My sister Susie and I were not close. In our shared bedroom, a buffer state separated us even as we slept in our twin beds. Sometimes we played games across that divide. I aimed balloons toward her head as she flopped backwards over the bed edge, down into our imaginary moat, presenting her target face, surreal, upside down, singing, “Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Sera, Sera, what will be, will be”.
She overdosed and died at forty-seven.
When my Aunt called to tell me, I jumped out of sleep to answer the phone. “There’s no easy way to say it. She’s gone.” She spoke of cancer. “Look at the picture in her obituary. She looks just like it – like she died of cancer.”
I knew that Susie’s death was recreational, a strange fun that extinguishes all potential; books would remain unwritten, towns unexplored, landscapes unseen, whole worlds forever foreign, all roles stopped (daughter, sister, and mother), and promises unbroken. Early on she loved animals more than people, picking up strays from the side of the road as she ambled home from school, holding them close to her chest, stroking their dirty fur, oblivious to mess or manners. Pierre the poodle, her first and favorite pet, was loved to exhaustion – pushed in toy strollers, tucked into tiny baby beds, dressed in doll clothes, swaddled in blankets, even fed with a miniature baby bottle. That curly creature, yapping through it all, never accepted his role as mommy practice for a chubby misanthropic girl. But no one else could touch him or catch him; he was Susie’s, and Susie’s alone.
She was our Mama’s favorite child and constant companion, riding beside her in the front seat of the Rambler as we traveled from town to town. Oblivious to its isolation, she accepted the position of best loved, her dark head barely visible to the other kids, crammed together in the backseat.
When left at home with the rest of us she became inconsolable, running down the driveway behind the car, plopping herself on the sidewalk as Mama sped off, sitting cross-legged, head thrown back, mouth wide open and skyward, wailing with all her need for Mama to come back home. The daughter in the front seat never learned to be alone; disconnection terrified her. I ran away from all my family, especially from Susie, putting real distance between us, and seldom looking back. Her unhappiness was of another order altogether from mine, unquenchable, indulgent, and seductively unhealthy, like syrup on an already too sweet dessert.
The last time I saw her, I drew her portrait. She was, at 28, still secretive. Long black hair hung over and into her eyes. She read aloud her maudlin verses as she posed, extolling commitment phobia, wine and our mother. I sharpened pencil points as she called Mama a flower, a “beautiful red rose.” Imagining our arm-grabbing, hair-pulling, anger-thickened, screaming Mama as a fragile bloom, to be held in reverence and awe, was as fantastic to me as any science fiction plot. Listening to my sister that day was like trying to walk through a wall of insolence and languor. She was too amoral, undisciplined and messy. It was hard for me to hear her vowel-loving, alternate reality for long. She repeated words like “broth”, lingering over the vowel, stretching the bridging O into the word itself, into a sentence, as if it were food in her mouth. I wanted to end the sound, to snap the word out from the already thick air between us, and toss it aside.
I wanted to say to her, “Come and stay with me. There is a world out there, Sister. There’s a beach walkway with nutty muffins, tarot cards, incense, and cheap socks. There are gardens to the East with thorny blooms, miniature trees, and serene spaces good for what ails us. There is food to eat, cooked and served by handsome men. There are spots in our house with views of nothing in particular. There are neighborhoods to walk through and streets to amble down.” I wanted to say that to her, but, I didn’t. Instead, I studied her face and drew what I saw and what I knew.
She was one of those kids who loved the taste of baby aspirin, once swallowing an entire bottle. When caught with the empty container, she confessed to Mama, who took her to the nearest emergency room for a stomach pumping. By her teens she’d moved to stronger stuff. One night in the back of a van, on the edge of consciousness, her chest pounding, eyes fluttering, at the mercy of acquaintances, she almost died of a heart attack. It did not slow down her love for oblivion. She died in a drug-induced coma, on a double bed in a motel room, after one too many times of gobbling grifted emergency room bootie. She fell asleep beside her abusive boyfriend and never woke up.
The questions I ask myself are unanswerable. When did the drugs and drinking start? Was it because we had no real home? Did she stay in Mama’s dark orbit too long past youth? Was it the only world she knew, or the only world she could imagine? How could her talents not have taken her further than our tangled roots?
She was not an acrobat, a ballerina, a baton twirler, a tumbler, a majorette, or an artist. Susie was a writer. Though she never finished high school, she left behind a notebook filled with poetry, describing her upside-down world, an alternate low-lit space, sentimental, dark and dreamlike.
Soon enough it will be spring and plants will bloom, tended or not. Annuals will put on new growth. Above ground, fruits ripen, but new life sometimes springs from a stranger, darker atmosphere. In high altitudes the Snow Flower feasts on the lush ground of rotting pines and fir branches, bursting through the snow-covered forest floor in early spring, a tightly wound spear, unfurled leaves held firmly against a main stem. Standing apart from the normal order of things, it survives in a completely different way, a bright red parasite blooming in the dark.
Maybe on some mountain ridge, under crumbling needles and leaves, my lost sister quivers like a living jewel – a biodegradable soul, surreal, upside-down and singing – turning photosynthesis on its prissy green head.
Previously published The Writer’s Eye Magazine, 2007 Nov/Dec Issue, Copyright Chris J. Rice
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