- She and I
We can never know too much about our characters. Revelations lurk in the details.—John Dufresne, The Truth That Tells a Lie, the Lie That Tells a Truth
My sister is a natural blond; I am an unnatural blond. My hair color is a mix of expensive highlights and my own silvery grey. She passed her hair color on to all four of her children; I have passed my hair color on to no one.
She doesn’t like to drive, especially in the dark. A year younger than I, she complains that her night vision has deteriorated. She thinks the cars passing us on the interstate are veering too close, and so she swerves erratically into the next lane to avoid being sideswiped. She brakes suddenly at red lights, yards from the intersection. I brace myself on the dash or clutch the door handle, and she laughs a tiny embarrassed laugh. “See what I mean?” she says. I, on the other hand, love to drive and always have. As a teenager, I’d drive two hours to the beach and back in a single day, the one-lane highway surrounded by scrubby pines and a wide sky. Pumping the accelerator in time to whatever was on the radio. The Eurythmics: Sweet dreams are made of this . . .
I still love to drive, often volunteer to pick up friends from the airport 100 miles away in another state. Green farmland blurs by, car dealerships, small towns with eerie names like Slaughter Beach and Broadkill. I pass the Dover Air Force Base, the C-17s like monstrous beasts, the sun casting prisms across the fields. Lucinda Williams on the stereo, me singing along, a happy [End Page 153] out-of-tune wail. My love of driving is part of the reason she asked me to make the trip with her 16 years ago when she decided that her children, raised in the Midwest, needed to see the ocean. Both boys had been diagnosed by then. The word terminal trailed behind them, a distorted shadow—short and squat and squished beneath their feet on some days, elongated and twice their height, looming ahead of them on others. She hated that her children had never jumped over waves, bodysurfed, built elaborate cities in the sand. She was afraid the boys might die before they had the chance.
We both love the ocean. I live six miles from the beach, and though I once vowed I would look at it every day, I often forget. She lives 900 miles away in a state known for its dairy farms and football team and its long, brutal winters. She dreams of the yearly vacation she takes to the crowded seaside town where we vacationed as girls, the same town we brought her children to all those years ago. We both love the smell of salt and rotting wood from the boardwalk, the lighted Ferris wheel spinning the night in circles. In April, when it’s still snowing where she lives and the afternoons are dark, she searches the internet for ocean-front rentals. She’ll pay extra for the view and, even on the muggiest nights at the beach, will sleep with the windows open so she can hear the booming cadence of the sea. During those two weeks, she will walk the beach every morning no matter how bad her pain, no matter that she sleeps with oxygen, no matter that she is now dying from the same disease that took her boys. Each year she wonders if this will be the last year that she’s well enough to travel. I never wonder about things like this. I take the ocean for granted, and try to—but can’t—imagine how different it would look if I thought I might never see it again.
Sometimes, thinking of my sister, I think also of the “Hospital Room Writing Exercise” by Richard Bausch that I often give my students: Describe a hospital room from the point of view of a man whose wife has just given birth to their child. It is July 3, 7:30 pm on a cool breezy...