Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sister Act

"A younger sister is someone to use as a guinea-pig in trying sledges

and experimental go-carts.

Someone to send on messages to Mum.

But someone who needs you - who comes to you with bumped heads,

grazed knees, tales of persecution.

Someone who trusts you to defend her.

Someone who thinks you know the answers to almost everything."

(Pam Brown)

1986 - in a clinic for developmentally challenged children

"I don't know how she did it. but somehow, she got Jenny to talk to her," my mother stated.

"Well, she did something. Jenny seems just fine now." The doctor eyed my sister and I, playing quietly in the corner together.

"How can a four-year-old teach a three-year-old how to talk?"

The doctor smiled. "They're sisters," he shrugged. "No one knows what goes on between them but the girls themselves. Is she potty training yet?"

"She'll go with Mouth," my mother said, shaking her head, "but refuses to even get near it when there's any one else in the room.

"That'll pass," the doctor reassured. Give them time. She'll come around."


1990 - Driving cross-country from Alaska to Texas

"We can't eva let them sepawate us, Mo." She blinked straight ahead into nothing with big, liquid-blue eyes. Her teeth were bucked just enough to give her a little bit of a lisp.

"I won't let that happen," I said, petting her head. We sat like that a lot - Jenny's head in my lap as I sat on the sofa in our Winnebago, watching the American scenery cruise by at 55 mph.

"Weally?" She turned her head so she could look up at me. I smoothed her hair behind her ear and smiled at her.

"Really. Promise." She turned back to stare into nothing, satisfied that I wouldn't let any one take her away from me.


1992 - New York

"Mo, stop reading to your sister. Make her do it herself."

"She can't."

"It's only because she doesn't try, Mo. You have to make her do it or she'll never learn."

"Mom, she can't!" I put the book down and walked over to my mother, all ten years of my life experience weighing heavily in the grave expression on my face. "Jenny can't see the words like I can."

a few months later...

"Ma'am, your daughter is dyslexic. That's why she can't read. It's also why she writes most of her letters backwards."


"Yes ma'am. She doesn't see words on a page the way you or I see them. Her brain processes them differently."

"I see," said my mother, eying me suspiciously.


1994 - Pennsylvania

"Mo, look! We got our tests back!" Jenny ran up the driveway waving two big, white envelopes. She thrust mine at me as she frantically tore hers open.

"See!" She crowed. I told you I'm a genius!" She waved her score page in front of my face, not holding it anywhere near still enough for me to see.

Mom laughed. "Quite an accomplishment, Jenny, coming from our family." The score was no surprise. Both my parents, all my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, and all my cousins rate above the genius level on IQ tests. Since they'd figured out she was dyslexic and enrolled her in classes to overcome it, Jenny had done nothing but absorb knowledge.

She took off down the street, score sheet in hand, ready to rub her friends' noses in her superior aptitude.

"And what did yours say?"

I grinned and gently began working the flap of my envelope open. "Oh, just open it, Mouth!" Mother took the envelope from me and tore it open. She pulled out the pages and flipped through to the last sheet. Her brow furrowed, then she forced a smile. "That's good, Mouth. Very good." She handed the papers back to me and walked inside. I watched the screen door slam, then looked down at the score sheet.

Slightly above average.

1996 - Kentucky

"Hey Mouth, wait up!" A classmate chased me down the hall. "Is it true what they're saying about your sister?"

"What's that?" I asked, slinging my pack over my shoulder and trying my best to adopt a 'cool' stance. Other students milled around us, strutting and preening in the halls of the high school.

"That Jenny slept with the quarterback and got pregnant. That your dad flew into a rage and now your parents are sending her away to boarding school, and that they're going to make her have an abortion. Is it true?"

My parents don't believe in abortion. Nor was it likely that the quarterback, who's dad happened to work for mine, would have any interest in my sister. She was only 12, for crying out loud, and he was the quarterback!

"Of course not," I snorted.

"Well, that's not what they're saying. You'd better talk to your sister. Everybody's talking about it. You'd better talk to her, like, now!"

