Nov 19, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans – Sponsored by Ochsner Hospital for Children
Beaujolais and Bittersweet
It was almost exactly a year ago, a typical boring Saturday. I’d just gotten an iced coffee at PJ’s and was headed to Rouses with an extensive shopping list when my phone rang and my dad was on the other end, calling from Florida and crying.
“She’s dying,” he told me. “She” was my sister, Ashley, and I knew he was right.
“I’m coming,” I told him, making an immediate U-turn and heading back toward my house.
“Don’t come,” he said. “She doesn’t want to see anyone, and I don’t want to put you through this.”
“You need me,” I said. “You both need me.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t come.”
So I made another U-turn and headed back to the grocery store. “OK,” I said. “Call me if you change your mind.”
I drove two blocks, and then I decided to hell with them and what they thought they wanted. They were family. They needed me. I made another U-turn.
At home, I threw together the bare essentials for a stressful last-minute weekend trip: my toothbrush, clean underwear, a T-shirt, my phone charger, Xanax and three Baby-sitters Club books.
The whole way to Florida, about four hours, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad and my last trip to see her, six months earlier, a trip we’d initially planned as an intervention. Instead, once we saw the shape she was in, we realized it wasn’t going to work. She’d given up; we, in turn, gave up on fixing her and changed our tack to a Southern dysfunctional family version of palliative care. Instead of putting her in rehab, I made her veal piccata and cheesecake. Instead of taking a stand about her drinking, we all split a bottle of wine, my dad and I drinking from her best crystal wine glasses –– “You’re company!” she insisted –– while her hands shook too badly to manage anything more fragile than a pink plastic tumbler from Kmart. Instead of feeling hopeful or empowered or anything else that the families on Intervention seem to feel, I felt sad and defeated and weak and helpless. “I love you,” I told her again and again, figuring that if I failed at intervening, at least I could succeed at being a sister for once.
On the way there, I’d chattered to my dad about rehab programs, whether six weeks would do any good at all or whether it would need to be more like 16. I’d talked about how Dad and I needed to be a united front. I’d talked about getting her involved in charity work or getting her a puppy. On the way back, we were quiet. We talked, briefly, about whether you can really just let someone die if they don’t want to live. We talked about time, about how long she’d been so sick and how long she had left.
And now, six months later, the clock was ticking down, and I was driving there alone, against their wishes.
By the time I got to Shalimar, it was dark and pouring down rain, and when I showed up on the doorstep, my father wasn’t happy to see me.
“You shouldn’t have,” he said, and he meant it.
“This is probably the only time I’ve ever disobeyed you in my whole life,” I said.
My sister laughed suddenly, coming up behind Dad in the doorway. “I know that’s true!” she said. “You were always the good daughter. I was the wild child!”
And then things were back to normal, as they’d always been, at least sort of. At any rate, these were roles we knew how to play: the bad one, the good one, the father.
“Have a glass of wine,” Ashley said, looking almost perky. “Let’s all have one! To celebrate being together as a family!” And so I went to the fridge and got out a half-full bottle of just-released Beaujolais Nouveau from the door.
“Ah,” I said with a great deal of false cheer and a terrible French accent. “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé.”
I poured us all a small amount, and we toasted to our family, small and broken and crazy though it was.
It was getting late by then, and my dad was still kind of annoyed with me, so he went to bed, and Ashley and I stayed up. We watched Saturday Night Live and worked our way through another bottle of Beaujolais and retold old family stories and giggled. On the one hand, it felt awful to drink with her, like I was signing her death certificate in my own hand. On the other, this was probably the closest I’d ever felt to her, the most typical “sister” thing we’d done in years.
I left the next day, late in the evening, after fixing dinner for everyone. I wanted to stay, but I had to get back to Ruby and my job and my life.
I hugged Ashley tightly as I left, feeling every bone in her alarmingly thin body and knowing in my gut I would never see her alive again. “I love you,” I said again. “I miss you. I miss you every day.”
I cried the whole way back to New Orleans, sad for her and me and my dad. Sad that I couldn’t help her. Sad that the whole family was such a mess, the whole family tree poisoned by alcohol. I cried my way through the next few days, and when she died in May, I was kind of surprised to find that I was all cried out. For weeks, I waited for the tears, and they never came. I even gave her eulogy completely dry-eyed.
And so I was shocked yesterday, when a friend came over with a bottle of brand-new Beaujolais Nouveau, to find my eyes welling up, remembering.
I would remember her acutely this time of year anyway: Her birthday is Nov. 16, and she would’ve been 50. Her best friend from high school called my dad. “Ashley and I always talked about turning 50 back when we were kids,” Daphne said. “Ashley said she could never imagine being that old. I’m sorry she didn’t live long enough to realize that 50 is just getting started.”
I am, too. But I’m glad that she’s no longer suffering, struggling her way through a life she didn’t want to live any longer.
Beaujolais Day is the third Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is a week later. For the rest of my life, I will think of her on both days –– taking a moment to be thankful that the last memory I have of her is a happy one and another moment to be thankful that she is finally at peace.