Today, my only sister Sarai turns twenty-six years old. That might not sound so significant. Except that my sister has sickle cell anemia. It’s a disease that can often claim one’s life before they reach adulthood. Even with our advanced medicine, the average life expectancy of someone with sickle cell anemia is forty-five years. Not to mention the pain involved in having such a body-draining disease.
As much as I love her, the fact is that Sarai probably shouldn’t be here. Between the disease and what we were going through as a family in ’82, it’s hard to believe that Sarai managed to survive in the worst of our worst times. I had just gone through my summer of abuse at the hands of her father, my mother had struggled through picket lines because she didn’t want to lose her job (only to get her hours cut in half anyway), and we were eating as if there was a global famine crisis. By October ’82, with my mother working part-time, I knew we were up crap’s creek without a lifeline. What would come next left me both more cold and adult-like and more in search of escape than I had been.
A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I noticed something about my mother. At a time when we all looked starved, my mother looked round. Her stomach and cheeks were telltale signs. So I asked her, my tweener voice cracking all the while.
“Mom, are you pregnant?!?”
“Yeah, Donald, I’m pregnant,” she sighed.
“What! You got to be kidding! You mean you’re still having sex with him?”
“Watch ya mouth, boy!”
“Mom, what are we going to do? You can’t have a baby, not now, not with all these mouths to feed!”
“Donald, what I’m supposed to do?”
“You need to get an abortion, that’s what!”
“I don’t believe in abortion. It’s against God’s will.”
“Well, we can’t feed the kids that are here now, so how can you feed it? Get an abortion Mom, before it’s too late!”
Before my mother could say anything else, I stormed out for yet another store errand for milk, diapers, and all the things I couldn’t eat. I wanted to cut Maurice’s balls off and shove them down his throat. I wanted to shake Mom until her eyes rolled back in her head. Most of all, I wanted to get her to an abortion clinic yesterday.
It was time to do something desperate. We needed money just to eat the most basic of food. We hadn’t done a full wash of our clothes since the beginning of September. Me and Darren both needed a new pair of sneakers about every other month. The ones I had were forming holes on the sides and bottoms.
So I turned to Jimme. Mom was always complaining that he didn’t pay child support anyway. And I knew where he lived now. It was 120 South Tenth, not far from the East 241st Street station in the Bronx, the end of the line on the Subway’s 2 and 5 lines running from Brooklyn and Manhattan. There were a bunch of watering holes nearby, making Jimme pretty easy to find.
Darren would usually come with me on what gradually became our weekly hike from the land of 616 to the near Bronx and the city. Jimme being Jimme, he would grab me by one hand while giving me the money and put his left arm around my shoulder, whispering in my right ear, “Don’ give Darren nothin’,” or “You keep fitty for yo’self an’ give Darren ten.” “You a Collins, don’ be sharin’ nothin’ wit’ them Gills.” I almost always broke with Jimme around this.
Yes, Darren often was a selfish goofball and my 616 family was just a step or two above total chaos. Yet I couldn’t go to eat at a good pizza shop with Jimme and Darren and let my mother and my younger siblings subsist on bread, water and milk. I couldn’t watch them run around in graying underwear and just wash my own clothes. Not as hard as my mother worked, not as long as I lived there. I wanted to help as much as I could and still take care of my needs.
Jimme knew I was helping out at 616 too. So he would say things like “Don’ be givin’ your motha my money. Those ain’t my kids. Dis jus’ for you and Darren.” Or “Don’ give them muthafuckas nothin’,” which would start a brief argument between me and him about the needs of innocent children. Even with that and his drunken ups and downs, Jimme helped save the day for us and me as we plunged into the watery abyss of welfare poverty.
For some reason my mother didn’t listen to me, giving birth to my only sister, Sarai Adar Washington on the ninth of February ’83, born in the middle of a snowstorm. I refused to visit my mother in the hospital in New Rochelle. I didn’t want Sarai, and was tired of watching my mother make incredibly bad decisions. Maurice tried to force me and Darren to go. Since I refused, it was my job to clean our increasingly sparse space. This would’ve normally been a hard task, but with so little furniture, it was mostly a matter of sweeping up dust and garbage. It was the way I hoped our problems would disappear.
Sarai came home a couple of days later, obviously stricken with the disease, as she looked like she was in pain then. I was so mad whenever I was home in Sarai’s first days. Not mad at her. Mad with my mother. Even at part-time, she could’ve seen a doctor about her sickle-cell trait, and screened to see if her idiot husband had the trait also. Even in ’82, even without his participation, through my brothers Maurice and Yiscoc, my mother could’ve learned early on whether both her and my then stepfather Maurice had the sickle cell trait. She long knew that she had it, and I’d known about my trait since I was seven. I’d learn about a year later, in ninth grade Biology with Mr. Graviano, that with two parents, there was a one-in-four-chance with every pregnancy that full-blown sickle cell anemia would be passed to a child. For the first time in my life, I saw my mother as an idiot.
By the middle of the summer of ’83, Sarai was obviously in trouble. She hardly gained any weight, all of her food had to be fortified with iron, and she only had “three strands of hair,”as my mother put it. It was more like a few dozen in three spots on Sarai’s scalp. She always needed help. Sarai even then was in and out of the hospital, in need of the occasional blood transfusion, and at time in excruciating pain.
With all of this, my mother would say to me, “See, that why you shouldn’t wish for an abortion,” as if I was supposed to feel guilty about what I said to her the year before because Sarai was sick. As if I had anything to do with her being here. I just gave my mother a weak smile whenever she’d say something like that.
Despite all of this, I grew to love my sister, if only because there was nothing else to do. It wasn’t her fault that her parents had about as much common sense as a wino on South Fulton Avenue in Mount Vernon on a hot day in August. Sarai wasn’t to blame for her own condition. And me suggesting that my mother get an abortion — it was obviously too late to get one by the time I yelled the idea at my mother — didn’t make Sarai one sickle cell sicker than she already was.
Over the years, Sarai did get better, then worse, then better again. I stopped babying her by the time she was a teenager, but my mother didn’t know how to stop treating her like she was a toddler. By the time of the family intervention in ’02, Sarai was obviously ready to leave 616. She moved to Alabama five years ago, to live with her high school friends and to live a slower life away from my mother and the rest of us. Even though she still has many days with pain, and more in the hospital, Sarai’s living her life her way. I’m happy for her for that. I only hope that someone somewhere finds a cure or at least a way to help people like my sister experience less pain because of this disease. Happy birthday, sister Sarai! I hope that it’s as good as you want it to be.