Being the well-behaved child that I was, I told my parents. My parents decided not to say anything to Jenny. A few weeks later, at the Sunday breakfast table, Jenny proudly announced that she had, in fact, bedded the quarterback. Dad pushed back from the table, walked out of the house, climbed into his truck, and drove off. Mom went to the phone and made an appointment at the local clinic to get Jenny on birth control. Jenny went back to eating her pancakes as if nothing at all had happened.

I sat quietly, watching her.

1998 - Tennessee

"Why won't she just get up!?!" Jenny yelled, slamming the phone down.

"Shhh." I tried to get her to calm down. Jenny was having none of it.

"I don't care if she hears me. I hate her!"

"You do not. Stop it. Mom will get up when she feels like it. Look, I'll get the water." I hauled myself off the couch.

Mom had been in bed for months. She wasn't sick, exactly... she just couldn't seem to muster the energy or drive to get out of bed. A few weeks back, she'd had a second phone line installed in her bedroom, on a different number than the house phone. She used it to call us, from her bedroom to the living room, to ask for food and drinks. She never had to raise her voice to get us to hear her, and she never had to leave her bedroom.

"Hey, Mo? I didn't mean to scream at you. Will you take me to the doctor, later? My stomach hurts." Jenny made a face.

"Sure, tweet. I'll take you. Lemme take care of mom real quick, then we'll go, okay?"

She smiled at me from the sofa and went back to watching cartoons.

1999- Kansas

"Your nephew's adorable."

"My what?"

"Dink. Your nephew. His name is Dalton, right? Y'all call him Dink? He's super-cute. It's nice that Jenny's able to keep in touch with him."

"I don't have a nephew."

"What do you mean? Jenny showed me a picture."

"Cute little blond kid, brown eyes, about two years old?" I ask.

"Yeah... Dink."

"Dink is my sister's ex-boyfriend's nephew."

"That's not what she said."

later that week...

"Why would you tell them that!?!"

"Well, because it's the truth."

"So? Do you know how embarrassed I was?"

"I'm not going to lie for you, Jenny."

"I hate you. I fucking hate you!" She slammed her bedroom door. At that moment, I honestly believe she meant it.

2001 - Kansas

"I don't believe it," my mother huffed. "I just don't believe it. How could she do this?"

"What are you gonna do?" I asked, staring up at my bedroom ceiling as my mother rambled on into the phone.

"I don't know. I just don't know! I mean, he could go to prison! He could be court-marshaled. It's the end of his career, at the very least."

"Alright." The military police had just left my parent's house (MPs because my dad was still active-duty Army at the time).

The reason for their visit? Jenny had told several of her classmates that my dad had pushed her down the stairs, and beat her regularly. She also inferred that he molested her. Apparently, it got back to one of the teachers, who called the cops.

None of it was true, of course. My dad may have been absent through most of my life, and maybe he'd spanked us harder than he should have sometimes, but he certainly would never violently attack her, and he definitely wouldn't have laid a hand on her in any way that could be anything but fatherly. They'd argued about something, and she concocted this story as a way of mentally retaliating. I don't think she meant it to ever get back to him - she just didn't think about those things.

"Hey Mo?"

"Yeah, mom?"

"Can she come stay with you? At least until she graduates? She's only got six months left."

I was eighteen years old. I'd just closed on my house a few months before. I was barely able to make ends meet as it was.

"We'd make sure you weren't put out, Mouth. We're not just going to dump her on you. We just need some... space." She waited a while before continuing. "It's either that, or we're sending her to military school."

I couldn't help but thinking back to the little girl with her head in my lap. -We can't eva let them sepawate us, Mo.- I promised I wouldn't.

A few weeks later, Jenny moved in with me. It wasn't long before her homeless friend, who's parents had kicked her out and who had been living out of her car for a month, moved in as well. Both the girls worked and went to school. My parents stopped calling. Jenny and I argued and made up, we screamed, we yelled, we threw things at each other, but we finally reached our goal - she graduated from high school.

The day after graduation, Jenny moved in with her boyfriend. Her final statement of gratitude as she drove off with a pickup full of stuff?

"Man, am I glad to be getting out of here!"

2002 - Kansas
"What do you mean, she left?"

"I don't know. She went to California." My dad sounded tired. He was to have retired a few months ago, but was being held because of 9/11.

"When is she coming back?"

"I don't know."

"Well, how far behind is she?"

