My sister was in her hospice bed, her body shrunken to under a hundred pounds, her face already a death mask. She stared out without affect most of the time, gazing absently at the weak light from the one window. She couldn't see out—they put big colorful posters filling up the windows for the dying to see—meadows with fields of wildflowers, little clean meandering streams like there used to be, puffy clouds in the preternaturally blue sky like a precursor of the supposed afterlife my sister was sliding towards. I suppose it was meant to cheer them up, the dying, nestled and cosseted room by room in the quiet hall. The rest of us knew. Out there, just gray and brown Ohio. It was November, before the first snow.
My sin is that I wanted her to die.
She was going to die anyway—they had done all they could. I had sat at her side in her room off the quiet hallway for many days, with others, not her sister, who did not want her to die. When she asked for it, somebody got her a tiara. We put it on her one Friday night and poured her a Dixie cup of champagne. It would have been a fine time to go, but she wanted more. She managed a second cup.
The next Sunday we stood around her, praying, and she seemed to be ready. Somebody who knew how to pray and believed in it delivered the right words, so perfectly timed. Still wearing her tiara, my sister in a clean pink nightgown looked impossibly peaceful. She was, after all, on a morphine drip. Someone started a prayer, a quiet suffusing chant.
"And soon you will be free," the good person said after the Amen.
"I will be free?" my sister said.
My sister let out a surprisingly long breath from her decimated lungs, and all of us shoulder to shoulder around her bed, hands clasped, held ours. This was it. The perfect time. Afterwards we would be able to say we were there when she died—I could almost feel everybody else thinking it, thinking of how they would tell the story.
But then her eyes suddenly fluttered open. "I want a glass of water!" she shouted.
Our mouths dropped open and we speedily unclasped our hands. Somebody scurried for a pitcher. Somebody poured her a glass and held it to her lips. She took it in gulps, despite the ravage of her throat and all that was rotting below it.
That was a week ago.
Three days later somebody else passed in the hospice hallway. A young man, 35. He had never said a word since I'd been there. Pancreatic cancer. The unit filled with young bikers and quiet girls with long hair. They were tattoed all over, clanking with chains and piercings and earrings, and they were reverent with awe. His sisters were there. They brought homemade hootch in Mason jars, and everybody drank some, including me. They offered it to everybody in the hallway—nurses, other dying patients, the janitor pushing a broom. Nobody seemed to mind. Eddie Joe made it himself, they said. He was really good at it. We saved this for The Day.
It would have been bad luck to refuse. So I took hold of one of the Mason jars and drank. My sister, confined to her bed and wearing her tiara once again, couldn't really see what was going on, but she could hear and she wanted some. The staff wouldn't let her this time—they said her body couldn't take it. But it seemed to give her new life, as if the party wasn't yet over.
My hotel room was closing in on me the nights when I got back, even though I practiced yoga and knew how to do calming headstands. Aside from Eddie Joe's homemade hootch, I was staying off the booze because it made me sweat, unleashing a volley of anxiety that started in the pit of my stomach and moved up rudely to my heart, which did not feel ready to be disturbed.
Every day she hung on, and I had to be there, sitting calmly, sometimes holding her papery hand, trying not to remember all the reasons that I wanted her to die.
I did not think it was wrong to crave that ending, that relief.
There weren't exactly any mortal sins in her portfolio, nothing about incest or abuse, at least that I could remember. My reasons were dishonorable and cowardly: she was embarrassing. She was the older sister who never took care of me. She always created problems and somebody else always ended up on cleanup—more often than not, me. She took more than her share. She said cringe-worthy things to my friends and played dumb when they flinched. She got fired from jobs for stupid stuff like stealing towels. She owed money to two dozen Internet vendors. Her house was in foreclosure. Inside, her five stinky cats peed without restraint.
And still respect was her due. That was because her whole life she was considered "slow" and thus deserved special protection. And in our family when we were growing up, everyone showed respect no matter what. We were religious, and my mother, especially, instructed me repeatedly that I was no better than my sister, even if school was not her thing and even if her boyfriend smelled like mildewed denim and had a greasy face. Even if she was a kleptomaniac—a fact my mother, rest in peace, apparently chose not to know.
