My Sister Kate and Strachan House
I haven’t seen my sister Kate since COVID began and I miss her. I usually make my way to Toronto at least once a year, often with a child of mine in tow. I bring snacks and we all have a loving catch up. But with life in turmoil, I have not been able to get to Toronto, and this week I found out that Kate is moving from her downtown residence to Scarborough, this very Friday.
Moving to the suburbs! I think Kate would cackle in horror at the concept. ‘Oh god no, not the burbs, kill me first!’ We might laugh together at the absurdity. But it’s not really funny. And the suburbs she is heading towards are not a domestic dream. I have not been able to see her and look into her eyes, so I don’t know what she is feeling. Without any contact, I do feel like I am losing her.
My sister, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1978, lives a different sort of life, a tough street life. Her friends are mad or wild and the older she gets the tougher and meaner they get. I have visited her in wild crash pads, subsidized housing, hospital beds and psychiatric wards since I was 16 years old.
In the last twenty years Kate’s most consistent home has been Strachan House, housing that was created for people who are chronically homeless. The purpose of the housing was to give people who are difficult to house a room of their own and access to primary care and a community. And it worked. She has benefitted from the presence of caregivers and social workers and doctors. They have kept her company at times and saved her life too.
But Strachan House is closing down and Kate, and all the other residents, are being shipped out to their new housing, a rundown hotel on the side of highway 401. There will be a doctor on the premises, three meals a day and private rooms. If she stays there, she will have a warm place to sleep, and access to drugs both illegal and legitimate.
Strachan House is being closed because it is run down, but it is clear that gentrification plays a role. The area, Liberty Village, is the new hot spot with oyster bars and shiny high rises replacing rundown rooming houses and seedy hotels. It is sad that broken people are unwanted in this area, but it is not really surprising. The residents of Strachan House are rough. They are dirty, and sometimes they are angry.
My sister has missing teeth and is creased with dirt. Her fingernails are layered with black nail polish and caked underneath with dirt. She eats with her hands, which are nicotine stained and rough. She is incontinent. She might mutter and scream at herself, or in your general direction. S he might stare at you with her huge green eyes and rock back and forth, her skinny legs twisted up under her, and her broken feet (from a suicidal jump off a bridge when she was 21 years old) wrapped in layers and layers of protective socks.
My sister lives a life that we would not want to live. You might wonder why she wants to live at all. But she does want to live, mostly for the next high. She wants to live and she wants to continue just as she is. She does not want rehab. She rejects it constantly. She has had two fentanyl overdoses in the last year in which she was wildly fortunate to be near a doctor with the shot that brought her back to life.
I don’t want her to die. She is a gentle soul with a kind heart, and I want to see her again. I want to bring her a coffee and a donut and tell her I love her. When I visit her Kate is always dressed with style, bright scarves and black tights, her dyed hair brushed. She still carries the bourgeoisie manners of our upbringing, and this can translate to a sharp tone with a social worker, as well as a kind and thoughtful insight.
Her eyes can be expressive of her good nature; kind, watchful and intelligent. When I turn up for a visit, she will remember something about my life, ask me about a chronic condition, ask after the children by name. She is my sister and I love her.
When I was in elementary school Kate would wake me up to tell me her troubles. Someone was bullying her in middle school, someone waiting outside the school. I would rouse myself from sleep, probably only eight years old, to listen and give comfort. She was the emotional sister. She was nurturing, silly and theatrical. She was motherly. She made the best macaroni and cheese dinner. She wore her hair in a headband when she did math homework because she said it made her concentrate. She was funny, with a natural talent for physical comedy.
We have an old silent super 8 film of her sitting in front of our Christmas tree. I can see it in my mind’s eye: the amber colour of the aging film, the sparkles from the tree decorations, her glossy auburn hair tied back in a ponytail exposing her lovely young face. She starts to giggle and her head blurs as she leans over in laughter, looking back at the camera, her giggling silently intensifies until tears are streaming from her smiling eyes, crescents of sparkle, flashing green through her long eyelashes.
When Kate is moved out from Strachan House she will lose contact with a wonderful charitable organization just down the street, called Evangel Hall. This is the worst part of the move, for me, as Evangel Hall was a great help to our family, acting as a trustee and kindly handing Kate a daily allowance from her own money, an inheritance from our parents.
Evangel Hall even organized a zoom call last year so that my other sister and I could join her and watch her open gifts that we had sent her. The staff at Evangel Hall even spoiled her with a special meal for her birthday. Kate looked as proud as a queen, gracefully accepting gifts and treats.
I am worried that Kate will run away once she is dropped into this unfamiliar hotel. And if she is separated from Evangel Hall and Strachan House, she will look for new drug dealers who won’t know her or may react violently to her craziness. I am worried that the next time we will hear from her is when she is picked up by the police. But that would be the good scenario.
In the end, there is nothing I can do. I have to trust her highly developed survival skills. And I have to let go. I have lived with the fear and inevitability of her violent or drug related death for much of my life. I feel like I am hardened to it. I am not, but I am learning.
The kindhearted doctors and care givers at Evangel Hall, and Strachan House and CamH helped me connect with Kate and it made my life easier. It feels like I am losing one more thing in a long list of innocent joys and freedoms lost during the years of COVID.
But maybe it is all for the good. I am seeing things more clearly. I am realizing that I have fooled myself with so many of my relationships of trust. I have discovered that my view of the world has been naïve.
My sister lies to me and humours me, for my sake. To make me feel better, to allow me to have my fantasies. Maybe it is the same with the way I have been living in the world. I have been very trusting. I have allowed myself to believe in fantasies.
We are fooled every day, manipulated and cajoled. We recycle plastics that end up in landfill. We talk about ‘right’ and ‘left’ politics when those are useless terms. There is no real divide. There are no sides. There is truth, and there are lies. And if we are honest with ourselves, we do know the difference.
4 thoughts on “Lies I tell to Myself”
Always feel privileged to read your words because you have such a beautiful delivery, even with difficult subjects.
Thank you Kali
When you read a story, a sad story from someone you know and believe, it reaches the very heart of the soul!
I have never met your sister Kate, but I feel I know her; through your words of love and compassion!
Paul Alfred, thank you for writing, I appreciate your words and kindness.