Since You're Gone
I can’t see you, but I hear what you’re drinking. You sip Merlot and talk in a sing-songy way, higher pitched than normal. It puts me on edge; I never know when Jekyll will transform into Hyde, when something will strangle from your lips.
Everyone gets breast cancer,” you say. “I’m constantly getting pestered to donate.”
There it is. A direct hit. I'm only Stage 1 and can't help feeling guilty for not being sicker and for every pink campaign, like I’m responsible for pink sneakers, pink buttons, pink ribbons, pink October, Walkathons, the Komen Foundation, the whole fucking disease. I wince, glad you can't see me. I envision you in your recliner, feet up, ankles crossed, crimson pedicure chipped a little bit. You slurp wine and suck peppermints under your tongue, drapes open to headlights, trains and dark.
No more “The Beauty” swirling a feather boa over a black velvet cape, a queen robed in decadence dancing with a snake. When we were young, I imagined royal dye flooded your veins while rage gathered behind your igneous eyes, dark coals visibly simmering if anyone cared to look. Through decades of living, we diminished. My offspring spawned “Aunt Louise,” doppelgänger for the monster ready to explode across your face, rob you of breath. Magic potions couldn’t calm you, nor futile pleas intoned through prayerful days and nights.
2. You’re confined to the bed in a nursing home.
“I did this to myself,” you say in an uncommon episode of remorse and lucidity.
Well, yes, you continued drinking with cirrhosis, but there wasn’t really any choice by then.
“Not your fault,” I say. “We’re alcoholics,” though a voice in my head whispers you are to blame. You relinquished every chance. You wanted to run with wolves, but who can trust a silver blur in the woods under midnight’s moon in an indigo sky, jumping free beyond the fence? You flapped your wings, a hen house captive, left behind, and fled into your damaged mind, lost in memory’s labyrinths alone, without exit, vaporous ammonia gathering in your blood. Who knows what it's like for you now in decrepitude? Your body’s caught in dementia’s grip.
I send you greeting cards with cute dogs laughing on the cover and cheerful messages. I miss who you used to be. Whenever I think of you, my heart aches. I worshipped you. Since you're gone, the grimmest truth remains ... you escaped long ago.
3. Despite trepidations and warnings to self, I visit you. I’m reminded of another time and institution reeking of medicinal and fecal smells, cold hallways and overheated rooms, flickering fluorescent bulbs and televisions— my time of ruined streets, where whiskered men in piss-stained pants nodded, when I, a former lady at the bar, reduced to a desperate, degenerate mess, fell so far below the grey oblivion of stupor, I forgot my name, where I was, and couldn’t get high enough no matter how I tried. I swore never to return to a place that rips soul from time, but, now, I hear your voice, I see your face, dear one, and I know the reflection, unforgivably, is mine. Grief pours salty rivers down our cheeks and we submit to torrents to quench the fires. Death waits in the shadows, ready to reclaim ownership when the weeping ends, when our lips turn blue, when pink fades from our skin.
4. Home again, I tighten the laces of my Brooks, aptly named “Addiction Walkers.” The dogs strain their leashes. My goal’s increased to 11,000 steps.
It’s hard to lose a sister. Mine wanders in a nursing home, labyrinth of pale green walls and speckled linoleum, maze of circular paths for patients with dementia from multiple organic causes. There’s no way in, no way out. She’s lost and I cannot find a blueprint. I left my sister in confabulations of wine and wolves, beside a window, blindly staring and listening for trains, forgetting where she is and why, and I’m lost without her.
So I walk. Obsessively, I walk, almost jogging, as fast as I can. I’m well again; she’s not. My cancer’s gone— in remission, at least, but my sister’s gone for good. No more Jekyll to admire, no more Hyde from whom to flee, but on and on, I walk. I walk roads and sidewalks, forests, fields and hills, halls and malls and libraries, clocking every step.
I walk to recover and, sometimes, to forget who we used to be.
This will be the first story. I’m writing it down so it will be ready when you’re old enough to listen, when you’re not all tears or nursing in the hush of milky odors, when a plush toy balloon doesn’t twirl “Fly Me to the Moon” over your crib, when you’re not being carried outdoors amid chirping cardinals and robins and your eyes aren’t criss-crossing over a grey-blue, cumulus sky and falling cherry tree petals.
Your mother’s not yet thirty-three and you’re not yet three months, and she must ignore the daffodils’ ripening foliage because she’s exhausted. I want to explain that the yellowing and curling of leaves supplies food for next year’s lemony blossoms but forget-me-nots nod heavenly blue warnings among lilies of the valley in this southern place where spring waxes and wanes weeks before the garden of your mother’s roots, where, decades ago, I made up fairy-tales of a happy bluebird called Barry to soothe her when she cried.
Not yet three months, you sprawl upon my shoulder, and I cradle your wobbly head, trying to remember a song or a story about how sometimes we are free, but I lose my mind with babies and gather no comfort from your baby powder smell. I’m not yet sixty-six but I need more than minutes to make up another fable or rhyme because I’ve learned something since your mother’s birth.
Your story’s not mine to craft. Perhaps all I can imagine, all I can tell, is how much I love watching the seasons turn and how it feels, once upon a time, to steal a moment alone in the garden with you and how, long, long ago, I knew how to fly.
About the Author: Joyce Ann Wheatley writes in Ithaca, NY where she works in the public library. Her work has been published in Ruminate Magazine, Snapdragon Journal of Art & Healing, Barren Magazine, From Whispers to Roars, New POP Lit and is forthcoming in Stone Canoe.