April 12, 2011.
I was driving to work, thinking about my sister, Beth. It would have been her 28th birthday.
There was a 17 year gap between us. To say it flatly, we did not have a smooth relationship.
But I remember how fiercely I loved her when she was a child.
Then I married and moved away. I don’t think she ever forgave me for that.
The years went by. Mom died. Dad died. Her health problems, both physical and emotionally, grew worse and worse.
And I was still so far away.
When I moved back home in 2004, it was really too late to try and smooth over our problems. I would try and she would snap back like a feral dog. At the time, I was battling my own mental health problems and didn’t….fuck, let’s be honest….couldn’t handle her fury.
Then in 2005, her cystic fibrosis took a turn for the worse and she was in ICU for months. On life support, thousands and thousands of dollars went to keep her alive. I remember the doctor asking us what we wanted them to do if her condition “decomposed”. That was the word he used. “Decomposed.”
She was in a coma.
Melinda and I would go every night after work to stay by her beside and stay there on the weekends. We didn’t want her to wake up alone.
She finally did wake up. And let me tell you something, it’s not like in the movies. Coma victims are incapacitated afterwards. Her muscles had atrophied. She couldn’t hold up a spoon or walk. The drugs they had her own made her see things. She told us later that we all had Lego Heads.
She had been intubated so speaking for her was difficult. She could barely make a whisper.
I remember the day she tried to use sign language to talk to us. Melinda and I were at a loss. “We don’t know sign language, Beth. Can you write?”
She whispered, “Dumbasses.”
That broke the tension bubble. Melinda and I laughed so hard that we scared the nurses. We told them, “It’s okay. She’s pissed. She’ll be fine.”
I think that time in the hospital taught Beth something. That, through all the fighting, cursing, and throwing shit at each other, the people who were there at her bedside were her sisters. And we weren’t going anywhere.
I remember that November, at Thanksgiving. It was the last one we had and the best one. Everyone was happy. Even Beth seemed to be cheerful. We were talking about philosophy and she asked, “But…what is philosophy?” and I answered, “Exactly!” She rolled her eyes and whispered, “Dumbass.”
She died less than a year later. October 27, 2006.
She had a cold but people with CF don’t get colds. They get pneumonia.
She died at home, on the couch. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Even her doctor was astonished but sometimes people with cystic fibrosis die that way. Their bodies just can’t fight the infection anymore and their hearts just stop.
We had been teasing her earlier that week that there was a grand Halloween party we were planning to go to and if she died, we would put her ass on ice. We had bought themed costumes and I had even made a brain Jello mold with grapes for eyeballs. Do not ruin this for us!
She died the Friday before the party. We still think she did it on purpose.
On April 12, 2011, driving into work, these words came to me and I turned them into a poem.
There is a bag I keep in my head.
Memories are stored there
There are damn few shiny ones.
Most are obsidian,
Black, sharp things that bite my fingers.
The few shiny pebbles are
The ones I like to pull out and
Fold into a clean
Skin of cloth-
These few memories
When just being in the same room
Was a natural thing.
Not a détente
I take these few shiny pebbles of time
And I polish them
In my kid cloth until they illuminate the
Until all I can see
-The only thing I can remember-