“Noreen,” she said. “I just found out Deirdre’s dying. She probably won’t make it through the weekend. I’m really worried and want to know whether you’ll drive up and see her with me.”
Her breathless, hurried voice rattled me and together with the substance of her words, forced me to sit in the chair and think. Think just a little bit before emotions smashed down on me without mercy. Deirdre is our sister, the second eldest in a family of eight children. She has Down syndrome and has lived in an institution since she was a child, a handful of years after she was born to our 23 year-old mother, during the dark days of the early 1950s.
The thought of a first sibling death caught in my throat, even though I haven’t seen Deirdre more than a few times during the past twenty years. Still, it was the kind of news I needed time to digest and wasn’t sure spending the day writing an obituary would do it. It might unsettle what was settled more than I’d like.
I might have to give in to an involuntary surrender. Meanwhile, deadline loomed. I stumbled during my conversation with Kathleen, no doubt asking the wrong questions or breathing a flawed response.
“What should we do? I guess you’ve spoken with mom and dad about it already?”
Our parents winter in Florida. They’re nudging toward their mid-eighties and travelling back and forth is no longer easy for them but they still drive there and back twice a year, with several motel stops along the way somewhere in the south. I was concerned with how they’d receive the news, the imminent death of their child, alone thousands of miles away from home.
“Mom asked me to arrange the funeral,” she said. “They’re not coming back for it.”
Today, at Tango Palace, my local coffee shop, I write about death. No, that’s not quite it. I actually write about life. My subject, Dr. Elspie Shaver, another doctor. Her story began with her birth and that’s also how I shall begin.
I begin to sketch a life. But the present moment is only a ticket to the past. There’s an old woman across the room who wears a smack of orange like a sharp dart on her mouth. Time travels. I return once again into my own long ago. Suddenly I remember being fifteen, working behind the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter wiping smears of brilliant lipstick from beige enamel coffee cups.
There are these moments, yes, and there will transpire a firm blending of time past, present, and hopefully to be. I live within the folds of its skin, snug behind a wing.
My mother once told me about taking Deirdre home for a few days within a few months of admitting her. “We took her to my father’s house, slipped her up to the screen door and knocked on it. Then we hid behind the bushes,” she said.
“My father came to the door and he was so excited to see her, he opened the door and took her into his arms,” she smiled, lost in this but it shaded quickly. “He was dead within a week.”
That year, the year I was born, I lost my older sister and three of my grandparents. Grief flowed through with my mother’s milk during those months.