Friday, May 7, 2010
It's That Time of Year Again
Didn't start out well, and would get progressively worse.
She had first been diagnosed when she was forty. My sister's disease had begun to worsen at an exponential rate. My brother-in-law would call, "She hasn't been eating, you need to bring food." We knew it wasn't the exotic food I was bringing from Connecticut, it was me she needed. I was one of the last familiar faces she was able to remember. The disease had metastasized to her brain, robbing her of the present - then the past - in a manner that would never stop alarming and amazing us. It was amazing in that the doctor had told us the area of the brain in which the tumor was growing. We could watch, nearly almost see, the direction the tumor was taking in her head, due to the memories she was progressively losing. Eventually she would not even realize she was hungry, it was then that my brother-in-law would call.
As a kid I was always hungry. My sister used to tell me to quit eating so much, I was cutting into her college fund. When she didn't want to bother going to the store, or getting into the cupboard, she'd shake me down. With empty pockets I was forced to approach an adult for money. "Where is the dollar I gave you yesterday." "Ah, I lost it." "Honestly; be more careful would you?" "Yup, sorry." And off I'd run to Walter's Market to replenish my supply of Snickers, Three Musketeers and salted sunflower seeds. In late January of 1995 if you mentioned my name to her she'd say, "Oh, she's hungry." At first she'd eat on cue at just the mention of my name. There was a time when it would have sent us all into hysterics, but not now.
Now it was: call work, tell them I need to be gone for a few days, stop at the grocery store pick up salad from the salad bar, stop at the diner off the highway for authentic home-made boiled chocolate pudding [whipped cream on the side, Thank You Forever Zip's Diner], and fly north in the ole' reliable Volvo 240 hauling a stacked cooler in the trunk.
March of that year was the last time I would make a food run. I drove for nine hours, at night, just like our father had always told us to do. Start early when it is still dark, he used to say, miss all the traffic. Whether it was because we were traveling farther then he did on road trips, or (in my sister's case) a whole lot faster, we not only never missed the traffic, we ran into morning rush hour traffic every time. Regardless, I arrived at my sister's house around ten o'clock that morning. I raced into the house without first grabbing the cooler due to the particularly strong tremor I had heard in my brother-in-law's voice.
"Oh! Are you hungry? Lets eat something!" smiling from ear to ear, when I flew through the door. She was always smiling, it had become ingrained in her keeping up a good front, trying to keep us from seeing her in physical pain. Back out the door I flew to get the cooler.
The three of us sat at the kitchen table, my brother-in-law and I with empty plates of hope, refilling her plate for as long as she would eat. It had been five years since she had begun her serious attack on death. Five long years since we found out she was not only not cured, but that the cancer had spread to her bones. "The food from the city is always so much better," she would smile and tell us in between bites. She no longer remembered what city it had come from.
She was tired after eating. We helped her onto the couch to relax while we all watched the news. Her five foot eleven inch frame had dwindled to ninety eight pounds and she could no longer walk unassisted. I had been planning to stay three days. The evening news would change that in a hurry. The news anchor began with weather reports of an enormous Nor'easter headed for New England. The Perfect Storm, predicted to last three or four days, what it left behind they predicted,would possibly cripple the region for weeks.
My brother-in-law raced to the greenhouse to get the NOAA weather radio. The news from the Upton, N.Y. was even worse. "You'd better go," he sighed, "maybe she'll finish off the city food anyway." I stayed until she fell asleep, then hit the road again. I didn't have to fight to stay awake even though I had been up for well over twenty-four hours by then. I spent the ride relishing every moment I had just spent with them.
The storm must have been chasing me. It began to snow when I still had another hundred miles or so to go. By the time I pulled into my driveway two inches of snow had already accumulated. I slept nearly twelve hours, the phone woke me up. "She's looking for you," my brother-in-law said. After a chuckle, that warmed my heart to hear, he went on, "She keeps worrying that she's 'lost the Lizard and Mother will kill her...'
She was remembering all the way back to my mother being pregnant with me. Our mother had been exposed to polio patients she had cared for. The doctors continually took x-rays (yuh, no wonder I'm drain-bamaged) in order to assure I was growing normally in the womb. They showed the x-rays to my eight year old sister, who said I looked like a lizard (OK, in my defense, I clean up well....). That eight year old would have no idea how the lizard would invade the nest she had been so carefully cultivating in her solitary child's world.
"Put her on the phone," I said. And while we talked, a strangely disjointed conversation only possible with one whose memories are fast being stolen, my brother-in-law fed her city food. And I knew the end was near. She was talking with food in her mouth.
