On a fall day, when I was in the 4th grade, my 20-year-old sister chose to end her life. Debbie was technically my half-sister, from my dad’s first marriage, but those technicalities never mattered to me.
I never saw my sister’s note and I don’t fully know what combination of life led her to pull the trigger. But I do know she was struggling with the fact that she was gay.
It was 1980 and times were much different–so different that I didn’t become aware of Debbie’s sexual orientation until the summer of 1992. It was something my parents never talked about. Debbie was rarely remembered out loud, but I always thought of her.
I know the loss of his daughter was terribly painful for my dad, understandably so. He never did come to grips with it before he died. In fact, it was my mom—a gay rights, mental health and AIDS awareness advocate–who told me in a hushed voice one day that, “well, Debbie was gay.”
The night before Debbie committed suicide, we played soccer in field around the apple trees on our Whidbey Island family farm. I can still remember the smell of apples and fresh cut grass, the chill in the air and the sunlight fading away. I remember the laughs and the competition. I remember the soccer ball with the white and blue pattern. I remember looking up to Debbie.
When she said it was time for her to head back home that night, to her apartment in Seattle, she told her little punk of a brother to give her a hug. I didn’t do it. Come on, she was my sister. I was 9. Gross!
It’s one of my biggest regrets.
The next night, my mom, dad, brother and I were having dinner at a neighbor’s house down the hill. The phone rang, the roar of two families got quiet and innocence disappeared. It was the call notifying my Dad that his daughter was dead.
Just the fact that my dad got a call at someone else’s house was strange. The blankness on his face was horrific.
My mom took my brother and I into a bedroom and sat us down on the bed to explain that Debbie had died. We were old enough to understand something just wasn’t right and we had questions of how, where and why that mom answered directly and honestly. It had to be mom’s most difficult moment as a parent, but it was one of her greatest.
I originally wrote most of the above in June, 2013, when the Defense Of Marriage Act was struck down. I had just been in San Francisco to cover a couple of movies, amidst the fun and flair of that city’s Pride festivities. I couldn’t help but think about my sister and how she would be celebrating at the age of 52.
Just under two precious years later, we finally have marriage equality in America.
Now, I can’t help but think about how my sister would have celebrated at the age of 54.