Thursday, May 2, 2013, I was meeting with students in the office.
I heard my own phone ring.
My phone almost never rings.
I am phone-phobic. It's a real thing. I have no fear of public speaking, which is said to be the most common phobia. No fear of spiders, which I don't kill, or snakes. But no one calls me and I don't call anyone.
I looked at the caller ID. It was my sister. My sister never calls me. And she is phone-phobic, too.
I picked up the phone. "Hello? Hello?"
Oh, my sister. Jerking me around.
Except maybe she wasn't jerking me around. I emailed her. "Did you call me?" No reply.
I put the phone away and went back to meeting with students. But I had a bad feeling. Was my sister just jerking me around? Was I worrying for nothing as I had so many times before?
That evening, after work, I was standing at the kitchen countertop separating school things from food things; ending the work day and beginning dinnertime. I heard the phone ring again. Two phone calls in one day? A very bad sign.
It was my sister's daughter.
The police had received nine 911 calls. My sister had been driving erratically. She was in the hospital.
I clutched the countertop, tried to sound cool for my niece, and turned to stone. No matter what the tests showed, no matter what hope or despair the doctors would distribute, no matter what route the rollercoaster took or when the carny ticket-taker would kick us off the ride, I just knew right then and there. God was fixing to take my sister away from me forever.
I rarely leave my apartment after late afternoon. Paterson has a high murder rate. I gave up hope for dinner and walked the couple of miles to Corrado's for gin. I was almost grateful for the Muslim guys pestering me on Main Street because it's hard to walk after you've turned to stone.
I was confronted with a choice: in or out?
I was an abused kid. There was a familial apartheid. There was a differential standard. You can do to Diane something you'd never do to someone else.
You can dress her in hand-me-downs that are a size too large, but the other children must get something that at least looks nice and fits and matches the kid's gender. You can insult her in front of strangers, but you must never say anything critical of other family members. You can tell her we'll leave at noon to go hiking, and show up at three and say it's too late to do anything. If she gets sick, we really don't need to take her to the doctor.
The abuse was obvious. No one intervened.
My sister and I were different in ways that are really important in childhood. I've always been fat. She was tall – taller than I – and thin. Being thin is everything to young girls; being fat jettisons you into untouchable status, especially in those days, when fewer Americans were fat.
She had a genius IQ.
I was slow to learn to read, to write, to tie my shoes, to ride a bike, to operate a key in a lock, to click my fingers, to tell right from left. I had a speech impediment and could not pronounce "library." I have a vivid memory of the first time I was able to say "breakfast." It was one of those "comes the dawn / I am invincible" moments.
I remember my older siblings trying to teach me to tell time. We were sitting at a table in our house in the evening. All the lights were out except for the light on a Fisher-Price toy clock. Michael and Antoinette were spinning the arms of the clock around. They were walking through the whole process slowly and carefully. They were being very patient and thorough. I realized that.
I had not one clue what the hell they were talking about.
Linear time? Feh. Time was obviously a cycle. We had fall last year; we'd have it again this year. Before? After? The Past? What did these words mean, really? "Before" and "after" were just determined by where you decided to bring the point of your finger down in one vast continuum. "The Past" would repeat as long as human character remained the same.
Wasn't time what you experienced personally? How to take the sum of your heart and distribute it in arbitrary words? Time was what made you stop playing on a summer evening when everything was exhilaration and you could run forever and big brother's voice slammed against your ears, "Get inside!" Time was what would not move when the entire school was massed in ranks to pray the rosary after recess under the May sun. Oops, another kid just fainted. Drag him to the side of the parking lot. How do you communicate these realities with little numbers and colons?
Antoinette could do all these things: read, write, tell time. I could barely ride a bike and she could ski.
I asked her, "How do you have so many friends?"
"Just talk to people."
I listened to how she talked to people. I heard what sounded like insults – bad – but were really just sarcastic teen teasing – good. I poked myself into a group of her friends and tried to do what she did – insult people – and people looked at me as if I were Frankenstein's monster.
She went to football games. I tried attending one. I was born with the aesthetics of a medieval monk. Watching young men bash their heads into each other, and pompom-wielding girls thrash their hair, breasts and legs about in meaningless and frivolous displays. Scandalous.
Antoinette tanned so deeply and had such thick hair people thought she was Native American. She invited me to one of her rented beach houses. I found the noise – just that, the noise – unbearable. Loud rock. Loud voices. Beer. I left.
She called me "poop head." Boring, weird, anti-fun. Birdwatching was not her thing but when she had a car and I did not she took me to cool places like Great Swamp. An English twitcher was struggling to identify an American bird. I quickly and accurately identified it for him. He asked, "How the devil did you know that?" with audible admiration in his voice. Antoinette imitated his accent and his amazement later when telling others how much I knew about birds. She also told people about the Paterson Evening News write-up of my sighting of a rare Lawrence's warbler on the banks of the Wanaque River.
Because I had so many, and because I've lost so many, and because I did not have positive relationships with my parents, I think about siblings a lot.
My brother Phil was killed on my birthday. I can remember well-meaning adults saying to my shell-shocked, tear-stained face, "This must be so hard on your parents. Losing a child is the worst pain someone can feel."
I wanted to knee those people in the groin.
Authoritative voices from the Bible to Freud tell us that it matters when your parents love you, and it matters when your parents support you, and it matters when your parent beats you and tells you that if she weren't Catholic she would have aborted you.
