I’ve been reticent to write about my sister, Gail, in my previous blogs, because she should be treated differently than the rest of us siblings. Gail was the second born of five and had insurmountable heartbreak dealt her that the rest of us were helpless to alleviate. She was an extremely bright child and was precociously articulate. She read constantly from a set of encyclopedias Dad had bought and had a vocabulary even a scholar would admire. In high school, her best friends were her teachers, the principal and the superintendent. She was on the Port Neches-Groves High School Debate Team since her freshman year, took every speech and journalism class the school had to offer, and graduated Sum Cum Laud. She received a full ride to Trinity University in San Antonio but chose to attend Lamar in Beaumont to be near her fiancee, David Moore, who had dropped out and majored in drugs. She wrote the following poem to him before she married him. She wrote many poems. This one was published in the Lamar University Pulse:
He is as salt to her
A strange sweet, a peculiar money
Precious and valuable, only to her tribe;
And she is salt to him
Something that rubs raw that leaves a tearful taste
But what he will strain the ocean for
And what he needs.
While continuing college, Gail married David and was hired on to the Port Arthur News as a reporter and copy editor. Though she wrote many articles for the Port Arthur News, I picked out one that spoke to our heritage. (You’ll need a magnifying glass. I screwed up the size. Sorry.)
Finally, David, who had no job, became discontented with Gail’s “paltry” salary, so he suggested they move west for better opportunities and a more rugged setting. Gail acquiesced, and they hitch hiked to Taos, New Mexico , where Gail became editor in chief of the Pueblo Nation’s newspaper. David, however, continued to stay home and get high. To her credit, Gail finally left him and made her way to Santa Barbara, California. She settled, though, in the Swami Satchidananda Commune, and her family went ballistic. We were Catholics at the time, and Catholics thought of those cults as heretical.
That was then. Today, I would not have judged Gail, but, rather, would have been pleased for her to do whatever made her happy. That commune made her happy, until, that is, she had a mental breakdown; that’s when it sent her packing. We didn’t know whether to blame her breakdown on her husband’s drugs or the commune’s drugs, but we just knew drugs were the culprit somehow. At the time, no one in our family had any signs of mental illness. My dad had bad mood swings at times, but we just chalked that up to his job and his drinking.
Many heart rending years later, we learned that Gail had inherited a schizophrenic gene. We didn’t know if the gene was awakened by drugs or if the onset, usually between ages 18-25, happened naturally. Evidence that this, indeed, was inherited, lives on in some of us today, just not as severely. The how it happened, though, was moot; the fact is, Gail was very ill. Her looks changed dramatically after years of taking very powerful drugs to keep her functional. Once doctors had the disorder guardedly under control, Gail came to live with me in Alvin, where she met her second husband, Rod, a much more caring and loving man. After years of our persistence, Gail was finally awarded disability, which took the strain off the family finances. Rod was as poor as she was, so he wasn’t much help. Here’s a picture of Gail reading a poem she wrote for my mom at her 70th birthday party.
Physically, though overweight due to the drugs’ side effects, Gail couldn’t have been healthier, we thought, though my dad did die at 47 from heart disease, and he was overweight, too. She passed away at just 51, on January 17, 2004. She never had children. Sadly, Rod, himself, though four years younger than Gail, died of cancer in October of that same year. I’m glad Gail didn’t have to experience his death. She had already lost her grandmother, her mother, her guru, her best, teacher friend, and the superintendent, all within four years of each other. She never knew Rod had cancer. I think of her often. My favorite picture of Gail is this one. She looks so tranquil, and her face seems close enough to kiss.
I have written about Gail, not just because she deserves to have her story told, but also because mental illness shouldn’t be stigmatized or ignored, not by anyone, including the government. It is a real problem and needs addressing. It is a systemic disorder that affects numerous families, some you may know personally. We were lucky. We were able to keep Gail from living on the street. How many others do, though? When I look back at my sister’s picture, all I feel is compassion and sadness. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. Shelly and I interred her ashes at Oak Bluff, at which time I read this poem I wrote to honor the occasion.
It’s June 26, 2006, Happy Life Day, Gail.
Today, I find myself querying life more often than I did when you passed,
And my musings? Time and again they settle on this one metaphor:
Life’s a spark, I think, Yes – something fleeting. An energy ignited, perhaps
more from collision than coalition. Yes, I think life’s a spark. Something humans tend
to celebrate in its infancy, nurture to full flame and cherish only when it becomes an ember.
Sister Gail, you were never an ember, and I never knew to cherish you early. But a burst of wind and a flash fire
Blindsided me one January, and I learned you had rushed off alone, chasing the ghostly smoke trail of Mom’s once smoldering embers.
Now, as with her, I find your ashes silent, unscented, and cold. You, too, have left me your memories – – both tragic and loving,
But a better and wiser woman for them. For that I thank you and will always celebrate your life.
As a final tribute, we hallow this spot in the garden for you, Gail Rebecca Marceaux Larson.
We want the future to know that you lived, that you had a name, a place, and a time — that you mattered, and that you are still loved.
May you rest in peace here, dear Sister, not far from Mom and Dad, and rest assured that your life — your flame — will burn brightly in our hearts for all time.