I had a sister once.
She didn’t die. She just left and never came back.
The time she left before this last final time which has lasted twenty-eight years, she left for just six months. We differed about something, one of us made a remark on the phone, and then the phone went dead for the next six months, her in California and me in Wisconsin.
When the phone next rang, it was to tell me that her ex-husband had died in a car accident. For whatever reason, his yellow Mercedes had crashed into a tree one dark California night. She said his body was so mangled that they would have to wrap him in a sheet to bury him. It seemed an incredible thing for her to say, explosive, red and angry, with a tinge of blame.
I didn’t want to hear this bloody, torn detail about a man I’d known for twenty years, who’d taught me to water ski by pulling me up with his speedboat, watching me fall and circling back so I could start again and again, each time tooling the boat back alongside me, holding a can of beer in his hand, and smiling at me, “Ready to go again?” I was 14, sunburned to scorched, but. by the end of my 14th summer. I was crossing the boat’s wake on my skis. I flew over the wake, my knees jockeying, handling the waves, my skis smacking the water. It was so beautiful, I remember it now, so many years later. I flew because of him. And now he was to be wrapped in a sheet.
I flew to California. Broke at the time because we were in the end stages of adopting our second child from Nicaragua, a friend gave me a ticket she bought with the miles she’d accumulated. I went to California because my brother-in-law had died and because my sister was crying on the phone. It’s what people do. Go when one of their own is suffering. And she was suffering.
My sister and her husband may have been divorced but they weren’t apart. They were entwined still. Nothing about their relationship was over except he was now dead and she wasn’t. The grief was everywhere, floating in their backyard pool, cascading from the kitchen faucet, lit by a match to a long cigarette. Moments of calm would erupt in sobs. I wondered if I was the right person to have come. I prayed for my brother and parents to come. Her grief, it was too much for me to handle. I was the youngest, after all. The baby. No one should expect me to manage this, I thought.
At night, we would sleep together in the big bed my sister and her ex-husband had shared while they were married. On one wall of their bedroom, next to the sliding glass door that opened to their backyard pool, was a set of shelves and on the shelves were his Izard sweaters, folded perfectly, every color represented, yellow, coral, sky blue, navy blue, all the blues. My sister heaved with sobs in the night and I held her. And prayed for my brother and my parents to come to take over, to do the right thing, to know what the right thing to do was because I didn’t know. I just held on and looked at the sweaters in the moonlight.