Nina Ramsey

 

If you cannot find the truth right where you are,
Where else do you expect to find it?

—Dogen

Go on, get me some ice cream.
Say it’s for you.

—My Sister

I wonder what the world be like if people started telling the truth. “You haven’t told her, have you? She doesn’t have to know, does she?” I heard my sixteen-year-old sister Maggie plead with Mom one night while they were in her bedroom. This was eight years ago, when I was twelve. I remember it as clearly as if it happened last week, because this was the day I realized I wasn’t being told the truth. I stood outside Maggie’s bedroom door and I listened. If Maggie and Mom were keeping secrets, I would make it my business to find out. Maggie, her voice high-pitched, “I don’t want her to know,” then Mom’s voice, soft, “Don’t worry, she’s too little to understand.” But I did understand. I was the she they were talking about. I didn’t realize it at first, because Maggie didn’t call me Char or Char-baby like she usually did. But what was the big deal? The mystery, the hidden truth? What wasn’t I supposed to know? I already knew Maggie was sick. That truth was obvious.

          Everything at home had changed. Maggie stopped going to school. Mom started coming home from her job at Safeco at noon. When I got home from school, Maggie would be sleeping, and Mom would be cooking chicken soup from scratch or cleaning out the cupboards or ironing sheets—things I’d never seen her do. Every week, Maggie spent half a day at Fred Hutch and the rest of that day, plus the next, throwing-up. She lost so much weight her favorite sweater hung on her like a sack. Dark circles grew under Mom’s eyes. If Mom thought I wasn’t watching, her lips tightened and a cheek-vein pulsed. The rest of the time she kept up an annoying happy facade. Maggie did, too. Sometimes Maggie and Mom sat at the kitchen table looking grim and whispering, as though they were co-conspirators plotting a crime. But as soon as I sat down, they fell silent.

          I don’t like secrets. I like lies even less. I continued creeping behind closed doors. Eavesdropping. One afternoon, after Mom followed Maggie into the bathroom, I snuck to the door and I pressed my ear against it. Maggie gagged. The toilet flushed. Maggie: “I wish I were dead.” Mama, snappy: “Don’t you ever say that.” The toilet seat thumped. Maggie: “You heard Dr. Lee—two months.” A sob. Mama: “Don’t talk that way.” Maggie: “I might as well die right now.” Mama: “Stop it.” Maggie: “I’m going to die—why can’t I get it over with.” More sobs. They were both crying. Maggie: “I’m tired, Mama.” There was no fight in her voice, only surrender. Finally—the truth.

          And the truth was treacherous. The truth kicked me in the stomach. The truth knocked my breath out. The truth gave me an awful ache in the center of my chest. The hidden truth? Maggie had an ache in her chest, too. The horrible truth? Lymphoma. The vile, harrowing, heinous truth? It would kill her. We all have to die some day; I knew this was true. Death is a fact of life. But my sister’s death? It was so untimely, so unfair. Why, why, why, why, why?

          I’d always been a queasy girl. Sickrooms gag me. But I sucked in my breath and held it until my heart stopped breaking. Then I turned myself into a young Florence Nightingale. I spooned Miso soup into Maggie’s mouth. I served her strawberry popsicles and room temperature 7-Up. I walked her to the bathroom and I held back what was left of her hair while she knelt to throw-up in the toilet. When she got fevers, I stripped back the sheets and I sponged her flushed face. When she got chills, I covered her with blankets and I held her as she shook. But it was no use. Florence Nightingale herself could not have saved her. And by then, Maggie was too sick to care.

          Two weeks before she died, Maggie shuffled into my room and she collapsed on my bed. It hurt me to look at her face, swollen and flushed; her lips, cracked and dry. “Char-baby,” she said. “Ice cream. I want ice cream. Mama says I shouldn’t but my mouth is so sore. I don’t care if it makes me sick. Go on. Get me some ice cream. Say it’s for you. Vanilla. Lemon sherbet. Mix them together.” She closed her eyes and her head flopped to one side. She looked lifeless. When she opened her eyes and looked at me again, I could tell she had no idea how long she’d been lying on my bed. She struggled with the top button of her quilted bathrobe until she tugged it loose. “Char,” she said. “There’s something you have to know. Something I should have told you.” My heart stopped. I didn’t want to hear the truth. “I’ll go get your ice cream,” I said and I turned away. “Wait.” She grabbed my hand and she tugged—her strength surprised me. I tumbled down onto the bed and lay next to her. “Char-baby—I want you to have all my clothes.” “Stop being silly—I’m not old enough to wear your clothes,” I said. “Is orange sherbet okay if the lemon is gone?” Maggie slumped back onto my pillow and her bathrobe fell open. The skin of her chest looked paper-thin, almost transparent, like a threadbare old cloth you could see through if you held it up to the light. Looking at her lying still on my bed, my heart froze and I turned cold like a stone.

          I lived in shock for a long time after that.