I wanted her to die because sometimes when I looked at her, I saw myself, and how could a person hope for a shred of dignity in the face of that.
And most of all, I wanted her to die because I was tired of hearing the story of the baby birds.
It seems that one early summer afternoon when I was about three, my mother was hosting a meeting of the Missionary Society. Inside, women seated with teacakes on their laps were enjoying my mother's hospitality. She was a good cook, and also she knew how to interpret scripture. People liked her for her molasses cookies and her good vocabulary.
It wasn't my mother's best time. After a furious fight—about an old girlfriend, maybe, about some old slight turned rancid, my father ran off. It's hard to imagine what that meant, what possessed him, in that respectable life, in that respectable religious home. He was gone four days, and because he was the preacher she had to cover: some found it mysterious that she took the pulpit just that once; she also covered one Wednesday prayer meeting, doing her best. He finally showed up, remorseful, went right back to work, but it was a blow. Everybody has their secrets; still, it started up a bitterness she never quite overcame.
And my sister was causing an uproar—she couldn't do math, and all she wanted was to hang out with boys. She didn't like homework and, like her boyfriend, she had pimples and fought with my mother over everything from chores to washing her thick oily hair. She was angry all the time. My mother felt betrayed.
Two things gave my mother succor: one was the nuanced empathy of the ladies of the Missionary Society, and the other was that a robin had laid three eggs in a nest on the front porch. To my mother that was an omen from Nature: there was hope, this was a gift of renewal. This was a blessing from the universe.
In the middle of it, I wandered out to the front porch, or she told me to go out and play. While I was out there, god forbid, I found the robin's nest just above the porch railing. Just low enough that I could reach it. The eggs had opened and three babies, still featherless and blind, let out tiny cheeps.
I don't know what I was thinking—I don't remember. I was only three. But at some point—god forbid—I tugged the babies out of the nest, one, two, three, and took them into the house. What happened between the nest and my mother's lap is painful to repeat. I squeezed them hard. I presented my mother with three dead birds.
I don't remember—I've only been told. My sister told me my mother took the babies from my outstretched hand and looked at me and said "Oh my god, darling, what did you do?" while a ripple of shock circled the room and the ladies gasped and looked at me with alarm. "What did she do? She killed the birds!" And then, my sister said, my mother stood up and left the room holding the birds gently in both hands and sat in the kitchen crying until the other ladies brought in the teacups and the plates of teacakes and cookies and helped her wash up, and then they left. My sister said my mother put the babies in a match box, and she and my sister went out and buried them together. My sister said my mother let her say a prayer and put a black-eyed susan on the little grave. She said my mother cried again and hugged my sister and said she was a good girl. I was not allowed to go.
It was my sister's favorite story about me. All through the decades—her marriage, when 9-1-1 got called every night when she and her husband, now dead, were at each other's throats, through my first marriage, our parents' deaths, into my second marriage, whenever she met anybody new, she'd say, "Did you ever hear the story about when she killed the baby birds?" She told the story to a new boss, a new man, my favorite neighbor. She told it at my farewell party in a room full of people who claimed to love me. She told it to a politician I was trying to woo. She told it to one of my students, encountered in a coffee shop. She told it to my best friend in a time of my own travails. She told it at a reading when I published my first book. And when she got sick, she told it to her oncologist, and she told it to the chaplain.
In the story, she was the good girl, for once my mother's boon companion. In that story, I was the cruel child who broke my mother's heart, and although I really can't remember it, part of my heart was broken too. Because what decent human being ever wants to break her mother's heart? My sister could never let it go. It mattered which daughter was which. I was the bad girl, my sister verified to anyone who would listen—I might seem impressive from time to time, but no. I was the one who killed the baby birds and broke my mother's heart. I should be ashamed.
So it was a Sunday again. She really did seem ready to go this time. I'd been nibbling at the nutritious soup the hospice staff put out for families. I'd been pacing up and down, and it seemed there were only two or three other people dying—lots of empty rooms. Now I was sitting at her side, trying to be still. She opened her eyes and seemed ready to say something.
