A long time ago in a neighborhood two counties away, I found two small action figures in our new house, left behind by the kids who’d lived there before.
I was five and a half–I’d been to preschool, I had older cousins, I’d seen enough to recognize the military type and the hairy brown creature as Star Wars characters. But ugh, that wasn’t my thing. I didn’t like robots and blasters, and I was frankly terrified of outer space. I much preferred my stories set in magical kingdoms with knights and princesses (nobody’d told me Star Wars actually was about knights and princesses).
I kept the two figures anyway, and incorporated them into my own playtime, and you’ll have to forgive me if I may have thought the brown hairy one was an evil monster. (The military one, it turned out, was an Imperial Officer, but I thought he was dumb-looking, and tended to make him the butt of jokes).
We’d moved here just before I had to start kindergarten, the best possible time to move since I wouldn’t have to switch schools. Ostensibly, though, we moved because my dad had gotten transferred to a new office. It just so happened to be right before I started school. It just so happened to be nearer my grandmother, who babysat more and more frequently. It just so happened to be nearer the world-renowned Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where my toddler sister, Annie, was spending more and more time.
Annie, as far as I understood it as a kindergartner, had a hole in her heart. Not metaphorically. Her metaphorical heart was vibrant and funny and fun. If the metaphorical heart was responsible for pumping blood, she would be running marathons today.
Even at that age, I knew Annie was the cool one. She was always cheerful. She could always make Mom laugh. She was a perfectly capable companion for my make-believe adventures, even three years younger as she was. And she thought more out-of-the-box. “What’s your favorite color? Mine’s purple,” I said, like a typical kindergarten girl. “Mine’s green!” Annie replied. “Green?” I said incredulously. “Sure, green’s a great color,” Dad piped up. “Grass is green, trees are green, it’s the color of the world!” Well, that was humbling. What’s purple? A kind of grape I don’t even like? Leave it to Annie to have the right answer, the color of the whole world.
It was a strange sort of sibling rivalry because I agreed with it. I knew Annie was somehow better than me. And being sick all the time just got her more attention. The nurses at the hospital got her a Cabbage Patch doll, in the Winter of ’83-’84, when they were notoriously hard to find! I’d gotten a generic knock-off doll for Christmas, didn’t even come with a birth certificate. But she was sick. And so cheerful through it all! Everyone loved her at the hospital. Everyone made exceptions for her at home.
One day that spring, when the seasonal Dairy Queen down the street reopened, we all set off to get ice cream, and Annie fainted right outside the restaurant door. Mom sobbed and dropped beside her and scooped her up and rocked her, then carried her home. And the innocent 6-year-old in me thought, “But what about our ice cream?” Then that awful inner voice I’ve come to know as my own worst enemy spoke up, though at the time I thought it was just my conscience. “How can you think about ice cream at a time like this?” it said. “What kind of horrible selfish person wants ice cream when her mom is bawling and her sister can’t walk?”
I confess to gloating a little when Annie later threw a temper tantrum over some stickers she wanted. See? I’m not the only selfish one! She can be selfish, too! It just happened so rarely.
Of course looking back I think, what else could have been done? Who wouldn’t want to make the best of whatever time they had with someone whose time was so limited? But what could anyone have told that 6-year-old to help her not feel so forgotten?
People tried. They used all the resources they had on How to Help Children Deal with a Terminally-Ill Sibling. I remember my dad breaking the news to me, quietly, that Annie was going to die soon. I nodded, feeling I’d already known that, that I’d picked up on it from the whispers and the foreboding.
Then he asked if I understood what that meant: It means not coming back, not ever waking up. Yes, I knew. I’d had another grandfather once, when I was a baby. I barely remembered him because he’d been dead most of my life. He’d never come back. Why did grownups think that was so hard to understand? They kept handing me stories about some stupid kid who kept wondering when Grandma would wake up. I know, I kept telling people. I’m fine. Because if understanding that death meant death was the only issue here, I was perfectly well-adjusted. Who thought I had other issues to deal with? I didn’t. I knew I wasn’t the important child.
When Annie came home from the hospital for the last time, my grandma said we were going to visit my teen-aged cousins for a week to celebrate the end of the school year. It was exciting enough that for once I didn’t notice I was being gotten out of the way. Mom, Dad, and Annie (and our newborn sister, but only because she was still too little to be away from Mom) spent some quiet, me-less time alone together. They rented a video camera to capture those final days. We didn’t yet have our own VCR, so that in itself was fun. They even rented a video to watch on it.
Star Wars. You wondered when that was coming back into the story, didn’t you.
