Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reunion and Remembrance

Little Sister is three years younger, which translates as "she was a pesky freshman when I was a senior in high school". In the last few months, especially, as I've untangled certain threads of my past, I've realized that in a way, I'm glad (although it was frequently painful at the time) that we did cross paths then. She wasn't quite as much of a child when I graduated from high school, so I knew her better than if she'd been four or five years younger and still in junior high.

Tonight is their twentieth class reunion. One of her close friends died of a molecular genetic degenerative disorder in college, so they're one short. She almost didn't make into her junior year herself.

Two weeks after I returned to SFU for my sophomore year, I phoned home, as was my habit, at ten o'clock on Saturday morning. A friend of my mother's answered our phone, and my first thought was, "Holy ****, my father's dead!" Instead, she insisted that I speak with my mother, whose first words to me were, "Promise me that you won't come home." I crossed my fingers where my roommate could see me do it, lied to her, and she added, "Your sister was nearly killed in a car accident last night."

(She was thrown out a two-inch gap in the passenger window of her friend's ancient Honda during a flip-and-roll accident and sailed some hundred yards through the cornfield into which they'd crashed. The impact was sufficient to split her clothing and her bra...she was clutching her shirt closed when she staggered out of the corn and collapsed at the feet of passersby who stopped to assist- one of whom was an EMT who attended our church. He still can't talk about it without going white as a sheet. The driver, who was in shock, insisted she was alone in the car; Little Sister would've died that night had she not emerged from the field under her own steam.)

I don't know how much of the conversation I missed before I could focus again. After lying a second time about not rushing the hundred miles south to home, I hung up, called my fiance, and said, "You have to drive me home. It's an emergency!" I was still in shock when I told my roommate, as we got into the car, "Gummi bears. I need to go to the student store and get her some gummi bears!" I bought five pounds, which I'm told our mythology teacher's son sat on the edge of the hospital bed and ate over the course of the next four weeks while they tried and failed to re-inflate my sister's lung so she could breathe on her own.

She wasn't in our hospital; she was in the next county over, so our father didn't have medical privileges there. When I arrived, Little Sister's morphine IV had run dry, and she was screaming hysterically in pain. I grabbed the nurse on rounds and told her; she looked me up and down and said, sarcastically, "Well, she can wait until I get to her!" Normally, I'm not rude to nurses. I grew up with them and I know better, but something just snapped and I hissed, "We'll see about that," and marched off as she muttered under her breath about "damn doctors' kids, think they're God Almighty". I found the supervising nurse, who was incidentally not only a patient of my father's but also the mother of one of my sister's friends- and you'd damn well better believe we got that morphine bag changed in short order.

A few years later, I ran into the young doctor who took care of her during that nightmare- he was a little hard to miss because he had Wiedemann's syndrome, also known as the Elephant Man's Disease. He was making rounds while I was visiting a friend at the SFU hospital's cancer ward. "You won't remember me, Doctor. You saved my sister's life a few years ago- car accident, pneumothorax, broken ankle and wrist. You were externing at a small hospital south of here." He remembered. He talked about my father, crumpled against the wall of the OR, as the attending surgeon tried to include him in the triage as a courtesy. He recalled fighting the endless lines of my sister's friends while trying to examine her during rounds, and our mother's stealing off to quietly retch from the stress and the effects of incipient gallbladder disease.

In the midst of this chaos, the fiance decided to demand that I drop out at the end of the school year to marry him. He was upset at no longer being the center of my attention, and he had badly miscalculated my reaction, which was: "Wait, we're both pre-law, and I have the higher grades and larger scholarship. Are you NUTS?". Long story short, exit fiance, re-enter, albeit briefly, Hopkins, until chaos broke out on his side of the fence as well. It wasn't the best year for anybody, actually. I became the co-signator on my parents' checking account and redirected their bills to my college mailbox so I could pay them.

Little Sister's recovery took endless months of bed rest and therapy, after the interminable hospital stay because she couldn't breathe unassisted by machines. During that time, we acquired, lost, and reacquired the stray Papillon who became our family nursemaid throughout the trauma...and who returned to us, discarded by the owners to whom we'd dutifully given her back, pregnant by a Cocker Spaniel. Puppies are very therapeutic, by the way...the last of them, Libby, died two years ago at the ripe old age of seventeen.

A year and a half later, Little Sister crossed the stage and received her diploma. It was something we'd always so blithely assumed would happen, until the night that a State Trooper who knew my parents summoned my them to the neighboring hospital in the middle of the night. It is something I'd never wish on my worst enemy, and when the daughter of the local chiropractor died the following year in a horrifying car accident, it was both emotionally devastating and a reminder of what might have been.

Tonight they celebrate the twenty years since they graduated. Tonight I mourn for Matt Wright, lost to a conspiracy of DNA and the inadequacies of modern medicine, and I celebrate the fact that my sister lived to graduate with the Class of 1990.

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