Watching Your Arm Disappear
Written by
Julie Smallsreed
November 2019
Written by
Julie Smallsreed
November 2019

The first time I realized something was up with my sister Laura started in a Kia Sportage, driving with her to a church service for Thanksgiving. I remember thinking that I was cool because I got to ride with her. Laura is nine years older than me; she’s always been more of a role model more than she’s been a big sister. The age gap was big enough that when she hung out with her friends, my presence wasn’t annoying—I was the real baby doll she got to hold, play with, and pretend was hers. I don’t personally remember this role I was playing (I was an infant), but I can look at one of our numerous photo albums and see photos upon photos of Laura holding me, pushing my stroller, wearing me on her hip. Laura’s role in my life has always been something it wasn’t supposed to be. First micro-mom, then cool role model I wanted to be, then post-college adult who forgot home.

In between cool role model and post-college adult was my favorite Laura. This was Sportage-driving, took-me-to-lunch, spent-real-time-with-me Laura. This was right before absent Laura.

Our church is only a ten-minute drive from our house, we drive through Braceville, my hometown, and into Leavittsburg, the town that holds my church, school, and work. By the time fall ends and the leaves have fallen, this drive becomes a sullen, dead, and gray landscape of tree stumps and muddy ditches, only broken up by a truck stop, two abandoned buildings, and a dollar tree (Dollar Trees are popping up in shithole towns like glitter in a dorm after bid week). I try not to watch the landscape because it’s disappointing to see, but I can’t help but let my eyes dart away from Laura and toward the landscape.

            “I just wanted to tell you,” Laura starts. “That there’s a reason I haven’t been around as much lately or come back very often to go to church here. I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with guys, some have taken advantage of me, and some of them are at church. I don’t like being around them… it’s just a little painful.”

Weirdly enough, growing up with a Tumblr account desensitized me to things like this. I’ve had conversations about sexual assault, mental illness, distancing yourself from negative situations, and tons of dark, hard topics. I was exposed to this really early, so Laura telling me that, basically, she’d experienced trauma and had to distance herself from those people was something I felt like I could process. I told her about what experience I had with trauma or at least what I learned about through the experience of people I knew in between facing her, facing the dying landscape, and facing the reality that the strong role model I knew suddenly became very human.

I remember Laura thanking me for being understanding and being surprised that I had been that close to trauma. I didn’t want to tell her that her 15-year-old sister knows some of the same shit, same trauma, as a college graduate. I’d say this was a growing step for Laura and I, her being vulnerable with me, me being able to be strong for her. I thought I was seeing behind the curtain that she had put up. I didn’t really know that she was only showing me a peek, and that there was plenty more. There was more that was building behind her curtain, it would soon explode, and she would fall away from our family because of it.

In between the Sportage and real blow up was about two years of limbo, two years where Laura continues to come around less and less. She assured me that she would try to see me, her problem wasn’t with me or our family, but being around us made it harder. “You understand, I’m glad you do, and I need you around me” she’d say. We would still see each other, I’d come to Akron where she taught, we’d hang out at her school. Things were different, but still normal enough. I didn’t really suspect that anything bigger was wrong. I thought that I was safe to assume that the issues Laura was working through were between Laura and the guys that had taken advantage of her. I didn’t think that it would affect our relationship.

The last time my whole family was together was my sister Emily’s wedding in July 2017. Laura was the Maid of Honor, I was a Bridesmaid, and our family felt whole for the first time in months. The leadup to the wedding Laura was still pretty absent but seeing her for the bachelorette party and some of the prep gave me hints of what life was like before. Laura even stayed the night in our house the night before the wedding. I remember thinking this was unprecedented. Previously, she would at least show up at family gatherings, but she met us there and drove home before we left. The morning of the wedding was, as all weddings, a mad dash of getting ready, smiling for pictures, and a lot of hairspray. Laura made mimosas, I did Emily’s makeup, Laura had a good playlist on in the background, and the photographer hovered, taking candids of the pre-wedding bride. There’s a picture, a black and white, that the photographer gave my sister of Emily and I, her facing me, me fixing her eyeshadow. I remember being so happy that day, not only because one of my sisters was getting married, but because I had both of my sisters, my parents, my extended family, and all our friends all in one place. It was glorious.

At the reception, Laura, Emily, and I sat up at the head table, all three of us in a row. We drank champagne, laughed, ate, gave speeches, and danced. The Smallsreed daughters love line dances, so when the Cupid Shuffle, Wobble, or Casper Slide came on, you could find all three girls, side by side, dancing away. We ended the night by sending off the bride and groom, tearing down the reception all, and heading home. Laura drove back to her house alone.

