After my sister, Ashley, died (three years ago this past Wednesday), I didn’t take much when I went to clean out her apartment in Shalimar, Fla. I took a toaster oven and some low-quality pots and pans because I had just separated from Ruby’s dad a few weeks before and I needed to replace kitchen items. I took some family photos. I took a few pieces of clothing, some sentimental and some functional (we were the same size). I took her DustBuster because, hey, who doesn’t need a DustBuster? I took the goblet of fortunes she had always kept in her room. And I took a picture that had always hung in the room of her dead mother, a room that, after her mother’s death in 2006, she left completely undisturbed in the apartment they had shared.


Sifting through the things of a dead person, particularly someone who died suddenly, is one of the most uncomfortable activities ever, making me feel equal parts creepy voyeur and greedy scavenger, and of course, all of it is overlain with sadness. But in my sister’s case, there honestly was no one else to do it.


My sister’s relationship with her mother was not one I hope to re-create with my daughters. It was not healthy in any way. It was, to use therapy-speak, co-dependent, abusive and marred by deeply entrenched bad patterns. But it was their reality, it was what they had, it was all they knew, and they didn’t bother to define it. They just lived it.


My sister – my half-sister, by the way, on my dad’s side, so we do not have the same mom, for which I am eternally thankful – lived with her mother, Sunny, off and on for her entire life until Sunny died. They were both alcoholics: Sunny, borderline functional, Ashley, not really. Only Sunny held a steady job; Ashley worked, at various times, as a waitress, a telemarketer, a dance instructor and a real estate agent, but none of it ever lasted. Ultimately, she gave up any pretense of working and took on the role of bored, drunk, childless housewife – watching her “stories,” drinking cheap white wine, making elaborate dinners for her mom to come home to – while Sunny was the breadwinner. From the outside, it looked spectacularly dysfunctional, but again, who am I to say?


And when Sunny, a two-pack-a-day smoker since her teens, predictably got emphysema followed by COPD followed by lung cancer, Ashley dropped – well, saying she dropped everything kind of overstates the case, as she didn’t have all that much to drop. But she was completely devoted to her mother’s care, bringing her home-cooked meals and fresh pajamas and pillows from home. She even called me one day on the way to the hospital from the grocery, bragging to me that she had just bought the softest, most expensive toilet paper she could find at the Publix. “I do everything for my mama,” she told me, excited, I think, to be caring for something more complex than the plastic fern on her back patio that she dusted on occasion. “Nothing is too good for her. After all she’s done for me …”


This became a new narrative for Ashley, a world in which she and Sunny had always had an idyllic relationship, in which Sunny had been nothing less than a loving and devoted mother and Ashley was simply repaying her kindness. Parents caring for their children at the beginning of their children’s lives and then those same children caring for their parents at the end of their parents’ lives is really the most natural, typical progression in the world, and so, in this at least, Ashley and Sunny’s relationship, if you squinted hard enough, looked almost normal. This went on for a year or so – and then Sunny died, surprising no one except Ashley, who had truly believed that she could nurse her mother back to health if she just bought the right kind of toilet paper and made her famous egg salad.


Sunny’s death was really Ashley’s, too. She had her mother cremated, she scattered her ashes, and she went home to begin the process of committing the world’s slowest suicide via chardonnay and malnutrition. 


She left Sunny’s room untouched, simply shutting the door to that part of the house. On my last trip to see her before she died, she, deep in her cups by that point, took me into the room, dusty and Florida Panhandle damp, and showed me around. “Mama was always so well-dressed,” she said, lovingly fanning her hand over a bunch of polyester clothes. “She was a true Southern lady who never, ever looked bad. And look, she kept pictures I drew for her when I was a little girl. And here’s her high school yearbook – Mama was the prettiest one.”


And then she gestured to the wall, to the painting I would take when I went back months later to clean up after her death. It was a cheaply framed, mass-produced image of a two-story house, and it said around the border: “I hear your footsteps on the stairs. You are home again, and safe.” “That is how Mama felt,” Ashley said. “She never rested until I was home again, safely. And now I am just home alone, all the time.”


She was so lonely, so sad, so empty, and I was completely helpless in the face of it all. I couldn’t tell her it wasn’t true because it was. I couldn’t tell her it would get better because it wouldn’t. I finally just put a hand on her dreadfully thin shoulder and said, “She loved you very much, and I do too,” and guided her out of the room and back to the safety of the living room sofa.


After she died, that painting was the only thing I could think of in advance that I wanted. It’s hard to explain why, exactly, except that maybe it was the one thing in the relationship between Ashley and Sunny that I could relate to – my mom also worried about me when I was out, and I know I will one day worry about my daughters, too. The painting spoke to a relationship far healthier than the one Ashley and Sunny actually had, but there is an element of co-dependence in the sentiment, too, the image of a mother lying half-awake in the middle of the night listening for footsteps. I didn’t try to parse it quite so carefully at the time, just took it home in a haze of grief and nailed it to Ruby’s wall, where it still hangs today.


Ruby loves it. She can recite the text around the edges, and she fantasizes about the heady freedom of her impending teenage years. For me, it is still more bitter than sweet, but I cherish it anyway.


In the last days before her death, Ashley didn’t leave the house much. She rarely called my father or me or anyone else. She just wanted to be left alone to die, and she lashed out violently at anyone who came near. When my dad and I were going through her personal effects, we found two traffic tickets, crumpled among the garbage on her kitchen counter, that we hadn’t known anything about. They were issued days apart. The final one was from Mother’s Day, less than two weeks before. The location was noted on the citation, and it was blocks from the bayou where she had scattered Sunny’s ashes. With her last bit of strength, she went out on Mother’s Day to pay her respects, and that, as far as we know, was the last time she left the house.


I don’t believe much in heaven, really, but I comfort myself with notions of it anyway, and a schmaltzy sentimental part of me takes great comfort in the idea that Sunny and Ashley are together again, that Sunny had been waiting fretfully and now she is at peace because Ashley is “home again, and safe.”