Of Sisters, Imaginary and Otherwise
“Blond hair, blue eyes. Normal in size.”
Bea stops. Talking isn’t what it used to be. The way she advances words reminds me of a child learning to walk – a few cautious steps, a pause, a few more steps, but then once the legs start moving, it is hard to get them to stop. “I went to visit Dorothy in the Virgin Islands. She offended me the very minute I got there. She said, ‘You smell. Go take a hot shower.’”
Bea lurches to a stop. She has been remembering one of the last times the two sisters met. I imagine the scene. With Dot’s husband Charlie in between, they confront each other by the slate blue wall on a hill in St. Thomas. Snakes are spilling out of Dorothy’s mouth. Bea stands there, crushed and speechless. It occurs to me that, in reality, she probably answered right back.
Women who don’t have sisters often wish they did. I stare down at my mother. Her solicitous letters from Europe indicate Bea was instrumental in getting Dorothy to attend college. Bea loved her sisters in a profound way. She even loved complicated Helen whose name my mother was calling last night. “Can you tell me what you think is important in life?” I ask.
Bea is so still I wonder if she has registered my question. It is something I have been meaning to ask for a while. Her eyes are closed. I wait. Has she gone to sleep?
“Friendship. To care about people. I care about people.”
A word, a pause, a phrase, another phrase, all uttered in a raspy voice that is hard to understand.
My mother tires easily these days and indicates a nap would be nice: “It isn’t necessary for you to wake me up as long as my little sister is here. She likes people.”
Instinctively I realize Bea isn’t referring to Dorothy, but rather that imaginary sister present recently. “How do you know?” I ask.
“I’ve heard her say so, and I feel it inside of me.”
“What is she like?”
“I have a hard time defining her. She’s me! Sometimes she feels oppression like die, d-i-e.”
Her words do not make sense, so I steer the conversation to a dream that does, this email from Dorothy’s daughter, Nan:
“Last night I dreamed of my mother, in old age. She demanded to ride a motorcycle, because she said Bea had ridden a motorcycle and she'd be damned if she'd be outdone. So I got a motorcycle, and in great trepidation got her up on it and off she went, slowly in a very large circle. As she came back she slipped off the back. I ran to get her, really scared that she'd broken a hip, but she stood up and said triumphantly, 'Tell Beatrice she's not the only one who can ride a motorcycle!'”
“Is that something Dorothy would have done?” I ask.
“Yes. Is Dorothy dead?
“How did that happen? She was so young!”
I pick up a photo of Bea and teenage Dorothy, at the New Jersey shore. In Bea's mind her little sister has become that young and carefree girl again.
“Now let me sleep.”
I have been dismissed.
The edges of reality have become a blur, like LeCount Hollow Beach this afternoon, partially veiled in mist due to the change of season. After spring, comes summer. After summer, fall. My mother has already entered the winter of her life and I feel the chill.