Dad sighed. "Three months."

"And they're just now calling you?"


"Alright," I breathed. "Alright. I'm coming."

We met in front of the house she and her old homeless friend had rented together. Neither one of them had any credit, so my dad had called in a favor with a friend of his to get them the lease. I unlocked the door and walked into the house. Dad was right behind me. The sick-sweet smell of mold and decay hung heavy in the air. Dad spun, ran out the door, and got sick in the yard. 31 years of military combat training, years of being a Ranger and going to war and teaching soldiers how to kill, and the smell of that house was overpowering to him. It was making my eyes water.

Inside, we found dishes that had sat with food on them so long that mold grew up over them like a carpet. Two bunnies were in a cage in the kitchen. One, very thin and barely moving, laid dying in the corner. The other wasn't breathing. The cat box was filled to over-flowing, and the cat had started to use the furniture, rather than the dirty litter. Windows were broken, the carpet was stained with who-knows-what. The floor was strung with a variety of trash and broken objects. We literally cleared several of the rooms out with snow shovels and garbage sacks. There was nothing worth saving.

Two days into the cleaning process, Jenny came back from California and shacked up in my parents' basement. There was still a lot of work to do at the house, but she never showed up to help. She did, eventually, call and yell at me for throwing her mementos and keepsakes away. Photographs, trinkets, things of that nature. Things that mixed and mingled with the trash in an indecipherable pile of rubbish. I tried to explain that there was no way we could have known, but it didn't matter. She just wanted to unleash on some one. I let her scream. When she was finished, I hung up and went back to helping dad haul out the rest of the trash.

Eight months ago...

"Mo, my hair's falling out!" Jenny sobbed into the phone.

"What do you mean, your hair's falling out? It's supposed to. I'm sure it's fine. Calm down."

"No, I mean, like, in clumps. It's just falling out into my hands!"

I knew what was going on. I'd started showing for alopecia while I was overseas. When I came home in December, I still had some leftover bald patches that hadn't quite filled in.

"Alright. Well, calm down about it. Stress is only going to make it worse."

Later that day, she showed up at my house. Sure enough, there were several large, bald patches missing from her head. Problem was, the bald patches had stubble.

When alopecia makes your hair fall out, the skin is slick because the hair falls out at the root. Jenny's spots were shaved.

I wrote to my parents, who were in the Middle East at the time, explaining the situation to them and asking for guidance. I told them I thought her shaving her head was the first stage of self-mutilation, and that I was worried it would progress into more serious issues if it wasn't dealt with immediately. I thought if the three of us could address the issue together, maybe we could figure out a solid way to manage the situation.

My parents' answer was, "We're sorry, but there's nothing we can do from here. You'll have to figure it out."

So, I did the best I could. I had breakfast with her every Saturday morning. When she started talking about how sick she was, or her hair, I simply got quiet and ignored her. It wasn't theatrical, but it definitely coaxed her away from those topics of conversation. I honestly thought she was doing better... for awhile.

Six months ago...

"I'm so sorry to hear about your sister, Mouth." Dee, my neighbor, laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. "It's so sad, and she's so young. Give my best to your parents, won't you?"

I stood in a daze. I'd heard rumors Jenny was telling people she had cancer. She'd started shaving her head a few months before, just after telling me she thought she had alopecia, claiming it was just too hard to watch all her hair fall out slowly, and she just wanted to get it over with.

I started asking around. It's a small town. News travels fast, and tongues wag freely.

From the boytoy: "Jenny? She's got a big bottle of diet pills she pops almost constantly. She really ought to stop that. Between that and the chemo, she's starting to look gangly."

From a gal at the local diner: "Yeah, Jenny told me about the bone cancer. It's really sad. It's nice of you to take off every Monday and come drive her to chemo, though. Real nice."

From her boyfriend: "She called in the middle of the night last week, drunk as hell and trying to drive. Don't know what she was thinking. She knows she's not supposed to drink, with the radiation and all that. She doesn't even have a license any more, since she passed out behind the wheel a few months back."

So that was it. Jenny had thoroughly convinced every one in town she had cancer. She'd taken off work, been toted around and waited on hand and foot by friends and acquaintances, been pitied and cared for and looked after for months.