I leaned in and said "I love you." Because that's what you say when your sister is dying. And then I said, "Are you afraid?"
She almost snorted. Said no, clearly, firmly. "Because I know where I'm going," she said in a spasm, I swear, of sanctimony.
Would she like anything? Maybe if there was a Bible somewhere we could read her some verses?
I know there must have been a Bible handy, but for some reason I said, "Maybe there's a Gideon Bible back in my room. I could go and get it."
"No," she said. "I've got lots of Gideon Bibles."
"Yes," she said. "I take them out of hotel rooms."
"Why? You mean you steal them?"
"I guess you could call it that. What difference does it make? I steal towels. I steal candy. What's the difference if you can get it for free? It would be stupid not to. Who cares? I've been doing it all my life."
Her audacity stunned me.
"You are not really ‘slow,' are you?" I asked, my heart pumping irregularly, my tongue suddenly dry.
"You're surprised?" she said. "You're one to talk. You're not all that you seem."
I sat back and tried to get my breath going again. Shit. In case it was her last day on earth, I decided not to take the bait. An orderly came in, one I knew by then, ready to change some tubes, ready to offer a little juice. He was good-looking and tender. He smiled at me and said, "Your sister is one of our favorites around here. She's a sweetheart."
And then my sister pointed at me and said, "You should hear about her. Did you know that once she killed some baby birds, right in front of our mother?"
In case it was her last day on earth, my voice exploded.
"Stop. Do not tell that story. I don't care if you are dying, you are not telling that story one more time." It came out a growl. "You are not. Stop it."
She looked at me innocently and then looked at the orderly and said, "Well, I guess she doesn't like that story. You should hear it, though. Maybe I'll tell you after she's gone."
And then she said, "Where's my tiara? Did you know I have a tiara?" And he found it at her bedside and put it on her one last time as she sunk into sleep.
She never told the orderly that story, because that night she died.
Back in my room, I checked my drawer for a Gideon Bible, and it wasn't there. It's possible they don't put them in hotel rooms anymore. I kicked up into a headstand, and it felt great. It took me awhile to come down.
The next day, in her stinky house, I found ten Gideon Bibles under the guest bed. In her drawers, I found a hundred pairs of socks still in their wrappers. In other drawers, three or four dozen small black boxes, white boxes, all with velvet linings. Jewelry she'd never worn, price tags still attached.
I opened all the little boxes and picked out a ring I liked. I put it on my right ring finger—blue topaz, my favorite. There were gold necklaces and emerald earrings. Silver baubles. I figured I could get something for all of it when I got home. At least that would be something, and I'd never hear the baby bird story again.
So I loaded everything up in bags and carried them out to my car, the paid-off Honda coated with grime I'd ignored in her last days, and Ohio was still there, brown and gray. I didn't mind—it was a comfort, more than the treacly landscapes in the hospice windows.
I climbed into the driver's seat, clicked on my seat belt, adjusted my rear view mirrors, and headed out to the Interstate, where I'd slice through more brown and gray on my own. My mother long dead and now my sister, too—all the disappointments I'd left behind, all the hurts, all the truths were mine to tell. The ring sparkled on my finger as I sped up to the limit.
About Jan Worth-Nelson
Jan Worth-Nelson’s poems, essays and short stories have appeared most recently in Belt, Rhino, Hypertext, The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, and The Exposition Review, which nominated her 2016 poem "The Hilarious Funeral in LA" for a Pushcart Prize. Her essay "Beam, Arch, Pillar, Porch: a Love Story" appeared in the Happy Anyway: The Flint Anthology from Belt Publishing. An MFA graduate of the Warren Wilson College program in creative writing, she wrote the 2006 novel Night Blind, based on her experiences in the Peace Corps (Tonga: '76-'78). Retired from a career as a writing teacher at the University of Michigan – Flint, she has been editor of Flint's venerable East Village Magazine since January, 2015. Additional work is available at janworth.com and at eastvillagemagazine.org.