Category Archives: sisters

dead

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We make an ofrenda, which is an altar for the Day of the Dead. I bring photos of a father, grandparents, an uncle, a sister. Among them is a suicide, an alcoholic, a poet too gentle for this life, women who had to scramble to survive or live with men who treated them badly. Few died with any semblance of peace.

I offer chocolates and mums, a pencil for the poet, a cigarette for the smokers. What I wish I could give them is another pass at life, for too much of theirs was stark and unforgiving. Some of it was character, some of it was heritage, some of it was cultural.

Do not go gentle into that dark night, wails a poem. But why not? Why fight against the dying of the light? For we all must die. It’s the last clause in the contract made with being born. What unseen can I offer my dead, who have gone on before me? Courage to amend mistakes and character flaws with unflinching honesty? The never ending weeding of my inner garden? Loving what is? Love?

For them. For me. For it all. Forever and ever. Amen.

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tribe

TBP_8827We do death well….our family. Let it bare its teeth at one of us, and we drive in from far and near and go to work. Just recently we gardened, repainted a whole inside interior, cleaned, scrubbed, washed, and waxed the house of one of our own, whose husband just committed suicide. We let go of political or any bias and worked to make her home something she could come back to—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers.  I love that in us, this clan tribe thing we can summon up when the chip is down and busted.

collagecropI was reminded of the long-ago autumn melanoma locked its pitbull jaws into my sister, and we knew it was over. We drove in from far and wide on clear autumn weekends, kids tumbling out of cars like a clown act, and gardened and cleaned and talked and cooked and did whatever we could for her. We loved her to death.

 

 

 

sister

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I think I’ll plant daffodils around their headstone. I was in Arkansas this weekend at the small country cemetery where my mother and father’s ashes will one day be buried. Dad was born around here; a sister of mine lived down the road. Daffodils were blooming everywhere, covering yards in thick clusters, and that sister, now gone, was much on my mind. We all planted dozens of bulbs in her yard for her during her last autumn, a few months before she left us forever. Days before she was taken to the hospital—a place from which we all knew she would not return alive—I walked with my daughter to look at the green daffodil stalks in my sister’s yard. They represented love for her. In those months before her dying, we would have done anything for her, bought her anything she wanted, taken her anywhere she wanted to go. There were parts of her that were the best of us.

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My daughter was in her 20s; my sister’s daughters were 11 and 5. I remember realizing that she would never do this simple thing I was doing—walking with a grown daughter. The pain around that was sharp like a honed blade and achy dull at the same time.

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She didn’t live to see her daffodils or her daughters bloom. When I see those flowers in this place near where she had her home and family, she lives again in me; her final, bittersweet leaving is daffodil fragrant inside.  Mom and Dad will like having them nodding their yellow heads around their grave, I think. I think my sister will like it, too.

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samurai

We’re giving a tea party for my niece. As I gather boughs with great, white clusters called snowballs from my sister’s shrubs to put into vases, my thoughts are far away, on bits and pieces of movies I’ve watched as I bid my time here, movies about warriors, movies about sports and young men, movies about God in unexpected guise and the demons in one’s self. In case you hadn’t noticed, says the coach in one of them, life ain’t fair and sometimes you get the short end of the stick. But how long you carry it is up to you. Movie samurai practice their swordplay in my thoughts, their solemn, intense, yet zen focus, the clean, hard discipline and code of honor bulwarking all, death no enemy, but an accepted piece of the life of a warrior, with an honorable way to die underpinning all. Texas high school seniors repeat their lines as I set out silver trays, football heros, who must deal with the last clear, clean drama most of them will have in life, winning state or not. Again, rules are there, even if not followed by all. Their play on the football field is a kind of war to them, requires them to grow in ways they don’t expect. Or I think about the real war-traumatized movie hero with God striding beside him; the moment when I realized his companion was God made me blink my eyes at the TV screen and weep from the sweet simplicity of it. What do you want from me, screams a soul-maimed warrior. What do you want from yourself is the reply.

