“Did you cry on take-off, landing or both?”
I am talking to my sister, Laura.
“Both. The woman across the aisle held my hand.”
“Um, did you know her?”
“No. Then she let me watch a movie on her Kindle.”
“Vampire Sucks or something.”
“OMG. You’re like 12.”
“Was she from Michigan or Oklahoma?”
“Oklahoma. She was very kind.”
“People here are.”
We arrive in my neighborhood.
She observes: “Why did I just see a semi parked on the street and a feral cat in your neighborhood?”
“Oh, get over it. Urban area. Don’t worry. The prosties stay down the way. And that murder down the street? Totally drug related. Don’t worry.”
“Oh you think I’m kidding. Good.”
I put her bags in our spare room.
“You get to stay in the 70s sauna!”
“What do you mean? It’s warm?”
“No. The room just looks like a 70s sauna. Also, there’s no door. BTW, we’re expecting severe weather but I didn’t tell you so you wouldn’t cancel.”
“Um, I’m a little perturbed you don’t have a basement.”
“Thanks. I’ll take that up with my slumlord.”
Ah, yes. My sister is here. Chris had been taking care of us the week Eli stayed in the hospital to fix his guts.
Next Laura, my older sister, stopped in for the weekend.
The first visit she paid us was right after we had Eli, when we didn’t understand why he was in the hospital. We just knew a blocked bowel caused his belly to blow up like a balloon. We didn’t know that he would make it through a surgery. We didn’t know that he had cystic fibrosis. Her job at the time was to scrape me off the floor.
This visit was a lot better, to say the least.
After I told her I’d gotten a job on the plains, she said she’d never come here.
“Oklahoma? FYI I’ll never visit.”
For Christmas the year I left, she got me a deluxe weather radio.
Laura has a fear of flying and a worse one of storms.
When we were little she forced my family into our basement every thunderstorm.
We grew up in Michigan. It’s not exactly a severe weather hotbed. Oklahoma, on the other hand, really is. My office has multiple storm bunkers that could also get us through another cold war.
The first real storm my family experienced in Oklahoma knocked a giant piece of dead tree onto our home. The hail knocked on our house so hard I was sure every window would break.
My workmates who grew up around here said that storm really wasn’t that bad.
Mark’s social studies co-teacher says he can smell a tornado. Mark’s co-teacher also wears a cowboy hat to work.
We had a tornado watch the other week, in the middle of winter.
The co-teacher laughed. There would be no tornado because it didn’t smell like it.
He was right.
That system just fizzled out.
My sister avoids planes, but the moment we realized something was wrong after I had Eli, she made plans to visit us here in OKC.
Our big decisions about navigating the hospital have been influenced by her knowledge of medicine and hospitals. She tells me what to do. What questions to ask. And I do what she says. She told us to request a transfer to Children’s after I had him at Mercy and his belly got big.
“Are you sure? They want to do more tests here.”
“Do it now, Julie.”
Older sisters are bossy by nature and mine is no exception. Middle sisters are family oddballs by nature and I am no exception.
We are different and we have clashed over the years. Let’s see…this is probably the earliest I remember without thinking too hard about it:
1993: “Go to college, bitch!”
I punctuated the end of that fight with that sentence. It was the summer before my sister went away to school. I don’t remember what started it, other than my being 13 and her 17. I was honing the skill of saying the most hurtful thing I could think of at exactly the right time in order to send my older sister running the opposite direction in tears. I got really good at it!
That clash was epic enough to become part of my family’s absurd folklore, meaning my little sister and her husband will yell that sentence at each other now and again for no reason other than to entertain themselves.
Laura grew up to be a nurse and I grew up to be a journalist.
She settled down in the same county where we grew up and began a family at a beautiful home in the picturesque countryside with my brother-in-law, a company man who has good taste in (Michigan) beer and a penchant for self reliance. Andy hunts deer. He recently made 40 pounds of sausage with the deli-grade equipment in their spacious kitchen. He and Laura grow or at their own fruits and vegetables in a half-acre garden and then make jam and giant batches of marinara and barbecue sauce. They are poster children for the next Pure Michigan ad campaign. If you’ve ever seen the 5 year Engagement, filmed in Ann Arbor, it depicts the lead male character’s loopy descent into the local culture, including knitting, making his own beer and hunting his own food. It’s a caricature, yeah, but it’s not that far off. Laura is a nurse asesthetist, which means she puts kids and babies to sleep for surgical procedures, among other things.
I met Mark at an anti-Valentine’s Day party on a weekend trip to Chicago 10 years ago. I moved away from home to start a career and be closer to him. I clashed with the owner of a German restaurant who gave me my first city job – Octoberfest waitress – after he inquired how was it that I was so stupid I could not cut cheesecake. Answer: “I’m a writer.” My name disappeared from the schedule after that. Then I started working in newspapers. Mark and I have since hopped countries and states five times, settling in Oklahoma City rental home in a working class gay neighborhood a year ago. Our house has a giant dead tree in the backyard we can’t get our slumlord to cut down. Mark teaches inner city schoolchildren to speak English. His students have complicated lives and some of them have terrible lives. I’d write more but he is employed and all so I had better not. He is also a chess coach, an initiative started with his school’s maintenance man. The maintenance man is named Gary. Gary is a Jehovah’s Witness who is rated in chess and the author of a harlequin romance called “Anything for Abby.”