After two days learning about crushes and MTV from my cousins, my aunt and grandma woke us up late one morning with tears in their eyes. It was time to go home. Annie had died peacefully on the couch that morning. She’d died watching Star Wars.
For the next few days I didn’t have a chance to feel forgotten, because the house swarmed constantly with friends and relations. But I still felt odd, like everyone was expecting me to feel and act in a way I didn’t feel. That I wasn’t following the script of a kid dealing with her first major death. “I have two Kleenexes,” I told my dad’s cousin at the first viewing, “one for my runny nose and one for my tears.”
But I didn’t have tears. The closest I got was looking at the program someone had written up, with a picture of Annie doing a funny dance and a poem underneath it, titled “God Needed an Angel.” Some relative or another helped me read it, a verse about God choosing a small perfect wonderful person on earth specifically to join the Heavenly Hosts. Yeah, God would choose her, I thought. I still didn’t cry. I just felt a little sick.
But that might have been because I was sick. My runny nose and twisted stomach were joined by a lot of itching by the evening, as I sank into the bathtub and admitted that the water felt really nice against all my mosquito bites. My mom (my poor mom! As if she wasn’t already having the worst week of her life!) squinted closely and said, “Those aren’t mosquito bites.”
And so that first viewing turned out to be the only part of the funeral proceedings I attended. The rest of the week I spent at home, tucked in on the couch, with a bad case of chicken pox.
For most of the next two days, there were enough previously-infected cousins around to keep me company, but Friday morning was the funeral proper. A neighbor volunteered to stay with me while everyone else was at the service, and to keep me occupied, somebody put that rented video cassette into that rented VCR/camera, and I spent the morning of my sister’s funeral watching that famous Star Wars thing for the first time.
I wish I could say it was love at first sight, or that any feeling at all arose in me that might hint at the hundreds more times I would watch this movie in the decades to come. But that first time, it all blurred together. I enjoyed it, because there were knights and a princess, but there were still too many spaceships and robots, too much brown desert and black space, and the princess didn’t even wear a beautiful ball gown! It simply didn’t stick.
Except for one scene.
The Wise Old Man was fighting the Big Scary Bad Guy with their Laser-Sword Thingies. The Bad Guy taunted the Old Man, telling him he was old and weak. But the Old Man said, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” And then, he did. The Old Man glanced over at Luke, saw they were about to escape, then just turned back to Vader. Then he raised his sword prayerfully, closed his eyes, and whoosh! He just let Vader kill him! And he vanished! And Luke was flipping out! But then Ben spoke to him, in his mind, telling him to run! He was still there! But he wasn’t! He was there just enough to remind Luke to keep going!
That scene burned itself into my brain though it took me years to figure out why.
At the time, I remember feeling that that had been the scene Annie was watching when she died, though I’d never heard any specifics on that. Maybe it wasn’t until I studied Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment in college, about the ways children psychologically process stories, that I understood what that scene had really meant to me, in that moment.
Here was someone willingly giving up his life to become more powerful than imaginable, facing death without fear. A good scene to watch at the end of one’s life, sure. But that was just the beginning. Because there was Luke, left behind, devastated, but Obi-Wan essentially yelled at him from the afterlife, Get moving, kid, you have an empire to overthrow.
All this wove itself into my worldview in moments. Annie was fine now, I thought. More powerful than anyone could imagine. Why did people feel bad for dead people? That was what the “God Needed an Angel” poem was about, after all, but it was Obi-Wan Kenobi who made the concept mean something to me. And only Obi-Wan Kenobi showed me that the people left behind were still important, too. It was the people left behind who were hurt by death, but it was also those people who had to keep going, to complete what the dead had left unfinished, to save the galaxy.
I wish I’d paid more attention to that part of the message at the time, instead of the messages I was getting elsewhere about how only the good die young (I’m a huge Billy Joel fan, but even after thirty-some years I prefer to switch the channel on that song because the title, flipped around as I interpreted it, still makes me wince). God doesn’t need angels in heaven as much as children on earth, people alive to do the work of goodness.
Maybe I was left behind because I still need to destroy the Death Star.
While Bettelheim’s interpretations of fairy tales are a little too Freudian for me, his claims about the importance of stories in psychological development are spot on.
Except you can’t tell from the outside which story a kid might need, or what it might mean to them. Pile on all the doctor-sanctioned bibliotherapy you want, but a kid might really find salvation in a Scooby-Doo comic. Some people need angels to guide them through grief.
But sometimes, some unsuspecting uninterested kid just might need a Jedi to remind her that the Force will be with her, always.