As I arrange tea cups for the party to come, there’s a longing in me for clean purpose, for a code of conduct so precise that I have no questions, for an honorable way to die as clear as goal posts on a football field. Dialog from one of the movies echoes in my head: it’s a game you can’t win. It’s the playing of it. The dialog is about golf.  Life, I think, watching snowball petals drop lightly on a polished table top…..life.

Have you a code of conduct, a code of honor? What is it? And how is a woman a warrior, for I know we are. Yet, what are our battles? What are our swords?

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This week:

Sat outside in late dusk….the tenderness of the evening, air so soft, color so lovely that green of trees had soft sulphur poured into the palette, wind so chimes were playing….an outdoor cathedral with my old and huge camphor tree as ceiling through which shadowing sky showed.

Seized by orchid fever starting by going to Orchid Express to have orchid replanted. They did it for free, and I walked among the ones blooming. Then Kroger’s and Whole Foods both had orchids for $9. So now I have three in all, two blooming creamy hopeful faces, one, repotted, hopefully to bloom in the fall.

Read Jessica Mitford‘s memoir, Hons and Rebels, in a day, the Hons being short for Honorable, which is the title given the daughters of lords. She was part of the extraordinary Mitford sisters, some six young women who took the 1930s world by storm. She ran off with a young rebel and anti-fascist, Esmond Romilly, at 19, and her memoir ends with his early death (the war, the second world war). She felt entombed by her English life and family and broke free like an eagle suddenly untethered. I think about my  life, no war, no earthquake, no tsunami, no radiation, no political unrest that involves guns– in a sense, no way to be extraordinary or not by a huge test of character, so my test must be making the best of it and looking at what is set in front of me and finding its story and practicing gratitude, hard for a restless spirit like mine, a spirit I soothe by reading the tales of others who flew the coop….

love

Dusting my office shelves, I found a relic of the past crumbling to pieces. It was a tiny clay Halloween pumpkin that my sister made for me when she was 5, and I was 18 and away in my first year of college. She had painted the little clay piece orange and its eyes and mouth green, but it had flattened on the bottom when it dried. She and I both had a hard time that year. She kept running away from her kindergarten class, running all the way home whenever she could. And if I could have run away home, I would have, but I didn’t have her certain, independent, little spirit. How difficult that year was, the first time away from home, few social skills, and certainly no flirting skills. I didn’t know how to fit in, and that’s what I wanted, to fit. What did my sister want? Not to fit? To go her own way? For the teacher not to scare her? Her year was just as hard for her.

The little relic was past repair. It crumbled away when I picked it up. I thought I’d kept it all these years because it was funny looking and dear that it had been given. Only as I write this do I realize the pure love it contained. Sweet, sweet little sister.

 

 

 

road trip

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I headed toward Dallas this weekend, not expecting to encounter memories. There’s a wide open swath of land where a road numbered 287 branches west toward Waxahachie and Fort Worth, and at the sight of that sign, my heart squeezed, and I remembered more than ten years ago when my son was in the car behind me, and we were taking him to his first year of college. I remembered how before we left he had walked through the rent house we were living in for a last look “just in case,” and indeed I had moved by the following Christmas. 

And the crisp coolness of Dallas means bulbs flower prolifically, and I was taking an innocent walk and came across a yard of daffodils and was pierced through the heart again with a memory of my sister, Carmen. She died in February when her Arkansas yard was filled with daffodils moving toward blossom. This is what I wrote once to try and capture her loss:

From the page I can draw tears, hard hearts break on my words, droplets stalagmite in readers’ bone caves, bravo they say to me. In my garden, leaves green, the yet unborn flowers will be bold yellow and soft. My sister loved daffodils, planted a yard of them she would never see. Green healing. I think I want no more grief from which to prosper.

