Theresa. May 13, 1969-May 6, 2015.
You big-headed galoot.
My eldest sister, Theresa, and I were watching Looney Tunes one day, and Yosemite Sam called Bugs Bunny a “long-eared galoot.” We thought the phrasing was hilarious for some reason.
It also sounded like a Robinson-worth insult. Before the day was over, one of us called the other a big-headed galoot. It stuck.
For years and years, we called each other that. Depending on the situation it was the beginning of the fight, the escalation of an argument or a greeting.
On Wednesday, my big-headed galoot left me. Theresa died of complications from multiple sclerosis a week before her 46th birthday.
Although we were 14 years apart, we were incredibly close. She named me while my mother was still out of it and my dad wasn’t at the hospital yet. I was almost always invited to tag along whenever she hung out with her friends. It’s part of the reason why I know so much about ’80s culture and identify more with the Xers. She loved anything that was purple and, of course, loved Prince and his “Purple Rain” — the film, album and song. I co-opted her love of Prince, because I really had no choice, and you can see me on occasion singing Theresa’s favorite song at karaoke.
I proudly crashed her prom photos to the point that, 14 years after I was born, she had a kid and, 14 years after her prom, she drove over to our mom’s house and plopped that kid front and center for one of my prom photos. For us, it never was about winning the battle, it was about winning the war.
I was an exceptional tattler, but I could play being the innocent one. I once slipped and fell into a pond. After being pulled to safety, Theresa got me somewhere to take a shower and all my clothes were washed. The entire time, I swore, I absolutely swore that it was between the two of us. As soon as we got home, I told my mom that Theresa didn’t watch me well enough so I fell in a pond.
I was grinning the entire time I wrote that previous paragraph.
Because of Theresa, I am the silent treatment champion. I can guarantee I won’t crack first because I discovered that she couldn’t bear the thought of her baby brother never speaking to her again.
Because of Theresa, I can be sneaky as all get-out. Ask me how to get down a creaky staircase, out the front door and into the car without making a sound.
Because of Theresa, I can not only keep a secret, but be loyal enough to rub it in your face all day and all night and never tell. She once told me a secret. It will go to my grave.
Because of Theresa, I always had someone there for me.
There were times that you would think we were twins because of how much we thought alike. You would think we already had 14 years of stories and adventures by the time I was 4. But, despite learning every conceivable way of annoying her in the greatest possible way, I considered her my second mom.
She not only saw me off to my first day of kindergarten, she sobbed at the bus stop because her baby brother was growing up. Whenever our parents weren’t around and something happened, she could switch gears in a flash. It was obvious when she was in Mom Mode. Sibling fun and games were definitely over.
But she was also irresponsible enough to think letting a 10-year-old drive her car because she was hungover and wanted some seafood. I promptly steered into a ditch because I didn’t realize you really, really had to turn the steering wheel.
That was another tattletale moment.
One day, Theresa met a boy and moved with him to Maryland and then got married. I was despondent for days because my sister left me. But, thanks to the wonders of 1990s technology, she was only a (short) long-distance call away. I got used to her being the disembodied voice and looked forward to every summer.
Not long after school let out, we’d pack up some of my things and we start the long, three-hour drive up U.S. 17 to U.S. 301 and then to Lexington Park, Maryland. Sometimes, we would meet halfway at the Burger King in Tappahannock to switch cars. After years and years of it at least being a food and bathroom waypoint, it took me until 2002 to take a look around the town.
In Lexington Park, in those apartments that are now called St. Mary’s Landing, it was like we’d only been apart for a day. But, as I got older, it fully sank in that she was an adult and I couldn’t expect her to pause around age 26 until I caught up.
It sank in more when we learned she was pregnant with my nephew Tré. I was there that summer in 1997. I was in the hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, the day he was born. I held him in my 14-year-old arms.
Although that was a great day, it was the beginning of the end. Unbeknownst to us, Theresa was beginning to show the symptoms of MS. Once we figured it out, we were told not to worry because, although it wasn’t treatable, it was manageable to the point that she could live a long, relatively healthy life. It was helpful that she had the relapsing-remitting form, they said. Never mind that one of the first bouts effectively paralyzed her for a while. So we went about our business: Theresa moved back to Hampton in 1998. My niece Shonda was born a year later. The new family had a house built. My nephew Michael was born. Although I had no idea where I’d go for college and where I’d be beyond that, I began thinking about how I’d stop by one day, watch the kids play and tell my sister about some ridiculous college story as we sipped on beers.
Instead, the disease turned malignant. She tripped and fell one night, breaking her ankle. She was in a wheelchair while it healed, but that night was the last one in which she was able to walk. We still kept our spirits up. It would be nothing for me to stop by while I was in college at Christopher Newport University to push her out of her house on Allison Sutton Drive, guide her into my car tell her some ridiculous college story and head to get cheesesteaks, a Smitty’s Better Burger with cheese, Dairy Queen or, our nostalgia food, Taco Bell.
But, by then, she was losing the ability to use any of her limbs.
Back in the early ’90s, when she got married, I was to keep her from stress eating to the point that she couldn’t fit in her wedding dress. I was still in Fat Elliott mode, so hells yes, let’s go to Taco Bell at 12:45 a.m. She barely fit in her dress.
By the time I was packing up to head to Petersburg, she was effectively bedridden. And her husband was headed to Stafford and then Hawaii with the kids. Theresa wound up at my mom’s house in what was our dining room/den because my mom doesn’t have a first-floor bedroom. One of my first memories is of her celebrating her 16th birthday roughly in the spot her hospital bed occupied.
It was strange. This time, I was the one in a different area code calling the sibling in my mother’s house. She had a custom-made wheelchair by then and my mom had a hard time transporting her for anything more than doctor’s visits because of it unless she made arrangements with someone to haul it. In retrospect, a van wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
That didn’t stop me. When I came to visit, I would sometimes wheel my sister out to my car and we’d at least go for a ride.
Then things worsened again. Not long after Grandma died in 2008, MS struck Theresa’s vocal cords. My sister — who, after fighting, was best known for yelling and cussing — was silenced. After nearly 25 years of feedback, I didn’t know what to say to her beyond idle updates. My time with her was reduced to sitting by her bedside in silence as the TV blared.
For about seven years, my trips home have been to see nearly every trace of my sister disappear into that atrophied shell. I didn’t start mourning her loss when Ma called while I was driving on High Street between Park and Seventh streets in Charlottesville — I’ve been mourning my sister for all those years.
Despite that, I still wasn’t ready for her death. Before her diagnosis, I thought I’d be at least 70 when I had to think about burying Theresa. I hoped for the chance that someone, somewhere would find at least a partial cure. Instead, I’ll see her in person one last time on Thursday, the day after her birthday.
I miss my sister. I’ve missed my sister with every ounce of my being for years, but she’s now free of that damnable disease. And we made the most of the short time we had together.
I love you, Theresa.
You big-headed galoot.