Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Closing Time: Annie

Annie’s death had been a great deal closer to my heart.

She was a year and a half younger than I was.

We were the typical mixed gender, close in age siblings.

We cared deeply about one another when we weren’t fighting or trying to kill one another. She was expert at getting me in trouble with my mother. I was expert at stumbling into her snares and artifices that got me into trouble.

All in all it was a satisfying and loving relationship.

After we moved to Portland and after my parents had divorced my mother and Annie and I moved to a court apartment on North Ainsworth Street. Annie and I shared a bedroom. That Christmas we each got a new Schwinn bike. Annie’s was blue. Blue was her favorite color. Mine was red. Red was my favorite color. Neither of us knew how to ride a bike. Learning to ride was to be the major non-scholastic project of the coming year – once the weather improved enough to allow us to take our shiny new bikes out without getting them wet and muddy.

As it happened, we never took them out together, that year or ever. That is because “we” had become “I” before the new year was out.

Although “I” ultimately did learn to ride my bike Annie never got to touch hers.

There never was a “we” happily careening around the neighborhood.

One day not long after Christmas Annie looked at my mother and my mother saw one of Annie’s eyes cross.

My mother took Annie to the doctor.

The doctor had been taking care of Annie and me since we had moved to Portland which by this time was half of Annie’s life. He took one look at Annie and referred her to a well-known brain surgeon.

The well-known brain surgeon took one look at Annie and said some things that really upset my mother. It must have scared the hell out of Annie. I never knew, because she and I never got to talk about those events.

In almost no time at all Annie underwent brain surgery. They shaved off all of her beautiful dark blond hair and drilled a couple of holes in her head.

What this was supposed to have accomplished I would never know.

Whatever it was, it didn’t.

Apparently it was hopeless because what we did next could only have been done in a medically hopeless situation.

I know that now as an adult.

As a child two years older than Annie I didn’t know that then.

My grandparents - my mother’s parents - occasionally used the services of a chiropractor. He was a large, bald, rather loud man who had lots of opinions. His name was Bob. One of his opinions was that somehow a daily regimen of chiropractic adjustments would cure whatever it was that was afflicting my sister.

My mother, Annie and I moved to Seattle to live with my grandparents to submit Annie to this regimen.

As Annie continued to worsen – she went from eating with the family at meals to being served in bed, and from being able to sort of talk to not being able, or perhaps not being willing, to talk.

Upping the absurdity index, we added a daily novena to the chiropractic regimen. Our nice French Canadian across-the-street neighbors had a special saint to whom they suggested that we direct our prayers.

So we did daily. We did that in the novena.

Life seemed to stabilize into a daily routine of visits from Bob the chiropractor and my mother and my grandparents and me gathering on our knees in the back bedroom around the bed of the presence that had once been my little sister. We mumbled the various Catholic incantations that were required by the novena. Annie didn’t improve; Annie didn’t worsen; Annie was in suspended in some state of not being quite fully alive, but not yet dead.

None of this seemed ominous to me. Nor did it seem odd. It was just what one did until a bad situation turned for the better. It had never occurred to me that Annie wouldn’t get better. She was my little sister, not a frog or a caterpillar – or even my mother’s best friend, favorite entertainer or favorite baseball player.

Little sisters didn’t die; they got better.

But Annie didn’t get better.

One morning early in the summer she went into convulsions. I saw my mother on the bed straddling her and pushing on her chest. The back bedroom was a scene of chaos. I was hustled out of the house to my friend Dickey’s house for the day.

My belief remained unshakable that this was just one more pre-requisite activity on Annie’s ultimate return to being my troublesome and wonderful little sister.

Dickey and I went to the arboretum with kitchen strainers attached to long sticks with multiple wraps of string. The attached sticks made the strainers into quite long handled aquatic scoopers.

We spent the day gathering creatures from the waters of our favorite frog pond. In later years that pond would become the water feature in a commercial Japanese garden - a sad metamorphosis.

Early in the evening my mother picked me up at my friend’s house. Although my grandparent’s house was only a block away she had come in the car. We got in the car and she started driving in a direction opposite from the direction that would have taken us to my grandparents’ house.

After that we turned up a hill that would have taken us to the lake had we kept going. We didn’t. We stopped and sat in silence until I broke the silence.

“How is Annie?”

“Annie died.”

At that instant something happened to me. Something either entered me, or something left me.

In either case I have never known what it was, but I have forever after felt its iron influence.

It is a sense of aloneness; it is a sense of self-preservation; it is a sense of uniqueness; it is a sense of anger; it is a sense of fear. I have never lived without it after the moment I heard the words, “Annie died.”

I think it has since that moment always functioned as a sort of emotional depressant.

It is crippling.

I inhaled the deepest breath of my life and filled the car with my wracking sobs of grief.

Not long after that day I was back at the apartment in Portland. On the table by the front window were two crisp, new looking twenty dollar bills.

The blue Schwinn had been sold.

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