On top of that, she and her friend were renting my house. I couldn't afford to ask them to leave - I needed them to pay the rent, because I can't afford both the mortgage and the rent on my apartment in the city.

It made me sick, and there was nothing I could do about it.

One month ago...

"Where's your sister?" My parents stood in the airport terminal, bags in hand, waiting for me to pick them up.

"Well..." I started. "Let's walk out to the car."

We stopped at a local pub and had some appetizers and a drink. I explained that Jenny had told every one she had cancer, and that her room mate had found her out. Jenny's boyfriend broke up with her, she got fired from her job, she lost all her friends. Every one hated her, and no one trusted her. She'd checked herself into the hospital on suicide watch three days prior.

"Is she okay?" mom asked.

"I don't know." I didn't have any desire to see her or talk to her. I handed them a sticky note with the phone number to the hospital, and took them to their hotel room.

"We're going to go visit her tomorrow. Do you want to go?"

"No, I'll stay at home. I'll see you guys in a few days." I kissed them both and drove home. She was held in the hospital for five days, then released with a sack full of anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds.

Two weeks ago - 3pm - in the middle of my workday


I contemplated calling 911, then dialed Dad instead. I told him about the message.

"I'm on my way over. I'll let you know how it goes."

He called back an hour later. Jenny had taken all the medication she'd been prescribed during her hospital stay, along with any other pills she'd found in the house, then laid down in the bathroom floor and text messaged me. When I didn't respond, she text messaged her entire phone list with a dramatic good-bye message.

"You know that means she didn't really want to kill herself," I said.

"Mo, she took a dozen bottles of pills. She didn't mean to not kill herself."

Two hours later, he called back. Jenny had a seizure and rolled off the bed in the hospital, smashing her face on the concrete floor. She'd broken a tooth, given herself a black eye, and fractured her nose. Dad said she looked like she'd gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson.

All I could think was, "Good. I hope it hurts."

This morning...

"I need to talk to you."

"I'm in the middle of something, Mom. Can I call you back?"

"Sure. Of course you can. You need to know that your sister had a stroke last week."

"What do you mean she had a stroke?"

"Well, she has somewhat limited mobility, and she keeps having seizures. She's shaking - it's a form of palsy, and she isn't able to speak the same way any more. She can't eat without spilling half of it down her front. It also gave her turrettes. She makes humming and growling noises now, and she has a tic."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" A whole week? And nobody called me?

"Well, we wanted you to have a good week."

"I see. Is it because of the pills?"


"Is it permanent?"



"She's nervous about seeing you."

"She's got nothing to be nervous about. I don't intend to see her."

"At all? Mouth, she just had a stroke!"

"I know that. I'm not saying never, just not right now."

"Well, think about it."

"Mom, I have to go. I'll call you back."


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

1,000 Marbles

I got this from my cubby-gopher neighbor today. It's about the only worthwhile piece of junk mail I've received at work thus far.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering - 2668.

1,000 Marbles
-Author Unknown-

The older I get, the more I enjoy Saturday mornings. Perhaps it's the quiet solitude that comes with being the first to rise, or maybe it's the unbound joy of not having to be at work. Either way, the first few hours of a Saturday morning are most enjoyable.

A few weeks ago, I was shuffling toward the garage with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and the morning paper in the other. What began as a typical Saturday morning turned into one of those lessons that life seems to hand you from time to time. Let me tell you about it:

I turned the dial up into the phone portion of the band on my ham radio in order to listen to a Saturday morning swap net. Along the way, I came across an older sounding chap, with a tremendous signal and a golden voice. You know the kind; he sounded like he should be in the broadcasting business. He was telling whom-ever he was talking with something about "a thousand marbles". I was intrigued and stopped to listen to what he had to say.

"Well, Tom, it sure sounds like you're busy with your job. I'm sure they pay you well, but it's a shame you have to be away from home and your family so much. Hard to believe a young fellow should have to work sixty or seventy hours a week to make ends meet. It's too bad you missed your daughter's dance recital." he continued. "Let me tell you something that has helped me keep my own priorities."

And that's when he began to explain his theory of "a thousand marbles".

