Monday, July 12, 2004

In Memory of My Sister

Beyond the door,
There's peace I'm sure,
And I know there'll be no more
Tears in heaven.

On September 18, 2003, my only sister, Donna, died unexpectedly. Today would be her 58th birthday.

Donna was larger than life, an overused cliché but it fits literally and figuratively. One day as she walked ahead of him, our father said her derriere looked like two cats in a bag, fighting. And that was when she was a slim teenager! At any size, from the tall, skinny, beautiful child to the big, beautiful woman she became, her body could not contain the vibrant force of her personality. Donna was the kind of person who spilled over everywhere she went. Strangers became instant friends and, in recent years, internet correspondents. The dozens of people on her e-mail list know what I mean. Our brother Bob and I begged her to write at least one personal message for every ten she sent that were forwarded jokes and inspirational stories. But at least her global messages balanced out all the spam about Viagra and anatomy enlargement.

I was blessed with three mother figures: my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my sister. As the classic bossy older sister, Donna dominated my life in a completely unique way that empowered her to say and do things I would never tolerate from anyone else. The friendship that developed from our sibling bond was tested frequently, especially after our parents passed away, but endured, to my eternal gratitude. The ten-year gap in our ages could have been hard to bridge, but Donna decided early to keep her bratty little sister close, despite countless impediments that would have discouraged most older sisters.

She is responsible for my love of rock ’n’ roll, music in general and dancing. She taught me how to do the Twist and then entered me in a dance contest for teenagers, which I won at the age of 4. She convinced Mom and Dad to send me to dance school soon thereafter and later she lobbied for me to have the professional music lessons she would have loved, since she was frustrated flautist. She bought me my first record album (Beatles) and took me to my first concert (Dave Clark Five). She forgave me for giving her boyfriend’s class ring to my Kindergarten sweetheart; for defacing her school yearbooks; for letting our parents find out she had a yellow, fringed, go-go dancer bikini when I dug it out of her dresser drawer and wore it around the house; for warping her favorite 45rpm singles in the summer heat.

In return, she generously included me in many teenage activities, which in Orange County in the mid-1960s usually meant going cruising, to drive-in movies or to the beach. How many boy-crazy 18-year-olds would do that? I remember many weekends together when she would go surfing at the legendary Wedge in Newport Beach, where it was too treacherous for me to even play in the waves, just so she could impress the cute, wild guys. When a co-worker she was dating invited her to attend their company picnic, I tagged along. She was always the best tour guide and delighted in introducing me to new places that I might have missed otherwise.

Such was her influence over me that she shaped who I am, providing an example of what to be and sometimes what not to be. Donna was the family rebel and so I became the family late-bloomer. She was a trailblazer on many of the social issues that were controversial in the 1960s but acceptable and commonplace by the 1970s. She was often too gutsy and daring for her own good, but quintessentially she was a romantic soul who longed to be a wife and a mother. Her shyness and insecurity around the most important men in her life belied her reputation as a boisterous extrovert.

When she moved back to the San Fernando Valley for 12 years, where she married and started her own family, she would borrow me for a few weeks every summer. It sure wasn’t for my housekeeping or baby-sitting abilities. Without her patient devotion throughout my prolonged childhood, our relationship might have been a casualty of the distances and differences between us.

Those were painfully difficult years for Donna because of her husband’s addictions. The house they bought was filled with friends, music and undercurrents of chaos. During their seven years together, which ended horrifically with his murder, she tried to create a family and a stable, traditional home. In search of her soulmate, she dated in her teens, in her twenties, in her thirties, in her forties, and even in her fifties, when she met her last love who was with her at the end. She formed several significant long-term relationships but never remarried.

She loved to travel and took road trips all over North America. She was the most proficient, trustworthy driver I ever knew and at one time was a professional test driver for Volkswagen. I could get carsick even driving myself, but I almost never had a bad ride when she was at the wheel. She used to race against other amateurs at the local drag strip. Boy, that was another era before excessive litigation spoiled our recreational options. At different times, she owned a hot new Corvette, a brand new Camaro convertible (which much later became my high school and college wheels), and a Porsche that spent one day on the road before it went back on wood blocks.

