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Sarai Washington, circa 2003.

Sarai Washington, circa 2009.

It’s been five years since I received my brother Eri’s call telling me what I had known and dreaded would come for nearly thirty years. That my only sister Sarai had died from complications stemming from sickle-cell anemia.

As soon as I picked up the phone five years ago, I knew. Sarai had been in and out the hospital for months since she had returned to New York at the tail end of ’09. Before then, she had lived either on her own or with two of her high school friends in Huntsville, Alabama since ’05. The skin and bone bruises, the constant blood transfusions, the always-there pain of sickled red blood cells circulating through her body. The average life expectancy for anyone with the disease is thirty-three years. That I had Sarai in my life for 82 percent of that life expectancy was still a minor miracle in the midst of what to me seemed completely unnecessary pain.

We weren’t as close in her later years, though. I mean, Sarai saw me as a bit of a father-figure when she was growing up. I had thirteen years and six weeks on her, so that’s how it goes. Between the 616 fire and homelessness for her and my other younger siblings in ’95, though — not to mention puberty — Sarai no longer treated me as her hero. That was fine by me. I already had too many people in my life who thought of me as some sort of hero or saint.

I think, though, that my sister enjoyed not really having to think about her future, about not feeling the need to grow up, since, what would be the point, really? I thought that because she knew more about her disease than anyone, it was her responsibility to grow up and find the best care possible to manage her disease, to bring some meaning to her life. That’s where our closeness became less so. I have a way of expecting more out of people than most people are willing to expect of themselves.

Sarai & Noah, November 2003. (Donald Earl Collins).

Sarai & Noah, November 2003. (Donald Earl Collins).

When Sarai came to live with me and my wife Angelia in ’03, to help us out with our then newborn son Noah, it was obvious that my sister was doing little to take care of herself. When I finally confronted her about her poor diet and unwillingness to watch over her disease, Sarai yelled, “You’re not my father!,” right in front of Mazza Gallerie, on the DC-Chevy Chase border (we had gone to see The Matrix Revolutions, much more for her than for me). Of course she was right. But of course, I was right also.

Sarai decided the next day to pack up her stuff and move back home to 616 and Mount Vernon, “where no one told her what to do,” she wrote as part of her going away letter. She also said that I “don’t know anything about the streets” as yet another familial “Just because you have a Ph.D…” coup de grace. I thought, “If I didn’t know anything about the streets, you and the rest of the younger siblings would’ve gotten your asses kicked through the early ’90s.”

But I knew Sarai’s letter wasn’t about the streets. It was about her living her life the way she wanted, without me or anyone else telling her how to take care of herself. That’s why she went away to Alabama for nearly four years.

Luckily I did get to talk to her a couple of times after that. Though we weren’t close, I loved her, and I know she loved me. The sad truth was, though, Sarai never had enough time to take charge over her life, and I couldn’t make her take that precious little time.