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Monday, September 21, 2015

Happy Birthday, Antoinette

Ewan Burns source
Wanaque Reservoir source
So, Antoinette.

Wednesday is your birthday, and the pope will be in Manhattan, and i got a sign from you today.

We both have autumn holiday birthdays. Yours is first. So our relationship always sucked -- because you were a difficult bitch who didn't care about me -- and I say that with great, great love -- and I always had the responsibility of being the first to decide this year whether or not there would be an exchange of cards or presents between us.

I remember the first time I didn't so much as send you a card. It felt really shocking to me. To make that decision. To announce with that decision what was already obvious. And of course you didn't do anything for my birthday. And it went on like that for years.

In recent years I tried to do something, always. One recent year I just went to CVS with the determination to purchase the single largest birthday card they had. I bought a huge one. I wanted the freakishly large size of the card to be an index of my freakishly large and intense love for you. But you already knew how much I loved you. Could take it for granted.

Best present you ever bought me: the Swiss Army Knife, which I still have, all these decades later, and which I use to open wine bottles and cut my toenails and menace men who would like to menace me and saw bamboo poles I use as walking sticks.

Best present I ever gave you: the audiotapes of the interviews I did with our parents. Did you throw those away? I did not find them in your box of audiotapes which I went through after you died. I found, there, the classic rock I expected to find -- John Fogerty, Moody Blues, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens -- but nothing of mommy or daddy.

When you were going through your final period of relative lucidity before you slipped away into repeating the word "microwave" with pleading urgency, you ordered us all around to plan a trip into Manhattan to see the pope. There was so much command, so much certainty in your voice. That was you, Antoinette. A woman who made things happen. A woman who stiffened reality's spine. My heart broke. It was all I could do to keep from crying.

I had to fight back tears of course because I knew that we were in vehicles traveling at different velocities and you would reach your ultimate destination before the pope ever arrived in Manhattan. It was so hard for me, the younger, unloved sister, to be the one who just this once knew something that my all powerful older sister did not know.

I think about this a lot: how utterly helpless and trapped I felt as a kid, the youngest of all of you, prey to being beaten by any of you on a whim, wrapped in aromas of kielbasa and splitting kiszka in a cast iron pan: I think there has to be a genetic difference between those of us who grew up with the unique odor of kiszka cooked in cast iron till it splits and spills its guts of blood and kasza and anyone who did not. It is that powerful, that chthonic, that deep.

And now you are all, all, gone. Not even wisps. People who defined compass points, who commanded the earth to spin, the sun to rise, Mommy, implacable woman, legendary creature, nightmare from hell, Mommy, and Daddy, reading in his easy chair, hour after hour, playing golf in the woods, Phil, Mike, you.

The title of our favorite book: Gone with the Wind.

So, in March, 2015, I guess it was, you, Antoinette, had decided that you would see the pope, and you were ordering us all about like your tin soldiers, to get ready, to pack a picnic lunch, to find parking. Since when were you a pope-o-phile? This was a new thing.

And I nodded and said I'd take care of it and my tears slid down my interior. I could never let you see me crying for you.

He'll be in Manhattan, I think, Wednesday, your birthday. And I will not buy you a card this year! Nor you me.

So I went to Skylands today, and I thought of you, as I always do when I go to Skylands, though, truth to tell, I think of you every day. And I feel like an idiot, because I know you didn't like me, and would not mourn me had I gone first. You probably wouldn't even have known.

So I cry, and feel like an idiot.

I went to Skylands and my little voice said i'd get a sign, and it would be a big one.

Nothing happened at Skylands. I didn't lose faith. I was patient.

I was driving back along County Road 511, a road you and I drove along more times than I can count, a road on which you almost died.

It's a twisty, windy, two-lane road that hugs the undulating, pine studded shore of the reservoir. You were a new driver, beautiful, with that dense, lush, long brunette hair, following along behind Jacky Hunt, the girl with whom you used to listen to Neil Diamond, and you drove off the road into the guard rail and smashed through it, just missing the reservoir, totaling your car.

Damage to your body? You broke a nail. Metaphor!

Daddy had to come and rescue you, as he had to rescue so many. Us, our brother when he broke the law big time, alcoholics who phoned at midnight, our brother Phil when he was beyond rescue. God bless that man.

You feared his anger and told Jacky, "No matter what he says, just agree with it."

Daddy turned to Jacky and said, "You kids were hot rodding around being smart asses, weren't you? Trying to see how fast you could go?"

And Jacky, mindful of what you told her, said, "Yes."

I'm sorry but I think that story is funny.

Anyway. I was driving back from Skylands today, and I looked up, and I said, out loud, in the otherwise empty car, "Oh, man!"

There were about forty vultures over the road.

You and me. We were driving back from Skylands. You were at the wheel. I was in the passenger seat. I was 14. I looked up and saw about forty vultures in the sky over County Road 511. And that is the exact moment I became a bird watcher.

I have not seen that many vultures together since.

That I saw that many today, over 511, while driving back from Skylands ... I don't know if it was a sign.

This is a sign: how much you are with me, every day, how much I love you still.