Throughout her life, she had special empathy for the less fortunate and could never resist coming to their rescue. Her favorite catchphrase began, “When I’m rich and famous, …” She played the lottery whenever finances allowed and entered every contest and sweepstakes in the western hemisphere in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Her big fairytale jackpot never materialized, but she shared with those she loved her meager winnings, such as the oversized Snapple jacket circa 1993, and her dreams of how much better their lives would be when her elusive ship came in.

Donna inherited our mother’s stubborn strength and Teutonic toughness and our father’s resourceful problem-solving skills and quick wit. Her indestructible will and humor carried her cheerfully through decades of challenges and disappointments. She was always the first to poke fun at herself, as the signs she used for wall decorations confirm: Fat Is Only Deep Skin and I'm Fat but You're Ugly and I Can Diet. Someone gave her a coin bank that looked like a parking meter and of course she put it next to her bed. No hardship, no trauma, no crisis could long quench her appetite for fun. Even motherhood did not diminish the enthusiastic child within; she just had more companions to take on her adventures. Her laugh was the loudest in any room and she was always at the center of conversation and merriment.

Like Dad, she could fix almost anything and was amazingly competent in emergencies, unless her sons Glen and Charlie were at risk. One summer we took them on a vacation through more than thirty states. One of the boys fell face first out of her van as we were trying in vain to find a vacant motel room in Buffalo. When the clerk refused to let us take some ice for his head, Donna was so outraged that she ordered me to drive all night through the darkness and fog until we got to Ohio. Her grudge against upstate New York multiplied with each retelling of the episode.

I will never forget the frantic phone call I got in the middle of the night in the early 1980s. A section of Glen’s sinuses burst open, pushing his eye downward and almost out of its socket. I arrived from my 30-minute drive to find Donna in worse shape than Glen. I got them to the hospital and ultimately all was well, except for Glen’s class picture that year.

One memory I will always cherish dates back to my last day as a single woman. Donna, Glen, Charlie, and our oldest brother Richard were living in Phoenix but came home for the holidays and to attend my first wedding. Donna sprang for expensive suede leather athletic shoes the kids put on their Christmas lists. Somehow a neighborhood weasel who always liked to torment Glen and Charlie had coerced one of the boys to hold his own brother down while the weasel soaked his new shoes with a garden hose. Donna, on a tight budget as always, was furious when she saw the shoes, stiffened beyond redemption. The day before the wedding, while Mom slaved away in the kitchen preparing for the post-nuptial reception, Donna spied the weasel whizzing past our house in what appeared to be brand new roller skates with suede boots. As swiftly as a gazelle or an avenging mother, she pulled me outside and grabbed the little weasel, yelling at me to turn our hose on full blast. Limbs were flailing wildly and the language was not appropriate for repeating in this public forum. Donna ended up in the emergency room with a broken toe, but the weasel, whose Christmas skates were ruined, did not bother the boys ever again. In fact, he and Glen became friends years later.

This last incident notwithstanding, Donna had a genuine connection with and understanding of children. She treated her sons’ male and female friends as if they were her friends, often to the boys' annoyance. She was the coolest aunt, as my son Chris and Bob’s daughter Kellie can attest. She would take Chris and Kellie and their best buddies for long weekends and treks to the desert, laser light shows at the observatory, and other unforgettable experiences.

She served as my Lamaze coach when I was pregnant with Chris after his father expressed doubts about his ability to witness the blood and pain of childbirth. She hosted my baby shower, which was held right around her birthday, where I surprised her and the assembled guests by hiring a male dancer to deliver a very personal singing strip-o-gram to her as he undressed down to his red thermal underwear. Hers was the longest sustained laugh I have ever heard and her ribs were sore for days. When I went into labor, she drove me to the hospital and distracted me by playing Yahtzee, one of her favorite games. After my water broke, there was no distracting me, but she waited nearby with ice chips, washcloths, soothing reassurances and a camera.

When Chris’s dad decided he wanted to see the delivery after all, Donna refused to surrender her role and told the nurses he was drunk, which may not have been her first or last fib. Despite this, she maintained a better relationship with my ex-husband than I did. When I went back to work full-time after Chris was born, she was Auntie Daycare, which made the difficult mother-son separation bearable. When I decided Chris and I deserved a better fate, she picked us up, packed us up, and moved us in with our parents. She remained a steadfast cornerstone in Chris’s life. When he was a toddler, he would sit entranced on her lap as she read to him. Oh, how she loved to read aloud, almost as much as she liked to tell stories or give advice. During one reading, he told her that she was as comfortable and fluffy as a cloud. Thereafter, her nickname became Auntie Cloud.

