Even from the waiting room near the entrance to the intensive care unit, the beeps and whooshes counting down the last remaining minutes of her life echo in my ears. The vinyl seat cushion sticks to the back of my thighs and my fingernails chip away at hardened chewing gum on the underside of the chrome armrests.
I’m waiting for my 45-year-old sister to die.
“…hard on the kids…”
“How long will they wait, do you think?”
Snippets of half-whispered conversations waft my way. The waiting area is large enough to let me be apart from the crowd as I sit in the corner near the door. There are plenty of people—aunts, uncles, cousins. The typical Irish family, holding vigil for my sister’s death, true to the old cliché that our only reunions happen at funerals and weddings. Never let it be said that any one of them won’t be able to tell the story later with firsthand knowledge of every detail and a few flourishes besides.
“…poor thing, losing her daughter…”
In the waiting room, they pay homage to my mother—the matriarch, the oldest sister, the grieving mother. She sits in a chair by the window, sunlight wreathing a halo around her bleach-blond hair. Her red sweater, buttoned at the neck, drapes mantle-like over her shoulders. Her makeup is unblemished.
My aunt sits down next to her and touches her arm, “Do you want anything? A cup of tea?”
She heaves a sigh, folds her hands and lifts her chin a full three inches to cast her eyes heavenward.
“No, I just want”—a sob—”my baby to be alright.”
It was the first time in 45 years I’d heard her wish anything like that.
She bends forward in the chair and hides her face in her hands, shoulders shaking, silent except for one more sob. Her sister puts an arm around her, and a cousin hurries over to rub her back. Head almost in her lap, she lets them console her as she peeks out through splayed fingers.
She glares at me through those fingers, daring me to continue the argument from twenty minutes earlier when she had been more interested in proclaiming my disobedience for all to hear than in mourning her dying daughter. She brought up her own distorted version of that argument from when I was in high school and wouldn’t let go. Finally, with a tongue bitten until I tasted copper, I denied it.
“You’re a liar!” She half rose from her chair, eyes bulging, spit bubbling at one corner of her lipsticked mouth. A nurse came running.
Heads shook around the room. Her point was made—I had always been trouble.
One of my aunts follows me into the hallway as I try to calm down. She pleads my mother’s case. After all, her daughter is dying and I shouldn’t pay any mind. A pat on my shoulder is the sole comfort.
“She’s the only mother you have.”
It doesn’t matter. My baby sister is dying.
I was nine and a half when she was born. I remember the day they brought her home from the hospital, chubby and pink like my favorite doll. I wanted to play but instead I watched her sleep, my face so close that her little rhythmic puffs blew against my eyelashes. My mother was on the phone the next day, screeching like our parakeet—I’m not going through that again. I don’t care if he does want a boy. In my little girl logic, I tiptoed around the house for the rest of the day so I wouldn’t be traded for a boy.
When my mother was busy, I held the baby and fed her the bottle. Sticky white drips escaped down her plump cheek with each eager suck. I wiped them with a special handkerchief that I had kept in my secret box—the one my grandmother gave me with the lacy edges and a pretty S stitched on the corner. I talked to her in baby talk and she laughed and blew raspberries, bubbles tumbling down her quivering chin. She made me laugh, too.
We played hide-and-seek out in the backyard for hours. She slapped both hands across her mouth to keep the giggles in when I got close to her hiding place, always behind the prickly rose bush with the sweet-smelling pink blooms as big as cereal bowls. She would jump out and yell Boo! and I would fall to the ground in overacted make-believe surprise while she whooped with delight.
One day, my mother insisted she would find her and told me to stay put as she pulled back the thorny branches. My sister crossed her arms and stamped her feet. She shook her head and shrieked No-No-No until my mother gave up and went inside. When the door slammed, my sister wrapped her arms around my leg and cried. I eased her down to sit on my lap and rocked her until her shuddering breaths subsided. She poked her finger in my chest and said You-Boo. I nodded and hugged her tight—Yes, only me. She smiled and clapped her hands.
At nap time, she would go willingly only if I laid down with her and stroked her soft brown ringlets, whispering Nice kitty kitty with each caress. She’d wrap one arm around my neck and the pudgy hand patted my cheek, as she chanted Ni-Ki-Ki until she fell asleep. I listened to her soft kitten-purr snores and kissed the top of her head. I had to stay, not wanting to wake her, even if I was too old for a nap.
I was in college when my sister was in high school and discovered boys and alcohol. Some nights I tucked her into bed, wiping away the tears from her latest broken heart and whispering Nice kitty kitty as I stroked her long, brown hair. Other nights, I swept the hair away from her face as she knelt in front of the toilet to puke up the evening’s escapades. I held her up as she stumbled down the hall to the room we shared and then tucked her into bed. She drooled out a thank you and threw her arms around my neck, crooning I love you, over and over. Johnny Carson blared from the TV in my mother’s bedroom. If she heard us, she said nothing.
The winter my sister got married, she asked me to be maid of honor and took me with her to pick out her wedding dress. The ceremony was held in my living room with a small party to celebrate afterwards. She looked stunning in creamy lace, with her hair swept up in a braided knot and holding a bouquet of sweet-smelling pink cabbage roses from the bush in my yard. My mother didn’t go because years before she had forbidden my sister to go out with that guy who was now the groom. Our dad didn’t go to keep the peace. The moonlight shimmered on the back deck afterwards, reflected in the wetness of our eyes. My sister hugged me tightly and squeezed my hand that was intertwined in hers, her smile expressing more than words ever could.
Two days ago, I got the call. My sister had a massive stroke when an aneurysm burst in her brain. She was on a ventilator and all the other machines that told them her body was still functioning. We had just celebrated her 45th birthday the week before and I baked her favorite carrot cake.
“Excuse me.” My mother escorts the priest she’s called into the center of the room and waits for the relatives to hush. “This is Father Mahoney from my church. I called him to give the last rites.” She covers her face with her hands and moans. He puts his arm around her shoulder and makes the sign of the cross. My sister hasn’t been to church in twenty years, and I’m certain her spirit must be snickering to know my mother called the priest.
Half an hour ago, they took her off the ventilator, ten minutes before my mother called me a liar.
I jolt straight up in the chair, knowing in my heart it’s time. I won’t let her go without me by her side. I ease into the hallway as my mother relates her latest surgery. I walk as calmly as I can to my sister’s room. Her husband and kids are there, and they let me squeeze in as they weep and cling to me and to each other. I hold her hand and stroke her tangled hair—Nice kitty kitty—and kiss her good-bye at her last breath.
A few minutes later, as I open the door to the stairwell, I hear my mother wailing in the waiting room. I swipe at my own wet cheeks. I’m not going back. My sister doesn’t need me anymore.