"You see, I sat down one day and did a little arithmetic. The average person lives about seventy-five years. I know, some live more and some live less, but on average, folks live about seventy-five years. Now, then, I multiplied 75 times 52 and came up with 3700, which is the number of Saturdays that the average person has in their entire lifetime. Now, stick with me, Tom, I'm getting to the important part. It took me until I was fifty five years old to think about all this in any detail," he went on," and by that time, I had lived through over twenty-eight hundred Saturdays. I got to thinking that if I lived to be seventy-five, I only had about a thousand of them left to enjoy, so I went to a toy store and bought every single marble they had. I ended up having to visit three toy stores to round up 1000 marbles. I took them home and put them inside a large, clear plastic container right here in the shack next to my gear.

"Every Saturday since then, I have taken one marble out and thrown it away. I found that by watching the marbles diminish, I focused more on the really important things in life. There is nothing like watching your time here on this earth run out to help get your priorities straight."

"Now, let me tell you one last thing before I sign off with you and take my lovely wife out for breakfast. This morning, I took the very last marble out of the container. I figure that if I make it til next Saturday, then I have been given a little extra time, and the one thing we can all use is a little more time.

"It was nice to meet you, Tom. I hope you spend more time with your family, and I hope to meet you again here on the band. This is a 75 year old man, K9NZQ, clear and going QRT, good morning!"

You could have heard a pin drop on the band when this fellow signed off. I guess he gave us all a lot to think about. I had planned to work on the antenna that morning, and then I was going to meet up with a few hams to work on the next club newsletter.

Instead, I went upstairs and woke my wife up with a kiss. "C'mon, honey, I'm taking you and the kids to breakfast."

"What brought this on?" she asked with a smile.

"Oh, nothing special, it's just been a long time since we spent a Saturday together with the kids. And hey, can we stop at a toy store while we're out? I need to buy some marbles."


Thursday, September 07, 2006

American Idol

"Hey, this your sister?" I ask, picking up a photograph from my boss's desk. Lonnie nods her ascent, completely absorbed in the glowing comp screen in front of her.

"She looks like that gal on your desktop."

"What?" Lonnie's brow creases. She looks at me, looks at the photograph, looks at the background on her computer. "She does not!"

Ah, denial - what a friend you are to the insecure. There's no denying the resemblance between Lonnie's sister and the spit-shined super-star mug of Jessica Simpson. The funny part is that Lonnie and the rest of the self-titled Plastics absolutely worship Jess. They'd pay top dollar for used toilet paper on EBay if they could find it. It's more than a little ridiculous, given that they're all in their mid-twenties.

"Why do you like her so much, anyway?" I ask, wrinkling my nose. Jess has a lazy eye and a callogen smile. Her features are too sharp, and her overall look is too manufactured. I don't think she's beautiful at all.

"Oh, she's so pretty, and so talented!" Lonnie gushes, turning her star-struck eyes back to the glowing image of Jessica in daisy dukes, car-wash sponge in hand and soap suds up to her elbows.

"Okay, so she's pretty and she can sing. Lots of pretty people can sing. What makes you choose her above every one else? I mean, I understand she's this mega-super-starlette and all that, but does she ever do anything worthwhile with all her celebrity and money? Does she ever do anything for any one other than herself??"

Lonnie pursed her lips, no doubt mentally sifting through all the recent In Touch articles she could remember, searching for some shiney little tidbit of humanitarian activity stored back in her memory banks. It's funny - Lonnie could probably tell you what color shirt the star was wearing in last month's fashion rag, but can't seem to remember anything of import Ms. Simpson had actually accomplished since becoming America's sweetheart.

"She did some stuff in Africa. You know, read to starving children and stuff." She nodded, assuring herself that her demigod was worthy of attention, affection, and loads and loads of cash.

"I see." Because starving children really need to read The Cat in the Hat before their bodies start digesting their internal organs in a desperate bid for calories. Pretty big accomplishment. Lonnie had already become re-absorbed in the glowing box, Jessica Simpson dancing happily in still in the background.

Lonnie's a sweet gal, she's just... empty-headed. It's a shame she spends so much time looking at Daisey Duke posters, wishing she looked more like her idol. She really is an attractive girl. Too bad there's not more going on upstairs. Ah, well... She'll make somebody a great trophy wife some day.