Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Please, Continue

My eyes are bone-dry. I've cried out all the tears I can today. My eyes actually ache and burn. And there's this tumor of discontent - uneasy, nausea-inducing discontent - roiling in my gut.

Did I spend enough time talking to her? Telling her I loved her?

Was there more I could have done to make her last years more enjoyable?

Should I have stopped being a coward about back pain and made sure I drove up to New Jersey to see her?

The first year I lived in Maryland, I drove up to New Jersey as often as I could. I had a 1989 Ford Escort station wagon with no air conditioning, and I drove up and down I-95 with my left arm dangling out the window the whole way. I did this enough times that year to actually permanently cook my left arm into a darker pigment than the right arm. It's very attractive. But, honestly, it was worth it. I had a community of family there. And then, when she was still vibrant and able, Mary was at the center of it.

Mary was fun. She took me on my first motorcycle ride (right before she had a horrific accident - that was when I was a little kid.) She had a Triumph Spitfire sports car, and I believe she left the transmission (or the engine itself) somewhere on a New Jersey highway shortly after purchasing it. At one point, she headed west and lived in a valley outside of L.A. for a while. She drank Tab obsessively and smoked (much to everyone's dismay) Benson & Hedges menthols by the carton.

Mary came to visit me when I lived in Russia. She came over with our sister Barb, and we had a blast. Of course, that was in 1990, and some Central Asian guys on Red Square thought my sisters - with their Jersey uniforms of floral leggings and bright t-shirts - were hookers. I laughed my ass off. Looking for souvenirs in Izmailovsky Park, Mary chose the most bizarre and unlikely thing possible - a real dead squirrel, stuffed, posed, and glued onto a tree branch. Some sort of snap binder clip had been inserted into its paws, and it clutched a pack of cigarettes and stared with wild glass eyes. She carried it home in this awful Pepto pink box. I have no idea how the hell she got it through U.S. Customs.

Several years ago, while vacuuming, Mary bumped the shelf where she displayed her Muscovite squirrel. All the fur fell off in one fell swoop.

Naked dead varmint? Not so cute. Citizen Squirrel was finally given the Hefty bag salute and removed from the premises.

After Mom died, Mary had the unenviable task of handling the estate. There wasn't much to the estate. Mom had nine kids. We were like a constant plague of locusts. But it was a mess nonetheless. That was back in 2001. Springtime.

In the wake of 9/11, when the airlines were desperate to get passengers back in the air, United had a frequent flyer mileage reward sale. From my old days of flying back and forth between DC and Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan/YouNameAStan, I had a pile of miles. With the sale, I had enough to buy tickets for myself and Mary to Thailand.

I have great affection for Thailand, and I thought my sister would really dig it. She did. I booked a fabulous hotel in Phuket (a hotel that later would be swept away in the devastating 2004 tsunami) for $28 a night. We ate and slept like royalty and shopped like there was no tomorrow. I have incredibly fond memories of that trip, despite my sister permanently burning the tops of her feet because of her refusal to apply sunscreen to them on a very sunny beach, and despite my mugging at knifepoint in a Bangkok market. I remember coming back to the hotel from the market, after dealing with the police, $800 lighter in my pocket (I was buying textiles.) I'd made my sister see the hotel doctor about her feet while I was shopping being mugged.

I staggered back into the room, wallet empty, shopping bags unused, and my sister asked, "What the hell happened?!?"

I shrugged. "I got mugged. Lost everything I had."

My sister responded. "Jesus Christ, what should we do?"

My answer, "Fuck it. Let's order room service."

And we did. And we laughed. And I have this awesome photo of my sister, hepped up on pain killers for her feet, holding the vented lid to her room service plate over her face like some twisted carnival mask. It's in my office at work. I put it on the shelf across from my desk so I can see her goofy, plated face every day when I sit down.

Mary would travel with me to the Yucatan Peninsula, too, back in 2003 or 2004. I can't quite remember the year tonight. Forgive me for my lapses - I'm not firing on all cylinders. That year, I was going to travel alone to the Mexican coastal town of Tulum (a relatively short drive from Chichen Itza) for my birthday. However, I suffered a little mishap two days before I was supposed to fly...

I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. My mom had colon cancer, so I thought it was wise to start early with preventative checks.

