I recently headed out to Pensacola, anticipating a pleasant mini-vacation with the girls – we’d have a cozy night in the hotel before dropping Ruby at her roller derby clinic, and then Georgia and I would explore until she was done at which point we’d all hit the beach for some sand and sun.
And that all happened. It was a lovely but brief escape, the girls mostly got along, and even the weather cooperated.
What I didn’t expect, although I probably should have, was how being back in Florida would bring back so many memories connected to the last year of my sister’s life.
She lived, and died, in Shalimar, which is about an hour east of Pensacola, just north of Destin/Fort Walton Beach, and so we weren’t exactly back on her turf, but all of the stores were the same and seeing the familiar logos brought on a rush of sad memories.
The Tom Thumb convenience stores that dot the Panhandle provided the cheap plastic cups that my sister drank her cheap white wine from once her hands got too shaky for her to trust herself with glass.
The Whataburger is where I ate dinner by myself when my dad went to see my sister the first time we came – almost exactly 10 years ago – and he didn’t know if she’d be willing to see me.
The Publix where I went shopping for the last meal I ever made my sister and where my dad and I later bought the flowers we threw into the water along with her ashes.
When I came in April 2009, I was actually hopeful (before I saw her). I thought we could encourage her to get treatment, get her life back on track. My own life was falling apart at the time; my marriage was in its death throes, and I was channeling all of my energy into worrying about my sister’s problems so I could ignore my own.
After she died, I wrote of that first trip, “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.”
The answer, it turned out, was about a year. I went back in November 2009, and by then, she was too sick to eat. I feel awful, writing this now, as though I should have done something – forced her into the hospital, poured her wine down the sink, some kind of dramatic gesture – but if you knew her, if you’d been there, you knew she was horribly phobic about hospitals and forcing her to do anything would have been torture and ultimately futile. She didn’t want to get better. I think sometimes of a passage in one of my favorite books, “Autumn Street” by Lois Lowry. The main character leaves her best friend alone in the snow because he won’t listen to her pleas to come inside, and – spoiler alert – he dies. “I left him there,” she writes. “I left him there alone, because he wouldn’t come, and because my head swam with fever and the terrifying knowledge that one can, after all, only save oneself.”
So I saved myself. I had my daughter and my floundering marriage and my stressful job, and my sister was actively pushing me away (because she loved me and didn’t want me to see her like this). I left. I left her there alone, because she wouldn’t come.
Before I left the first time, when she could still eat, I cooked dinner. I cooked her favorite meal, veal piccata, which we consumed with extra relish because my father’s new wife, whom we both despised, wouldn’t allow us to eat veal in her presence. We drank wine together, which felt both comfortingly right and guilt-achingly wrong, and stayed up late watching SNL and giggling.
One memory that stands out to me from that time was being at the Publix by myself buying ingredients – lemon, white wine, fresh Parmesan – and pausing in the ice cream aisle because usually, during my weekly shopping at home, I would pick out some kind of frozen treat to bring back to Ruby, then 2, as a surprise. Her delight brought me so much happiness. Obviously, I couldn’t bring her ice cream sandwiches from Florida, but the realization that my sister had no one to shop for, no one to surprise, no one to bring joy to, just struck me as unspeakably sad.
All those memories washed over me as we drove around Pensacola, me and my two girls, one who doesn’t remember my sister and one who never even met her.
A part of me wanted to share my thoughts with my daughters, but although I want to keep her memory alive, I only want to share the good parts with them, at least for now. I tell them about her laugh and how much she loved to eat and how she was funny and generous and always hilariously late to every event.
So I kept my sadness to myself.
“Look,” I said to Georgia. “Publix! That’s the store that makes your sister’s favorite cream soda! Let’s go get some while she’s at practice.”
And I held her hand and we walked into the Publix together, laughing, excited to be buying something as a treat, as a special surprise for her sister.