This was the last time my parents saw my sister.

            Growing closer to blow up, we all knew something was wrong, Emily and I less than others in our family. My parents thought they knew the problem but feared bringing it up to Laura in case she was hiding for other reasons, they didn’t want to upset her further. Emily hadn’t had the conversation that Laura and I had before Thanksgiving. She didn’t know at least part of why Laura was disappearing slowly from our lives. I had to guess that it was becoming harder and harder to be at home because it was a reminder of the people who hurt her here. I didn’t know that, on some level, I was right.

            I guess blowup was when Laura sent a letter to my parents through email. She sent a letter to my mom’s email, saying that my parents had caused her too much pain by sweeping her sexual assault under the rug. That they didn’t deal with it enough when she was a kid, that they didn’t stand up for her when my grandmother blamed her. That they thought that they did enough and then swept it under the rug, hoping she wouldn’t remember it. She said she didn’t want to see my parents anymore; she didn’t want to talk to them unless it was about finances that she still shared with them. She said she wasn’t coming home.

            My mom had to tell me what she was talking about, because I was never told. “When Laura was four and your cousin Tim was eleven, Tim sexually assaulted Laura, they were in the basement of Grandma’s house playing while she was babysitting.” I didn’t know how to respond, but my mom kept talking. “It’s mostly Tim’s mom’s fault, she let her boyfriend play whatever he wanted around the boys, he’d drink and leave on HBO and let the boys watch, Tim would see sex scenes that he shouldn’t have seen. I think he just… took that out on Laura.”

            She continued to explain that, at the time, no one really knew what to do and they probably didn’t handle it well. My grandma refused to take any blame for not watching close enough, Tim’s dad and stepmom refused blame, not reprimanding him like they should have. My parents did what they thought was best, they took her to our pediatrician who examined her to make sure she wasn’t hurt, then sent Laura and my parents to a counselor that they went to for a couple weeks.

“After the counselor she seemed fine, she seemed okay, she seemed like she forgot,” my mom said. “And when she started disappearing and not coming home, I didn’t know if I should bring it up. She’s been going through a lot with finding a new crowd to hang out with after college, moving around… I thought maybe she could be struggling with it, but if she was just upset over other things, I didn’t want to open that can of worms and make it worse. I tried to show her that I was here for her without talking about it.” Without talking about it. That sums up my family.

I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know if what Laura told me before Thanksgiving was true, or she was trying to tell me that something was wrong without saying it. I realized that yes, our hometown held people who hurt her and she needed separation from, but I was confronted by the fact that they were much closer than I thought. She deleted her Facebook and her Instagram. To my parents, she was gone.

I continued to talk to Laura through text, honestly, I remember thinking “wow, this is fucking terrible, I hate that this happened and that what’s happening now is happing… at least I still get to talk to my sister.” She and her roommate kept me on Snapchat, so I got to see snippets of her life, and I could still reach out and have conversations with my sister. I still had a piece of my role model, my micro mom, my Kia Sportage sister.

The last time I saw my sister was Christmas break of my freshman year, 2017. I came home at the beginning of December, finally done with finals, packed up, and at home for a month. The guy I was talking to/dating had broken up with me, and I just wanted to talk to my sister. I texted Laura, asking if I could call her. I hadn’t talked to her on the phone in a couple months, so I was really looking forward to it. She called me, and I stood out on my back porch and talked to her. My dad was in the livingroom so I couldn’t talk to her anywhere on the first floor, my mom was in her room, directly opposite mine, so I couldn’t talk there. Our back porch is small, just big enough for about two people. I was in jeans and a sweater, but the snow hadn’t kicked in yet and I was warm enough to stand outside for our 30-minute conversation.

“Well he sounds like a shit guy anyway, I don’t think you’re missing out,” said Laura, her voice distanced through speakers. “It’ll probably take a while to get over him because that’s always hard, but I know you’ll be okay.”

We continued to catch up, talking about how she’s been settling into her teaching job and new place, how she was trying to find a counselor. I talked to her about adjusting to college, how my roommate left college, so I had a whole room to myself, and the Chicago trip my friend and I were planning for our next break. We planned to get together for lunch before I went back to school. For 30 minutes my relationship with my sister felt as close to normal as it could be for the circumstances.

