Ode to Ellen

A sister’s story

The theme for this issue of the magazine is women. As I was wrestling with how to approach this topic, my significant other induced some clarity by asking me a simple question: What woman had the most impact on your life?

Right. I got this, I realized. So I’d like to introduce you to my sister Ellen.

In our family of five kids, she was the best of us. The smartest, by far. The clearest, sanest, most thoughtful, most forgiving and kindest. And the most brave.

While the rest of us have veered off into louche, self-absorbed or self-pitying life choices from time to time, she kept to a steady course of abstention, volleyball, reading, teaching and writing. And so naturally, as fate loves to play dirty tricks, the other four of us are still alive and she is not.

She is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. That’s an honor reserved for those who served our country honorably under the imprimatur of the Armed Forces. Commanders, admirals, generals and JFK are buried there. And my sister.

How cool is that? Particularly because she never signed up, never wore the uniform. Instead, she served in a capacity that she and I passionately shared. She wrote. Ellen was the speech writer for the Secretary of the Air Force.

She worked at the Pentagon. She once took me to lunch at the private dining room at the State Department, where all the other guests spoke incomprehensible languages and looked distinctly foreign and important in their harsh, crisp dark uniforms and ostentatious medals and epaulets and all those weird Asian and African hats and wraps.

Fezzes. That’s a fun word to say.

She was silly, like that, like me. And God, it pissed me off how much she spoiled my kids.

Any parent understands that, right? There’s always that person in your life who your kids love more than you, admire more than you, respect more than you and want to be with more than you. But there is a payoff to that: They want to be more like them than you.

She never had any kids of her own. But how I pray mine will be like her.

Ellen was my guardian angel. My editor. My trust fund. My confidante, therapist and backbone. She made me feel good about being me, which is no easy task.

Back in my early newspaper days, I used to fret over every assignment, every byline, every story. So I used to call her on deadline and read her my stories aloud to see what she thought of the words, the rhythm, the ideas, the meaning of it all, if it had any meaning at all.

She always told me straight. She showed me, in words and choices. In confidence and faith. In life and love.

After surviving the rigors and terror of breast cancer, she was diagnosed with a particularly malicious strain of leukemia. And Fate compounded that cruel joke by marking me as her only match for a bone marrow transplant.

The great news was that I was going to finally be able to pay her back for all the kindness and guidance she had invested in me. The bad news was that I was deeply addicted to painkillers.

And so I went to rehab. And in my usual self-absorbed manner, I anticipated the day I could call her up from the newsroom and read to her the story of how I saved my sister’s life.

But the final chapter never got wrote. She never got strong enough for the transplant.

The last time I saw her was in the summer of 2007, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where I spent a weekend visiting with her, holding her hand, sitting by her bed reading short stories by Barry Hannah and Larry Brown to her until she fell asleep.

God, how she loved good writing.

Finally clean and lean and fit and clear-eyed, all natty in my new jeans and tight Tees and black boots, I felt more confidence and purpose in life than I ever had before. So with a few weeks still to go until the transplant, I came back to New Orleans to wait for the call.

As I walked out of her hospital room for the last time, she turned and smiled and said to me: “You look like a rock star.”

“I am a rock star,” I told her.

They were the last words we shared. They seem oddly perfect.


 

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