Because I’m tired

Because I’m tried of mean politics delivered in gosh darn accents, because the stock market and depression talk of last week scared me (the cats say it scared everybody), because friends did something so kind and heartfelt I haven’t words for it yet, because I feel rudderless and writing the ending of this fourth book is hard, because I feel empty today………I offer an old journal entry.

The writing prompt was from a workshop in which there was a reading about life putting bags of gold in one’s path. The question was, did you recognize them or not.

My response: I’m in my bathroom, which is connected to my bedroom, and I can hear my sister very clearly as she speaks to her two young daughters. What do you do if Daddy is sad? she asks. We hug him, they answer. Yes, you give him a big old hug, she responds. Hugs cure anything.

I look around the bathroom, at towels, toothpaste, some spiritual saying on the wall. The moment is frozen. It’s a saber-toothed tiger of a moment, a mastadon wrapped in deep glacier ice,  the glacier of all that is happening. For my sister is dying, and we all know it–her, me, her children, our brothers and sisters, our children, our mother. The cancer, dorment for six precious years, has metastasized in her brain and lungs.

She seems normal now, but in six months from this moment, we’ll go to her funeral service on an appropriately cold and rainy day.

Grief is in me–only I don’t yet recognize its full face–and later, when I name it, love will follow, and I’ll say the love and see my sister model nothing else in her last months.

Poems will come later, slipping out of me like easy births. Grief for her will push me to new tenderness and depth. Do I know this in that suspended moment in my bathroom? I know there’s gold but all I can feel is pain–later the gold will be made shiny with tears and regrets from my deepest heart. 

Writing tip: Don’t be afraid of griefs or joys. Write them. Explore them. Give them to characters. My sister died in 1995. In 2006, when I wrote a certain death scene, I realized  that I was yet again writing my experience in her dying, the wound clean finally but not yet healed, pink tender still.

Another ending for Mom

I took my mother to see her sister in Florida. My uncle was flying in for a reunion of the siblings. Mom has mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. It was a driving trip and hard for us both. She was a trooper but confused, overwhelmed by choices and new places and the familiar being always unfamiliar. She had very much wanted to go to Florida, but by the time I dropped her off she was fretful, quietly upset, and ready to go home. Within a day, she was soothed, but all of us realized that her days of traveling zestfully to other places were over.

She and her sister are close. Theirs has been a vibrant, loving relationship. They were black belt shoppers and mothers of large families. They exchanged clothes and wore the same hair-dos. The day before I brought her back, I was so aware that my mom will never go to her sister’s home again, sit in those comfortable rooms with all the photos of family, sit on the porch, drink coffee, talk about children or weather or husbands or the weight they’ve gained or lost. It’s another ending for Mom. She doesn’t know it; that’s the kindness, I guess. But I felt it, felt sadness and loss and life’s moving on, its steel-edged inevitability.

I felt the same during my sister’s last weeks. I walked the yard, daffodils ready to bloom everywhere, with my college-age daughter and thought, my sister will never do this, this very simple, we take it so for granted thing, with her grown daughter. It hurt in the most exquisite way­­––life’s hardness and our fragility, death and rebirth, luck and that which will be.


For you, Carmen

CarmenMy second novel was just reprinted, and it gives me another chance to say, I love you, little sister, this is for you. My sister died in 1995. She was 42 and left six children behind her, the youngest five, the oldest 20. I’ve never seen anyone die finer than she did. No blame, no recriminations, just a digging in to love harder.This new edition of Now Face to Face (it came out in January from Three Rivers Press) includes scenes I took out of the original manuscript. They were about a character dying, and I couldn’t bear for my sister, who really was dying, to read my imaginary death scenes. So I reworked the book and deleted those scenes.But now it’s been ten years. And there is a reprint. So the scenes are included in an afterward, which I dedicated to my sister. And this, too, this blog, this writing life, is for you, Carmen. You were beautiful. I love you. Karleen