Thursday April 13, 2017 at 7:36AM.
My sister Chelle died last night. We had a complicated relationship, as some sisters do. Basically, I was a moron and that is where the complications stem from. I don’t mean it was entirely my fault; it does take two to tango, right? But still, my side of it was less than compassionate and therefore moronic, given the circumstance. My therapist would be really upset to know I called myself a moron because I am in a phase of growth, enlightenment and self-love. But I reserve the right to call myself such a thing because let’s face it; sometimes even wonderful people can be morons. And now I can’t make my side of things right, as the very unfortunate fact of the matter is that my sister is dead.
So, I did the next best thing. I mustered up the courage to call her husband, Jim, who hasn’t spoken to me for the last ten years. It took me a full five minutes to dial; I was surprised he picked up the phone. Maybe he thought it was someone else calling. Part of that conversation went something like this:
Jim: “Hi Sue.”
Jim: “I’m in (name of small town I have never heard of and do not remember, as all the crushing sadness of my sister’s death came flooding back along with a heaping dose of anxiety when I heard his voice) Nebraska, out in the middle of nowhere.”
I imagined him in that moment, wrapped in his grief over losing his wife whom he had been with since they were seventeen, cocooning himself in all the empty space of the sights and sounds around him. No one would appreciate being out in the middle of nowhere more than Jim. He loved geography, history, and the stories inspired by such. I used to tease him about this; I would laugh at his tour guide ways. Even on the drive to the local movie theater, he would point out things of interest, detailing some fact about a building, place, or street name from the mundane to the fascinating.
Me: “I’m such a jackass. I thought it was about the money,” I sobbed, referring to a soured business venture. “But you don’t talk to me anymore because I hurt your wife and you loved her. It wasn’t the money. I want you to know that I’m, I mean you know, you were together for so long. What I am trying to say is I’m grateful that Chelle had you by her side until her last day. You were there for her.”
Jim: “I appreciate that, thank you. It’s going to be hard to get that last image of her out of my head. It’s going to stay with me.” And I imagined her collapsed on the sofa no longer breathing. I’d heard the details from Margi, my younger sister, who apologized when she called to tell me the news.
Me: “No, thank you. For picking up the phone.”
Jim: “Take care, hon. I love you.” He hadn’t said those words to me in so long I winced. I’d forgotten, there was a time he had loved me. Did he say it out of reflex? I’m sure he’d said it hundreds of times in the past twelve days at the end of the many phone calls of condolence. Was he so used to saying it, it just came out? Once it does, you can’t take it back. It isn’t like you can say, “Oh, I didn’t mean I love you. I don’t love you, not anymore, jackass. But thanks for calling.”
Me: “I love you, too.”
I wish I could remember our entire conversation but I was gushing with regretful apology as I tend to do when I realize I could have handled something better than I had. I get exceedingly emotional, and my thoughts whir. I think about the next thing I can say, all the while knowing I am missing parts of a conversation I should be paying attention to. I’m a terrible listener; I do exactly what one should not do when trying to have a meaningful exchange.
My mother had three girls – Chelle, me, Margi, in that order. I was Sue-Ellen partly because of Chelle. “Momma, if we have a girl we have to name her Susan. She’s in my class and we are best friends,” which made perfect sense in her five-year-old brain. “If it’s a boy then Tom, “ she blushed. Throughout the years she would tell me the story again and again, still annoyed that mom vetoed her directive. I was told I was named after a cousin, Ellen Sue, whom I suspect never existed. I’ve never met her and neither has anyone else in the family.
Chelle exacted her revenge by nicknaming me Susie, and that is what she called me her entire life. I exacted my revenge by repeatedly telling our mother I was going to legally change my name to Lauren, but then just changing the spelling from Sue-Ellen to Suellen. All that did was make people mispronounce it, either Sullen, which I hope is not indicative of my disposition, or Sue Lynn, which is just as ridiculous as my given name. But back when I was still Sue-Ellen, it was Chelle who walked me to kindergarten each weekday. We’d spend afternoons playing on the swing set in our backyard, or swimming in the neighbor’s pool. I repaid her in kind by feeding her goldfish an entire container of fish food, thereby killing them, and throwing her dolls out the window of our speeding car.
Depression killed Chelle. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Only forty-five at the time, it threw a definite kink in her life path, forever changing her trajectory. She headed into cancer a driven career woman, and out of it dispirited beyond mobility. It appeared she ached with the kind of despair depicted in commercials for medications that are supposed to make you feel like your old self again.
On a recent visit, she stayed with Margi. Wrapped in blankets wearing pajamas she spent the majority of the time sleeping, seldom moving from her spot on the sofa. When she did move, never was it to bathe, or brush her teeth, and she couldn’t figure out how to use the television remote or the washing machine. She was on oxygen. She was only fifty-eight at the time. Regardless, she still had the most beautiful, luminous complexion. It was now almost transparent, I believe from the lack of movement and sun exposure. I wondered how someone who was often taken to the hospital due to dehydration could have such gorgeous skin, devoid of wrinkles. I got the good hair in the family.
We spoke on the phone ten days before she passed. She sounded strong and cheerful, like her old self. I was surprised and hopeful for her, even through my funk. I’d just moved out of the house I shared with my soon to be ex-husband, and had only been in my new apartment two days. I was deeply embedded in my own little Greek tragedy - me, myself, and my agoraphobia - and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. Chelle rarely picked up the phone when I tried to reach her, and although I always left a message she seldom called back. That day, my phone rang over and over again. She even left me a voice mail. This time, I was the one that didn’t pick up. Then she dialed Margi, who was sitting across the table from me.
“Hey Chell,” Margi punched the speaker button. She looked at me as I mouthed adamantly to her I don’t feel like talking.
“Hi Margi, I’m trying to call Susie, she’s not answering. Is she okay?”
“She’s right here.” Margi handed me her phone. I rolled my eyes, took the phone, and placed it in front of me.
“Hey Chell, how are you?”
“I’m gooood, I want to see the new puppy. Can we Face Time?" she said in a slow timbre, referring to the puppy I'd adopted a mere 48 hours before.
“I don’t have him anymore. It was too much taking care of him by myself,” I said, boiling down the whole unfortunate experience.
My 16 year-old Chihuahua, Princess, died a few months ago, and Zoey, our other dog was going to live with my husband. Thus, I thought it a good idea to adopt a puppy all for myself and schedule his pick-up for the day after I moved into my new apartment. That way I'd have an adorable creature to take my mind off things such as my palpable anxiety, misery and loneliness. I presented to the adoption fair emotional and sleep-deprived. I have a history of taking care of special needs rescue dogs until the very ends of their lives and they granted me the adoption. I then spent $800 on adoption fees and puppy paraphernalia. I named the puppy before I even picked him up; first River, then Cody, Charlie, Jack, Milo and finally, Bodhi. I have dog tags with every moniker to prove it. 30 hours later I called the adoption center in anguish and begged to give him back, apologizing profusely and leaving me with yet another reason to grieve. In reality having to care for a new puppy is almost like having a newborn baby and there is nothing therapeutic about that.
“Oh, no. Poor thing,” she said. I wasn’t certain if she meant me, or the dog. “I can’t wait to see you at the end of the month. When I’m there I’m going to come over and take care of you. I can bring you Starbucks and we’ll watch movies. You’ll be okay, you’re doing the right thing for yourself,” she said, confirming my decision to leave my husband.
“That would be great,” was all I could manage. The tears flowed.
“I love you, Susie. Byyyye.”
My last words to her were, “I love you, too, Chell.” And you know what? I did.