I did the miserable two days of prep for the procedure, finishing up with that wretched morning-of-the-camera-up-the-rump fiesta that leaves you running for the bathroom and wishing for sweet death. As I waited for the tummy rumblings, I laced my hiking boots in preparation of packing them up for the Mexico trip. When nature not only called, but screamed my name, I bolted from the sofa, knocking one boot off onto the floor.

And I tripped over that frigging boot.

And broke cleanly in half the big joint that holds the big left toe to the angry left foot.

I spent my birthday that year hopping around in a big fuzzy black bootie.

But through the wonders of travel insurance, I was able to reschedule for Christmas, and Mary wanted to come along. We met up in Newark, ready for a Christmas week of sun, surf, and Mayan ruins.

Well, we got the Mayan ruins.

But we also got a freak weather front that brought temperatures in the 60s, rather than the 80s and 90s, and with it, a plague of small black flies. I still went snorkeling (for five or six minutes at a time before I would come out of the water shivering and blue) and my sister still enjoyed the beach. It's just that I started to appreciate my sister as a smoker; her menthols kept the damn flies away.

Flies or no flies, we had a blast.

But it was on that trip that I noticed my sister was faltering. She took spills, including one spectacular fall on a tile floor that made my stomach lurch and fear that our trip was over.

It turned out, my sister had MS.

Amazingly, she self-diagnosed her MS, watching some home shopping channel charity event. Every symptom they described, she had. She went to her doctor, they scheduled some brain scans and discovered fast-moving lesions. Not a good sign. And Mary's health was already compromised: diabetes, smoking, and constant pain from injuries she sustained in a horrific car accident wherein she was struck from behind at stop light by a moron reading architectural plans as he sped down the street on a military facility. Mary had been a volunteer EMT, and some of the guys who responded to her accident knew her. They thought she was dead. But Mary was tenacious. She survived. But she had to have knee replacement surgery, and things were never the same for her.

We thought we were going to lose her a couple of years ago, when she became horribly sick and spent weeks and weeks in the hospital. I kept trying to mentally prepare myself, but that's almost a joke. No matter how well prepared you think you are, you never really are. She struggled back from that illness, but she was fading.

This year, she spent months in the hospital, and every single time I spoke to her, all she wanted was to go back home. I think she knew her time was very limited.

And now she is gone. Like my mother. Like my brother Ed. I was going to a doctor's appointment en route to work today when I got the call. And I cried. And I cried. And I cried. Between meetings today, I would stop and cry. When people were nice to me, I had to then go shut my door and cry. I've had a mule-kick headache since noon.

Nothing seems quite right today. Music on the radio. Laughter in the hallway. Stopping at the pharmacy to pick something up. It feels wrong to be doing anything "normal" - whatever that really means. I feel like I should have just curled up on the sofa and slept. But that's not right, either.

Life does continue, whether we feel it's rhythm acutely or muffled through grief. Life continues. And those of us still here have to tell the stories of those who are not.

My sister is no longer here. But I am.

What is that line from "Shawshank Redemption"?

"Get busy living, or get busy dying."

I guess I better get busy living. For you, Mary, I will get busy living.

Be at peace, Mary. No more pain. No more limitations.

Be at peace.

Mary Colleen LaManna
July 21, 1946 - December 10, 2008


Chuck said...

Excellent post. I'm very sorry for your loss. After my father died, I got some comfort thinking that, well, at least he's no longer in pain and struggling to breathe, and is finally at peace. I don't know if it helps you to think that way or not, but I thought I'd throw that out there.

Anonymous said...

You have some beautiful memories of your sister. I am so, so sorry for your loss. You are in my thoughts Melissa. Big hugs.

Cyn said...

Beautiful post. So very moving. I'm sure I won't be the only person to cry reading this.

Thanks for telling us these stories, so that we all can know Mary just a little bit too. Anybody who would buy a stuffed squirrel is my kind of gal.

You have no cause for regret. Day-to-day life has a way of keeping us from seeing those we care about as often as we'd like (or should) and circumstance or temperament can keep us from telling them how much we really care. But sometimes geographic distance is meaningless, and words are unnecessary.

In my own inadequate way, all I can say is I'm so sorry.

Unknown said...

I'm so very sorry, Melissa - you have my deepest sympathies.

kristen said...

