Web Exclusives: May 29, 2002
First Person

By Leroy W. Demery, Jr. ’75

My sister Marie, 18 months younger than I, withdrew that many years ago from the lives of family and friends. She denied the existence of cousins, brothers, father; she vanished from the lives of friends. Then, early last year, she took her life in a manner straight out of Poe. I don't know what to feel, what I might have done, how I might have helped. Perhaps I never will. There is no "what," no "how," — and no "why," at least not today.

Isolation and loneliness need not last, and need not turn, slowly, inexorably, into crushing depression. This I learned after the Dinky dropped me off at Princeton, into a very different, unfamiliar social environment far from home. Aloneness was a matter of choice: I soon had roommates, neighbors, classmates, and, most of all, an older sister in all but parentage.

Biology lab. Dissection. Rat. Ugh. I struggled to summon the courage to go to class. Tardy, but lucky: My lab partner liked biology, enjoyed dissections and proceeded with confidence, competence, and grace. The extended length of the intestinal tract, the instructor assured us, is about three times the length from nose to tail. Oh, let's see, said Ellen, as she compared one against the other. It was true. Also true: If I hadn't been late, I might not have met her. At least not until after class, when I plowed my bicycle carelessly into the chain which separated walkway from lawn. Laughing gently, she recovered my books while I recovered my wits and dignity. My Big Sister. A suitable title for a woman who spared me from squeamishness, then from embarrassment, all in one afternoon.

My Big Sister. Patient, pleasant, positive. Tolerates freshman antics with mellow good cheer. Helps me with the class, just as I help her. If it's important, she listens. If I ask, she advises. Accepts me for who I am, including heritage: mother white, Jew; father black, Christian. My brother and sister don't accept that about themselves. Very funny; she's a senior. Yeah, right; she's engaged. Ah, get a life; her fiance is really cool. What's there to understand; she's My Big Sister. Make-believe relative; de facto sibling. It's good to know that there's one person on campus who fits this description. My Big Sister. She enjoys tht title and appreciates the thought. At least, I hope she does.

Such memories provide but a brief distraction from the emotions stirred by thoughts of my little sister's suicide. The anger subsides; the pain dulls; the void fills with questions never to be answered. Yet "sister" continues to signify a warm, enduring beauty; it does not become a synonym for anguish, tragedy and death. From this beginning I may come to terms.

Rest in peace, Marie. Thank you, Ellen. God bless you both.


You can reach Leroy Demery at chris_demery@juno.com