May 28, 201012:00 AM
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The Best I Can Do
“Say do you remember … dancing in September … never was a cloudy day … say do you remember … dancing in September … golden dreams were shiny days.”––Earth, Wind & Fire
I keep trying to write something about cute things that Ruby has said lately or how excited I am for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience or how much I love New Orleans summers: something lighthearted, something silly, something joyful, dammit! But I can’t get very far with any of that. It’s all ringing false. Because all I really want to write is this: My sister died last weekend. She was 49.
Twenty years and two states separated us from each other, and we were never particularly close, never really like sisters at all. We shared DNA but not secrets or ice cream sundaes or clothes. We never argued or tattled or competed. She never asked me if she could borrow my favorite sandals to wear to a party. She never asked me to cover for her when she came home late. She never asked me to drop everything and come help her through a bad breakup. Honestly, over the years, she only ever asked one thing of me, and it was not typical. She asked me to write her obituary.
So I’m trying. But I just can’t seem to get any further than: My sister died last weekend. She was 49.
My first actual bylines as a journalist were on obituaries –– “life stories,” we called them at the Columbia Missourian. I’ve written dozens and dozens of obituaries and could write them practically in my sleep because they’re so formulaic.
And yet that does me no good right now. I can’t write anything. All of my memories of her are jumbled in my brain like crumbs, and I want to either sweep them up or find a way to smoosh them together into something cohesive. That moment when flour and butter and water suddenly become pie dough: I want that transformation to happen in my brain, where I can take the memory of us eating veal cutlets at Ye Olde College Inn and the memory of us eating fondue in Pensacola and the memory of us holding hands as my dad gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral and turn them into something else entirely, something more, something real, some kind of a meaningful relationship.
But I can’t get there. I can remember the sound of her voice, I can remember her signature scent of Chanel No. 5 and Virginia Slims, I can remember her nervous laugh that punctuated everything. But I can’t make it mean anything.
All I can do, I guess, is try to do what she asked.
Brett Ashley Kidd was born Nov. 16, 1960, at the height, obviously, of my father’s Hemingway obsession. She loved Motown music and classic R & B, the color pink, Bud’s Broiler’s hickory sauce, the Saints, anything on the Food Network that wasn’t Rachael Ray, North Carolina barbecue, the Democratic party, dancing, cooking and talking on the phone. She was loving. She had a great sense of humor. She had goals.
And then … she wasn’t, and she didn’t. Alcoholism slowly took over her life, took away all of the good and bad parts of who she was until she was just 67 pounds of no one.
Ruby is obsessed with monsters lately. They’re under her bed, obviously, but they’re also in the car and in trees, and when she does something bad, it’s the monsters who are at fault.
When I got the phone call from my dad on Saturday and I told Ruby that Aunt Ashley had died, she said, very seriously, “Mama, I’m sorry that a monster came and made your sister dead.”
And I said, “No, baby. Monsters aren’t real. That’s not what happened. Aunt Ashley was very sick, and sometimes sick people die.”
But I can’t stop thinking about it. A monster did take her away. A long time ago.
This much is true: My sister died last weekend. She was 49.
But this is also true: My sister died years ago. A monster came and made her dead.
And now, of my father’s three children, I am the only one left. I can’t make sense of it. I can’t stop hating myself for not having her as a bridesmaid, for not visiting more often, for not answering the phone the last time she ever called me. I can’t do anything. I can’t even, as it turns out, seem to write her obituary.