My sister the leprechaun
It's March 17, which in the Pacific Northwest means that the grass is approaching its peak of blinding green as it spreads over the fields and rolling hills, suggesting a hidden path to leprechauns and buried treasure if only one can find the end of that elusive rainbow.
St. Patrick's Day was always a special day in my childhood, not least because our high school mascot was the Irish. (How many small towns can enjoy such resonance with a global holiday?) And somewhere mixed in with our very British heritage, my family had enough Irish blood to bring out the brogue in us all.
But more to the point, it's my sister Cami's birthday, so the day always included a party. (We don't drink, so not that kind of party.)
Apparently having Irish heritage and being born on St. Patrick's Day guarantees you'll have more than a touch of the leprechaun in you. Cami was an impulsive trickster who delighted in the unexpected and never missed an opportunity to mock the people closest to her. The more serious the occasion, the better.
The Luck of the Irish was put into overdrive early on when she beat cancer as an infant. Against the odds, Cami thrived and grew into a strong young woman. Luck favored her further with a beautiful voice and she literally sang her way through life. As sociable and inclusive as she was, people flocked to her easy confidence and good humor, and she was never alone in a crowd.
Until that crowd turned on her.
Shortly after her 18th birthday, political turmoil that had been simmering for months in our small town boiled over with my sister caught in the middle. Though Cami was neither the cause of the original conflict which had members of the community feeling raw and frustrated, or responsible for the act which pushed them over the edge, it was she who became the target. My beautiful, ridiculous sister who inspired smiles and laughter was turned on overnight by those who should have had her back.
It's been almost thirty years since that gorgeous spring morning when she and I walked to school. We expected nothing out of the ordinary from that last day before spring break. But what we found was a trail of inflammatory fliers leading to her locker, which had been plastered with more of the same.
I'll never forget the angry chants of our friends and classmates as they marched out of class and staged a teacher-sanctioned walkout, aimed as much against my sister as it was in favor of the teacher who'd been disciplined for his behavior toward her.
I'm pretty good at keeping things in check, but I broke down as I borrowed the office phone to call home. Adrenaline made me sick, not knowing for sure what was going on and what else was planned. Not knowing whether or not my sister and I were safe from their threats.
The office secretary tried to comfort me with a hug and I remember clearly the print of her black floral dress as I cried on her shoulder.
Only later did I learn that all the staff had worn black to show solidarity with the offending teacher.
Some claimed that it wasn't personal. But I saw the fliers covering every inch of Cami's locker. I witnessed the persecution that drove her to finish school early so she didn't have to return to campus. I read her name printed with obvious prejudice in the local newspaper. And I remember the conflict re-surging a few months later when her fellow classmates tried to prevent her from giving her rightful speech as valedictorian of the graduating class.
This is the darker side of small towns.
This is the danger when they turn on their own.
Today I drove through that same town and passed the 85-year-old high school building that's still in use today. I thought about the games and concerts and plays Cami and I performed in together. I thought about how betrayed I felt by those I'd trusted to look out for us, and how glad I was to leave when I graduated.
It was a true escape in more ways than one.
Cami was always more forgiving than I was, and in the coming years with the birth of social media she reconnected with some of those classmates (I won't call them "friends") who put her through such hell at the end of her senior year.
As far as I know, not a single one ever apologized to her.
But leprechauns are as tenacious as they are resourceful, and Cami didn't let those dark days keep her down. She lived a full, rich life pursuing music in college and going on later to marry the man of her dreams and starting a family of her own.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer just before her 30th birthday, she engaged in the battle of her life with the same sarcastic optimism she'd wielded against every other adversary.
After seven years, Cami's luck finally ran out and she lost her battle with cancer. But some of that Luck of the Irish has stayed with her family, and her young husband found an amazing woman to carry the torch and finish raising Cami's four beautiful children. Each St. Patrick's Day, they don their Irish gear—the more flagrant, the better—and listen to stories about the trickster mom they don't remember.
I wish I could give them a glimpse of the woman she was before cancer took her strength, her dignity, and even her singing voice.
I wish they knew her loyalty and kindness and how she treasured my late night confidences when we shared a room together clear up until my wedding day.
I wish they could feel, as I did, what it was like knowing she was always my biggest supporter and believed in me more than I believed in myself.
I wish they could hear her unexpected wise cracks that interrupted many a hymn in church.
I wish they could watch her explain to a policeman why she was lying on a large painted arrow in the middle of a parking lot at night as if it was a perfectly reasonable thing for a teenager to do.
Of all the things cancer took from her, it never took her sense of humor. She was a trickster to the end. (And beyond, I swear it.)
As the years pass, our life together seems almost as ethereal as that mythical pot of gold. But when St. Patrick's Day comes, those who loved her most break out the decorations, dress in green, and chase the memory of her mischievous smile as if we're searching for the end of the rainbow. And who knows? With a little bit of luck, we just might find it.
Note: It wouldn't be fair to mention the events in this post without also mentioning that there were others in our community who offered support even when they risked being targeted themselves. People who don't lose their humanity in the midst of turbulent, emotional times deserve recognition. They are the best of what it means to be a community.