What a lovely post. It sounds as though you two had a special relationship and many great adventures together - the best parts of sisterhood.

It's just like you wrote. There's no way to be prepared for something like this, even when you've been put on notice. There's a line in an episode of Buffy where Buffy asks Tara if her mother's death was sudden, and Tara says "It's always sudden." Someone can be sick for more than a decade, but it's still shocking and unreal when it happens. With my dad, it was like he had fought and survived so many things in the past, that I thought he would surely get through that final medical crisis too. And then he didn't, and it absolutely crushed me.

I hope you can take some comfort in her peace, and from your wonderful memories of her.

lacochran said...

I'm also sorry for your loss. You wrote a wonderful tribute.

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

What a wonderful, beautiful post. You tell this story about your sister so well. It's so well written, very compelling. Thank you for sharing this story of your life with your sister. And again, I'm sorry for your loss.

Robin said...

You will do so, for your sister. And some crazed squirrel or some take out plate or something will remind you, and someday or hour, that may make you laugh in memory and cry. Numbness, yeah, check, forcing oneself to move on, yeah, check. Crying some more, yeah, check. Take some time off if you can, Melissa. It's hard to see someone die slowly over the years, not quite right not quite themselves. You've shared life with Mary, and what great gift could you have given? At least she had no ice to contend with this year, and she had her sisters. One step at a time. Hugs to you again.

Anonymous said...

This W.H. Auden poem has always felt right to me when mourning someone I loved.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

ADB said...

Hi Melissa,
I was pointed your way, and am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of your sister. At least she is no longer in pain, but that may be small consolation for you at this stage. I wish you and yours every strength at this very difficult time, and hope you can find solace in her memories. Your post suggests there are plenty of them, to take center stage in preference to the ones of her in the later years of life.


Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear about your sister, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

I'm mostly known as 'MA' said...

Losing one of our loved ones is never easy. You have my deepest sympathies. Living life for them is a great idea. I too have lost many of mine so I'll take your idea and try to live for them too.
'On Ya'-ma

Merujo said...

I am overwhelmed by everyone's kind words and good thoughts. I cannot tell you how much that means right now. I offer you my most sincere gratitude for your generosity of spirit and tremendous grace.

D said...

I was directed this way and wanted to let you know I am sending prayers your way. My sister passed last Nov and I know the pain and emptiness. I wish I heard words of wisdom but I don't.. prayers and strength to share is all I can offer. My deepest condolences

Anonymous said...

I'm jealous of all the great memories you have with your sister. It seems that regardless of her health, she was able to live a fun life.

You're in our thoughts.

Hollie said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm praying for strength & comfort for you in this hard time....

Anonymous said...

Crap. Which about sums things up. Which is how you feel.

I'm so sorry to hear of your sister's passing, MJ. She sounds like she was a keeper, too. One of those who made you feel life as something more alive.

Be glad that you did things with her. Be glad that you guys got along (not always the case with siblings).

And remember you have friends. Friends who care about you & want to make sure YOU are doing okay.

I'm currently in San Antonio, visiting my parents at the assisted living place where they've been for the last two years. Shocking to see how frail my mother has gotten, but she's still vibrant, wanting to do things, but having a heck of a time doing them. My dad has early onset dementia. Not Alzheimer's, which is good as it won't kill him, but bad, as it won't kill him. One of those double-edged swords. He's still pretty conversant, but knows his mind is slowly going. It pisses the hell out of him, too.

So I'll run a few errands for them, try not to trash their routine which has become so important to them, and generally just try to be a good son. In other words: a no-win situation.

But again, please accept my sympathy in regards to your sister. And please touch base at some point when you can.

take care,


Janet Kincaid said...

M: This is beautiful. We're so very sorry for your loss. Please know you're in our thoughts and so is Mary.

Janet and Brenda

Unknown said...

I know how close you two were - my thoughts are with you. We are supposed to get snow tonight and I will think of you tomorrow morning. Weird minnesota thing I guess but that quiet of new fallen snow makes me think of the cycle of life.


Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. So sorry I missed the post until now as well. I hope you are healing. xo

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope all the great memories you have of your sister carry you through the darkest days. It sounds like Mary was an amazing woman.

Unknown said...

I am so sorry. I lost a very good friend a few months back, too. I am so glad that you loved her--it is the best you can do.