When I got off the phone and went back up to my room, my mom asked me about the call. I felt my body tighten up; I did not want to be put in the middle of tension between them. I told her that Laura and I talked and caught up, I told her that Laura was trying to get a counselor. My mom dug in, asking about my sister. My mom isn’t an emotional person all the time, but when she gets choked up, she gets very choked up. I watched her eyes well up, my chest tightening up with the pain of seeing not only my sister go through an agonizing, long process of slowly watching people around you live like nothing was wrong (Spending a day around big holidays with my dad’s side of the family, seeing our cousins multiple times a year for dinners and birthdays every single year we’ve been a family), but also watching my mom and dad lose their first child because of a terrible event that happened 20 years ago.

“I don’t want to put you in the middle of this,” my mom said. “But you’re the only one she talks to.” I was already in the middle; my mom had already asked me to ask her questions because she blocked my mom’s number. I felt so fucking torn. My allegiance had to lie with my sister, right? She was the one who was assaulted and blamed and felt forgotten. My mom feared the consequences of talking about Laura’s assault, leading to one of the biggest divisions in our family. But I can’t turn away from my family like Laura did, I had the privilege of not being in Laura’s shoes. I would not tell her that she had to get over it, because honestly, she doesn’t have to, she doesn’t have to sacrifice her well being to make my parents feel better about their mistake. But I can’t turn away from the family I still had.

I spent my first night home from college crying, crying because I love my sister and I love my mom, but my sister doesn’t love my mom and I was stuck in the middle, so perfectly pushed into a place I hated being, caught between my sister’s struggle that I respect and seeing my mom’s pain and not being able to not empathize.

The last time I saw Laura was a few days after Christmas. We met near Akron, close to where she lived, we met at a Panera. My mom had bought her a bunch of Christmas gifts earlier in the season, almost in a hope that she would come home to get them. The bag full of her gifts was in my truck, I was the deliverer. We sat in a booth, sharing coffee and snacks. We caught up and tried to talk about normal things, but eventually started talking about the inevitable family split.

“The thing that happened with Tim made me value myself less,” said Laura. She was calm, not tearing up, like she’d thought a lot about what she was saying. “I’ve never had the best relationship with guys and it stems from that. I let guys treat me badly because I didn’t care enough about myself. The guys from church that I didn’t want to see, it was because I didn’t know how to put up a boundary with them and they took advantage.”

            We continued to talk, I tried to make it clear that I supported her need to not be at home, that she didn’t have to be around people that made it harder to heal. Because I knew, from what she said, that she never fully healed, and I didn’t know how she would. Eventually we had to leave, I walked out to my car and gave her the bag of gifts, mine included in it. She put it in the back of her car, hugged me, told me she loved me, and left.

Laura looks like me. We both have red hair and freckles, she has brown eyes and I have blue, but you can’t tell us apart in baby pictures. The pictures are old enough and dark enough that you couldn’t tell the difference between brown and dark blue. The only thing that held us apart was the strawberry shaped birthmark Laura had as a baby. People always thought I was her daughter, Laura has a maturity to her face and her demeanor, even though we’re only nine years apart it’s easy to see why people think that way. I mirror her in so many ways. Growing up I always wanted to mirror her. I liked hanging out in her room, going places with her, I wanted to be around her. Not being able to be around her is painful, it’s like missing a limb, slowly watching it disappear.

Laura and I continued on like we had been for a while, occasionally talking, but by the time my birthday came in March, she had basically stopped talking to me, she didn’t wish me happy birthday. Laura slowly started disappearing from my life even more—she and her roommate deleted me off of Snapchat, she rarely texted me back. Eventually she shut me out too. I just wanted to ask: “I respect cutting off toxic relationships, but I never thought that our relationship was toxic, when did I become a cause of pain for you?” She told me I was different, I understood. And as much as I wanted to understand, I felt the shock and pain of being shut out.

I haven’t talked to my sister in almost two years, I haven’t seen her face in two years. There’s some small part of me that hopes that she’ll reach out eventually, that her cutting even me out was worth it, that cutting out me as a reminder of my parents was worth it. I hope she’s happy, I hope she got a therapist, I hope she’s grown, I hope she values herself over men. Even writing this I don’t feel like I’ve processed my sister’s disappearance. For the first year of her not talking to me I’d occasionally get choked up about it, but I think we’ve all gotten past the immediate tears phase, I even managed to write this without fully crying. My mom and dad have stopped bringing her up, we’ve all formulated the same responses when people ask about her: “Yeah, she’s doing well, she’s teaching in Springfield,” “I’ll tell her you asked,” “I’m sure she’s missing you too,” and for those who actually know why she left “We still haven’t talked, I’m okay, I think she’s okay.”

I miss my sister. I think she has my number blocked but maybe I’ll send a text saying I’m thinking of her. If it delivers, it’ll be an unread text from Littlest Sister. If it doesn’t, it’s my letter to a ghost of the part of us we lost.

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