Partway through that long summer of loss, I returned home briefly to see my husband and children. While I was there, a telegram arrived from Sydney, our mother’s husband. The telegram informed me that I would no longer be allowed to stay at my mother’s house and take care of her, assuming that I wanted to return to Toronto, which I did. A professional nurse and a cook had been hired to replace me. Neighbors across the street were willing to put me up in their spare room. I could come see my mother twice a day — hours specified — for no more than 60 minutes per visit. And one more thing: no more baking.
When I was able at last to breathe normally, I picked up the phone. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was turning to my sister for reassurance and support. I was sure she would tell our stepfather how crazy and cruel his ideas were.
But when I told her what had happened, her words left me with a despair as terrible as any I had known over those long months of watching our mother die.
"Actually, Joyce," she said, "I agree with Sydney’s position. This was my idea too."
Finally, Moving Forward
There it is. The hardest story. Eighteen years later, I can finally tell it without tears, though I will always deeply regret that I was not present at our mother’s bedside when she died.
For years after, I could barely speak to Rona, I was so hurt by what had happened. But eventually, it was my knowledge that I had only one sister, and that the two of us were all that remained, that forced me to come out of my room, finally, and knock on her door. I suspect it was much the same for her when she opened it.
With other people I have loved in my life, when a situation comes up in which great pain has occurred, I have chosen to talk about it, to sit down with them and lay everything on the table. Cry perhaps. Maybe we’d raise our voices. Dive into the wave, I would say, to get past the breaking point.
With Rona, I knew, we would move differently past the scars. We both knew what happened. What more was there to do?
There was one thing to do, actually, but it was a solitary act. I tried, as never before, to imagine I was my sister: a person who experiences life so differently from me, and always has. I imagined that I was Rona, watching me come into our mother’s house that summer, seeing me move toward the bedroom, bending to stroke our mother’s hair, to bathe her naked body. I saw the little girl she once was — a "cool customer," our mother had sometimes called her — out in the hall, alone, while I climbed under the sheets to embrace our love-starved mother.
And then I saw myself as the little girl I once was too, feeling a desperate need to fix things the only way I knew how, with my own body. There were no criminals in this story: not 50 years ago, or 18 years ago, or now. There were only two girls who wanted to find their place in the only family they’d known.
MY SISTER IS, as I have often said, the only one left who remembers the moment of my birth. It is a fact that came up not so long ago, actually. My daughter (a young woman whose brothers keep her number programmed in their phones, a fact I love) had decided she wanted to draw up my astrological chart.
"What time of day were you born?" Audrey asked me. I shook my head. No idea. And so, with both my parents dead, it looked as though our efforts to plot my place in the stars would be thwarted forever.
This happened the week before my birthday, a few years ago — one of the many days when my sister does not call me. But that particular year, a card arrived, precisely on November 5. Rona had written only one sentence inside: "I will be thinking of you at 6:32 PM." No one I’ve ever met has a memory to equal hers.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2007.