My sister died last night. She was 46 years old.
For the last of those years she lived in a care home near the sea front in Great Yarmouth, patiently looked after. In good times she took her medication, and spent her weekly state allowance on daily litres of coca-cola and packets of cigarettes.
She had lost a finger to domestic abuse. Lived with heroin addicts who had beaten her for her benefit cheque. They told her they were diabetics. She, who had struggled to be kept in school, believed them.
After one beating, at her lowest ebb, she had ended up in a hospital ward where, out of kindness, someone assessed her and diagnosed the schizophrenia that had afflicted her for years. Finally she got help with housing.
All this I know from my mother, second-hand. The last time I saw her was at my grandfather’s funeral, over twenty years ago.
I stopped letting her know where I lived to avoid the long rambling letters with accusations of murder and worse. But also because of my own guilt at having been a lousy brother, at my inability to help her, and her inability to be helped – to be a good victim.
She was difficult to deal with: violent, obstreperous, a fantasist. My mother says only: “a troubled soul”.
My father’s poor health made it impossible for her to live with my parents when her husband threw her out. My work took me all over the world. My mother made long drives to the coast to pay her visits and try to fix up somewhere for her to live.
In the end ‘the system’ ended up helping her where we could not. The state, that big soulless, joyless collective noun, so despised and ridiculed, came to her aid. It gave her comfort and shelter, and employed long-suffering people to help her. The path did not run smooth, but the state was my sister’s keeper.
When my mother became ill this year, I realized that the day might soon come when I would have to make the visits, remember her birthday and Christmas. It never came.