I’m thinking about the time I called my mom’s longtime companion Charles when we lived in Las Vegas, because I couldn’t remember the formula for the area of a circle. It was the first time I had ever needed it in real life, and it slipped my mind. He said “Radius Squared Times Pi,” and I said, “Oh yeah, [as our generation learned it], Pi R Squared.” Aimée and I were trying to decide whether to get the two 12-inch pizzas for $4.95, or the “Mega 17-Inch Pizza” for $5.95 from the corner pizza place. Turns out the Mega Pizza had just about as much as the two 12-inch ones. We had a nice chuckle over it and hung up. Two days later he died from a massive stroke. It was surreal to learn that that was to be our last conversation.
A few years later, in October 2001, I had a chat with my mom on my birthday. She was unusually candid and direct about things. I asked how my half sister Dana was doing, and she said “Dana doesn’t return my calls.” Flat out. Two days later she was gone. Dana boycotted the funeral because my sister Terri and I had unwittingly set it up for the same evening as her son’s high school band concert. That’s the reason she gave me, anyway, the last time I talked to her—the last time I will ever talk to her, most probably—a few days before the funeral.
My dad by that time had already developed terminal lung cancer, and when I called him on his birthday two months later, I had a pretty good idea it could be our last conversation. So did he. It was comforting in a way to be able to say goodbye, in so many words, and not have it be a shock when it happened. Coming on the heels of my mom’s sudden demise, however, it was a pretty rough time for me.
Then in December 2004 my sister Terri called from the Oregon coast, where she had been living for a couple of decades in a squalid, moldy trailer that had been our dad’s beach house. Her husband had very recently died of prostate cancer after a long and difficult battle, and she had been strung out on Vicodin and a few dozen other prescriptions for a long time. She called to ask if I had any pills I could send because she had run out and couldn’t fill the prescription for another month. I said, “We have to do something to get you out of this rut.” She sobbed and said “I know,” and hung up the phone. And that’s the last thing she ever said to me. A few hours later she was gone.
I still have three half sisters, a pantload of stepsisters, and one stepbrother. I was one of 17 siblings, 14 of which were girls. But Terri was the only one with the same two parents. And Brian is the only one of the stepchildren who has been a true brother to me over the years. And Isabella, my younger half-sister, is a very great comfort to me. The rest are estranged, deranged, or have little or nothing in common with me anymore.
My generation had drug problems, mental illness, poverty, abuse, neglect …
There was my cousin Jenny who was attacked by a madman, a stranger who came to the back door and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach with a butcher knife for no apparent reason. Shortly after she got home from the hospital, he came back and did it again. Except, (the truth came out in hushed tones), there was never a madman at all. She stabbed herself to get $500 from the Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund. Twice.
And there was my beautiful step sister Michelle, who stayed with her abusive husband George for years and years and years, and none of us ever knew why, until Brian brought over a video someone had taped off HBO, and suddenly in the middle was a camcorder snippet of George, all alone with his manhood, all dozen or so inches of it in its full, subliterate, redneck glory, unfurled like a flag on the Fourth of July. And all became clear.
And there was Dana, whose father, (my erstwhile stepfather), delivered severe, degrading, relentless beatings to Terri and me for three horrific years in the 60’s. In the 80’s I had the opportunity to observe about him that it probably was a social faux pas to call Dana and her kin to his deathbed, and not die. When he finally did die, and I said I was sad, because his last years had been torturous, and I wished he had lived longer, because I didn’t believe in hell, so I could take no comfort in the thought that he might be there, suffering still. Then someone had the poor sense (or outright malevolence) to tell Dana all about it, and she never forgave me.
I heard she changed excuses for boycotting the funeral a few days later, and started saying it was because she wouldn’t be able to restrain herself from lashing out at me for that. I don’t blame her. She needed a better excuse. Her friends and in-laws probably thought she was insane when she told them about the scheduling snafu. As in, “Say, dearie, I guess you heard mom died. Is Wednesday good for you? Oh, band concert? How’s Thursday? Tennis? Hmmm. Could you pencil in next Sunday and get back to us?”
Even so, I’m pretty sure it was really between her, and mom, and her god. And I didn’t mind being her scapegoat. She still doesn’t know Terri’s gone, though, over a year later, since none of my remaining family, such as it is, have any idea how to get in touch with her, or even what her current married name might be.
So now it’s my kitty and me in our cozy little room off the attic. He sleeps for hours on a plush blanket in the file drawer while I play on the computer, and I reach down and rub his belly. Aimée gets lonely but she knows Boo Radley needs his James time. That’s how I’ve learned to slog through life: one small, pleasant moment at a time.