Before arriving in Oklahoma City, Mark and I lived in Ann Arbor. We were there for two years because my mother had cancer and I wanted to see her through the end stages of the disease. That was less depressing than it sounds. Because I had a fun mother. We ignored the fact cancer was eating her up inside in favor of having a good time whenever possible.
Our idea of a good time entailed coffee hours, mimosa brunches, trips to the movies, impulsive mani-pedis and TJ Maxx excursions. I had a baby in Ann Arbor, too. My baby Laila June. My mom came up with the name and it was the only one Mark and I both liked.
In dealing with her death, Laura and I were different. This is not a bad thing. There are many aspects to death and dying both practical and emotional that aren’t obvious until you go through it.
Example: Someone needs to push you to go to the doctor, and to make sure you’re scrubbed clean every day. Because when you’re dying, you stop wanting to do certain things, or you just can’t do those things yourself any more.
My older sister took care of my mom’s medical neeeds, her hygienic needs, her every need. We eventually brought in a home health nurse to help — Barb, a saint. Laura oversaw every aspect of my mom’s care. She forced her to the doctor for a procedure that killed nerves in her spine to stop the pain. None of us could have made our mom get out of bed at that point, but Laura did.
Someone needs to be there with you as you walk through the in between and then finally pass over. That was me and my little sister. We held our mom as she left this earth.
Someone needs to make sure a body leaves a house and gets to the funeral parlor. My dad arranged that, but I was the only one who wanted to be there to oversee the process. I needed to see the door of the hearse slam shut, alone. My dad wandered outside, to her garden. Everyone else needed to be together, away, drinking coffee, grappling with what had just occurred.
Sorry. Because that is all really sad and I started writing that with a point in mind. In my defense, this is the kind of stuff that comes to mind when my sisters come around.
We like to stare at each other and say really depressing things like: “I can’t believe we haven’t heard her voice in two years.”
Then we have a bunch of flashbacks. Some depressing, some funny, some mysterious.
Example: My sister and I both had lovely and mysterious dreams in which our mother answered questions about death. Laura wanted to know if dying hurt.
“No, not really,” our mom answered in an off-handed way. Her intonation and the phrase was so very Gayle. With her answer, dream Gayle who we suspect was real Gayle suggested the whole process was really NBD and we needn’t worry about her.
Right — my point, I had one. My point in dragging all of that up: I did something that violated a rule somewhere that must be in a book with a title like “Navigating Death: a Field Guide.”
My mom had a Buddhist spiritual adviser in those last weeks. I kind of sort of overheard-slash-eavesdropped a private meeting between them, where she tearfully revealed one of her biggest worries – that my older sister and I wouldn’t be able to get along without her. My mom was the buffer between our opposite natures. And then she was gone.
Have we been able to get along?
My mom’s death threw our universe out of balance. We’d all been orbiting around her. And then we flew apart; that gravitational force had disappeared, or at least, moved on. My sister settled into her home. She had marathon jam-making sessions and ran half marathons. I plotted my next move, which would be one far away, for yet another fresh start somewhere totally foreign to me.
I make my sister really nervous.
We are older now, and we understand that we are different, and we try harder not to take such…bitchy… offense to our differences. We try to avoid making our mother roll in her grave.
When Laura said she’d never visit me in Oklahoma, I think what she meant was: “You’re moving away and it hurts me (so I’m going to hurt you HA).”
Or maybe that’s just me overanalyzing that remark. Maybe she just hates planes and thunderstorms.
Who knows. Women are complicated and some of us have to talk in code language sometimes to make our point. You need a psychic Navajo code talker on performance enhancing drugs to understand our inference-laden remarks. Ugh. Maybe we should all just get cray cray and say what we mean. Who’s with me, ladies?
When I needed my sister, she put her fear of flying and storms on a shelf somewhere and showed up. I need her in a new way now.
Eli has special medical issues. She has special medical knowledge. She gets to boss me around. I need her to.
He is a new gravitational force for us to orbit around.
We did fun Oklahoma things all weekend. One of those things entails eating a lot of grass-fed red meat
“I’m eating this giant roll slathered in butter,” I said after polishing off bread, a salad, steak and fries…for lunch. “Yes. It’s the size of Laila’s head. Don’t judge.”
“I won’t. Duh.”
Then we went to TJ Maxx, lingered in the purse isle and made impulsive purchases.
I put my sister back on a plane yesterday.
“Did you hold any strangers’ hands this time?” I asked.
“No, but I asked a man if I could sit next to him. I held his arm. Then this other woman talked me through it.
“Did he ask if you wanted to hold his arm?”
“So you were holding onto a random man on a plane.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Oh good Lord.”
“I had fun this weekend. “
“Love you too.”