"She's not doing well at all," said my brother-in-law, as he tried to stifle the tears. But I heard them. The telephone had not only been our life-lines to each other after we were all moving around the planet, but it had been my career. I was attuned to the nuances in a voice that gave the speaker away. "I had to bring her to the hospital tonight." "Do you need me to shoot up there?" I asked, to which he replied in a tone of resignation I will never forget, "No; she won't know you.
My brother-in-law had to leave for his uncle's wake two states west, and had talked to her for hours the day before. Our mother always said, "Never say anything in front of an unconscious patient you don't want them to hear." Hence we all believed, and still do, that one should keep talking, no matter what. He arrived at the wake, stayed a socially acceptable amount of time, and raced through the night to be back at my sister's side. He called the hospital to tell them when he was a half an hour away, and asked the nurses to go tell her.
They never told her. They said they had been busy. When my brother-in-law walked into the room at exactly seven a.m. she was gone. She had been alive on the last nurses check, but now she was gone forever.
She left us, depending on which newspaper account you chose to believe, on March 30th, 31st, or April 1st. We all wanted it to be the 1st, she would have loved it. "April Fool! Har, you guys can't get rid of me that easily," she would have said.
"She's left us," he said when he called. "I knew she was gone the second I walked into the room. I'm telling you this because you need to know. Even though she had been unconscious, her face was always a grimace she was in such pain. When I walked in the room and saw there was no pain in her face, I knew. She's not in agony anymore. Please call your parents, I can't."
My mother the nurse had known far too much when it comes to diseases ravaging the human body. This was too much, and though she tried to maintain, she was falling apart by the minute.
My sister would have two funerals, which she would have loved. Ground was still frozen when she left. The first, an 'immediate family only' affair at the funeral home, followed by a church service the next morning. The church was full, hundreds of people overflowed down the walkway outside, standing in snow to get in. At one point I remember saying to my brother-in-law, "Who is that man?" There at my sister's closed casket stood a hunched over man, white hair sticking out of the sides of his dingy baseball cap, with his left hand on the casket; sobbing. He was holding up the line. "Oh," my brother in law replied, "that is the homeless man she used to buy a hot dog for every Saturday."
The funeral home employees were overwhelmed looking for enough guest books the people all needed to sign, they waited each time one filled up and someone raced back to the office to get another. They needed to put their names down, they needed her to know. I am in possession of seven full guest books, the last with messages and signatures in margins.
The second funeral would come in summer, when the hundreds of people that needed to be there could travel from far away places to say one final goodbye, and watch her lowered into the infamous six feet under.
When she knew she wouldn't make it, my sister promised me she would come back to haunt me. I believe it began shortly after her first funeral. It was the first overtly strange thing that defied explanation. I stayed home from work for quite a while. I just wanted to sit, and sometimes stare at the TV. Only the TV was not cooperating. I'd turn the thing on, get a totally black screen at first, until a grass green, fuzzy dot about an inch across would start zipping around all over the black screen like a bug in a jar.
Great. I lugged that TV back and forth to the repair shop twice. No charge, nothing wrong with it, each time I brought it back home it would do the same thing. I called the cable company. They checked all the lines. Nothing. It wasn't until after the third and last time I took the TV back to the repair shop that I had an epiphany. It was either that, or begin to believe I was more out of my mind than I thought. I got the call. "Come and pick up your TV please." Hmmm, he sounded a little odd. When I got there the guy was visibly upset. "Look lady, I don't know what your game is, but I'm sick of you bringing this TV in here, there's nothing wrong with it, and that's thirty-five dollars." Oh, what, he thought if I had to pay for nothing my TV problems would go away? [ Thank You Paul's TV, for stopping the madness, even if it did take thirty-five dollars] I brought the TV home, turned it on to the, now familiar, black screen, green dot. My kids and I would stare at that dot and shake our heads. So much for TV.
I was forced to sit around looking at glossy magazine pictures. Slowly the fog I was residing in began to lift, and suddenly one day, I thought maybe she is keeping her promise, maybe my sister was haunting me, just maybe she was trying to tell me something. But What?
Creepily, suddenly, the TV began to work. I started to think seriously about researching the article my mother had read years before. It had concerned a small amount of physical weight every body loses consistently at the moment of death. 'Was it the soul?' the article had asked, ' Did it carry energy, or was it the energy from the body itself? If so, where did the energy go?' My son got all technical and was running on the theory that if there was energy in ghosts, it probably wouldn't be really strong, but TVs have a certain amount of stored energy even after switched off and... I can't remember the gist of the rest but it was cool.
I would find out months later during a conversation my kids had, my daughter would ask, "Who's next?"