I cannot remember my sister’s body. Her smell is gone to me. I do not recall the last time I touched her. I think I can almost pinpoint it: the day I asked her to leave my home after I figured out she had stopped detoxing and started shooting up again, all the while trying to sell my things to her drug dealer as I slept. When she left, she asked me for $20, and I told her that I would give it to her if she sent me a picture of a receipt to show me she spent the money on something other than drugs. “Thanks a lot,” she said, sarcastically. I hugged her, maybe. So much hinges on that maybe, the haunting maybe of our last touch.
The last time I saw my sister was at an intervention at a shitty hotel in Small Town. Our family friend Debbie flew my stepmother and me there in her three-seater plane. The intervention was put together hastily by Sarah’s friend Noelle, who called us a few days beforehand, asking us to come. There were little resources or time to stage it properly—we couldn’t afford a trained interventionist to come. Noelle told us she was afraid Sarah was going to die. I agreed to fly with Debbie and Sharon because Small Town was far away from home and I didn’t want to drive.
Debbie sat in the pilot’s seat, and I sat next to her. My stepmother was tucked in the third seat, directly behind us. It wasn’t until takeoff that I realized with my body what a terrible decision it was to fly. I am terrified of heights and extremely prone to motion sickness. I was not prepared for what it meant to be in a small plane.
I could feel the outside while inside the plane. The vibration of chilly wind permeated through the tiny door and gripped my lungs, heart, head. It would have taken very little effort to open the door and fall, an endless horrifying fall to most-certain death. From the first swoop into the air, my stomach twisted into a mean, malicious fist that punched at my bowels and throat. For the next hour I sat trembling, my eyes shut tight. Through every dip, bounce, and shake, I held back bile and silently cried.
When we landed, I lurched off the plane and threw up. I do not remember what color it was. My stepmom handed me a bottle of water and half a Xanax, and I sat, legs splayed on the runway, until I thought I could stand again.
My sister vomited when she died. She shit. She bled. How much is required to leave our body before we are properly, truly, thoroughly dead? I dreamed one night that I sat with my sister’s dead body and tried to scoop all her bodily fluids back inside her. Everything wet was warm, but her body was ice-cold. I knew that if I could return this warmth to her, she would come back to life. My hands were dripping with her blood and excrement, and while begging her insides to return to her, I cried a great flood of mucus and tears. This I remember, while our last touch still evades me.
My sister was late to her intervention. Many hours late. Seven of us, all women, five of us in sobriety, sat in that hot hotel room, repeatedly texting and calling Sarah’s boyfriend, Jack, to bring her to us. I realized later that he probably told her they were going to the hotel to get drugs.
The hotel room was also where Sharon, Debbie, and I would be sleeping that night. It held two queen-size beds, our small amount of luggage, and four chairs we had discreetly borrowed from the hotel’s conference room. I sat on one of the beds, perched on the edge anxiously, trying not to make eye contact with anyone else. I didn’t know many of the other people there.
When I told my mom about the intervention days before, I had immediately followed with “But you don’t need to come.” There were so many reasons. She has goats and donkeys, cats and dogs who needed to be taken care of. She didn’t have a vehicle that could make the drive. She could write a letter, I said, and I would give it to Sarah. The truth was, I didn’t feel like managing her now-acrimonious relationship with Sharon. I didn’t want to have to take care of my mom, on top of managing Sarah’s state of being. It occurred to me, sitting in this crowded, strange room, that I might have been wrong.
Sitting diagonally across from me was Sarah’s close friend Noelle, who had organized everything. Sarah and Noelle had met in recovery, lived together at Ryan’s family home, and become close friends. They had remained friends even when Sarah started using again. Helen, a fair-haired middle-aged woman who was not one of the people Sarah knew from recovery but rather the mother of one of Sarah’s boyfriends, sat on the other bed. Sarah’s last sponsor, Lynn, sat near me. I had to stop myself from telling her how Sarah had used her name on her phone. Sitting in one of the chairs was the woman who was going to run the intervention. I cannot remember her name now, even though I can easily recall the sound of her loud, grating voice.
The interventionist had worked at Shining Light Recovery, the rehab Sarah had been kicked out of about a year and a half before, and was the only person Noelle could find on short notice. She had run her fair share of interventions, she told us, but she made it clear that because she hadn’t had the time to work with us beforehand, this wouldn’t run like a proper intervention. She smelled like musty clothes and showed too many teeth when she laughed. She talked about when she used to drink, with a tone that sounded more like longing than regret. When she started to disclose private information about my sister’s time in rehab, I clenched my hands into a fist.
