misinterpretations by listening to angry feminist music and flipping off everyone in my family every chance I got. Chelsy was everything I was not: rebellious, unafraid of authority, angry, loud, challenging, unabashedly original in her creativity, confrontational, wild, free, and energetic. At least, that is my memory of her. I desperately wanted her attention and to make up for her anger somehow. She would be okay if she knew how much I loved her. I would show her and make her see. I would wear black, write poetry, struggle with my artistry, and she would see that she wasn’t alone and that she could open up to me.
We’re very business-like in my family. When something significant or noteworthy occurs, we gather for a family meeting. I understand now why this professional detachment may have been a necessary coping mechanism, but at the time I didn’t understand the clinical and impersonal delivery of just the facts of the matter. But I did my best to respond in a professional and equally detached manner since that seemed to be the expectation. “Chelsy killed herself yesterday. The funeral is white noise, white noise, I’m sorry what did he just say? Ok, there is no way this is happening. Ignore the crying and just nod and go back to your day.” And I did. I’m not sure what my day entailed, but I remember my twin sister grabbing me by the shoulders asking me to react. And I remember my absolute refusal. Maybe I’d picked up more from Chelsy than I knew. I didn’t know until later that this is when I began to disassociate from my feelings, my life, and myself.
I didn’t really come out of my denial until the funeral. I can see the red and purple marks from the rope around her neck. The dry eyes of my father looking down at her before the service and his quick disappearance as other guests came in. The strange woman I’d never met standing up to talk about addiction and Chelsy’s fiancé walking out of the service. Yes, addiction is a tragic disease but why does a twelve-year-old feel the urge to drink her cares away? Why does she chase her brother around with a butcher knife when she is upset? Why does she turn to Heroin and write poetry about “secrets” and “shame?” Why we were all in therapy but Chelsy was not? She was the one crying, no, screaming for help. I know part of the answers hide in a small house in Minnesota, in childhood memories that I cannot reach without Chelsy to guide me.
I know I will not get straight answers to these questions. So I will continue to quietly fill in the blanks by time-traveling back to my memories of her and diagnosing the situation through adult eyes. But when her birthday comes around I don’t want to be quiet, I want to scream out on her behalf or at least break my silence long enough to say she deserved better. She was a child. An angry, wild child full of justifiable rage and if she wasn’t my sister, then she was my dear friend and I loved her. I miss her today, yes, twenty years later, and I’ll miss her forever.
Artwork by Chelsy Marie Van Orden