Memoir: my sister Sheila

My sister Sheila had a magical connection with the family Cairn Terrier.

Sheila would bang out Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on the baby grand as Marilyn, the dog, sat on her haunches underneath and howled, much to my delight. It seemed Sheila and Marilyn communicated on an intense separate wavelength, unheard by the rest of us.   

Anyone familiar with my birth family would agree: my sister Sheila was different. Born with heightened sensitivity, she expressed her self through music, passionate speech, and mournful laments. People would say that Sheila was born with “her heart on her sleeve.”  

She felt deeply, was aware of more, and shared without discrimination. She made art that stained her fingers, and she would put Spirit’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, or Carole King or James Taylor on the turntable, turn it up loud, and then place her head next to the speakers.


Her skills as a pianist were obvious each time she played (eventually earning her a scholarship at the American Conservatory of Music). And when I was ten, nurtured my musical instincts, showing me how to play one of my favorite songs, Elton John’s “Your Song.” 

Sheila’s depth of feeling also drew her, at age eleven, to ingest a near fatal overdose of phenobarbital from my mom’s pill supply. 

During the years 1966-73, Sheila was but a girl, a developing human. But she was also the only emotionally healthy one in our house, the only one to acknowledge and deplore the trauma going on all around us. She was the canary in our coalmine, reacting to the toxicity the rest of us ignored. My sisters and I, following our father’s example, minimized, suppressed, or denied dysfunction. We kept the stiff upper lip of the righteous. 

Sheila could not. Her emotions were intense and correct. 

At the dinner table, Sheila would suddenly erupt, apropos of nothing it seemed to the rest of us, in mournful sobs. As she keened, cried, and unabashedly drooled, the rest of us looked at each other and smiled. “There she goes again, the crazy one.” We saw her as lesser for her pointless, weak display. And because we felt superior to her, I and sometimes my sisters would punish Sheila for her over-sensitivity.

We belittled Sheila’s specialness, ridiculed her “breakdowns,” and attempted to psychologically alienate her from the family. At one point we conspired to convince her that she was not in the family, really:  with her fairer skin, blue eyes, and auburn hair, she was obviously adopted. 

Our “otherizing” was robust, and added weight to an already large trauma load in the home. 

We ignored how accomplished and valued Sheila was in the world outside our home–how she was popular, seen as a leader among friends from a range of ages–or how she was an excellent student, even winning the American Legion Award given to the outstanding graduate each year.

To acknowledge Sheila’s gifts would deprive us of our convenient punching bag, and so we scorned her gifts and focused comfortably on her differences.

In my opinion, each of Sheila’s siblings owe a debt of gratitude and a huge apology to her. Though we each had our struggles, we consistently did her wrong, 

Besides being quick to denigrate Sheila for most of my childhood, I also very much regret the occasions on which I attempted to maim her.

It is testament to Sheila’s generous character that as an adult she forgives and still loves us. 

In fact, over the last twenty years or so, Sheila has been for me a guru, inspiring me to grow, as she has, in loving awareness and connection. She has helped me see more clearly the roles I played in our family system. With this knowledge she has given me a grace: perspective on my part in the trauma dramas. Thanks to Sheila, I know now that to some extent our actions were entirely out of anyone’s control.

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