Writing Her Heart Out

By Schmich, Mary | Nieman Reports, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Writing Her Heart Out


Schmich, Mary, Nieman Reports


This column by Mary Schmich, NF '96, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, appeared in the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 2011 under the headline "Troubled daughter grows up."

My sister Gina received her first cellphone as a birthday gift a few days ago.

Until recently, Gina had insisted that a cellphone was too complicated for her, a plausible statement given how many things she finds hard.

For years, she found bathing complicated, so she rarely stepped into a tub or shower. Brushing her teeth felt complicated, so her teeth went bad. Cleaning her room felt like climbing a mountain, so her room devolved into a jungle of junk with a skinny path to the unmade bed. In the final weeks of her old cat's life, she found it too complicated to pick up the cat feces on the carpet, so she neatly laid a paper towel over each set of droppings.

When Gina was little, doctors said she had an 10 of 34, and though they were far wrong, the right diagnosis has never been clear. Mild autism. Borderline personality disorder. The verdict seems to have changed almost as often as her medications.

What is clear is that Gina is different, so she always lived with our mother and our mother lived with the question: What will happen to Gina when I die?

Gina worried too. As Mama grew frail, Gina often climbed in her bed in the middle of the night to weep.

"Honey," my mother would soothe her, "you'll be OK," and my siblings and I, unconvinced, told our mother we'd make sure she was.

In the months leading up to my mother's death, Gina began to change. She calmed down, some. She took pride in making Mother's morning coffee. When one of my brothers or I bathed our mother, Gina held the towels. When we'd lift Mother off the portable commode next to the sofa where she slept, Gina was quick to say, "I'll empty it. …

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