that’s not on my bucket list

“So where will you live if you have to live without Buck?” my sister asked in our long phone call last night. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

No, no. There’s nothing imminent going on, thank God. But she knows that Buck is 82 and I am 68 (good solid peasant stock and so far remarkably sturdy) and so barring a freak accident or random deadly disease, the brutal calendar suggests I could be a widow for a long time.

Flo is ten years my senior. She turned 79 yesterday and her husband of 56 years turns 81 today. “If I have to live without Charlie,” she said in her voice which has grown breathy and thin, “I think I’ll stay here with my kids. Plus I love Arizona.”

“We’re not in control of the timing of things,” I say, “so it just depends. We know we need to sell the big house while we are still strong enough to do all the necessary things on our own.” Flo has opened the door, and I muse aloud. “When we sell here, when that time comes, we plan to go to Jacksonville and hunker down somewhere close to the Mayo Clinic where we’re assured of great medical care.”

“And they know you there. They have all of Buck’s records.”

“Yes.”

“So you think you would stay there, then?”

“Probably, I don’t know. Somewhere in Florida, for sure. I love old Florida, somewhere on the water, maybe a river, but near the ocean where I could walk the beach everyday. Mother was so strict, I never got a sunburn as a teenager.” Flo and I quietly laugh. Oh, we both knew our mother.

Well. It’s early morning now. I realized that conversation was still on my mind when I called Lou dog by my sister’s name when I got out of bed in the dark to leave Buck and my bedroom, trying as I always do not to disturb his sleep and failing as I always do. He stirs and reaches for me.

When Your Big Sister is Sick and Hurting

My big sister and I haven’t actually seen each other in thirty years. The reasons are myriad and insufficient.

She lives on the opposite side of the country, an artist who loves the desert home she shares with her husband.

We’re all growing old now. She is 77. At 66, I’m still the baby sister.

We’ve had a loving telephone and email relationship for years. And it’s been enough. It felt just right. Neither we nor our other sibs wanted to plow the old ground of  “Mother.”

But since she called about a month ago to say she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I have been missing her in a way hitherto unknown in my experience. I’ve come to understand that I love my sister in a way I hadn’t realized; that her existence, her being, is more important to me than I knew.

Her voice, a little creaky now with age, exhaustion and pain, drills deep into the recesses of the heart I’ve hidden too well.

Beth and Flo near Pensacola in 1988

The breast cancer was a slow grower, small and caught early. Flo lives in Mesa, Arizona, the heart of snowbird medical nirvana, so thank God, her care is the best. There was a complication, a hematoma, that is the source of great pain. There are heart issues, too, but for now, they seem to be under control. Time is both the enemy and the friend. She has angels of care, including her husband and daughter-in-law, a fine cardiac and emergency care nurse.

We talked on the phone for more than an hour a few nights ago. Sometime during the conversation, I left my desk and went to sit on a sofa in the dark. When you leave your computer screen behind and sit with only the other person’s voice, it gets deep in a hurry. Fully engaged. The way relationships with people you love should be.

My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.