“I’m the one that threw her out,” the woman said. “I mean, she’s a good kid, but once I caught her in the showers with that other girl, she had to go.” Someone else said something, but I couldn’t hear anyone else in the room. “No sexual conduct,” she continued. “The rules are there for a reason.” She chuckled and took a swig from her generic-brand cola. I felt hot and ill, my insides still a mess from the plane ride. We waited two more hours, listening to the interventionist talk, until Jack texted to say they had just pulled up.
When my sister arrived, she walked into the room and announced loudly, “Oh fuck, here we go.” Then she sat, thin, resentful, and sneering, her hands stuffed into the front pocket of her sweatshirt. Oh fuck, here we go, I thought. The interventionist didn’t say much, in sharp contrast to her chattiness while we were waiting. She briefly explained the process; we would each have a chance to speak, and then Sarah could decide if she wanted to go to a detox center that night.
We went in turns, speaking to Sarah directly or reading from a letter. Everyone had a different story, a different memory to start what they had to say, but everyone ended the same way: “Please get help. We are afraid you are going to die.” Sarah was stone-faced but crying silently. This was unusual. When Sarah cried, she was a wailer; we called it her monkey howl.
When we were younger, we watched the movie Little Women again and again. We would often fast-forward through Beth’s death, but sometimes we would let the scene play out. We would curl up on our maroon couch and cry as Jo realized her younger sister had died. For a moment I wished for the two of us to be alone, watching Little Women for the hundredth time. I could almost feel her small head on my shoulder as she wailed, “Why did Beth have to die? It’s not fair.” She sat across the room and wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
I addressed Sarah first with my mom’s letter. I started, “My dear little fawn, I know that things have gone wrong and that you have lost your way.” My voice cracked and I found I couldn’t continue, so I passed it to Noelle to read instead. It felt wrong to hear my mother’s words come out of Noelle’s mouth. Sarah was crying. She needs her mom, I thought frantically.
When it came time to speak to her myself, my mind was blank. I was angry. I was angry that I had to fly in a shitty small plane and be in this shitty small room to convince my sister to care one-tenth as much about her life as we did. I was furious that she still had a smirk, even while crying, while we spoke to her. Mostly, I was angry because I knew nothing I could say could make her leave this terrible town I had driven her to years before, and come home. That somewhere in her story there was a mountain of my own mistakes that had helped lead us to this moment.
“Sarah, I know you are angry and think that we are all here to make you feel bad. But we are here because we love you and are worried you might die. I don’t know what I would do if you died.” My sister sat quietly and listened. “I believe you can have any life you want.” I paused. “And I have to believe that I still know you enough to know that this isn’t the life you want.” The more I talked, the further away she seemed, until I trailed off and nodded to the next person to talk.
After we had all spoken, Sarah rejected our help. She told us she had a plan to stop using on her own. “I have a guy I can buy methadone from, and I am going to do it by myself.” Methadone was used to treat opioid addicts; the drug reduced the physical effects of withdrawal, decreased cravings, and, if taken regularly, could block the effects of opioids. It can itself be addictive—it’s also an opioid. By law it can only be dispensed by an opioid treatment program, and the recommended length of treatment is a minimum of twelve months.
“I have a guy I can buy five pills from,” Sarah insisted, as if that was comparable to a licensed methadone center, as if what she was suggesting wasn’t its own kind of dangerous.
“But honey,” my stepmother said gently, “we are offering you help right now. You can go to a detox center tonight.”
“Absolutely not. I am not going to go cold turkey.” Sarah was perceptibly shaking as she said this, the trauma of her past withdrawals palpable in her body. “I don’t know if I can trust you guys.”
She gestured to my stepmom and me. “I felt really betrayed by what happened.” The heroin in her wallet, the confrontation at Sharon’s, Motel 6, breaking into her phone. “You guys don’t understand. Every other time I’ve done this, I’ve done this for you, for my family.” She sat up a little straighter. “For once in my life, it’s time for me to be selfish.”
It was all I could do not to slap her across the face. I wanted desperately to feel my hand sting from the contact, to see her cheek bloom pink, to see if anything could hurt her. She wasn’t going to use methadone to get clean. She just wanted us to leave her alone.
I made an excuse about needing to buy earplugs to sleep that night and walked out. I did not hug her or look at her. I did not know I would not see her again. I did not know I would not remember our last touch. I did not know that the next time I held her body, it would be chips of bone and gritty ash in a small cardboard box.
THE HEART AND OTHER MONSTERS (Bloomsbury; hardcover; 9781635575149; $24.00; 224 pages; July 7, 2020) by Rose Andersen is an intimate exploration of the opioid crisis as well as the American family, with all its flaws, affections, and challenges. Reminiscent of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body, Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, Andersen’s debut is a potent, profoundly original journey into and out of loss. Available now.