July 25, 2012, was the day my sister died. She had been struggling with drugs and alcohol for years, but I never thought it would come to something as irreversible as death. She died on a beautiful day; I remember that day clearly. A death day is hard to forget for those that live.
I know death is irreversible, but somehow I thought, this is all going to be made better. I thought that for a long time.
My sister left two young children and they became a big part of my life. Even though with time I learned to accept that my sister was gone, I was having a hard time dealing with my new world.
In an effort to make our bigger family work, we bought a house to live in with room for everyone. And then came the flood. It was fast and totally unexpected. My niece and nephew’s rooms were under water for days as I tried to keep up with the incoming deluge. A friend of mine came over to help with water management, but I sent him away. So many friends offered help, but I refused. I felt I owed it to my sister to take care of this flood alone.
At some point, I was able to hold the water at bay, but the eventual living conditions in the kids’ rooms was substandard, with a nasty, damp cement floor and constant mold onslaught. I hated the house and I was disappointed in the way I was handling my life. I thought my sister would be disappointed in me, too.
As summer approached, I set out to fix the failed French drain that caused the flood in the first place and completely renovate the flood-damaged areas of the house. In the process, a good friend of mine asked if he could come over and help me dig. I usually would say no, but I said yes.
We dug and when we tired we went into the flooded rooms to scrape adhesive off the floor, which released a toxic odor that my friend put up with in order to help me as much as he could.
My sister stood alone against drugs and alcohol, and she could not ward them off any better than I could the groundwater that poured into my house. Initially I resisted many offers of help from friends because I had learned growing up in a hard household to be fiercely independent and let no one in.
It was only when I accepted a friend’s offer of help in rebuilding the damage that things started to get better. Things got a lot better, quickly. As a matter of fact, more friends offered help and pretty soon a tremendous amount of work was done. Now, the house looks great, the drain works perfectly and I like the house I live in for the first time. I see that my niece and nephew are much more comfortable and happy in their dry, clean rooms.
The world might be unintentionally cruel, but it can be beaten with friends that are intentionally kind, if you let them in. In Alaska, where alcoholism and drug addiction rates are high, the importance of friendship and being part of a caring community cannot be underestimated.
My life is on the upswing. I finally figured out that the cruel world made me shut out people, but by doing so, it caused the world to feel even more cruel — an endless cycle. The only one with the power to break the cycle was me.
To mark my sister’s two-year death day anniversary this year we will remember the things we loved about her, of course. We are also going to talk about all the ways we have been pulling together as a family these last couple of years, because I want the kids to recognize that no one, even someone as tough as their aunty, can go it alone. We all need support and, sometimes, we need help. Here’s to having enough love and trust between us to pull a new, stronger family out of the ashes. And here is to friends that insist on helping.
• Sheila Keller is a mother, aunt and teacher in Juneau.