I cannot recall a time she did not torment me. When we were children she tortured me; tore the heads from my dolls, took sides against me with our playmates, tattled on me and hit me so hard, to this day, I believe I saw tiny birds flying around my head, like the ones in cartoons. Once she even knocked the wind out of me. It was terrifying.
My sister was a weightlifting, bare knuckle punching, tomboy and I was a baby doll clutching priss. But there are always so many stories behind stories. Leslie is no stock character. She suffered from an almost crippling guilty conscience and confessed to all her imagined sins, so earnestly and tearfully… how could I not want to lift here back up — tell her she was normal, that she was clean, that she was a good girl; even if she did torment me.
The way I see it, despite her propensity for bullying me, all her life Leslie strove to be a good girl. Good girls are clean, thin, straight and traditional. They are a curious mix of conservative in theory, yet apolitical in practice. Good girls don’t make waves, and for all that sublimation and self-effacement, they are rewarded with approval, acceptance, security and love. But it didn’t work that way. Instead she just struggled. She struggled through and out of a violent marriage, through and out of a terrible addiction to amphetamines (all in a quest for slimness..), and more recently, through isolation, agoraphobia, depression and her old friend, guilt, who’s always nearby to kick the living shit out of her over her past drug use, her first marriage, her childhood, and the everyday navigational problems of modern life. Good girls have it hard.
We are middle aged women with years and an ocean separating us. We talk on the phone, mutually disapproving of each other, nitpicking, arguing, but in the course of the same conversation, we turn to jokes, reminiscences, and laugh til our sides hurt. We always say ‘I love you’ before we hang up. We fall out, we come back, fall out again and the cycle continues on and on, like it has for decades. She’s my sister. I love her and she loves me.
Just over two weeks ago Leslie contracted the H1N1 flu virus. That virus rampaged through her body like Conquistadors on crack. Within days she was giddy with fever, as the infection seized her lungs and morphed into viral pneumonia. January 24th was the last time Leslie was conscious. That night they moved her to the intensive care unit, where, for two weeks, she has been heavily sedated, on a ventilator, a catheter, an IV drip, a feeding tube and assorted other devices inside and upon her body. I cannot see her. I can only imagine her, still as a stone under white sheets, with the sounds of blips and beeps and the in and out pumping of the vent. I can only imagine the terror in her eyes, on those occasions, when the bliss of sedation weakens, and just for a moment, she swims up from wherever that place is that the Leslie in Leslie is currently deferred. And in that moment, I wish so badly that I could be there to hold her hand and tell her it’ll be ok, I love her, and she’s a good girl.
I am four thousand miles, give or take, away from my sister. Lack of money, lack of a dog sitter, a cat sitter and all that ordinary everyday shit of living, keeps me tethered here in Ireland, as she lies tethered to tubes and gadgets in Nebraska. The distance is painful. This evening I realized that I have no photographs of Leslie, even though I saw her only two years ago, at a time when it was our father lying in ICU. She would not allow me to photograph her. She is self conscious about her weight and does not want to see it duplicated in a digital image. I do not know if having a photo would make the worry and sense of helplessness I feel tonight any better. Probably not.
She and her husband had planned to visit me here in March. The last time we spoke on the phone she told me how she had been looking up places of interest in Wexford. We talked about all the places she wanted to see, about the pubs, the seafood … perhaps a day trip into Dublin. I would have taken her picture.