Red Wheelbarrow Poets
Poem of the Week 1/10/2017
My Younger/Older Sister
My sister was two years younger than I, but she was also older, wiser, smarter, tougher.
She was determined, always. When her college roommate died of cancer, she said, “I’ll live for her.”
She battled depression as I did but hers was worse. She nearly died of it after she gave up her baby and found it impossible to turn off that new love the way the doctors could turn off her milk. But she got up, went on, kicked the thing in the teeth until it walked away as all bullies do. In Alaska she found medicine that kept it away for many years.
She traveled to the wildest places on earth, jumped into the cold North Pacific (survival time, about one minute), found a cache of mummified human remains, tried to sleep where the sun shone all 24 hours, visited prisoners to encourage them to get their lives back on track. She walked into Native villages and astounded the people there by not telling them what to do, like all the other white people who came. They ended by inviting her to their weddings.
After seeing the lousy health care those people had, she told me, even though she was turning 40, “I’m going to become a doctor.”
She hated guns, and had a job where she had to carry one in case of bears. She never took it out of her pack, instead made a deal with the bears, that she wouldn’t bother them if they wouldn’t bother her. “And they never have,” she said. I have asked for the same deal.
She was perpetually thoughtful. She asked my forgiveness for things I didn’t hold against her. When she said “I’ll pray for you,” I believed in those prayers, was willing to conceive there might be somebody to pray to.
She was special, but she longed for the ordinary. “I want to have the same things other people have,” she said. A family, a partner. She lived in a place where men far outnumbered women. The problem was, she told me, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”
When I visited her in Alaska, she said, “Don’t I have a beautiful place to live?” And it was, a place of rock cathedrals, a sleeping woman who lies on her side along the tops of mountains, a place with the tiniest Arctic roses whose colors were as dense as the black in black holes. We both took Dramamine before the ride on the ocean, where we saw a golden eagle by the shore, an ice sheet filled by otters, barking sea lions, diving sea birds, orcas that dove under our boat, a calving glacier.
“You should always smile in pictures,” she said, “because that’s the way people will remember you.” And I do remember her smiling, standing next to people beaming to be in her presence.
She had a talent for friendship. She had ten funerals, more or less. A Yu’pik group sang to release her soul, to go with the moon, the borealis. That was the best one.
She did things to show she wasn’t afraid. She went scuba diving off Indonesia. She signed up for a class in mountain climbing. But she wasn’t frightened of much. Looking at the glacier ice cascading into the cold water she told me, “The only thing I’m scared of is ice.”
She died after someone she was roped to slipped on a patch of ice.
She visits me in dreams, and I never remember she’s dead. Once we made spaghetti together, but she didn’t stay for the meal. Once she showed me how to find the black pearls hidden in the dark sand of a cold Alaska beach. And once she was sitting under a tree, like Buddha, like Gandhi, eyes closed. She was going to sit there as long as it took, even a thousand years, to figure it out.
I’d live for her if I had a clue. Maybe I will smile in pictures, but I haven’t yet. I want to have the same things other people have. I want to believe God has his eye on the ordinary.
I remember her, of course, around the holidays. When I was maybe seven and she was five, she broke it to me that there is no Santa Claus.
Poem of the Week email subscription