When Your Sister Turns out to Secretly Be a Superhero

Written by | Gay Voices

Brother and Sister

For our pride issue, I wanted to share the role that’s made me proudest in life: being a big brother to my sister Barbara, who is virtually indestructible.

Meet my family: Our mother was a complex person and career alcoholic. Married six times, she sent my older brother away for her parents to raise when I was five. My sisters were soon placed in foster care after she suffered what was then called “a nervous breakdown.” While my father was away with the Merchant Marines, my Mom’s party girl rep led to not one, but two pregnancies. Evidence suggests my father stood by her after the first, but not the second.

That’s when Mom met a man who was a real prize (and understood he’d get Social Security benefits to take us in). Since he had a stable military career, she jumped at his proposal. And when I said goodbye to my father, I had no idea I’d never lay eyes on him again.

Soon we moved to Texas. That’s where we first discovered our new stepfather was a sadist. This was not the kind of I-hate-my-parents phase that many kids go through. He took delight in punishing us and his wrath was epic. I couldn’t have been less what he wanted: bookish, small and next to useless at sports.

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After my baby sister, Vicky was born, my parents took to drinking on a nightly basis. Every bill took a back seat to their American Legion bar tab. On one occasion, my stepfather led a clothing drive for his umbrella of veterans’ organizations. Most donations were odd sizes or defective. He brought those home and told us to rummage through them for our school clothes.

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Barbara and I eventually ventured out into our El Paso neighborhood. There we learned that doing every chore a child could (which left out little more than electrical repair and car maintenance) was not the norm among our peers. Our block housed the families of several other retired military drunks — all of them stressed by the struggle to make it to payday. One night, in a strange harbinger of things to come, one of them chased his kids down the street with a meat cleaver.

When my stepfather’s shitfaced anger turned to my mother, I stood between them. So this 6″3″ Ogre would take his fists to a nine-year-old boy of about 60 lbs less than five feet tall. I held him off while my Mom ran to her bedroom to lock the door. If she tried to call for help, he’d rip the phone out of the wall.

I defended my Mom. Barbara did the same for Karen (the next oldest in line). Karen eventually became the real workhorse of our family, because she used cooking, cleaning and ironing to try to win my parents’ approval. But if she forgot something, got it wrong, or put it off? “It’s the belt for you!”

All the Rage

Barbara regularly went to school with black eyes after confronting my stepfather. Often she’d confide in a whisper, “I sometimes wish he would kill me. At least people would know who he is.” Barbara became my inspiration and soulmate. She got married at 15 to escape our stepfather, then had two kids in quick succession, Chris and Michael. By then our stepfather was dead and our mother had married another three alcoholics.

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Little Michael was struck by a car and died in Barbara’s arms at five years old. It was otherworldly; like another dimension had opened up and swallowed every beautiful thing in the world. A dark cloud formed over my sister. She and her husband had another son, then divorced. She then had a daughter and set about trying to raise her family as a single mother.

Five years ago, that daughter had a psychotic break. She stabbed Barbara 13 times and was found by the police, naked and covered in Barbara’s blood, roaming the street with knives in each hand screaming a language no one understood. Video reports led the local news. The cops said they’d never seen anyone survive losing so much blood. After nearly being murdered, Barbara finally agreed to undergo the counseling I’d been pleading with her to get since Michael’s death.

Wait: What?

Soon after, Karen died suddenly from lung cancer. due in part to the cigarettes my parents bribed her with to do household chores that left her addicted for life. Then Barbara’s older son started to drink. Heavily. To the point of liver failure. Doctors told Chris they’d put him on a waiting list for a new liver but stipulated he’d have to quit drinking. He would not. My sister lost her best friend and her son almost at once.

Therapy helped Barbara bear up while Chris drank himself to death. She remains steadfastly Catholic. Since then, she and her daughter have done a lot of work to repair their relationship. While Barbara may never trust her completely again, there is a real love between them now.

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And just when you’d think that would have been more than enough, her youngest is now entangled in addiction too. He teeters between responsible behavior (with two kids from different moms) and periods where he simply disappears for days at a time. He recently showed up for a hearing about a drunk driving arrest (and he’s a truck driver by trade), the police handcuffed him when he arrived because they found cocaine in his car when they impounded it.

So, when I think of the trials our community has faced collectively, it makes me incredibly proud to stand resolutely with them to face whatever comes next. And when I think of what my sister has endured, how much one single person can take and still put on a smile on in the belief that today will be better than yesterday, I stand that much taller. I’m a gay man. I’m Barbara’s brother. And I couldn’t be more proud of either.

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Last modified: July 23, 2019