I ordered the wrong phone. The thing I received was huge; a cookie sheet. In an effort to spare myself the embarrassment of sending it back I thought I’d kick its tires. Now, sitting in a turboprop shuttle skipping along the cloudbank at 13,000 feet, I was comfortably and easily reading a novel on this glass expanse on my lap. Surprisingly, this thing is smaller than a paperback, though I refuse to give up my tactile novels at home. Because it’s also my phone, along with the novel it holds my boarding pass, local weather reports, and a picture I took of the delightful sign over the entrance to the Victoria Curling Club. None of this made it feel any less like I’m packing one of Moses’ tablets.
Cooling my jets in the YYJ Alaska Airlines peninsula of glass and wood and Starbucks jutting into the tarmac, I heard my name over the PA. I rolled up to the counter and a customs officer politely told me he’d need to ask me a few questions. He was ripe with Canadian civility and I didn’t feel picked-on, so I loaded my least menacing face.
He opened his worn leather folio and began. “Reason for your stay in Victoria?”
“What family would that be?”
“My sister, her husband, my niece and nephew.”
“Lovely. How long was your stay?”
“Where do they live?”
“Where in Victoria?”
“Why was your stay so short in our fair city?”
I paused, remembering this was only going to go as well as I behaved. Draining the emotion from my tone I said, “I was here for my sister’s funeral.”
It was his turn to pause. He closed his leather folder and said, “I think that’s all I need. Thank you.”
As I walked outside into the rain of the Canadian 10° Celcius weather that would soon be 50º Farenheit weather in the United States, the same customs official asked me to step over to him. All he said was, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It was not lost on me that the theater of security that has made air travel a stranger to ease and civility can be made a little more civil by the humans who herd the travelers.
During the latter part of June, I’d made a motorcycle trip to Canada for a family get-together. I spent most of the time with my sister and her husband, a kind man steeped in the best things Canadian. My sister complained of constant heartburn. I told her it was probably acid reflux. Runs in the family. A month later she had a tracheotomy so she could breathe around a tumor that had been discovered. A couple months after that I was in the chemo ward with her. I held her hand as she dozed in and out of the morphine haze while a yellowish fluid was passed to her through a clear tube in her arm. After a rather deep ten-minute nap she woke, squeezed my hand and said, “It wasn’t fucking acid reflux, by the way.”
“How do you know? Maybe it was both cancer AND acid reflux. Did you even try the Prilosec?”
Ignoring my rather solid argument, she said “I have to pee. Unplug me.” I reached behind her to the plug in the wall that powered her IV feed. As soon as I pulled the plug, she clutched her chest and flopped back in the chair. “You pulled the plug on me!” she proclaimed with dramatic, and perhaps a little too loud indignation. “Plug it back in!” I did, forgetting this was probably a joke. Realizing it was a joke I unplugged it immediately and she once again flopped back into her chair, this time gurgling. The dozen other people occupying their own blue vinyl lounges and their families looked at us with expressions from abject horror to gratitude for a break in the somber mood.
Such was our way. Humor had always been our way. I didn’t even know my sister existed until she was 40 years-old and I was 34, which is one of the funniest things about my life. Actually, almost no one in the family knew about her. Deirdre got her hands on her adoption papers and hunted up her biological mother, who also happened to be my biological mother. We immediately bonded, primarily over our shared inability to go more than ten seconds without making dangerously inappropriate comments. Those witnessing our dark critical mass of irreverence and eviscerating analysis knew it was familial. She and I (both of us in our 50s) had to be separated to opposite sides of the aisle during my grandmother’s funeral mass because we couldn’t stop laughing. No one was surprised but everyone had hoped we’d do better. We got tattooed together and flowed through each other’s lives too infrequently but never too far from each other’s minds. When the cancer moved into stage four, we put on our game faces and laughed right in the face of this disease.
The best jokes, observations, and insults I will not share. Some of them were so perfectly crude and obtuse that no good could from them being visited upon the minds of the less deranged. Also, they are mine. They are my inheritance. Once her children are in their forties, I’ll share with them a few of the least vile.