Just so it matters when your sibling punches you in the temple till blood comes out your eye, or beats you over the head with a cast iron and ceramic trivet until it breaks across your skull. Just so it matters if your brother who is a decade older than you carries you over broken glass when your mother tells you your feet are too big for shoes she can afford, and when he tenderly, maternally, coaxes you to eat the drek the government issues to the poor, and when he grows up and decides he wants nothing more to do with you, the child he was forced to parent, when he was only a child himself, and he doesn't invite you to his wedding, and, as he lies dying, the last thing he says to you is "You disgust me, Diane," and you have no idea why, and you remember that sentence in the sound of his voice for the rest of your life. It matters when you trust and love your big sister, and it matters when she betrays you.
Here's a sibling fact. I found out later, when I fell in love with men, that my template for love was formed in my relationship with my sister. Sorry, Freud. Not my father. That feeling of wishing that time spent together would go on forever. That feeling of excitement counterintuitively combined with familiarity. That feeling of eagerness, even when with present friends and having a good time, to be with an absent someone, of "I can't wait to be with her so I can tell her about this."
It wasn't reciprocal. I don't think that my sister loved or even liked me. In "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," there is a scene where Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him. He replies, "I know." It was like that with Antoinette. I loved her, and she knew.
She loved learning and sharing science knowledge with me. We passed stagnant water and she mentioned pseudomonas. "It's completely harmless in that puddle," she'd say, "But in a hospital-acquired infection, it can kill." She used to lecture me at length about our genotype. I never had any idea what she was talking about, but I saw how much it excited her, so I'd nod enthusiastically. She told me that mothers loved their babies because of a chemical called oxytocin.
When she was in nursing school, she explained to me, "This is really cool. I found out in a psychology class why you love me so much. It's because you are the youngest, and you lack parental love. So you look up to me. I, on the other hand, am much less interested in you, because I'm older, and I am daddy's favorite."
Some bad things happened. Bad things happened in my childhood. Bad things happened in recent years.
These bad things wounded me and gave me years of nightmares. After one bad thing I realized I couldn't see her any more.
We went years without contact.
The past four years have been eventful for me. Three of the events: I broke my arm and subsequently lost my job (they hired me back once the arm healed); I was diagnosed with cancer and told that I had a very low chance of survival (after surgery my prognosis improved significantly); and I was diagnosed with a chronic illness.
I have dealt with each of these as an adjunct professor who makes less than minimum wage and has no health insurance. Under Obamacare, my attempts to get medical attention have gotten worse, not better. Most of this time I have had no car. I live alone; three men have been murdered in front of my building in the past four years. I have a huge fear of anything medical. I've needed Olympic amounts of hand-holding.
In January, 2012, I was walking to work, and I slipped on ice. The first person I phoned was my sister. I left a message on her answering machine telling her that I had broken my arm and I needed a ride to the hospital. She never returned the call.
For the next two months, a co-worker, my boss, and a couple of friends brought me food and medicine. One man, who would probably be embarrassed to be named here, was astounding. He drove me to every doctor's appointment. Robin, previously mentioned on this blog, probably saved my life when, five months after I broke my arm, I got the cancer diagnosis and, without insurance, I could not get a hospital to treat me.
And so, when I received word that my sister had been driving erratically and I had to decide if I was in or out, a few people who know me well said, "Don't go there. You will yearn for a different ending to the story. Given your faulty understanding of the concept of linear time, you will probably also yearn for a different beginning to the story, and you can never get either."
I knew they were right and I knew they were wrong.
See? See what I mean about some words being arbitrary and not coming anywhere close to encapsulating reality? Something can be wrong and right at the same time.
I was in.
I have almost never owned a car. I say "almost" because I did own a car for about two years in my twenties. I've lived most of my life without a car. I just can't afford it, and I know nothing about them.
When I got word about Antoinette, I bought a car. Huge for me.
I bought the car because I wanted to be available to do whatever I could, if asked. I knew I might not be asked. I knew I might be seen in the way I have been seen by my family: as stupid, as weird, as useless, as someone to gossip about, as a punching bag to take frustrations out on when relationships with important people prove irritating.
At first, I scanned my email with the intensity of a marooned castaway scanning the horizon for ships; I was not in the loop; I didn't know what was happening.
I complained. "No one is telling me what's going on. I offered to help. No one is asking me to do anything."
As time went on, I was informed of more developments, invited to more events, and asked more often to help. I put my own stuff on hold. I've got a pile of unanswered mail on my desk about six inches high.
It was, believe it or not, Siblings Day, April 10. I was stroking the soles of my sister's feet. I was doing this because I had done it previously and she said she liked it. I was speaking to her telepathically, because I knew she probably couldn't hear us anymore. People had been telling her to let go. I wanted to say to them, "Have you even met Antoinette? 'Let go'? Her?"
I said, "Antoinette, there are people you can boss around in heaven." And she stopped breathing within moments of my saying that to her.
Her house was full of people. I signaled to them that she had passed and they re-entered her room.
Four different people said variations of the following: "See? Antoinette waited until she was alone to die," "She waited till everyone who was important to her had left the room before she died," and "She waited until the people she loved were out of the room before she died."
And, of course, I was right there at the foot of her bed. Had been the whole time.
Often, after I left her bedside, as snot ran down my nose as I, white knuckled, steered the unfamiliar vehicle through unfamiliar driving maneuvers in the unfamiliar rush hour traffic on route 80, as I wished that they had invented windshield wipers for eyeballs, I chided myself. "You are crying over someone who would not cry if it were you."
Why did I do it? Why, when I was given a choice between "are you out or are you in" did I choose in?
I loved her. That's it. I loved her.
My love for her, and Jesus' insistence that love, not the final score, is primary, were more important than anything else.
And that's how life works sometimes.