She never got to meet her first grandchild, who was born earlier the month she died, or nibble on his "baby ribs," her trademark tickling game. But she had been planning a return trip from her home in Florida just to see him. Donna must have been so weakened and broken at the end because I am certain she was kicking and clawing to hold on for her grandson’s sake. She would have been the most endearingly obnoxious, boastful, e-mail sending grandmother ever.

As the years exacted their toll, it hurt to see how her failing body humbled her and how her restless spirit was bound by her declining mobility. Despite numerous obstacles, she and Richard made what would be her final visit alive to California last summer. Unencumbered by the conflicts of the past, we spent several memorable mellow days enjoying our rare togetherness, including the Fourth of July and her 57th birthday. I realized how sick she was when we went to a restaurant for all-you-can-eat whole Maine lobster, her absolute favorite food, and she struggled to finish one tail and a pair of claws. Still, she seemed more concerned about my diagnosis of breast cancer, recent surgery and impending chemotherapy. In a private moment with my son, she helped him admit to her and later to me how emotionally distraught he was about my cancer, which he had tried to stifle so as not to add to my burden.

The last conversation we had occurred six weeks after our summer visit ended and six days before her death. Her tone was urgent as she spoke at length about my husband, Luis, whom she adored and respected. Luis and I could be considered an unlikely couple due to differences in age, experience, culture, and socio-economic background. Donna directed me to ask Luis what compelled him, a good-looking young man with a surplus of positive attributes and potential, to choose me, a middle-aged single mom, over all the other women he could have courted. Donna insisted emphatically that she believed God sent Luis to Chris and me in our time of greatest need.

I told Donna that I must be the luckiest woman ever. My ex-husband suffered a catastrophic breakdown when Chris was 10 years old. He became delusional and imagined he was the son of God, from which lofty perspective he foresaw the imminent demise of the world and offered me sanctuary if Chris and I would come back to him. So I joked that my first husband thought he was the son of God and my second husband might be a gift from God! But she was unusually grave, emotional and intense, which haunts me still.

For nearly 25 years, Donna served as caregiver for our brother Richard, who due to a difficult forceps delivery was left deaf at birth with learning disabilities. Richard and I have always been close, but living on opposite coasts for seven years made our goodbyes so hard for me that I would sob inconsolably. After Donna’s death, I was in chemotherapy, so Luis flew to Florida (he dislikes flying) to move Richard (Luis could not speak sign language) back to California with his service dog, a Doberman (Luis is terrified of large dogs), and drove 3,000 miles in three days (Luis is lousy with maps and directions) in a U-Haul truck (Luis had never driven a truck before). You see, I am the luckiest woman! At my time of greatest need, Richard has also been a constant source of help and comfort. I believe Richard is a gift from Donna.

The driving force in my sister’s life was love. She loved passionately and defiantly, and she yearned to be loved and accepted for who she really was, flawed as we all are. I am not going to pretend that Donna was an angel. If angels exist, I have never met one. Had I the power to change just one thing about Donna, I would have healed the gnawing hole in her heart that kept her from the true, complete happiness she deserved. At her innermost vulnerable core, Donna seemed afraid to simply be herself. If Donna is watching over us, I hope she can feel the love of those who knew her best, who loved her unconditionally, and who will miss her on birthdays, holidays, and everyday days.

For nearly fifteen years, I have been writing and rewriting the same endless novel, which probably is autobiographical unless it ever gets published, in which case it is a work of fiction and is not based on any real persons past or present. Anyway, it chronicles doomed romance, the devastating loss of loved ones, squandered opportunities and a crisis of faith. I call it “Goodbye Happens.” Distilled to its essence, it tells the story of the complicated relationship between two sisters, but it’s the younger sister who faces a life-threatening illness and the older sister becomes her improbable hero. On this of all days, I don’t aspire to second-guess God. But I can’t help it. I like my ending better.