          What happened to me a year after Maggie died came as a shock, too. Mom and Dad became Foster Parents, offering Maggie’s room to kids who needed homes. First came Brady—he had fetal alcohol syndrome—he was twelve but he acted like a six-year-old; he was on route to a special group home so he only stayed one month. Next were the twins, Sarah and Stephanie, sweet curly-haired kindergarteners, who peed their pants during the day and wet the bed at night. They stayed until their Grandma came from Florida to take them. Then Melissa arrived, and instantaneously, she became my new best friend. Melissa was older than me—fifteen—and she wore green eye shadow and red lipstick and she bleached her hair snow-white. I was sure she had a tattoo somewhere on her body, probably some guy’s name on her butt, and she was wearing a black lace bra underneath a white t-shirt. I was shocked, all right. I thought she was divine.

          That numbing fog I’d been living in?—gone. All at once I was a party balloon skittering wild across the sky, a roller coaster careening off the track, a baseball flying fifty miles an hour straight at a plate glass window. The first thing Melissa did was march into Maggie’s bedroom, throw open the closet doors, and paw through my sister’s skirts, sweaters, slacks and dresses. “God, just look at these old clothes!” she sneered. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of this crap.” I could have said hey, wait a minute, who do you think you are, show some respect, those clothes belonged to my sister. But I didn’t. “Yeah, they’re really old,” I said. I suddenly had the urge to rip those old clothes to shreds. She was right. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those crappy old clothes.

          Giddy, giggling teenaged girls in love with themselves and with each other are grating to be around. They can’t see beyond their own noses. They nuzzle and purr like little kittens, they cuddle and coo like exotic lovebirds, they cackle and flap like silly geese with their necks in a tangle. It’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins. Melissa and I were no exception. But having Melissa as my best friend was like magic to me, like a miracle. It was like taking one of those drugs you’re supposed to “just say no” to. I was intoxicated, in a trance. I dressed in tight lace t-shirts like she did and I said crap and shit and fuck like she did and I started wearing green eye shadow and red lipstick like she did. I tried to bleach my hair white, too, but it came out greenish-yellow. Melissa got me started on Kool menthols. She taught me how to use a BIC lighter and she taught me how to inhale and she taught me how to blow the smoke out my nose and she taught me how to use Certs to cover up the smell, and by the time she was finished, I was hooked. She tried to teach me how to shoplift, but I didn’t have the nerve to try. I didn’t have the nerve to try bleaching my hair a second time, either, so I switched to the darkest, most Goth L’Oreal hair color I could find. Melissa thought that was hysterical; she raved, “Because you’re worth it.” I was carried downstream in her kooky current, bobbing wildly, my head barely above water.

          Then I discovered the truth and I sank, like a tiny, storm-downed boat.

          The girl who called my sister’s clothes old turned out to be a cruel person. She wasn’t all I thought she was or all she pretended to be. Even at fifteen, she was an expert liar and a thief. One afternoon, after I’d watched her steal a silver bracelet and matching silver earrings from Mervyn’s, I told her the truth. My thirteen-year-old version of tough love. “You’ll eventually get caught, and then you’ll be fucked.” Melissa smirked. “If they’re so stupid to leave their shit sitting out on the counter, they deserve to have it stolen.” By then, I’d noticed my babysitting money, a charm bracelet, and a purple scrunchie missing from my top dresser drawer. Then I saw Melissa wearing Maggie’s favorite sweater. The pink one with pearl buttons that I was almost big enough to wear. I told Melissa to take the sweater off and give it to me. “Fuck off,” she said. “This sweater is mine. I got it at Value Village.” “That’s bullshit,” I said. I grabbed the back of the sweater and refused to let go until Melissa shrugged out of it. Then I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I no longer wanted Melissa to be my best friend. I wanted Maggie. I wanted her old clothes and I wanted her. I wanted my sister.

          Melissa only lasted another month at our house. She got caught trying to cash forged checks she’d stolen out of Mom’s purse. She ended up court-ordered to a strict group home, which was one stop short of Echo Glen Detention Center. I don’t know what happened to her after that. I never saw Melissa again.

          Mom and Dad stopped taking in foster kids. Maybe they realized, like I had, that nothing and no one could save us from facing the truth. My sister was never coming back. And though I’d known that to be true, though I’d known Maggie was long dead and buried, it was only in that moment, fighting with Melissa over Maggie’s old sweater, that I began to grieve.

          My new best friend became my grief, my sorrow, my longing, my tears; I have held hands with that friend ever since. And it’s been what—eight years? I’m twenty now, and starting my second year of nursing school at Seattle University, and I still cry when I least expect to. Mom tells me “time heals”; “after a while it won’t hurt so much.” I don’t believe her. How could I? She never told me the truth back then. Why would I think she’s telling the truth now? No—here is what happens: you’re in the shower at the gym, and you smell her favorite shampoo, or you’re in the car, and you hear her favorite song on the radio, or you’re in the library, and you see a girl with the same height, same body-shape, same hair; and for a moment you can’t breath, you think, this can’t be happening all over again; and then the pain and the sadness and the awful final truth of her death floods over you and through you and nearly pulls you under.

          And it never stops. And that’s the truth.

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