Not long ago, I was sitting in the dark of auditorium 4 on a weekday morning, knowing it was a place where I could make a phone call without an audience. She was not having a good day, my sister. She knew it was me on the phone and was having trouble constructing a sentence. After she repeated the first part of a sentence no less than 30 times, she fell silent. I did not speak, letting her collect her thoughts without me making noise. Then she spoke with sudden clarity and confidence. “We need to trade out the old magazines in the cancer ward with porno magazines.”
Ah, there she was. I responded with, “Do you think I can get a couple dozen of them over the border?”
“No. They have to be domestic.”
“Weren’t porno mags part of NAFTA?”
“No, they have to be Canadian. You see, the fig leaves need to be maple leaves.”
For that beautiful 30 seconds, she was there. She was there relating to me the way we had always related. Then she was aphasic again. Her words dribbled off and the signal spiraled down to silence. I sat there in the dark of my Darkside, gratefully alone, admitting to the the sea of empty seats, my phantom witnesses, that this was hard. This was really, really hard.
The cloud cover wrapped the Cascades like flowing white scarves. “Beavers” was rendered in white on the orange engine cowl from where the landing gear dropped and locked. “Fuck cancer,” I muttered as soon as I was back on United States soil. I waltzed mindlessly through customs for the second time that afternoon. When the impressively obese TSA agent informed me I need to remove any snacks from my bag and put them in a separate bin, Deirdre was screaming in my head, “Ask him if it’s so he can steal them. Tell him diabetes kills! Seriously, he’d love to know you care.” I surprised-chuckled, which I immediately camouflaged with a cough. “It’s an act of love,” she silently averred. I mouthed to her, “STFU before I get strip-searched.” After security I put in my earbuds in an attempt to disguise any other inappropriate responses to her hauntings as singing along with an iTunes download.
I should mention that Deirdre is widely known for her work in social justice, human rights, and environmental issues. After she retired she embraced art and became a celebrated painter with shows as far away as Japan. That’s great and all that, but not really too funny. Her best work was her family and her community. She and John raised two amazing humans that can only inspire pride and love every time I see them. I earnestly hope to keep the promise to myself that I will keep them as close to me as I can.
Gloria Foster embodied all the power and wisdom that a matronly black woman possesses with her work in The Matrix as The Oracle, leaving little doubt if there is a god, she is an African grandmother who takes no shit. I was reminded reverently of that energy when I stepped from the back porch back into the swarm of laughing, drinking people filling the house celebrating Deirdre’s life. With little ceremony I was swept into the absorbing love of a beautiful voluminous black woman. When she allowed me to breathe again she said in her silky African accent, “I was there when Deirdre met you and her mum for the first time!” And so she was. Just as bombastic and joyful now as she was 25 years ago. That did it. Eleven hours of travel on no sleep and bad airport food had weakened my stoicism and I felt the emotion of the last few months creep past the barricade. I stealthily hugged my family and slipped out the door for the two-kilometer walk back to my hotel.
With my cookie sheet in hand I navigated back downtown. It was late and somehow I ended up walking past a dark recess in the urban landscape populated by street people. Two of the larger meth-scarred men with dead eyes and dirty clothes split off and were moving in front of me. I was flashing hundreds of dollar worth of cell phone in the bad part of town. Stupid. I pocketed the cookie sheet. I knew they were not going to demand anything, hoping their presence would compel me to offer my goods, absolving them of being charged with mugging. They blocked my way. At this moment, when my adrenals were telling me, “Oh, this is gonna be fun,” I stopped. My sister was a militant pacifist and I was here honoring her. Unleashing my pain, sadness, and ire on these two meth-heads would be the opposite of all that. So, I ratcheted down my testosterone and stood facing them, letting a few moments pass silently. Modulating the threat from my voice, I smiled and said. “You boys are going to have to do better than this.” They looked at each other, then at me and both said, nearly synchronized “Sorry,” and parted to let me pass.
That one was for you, sis.