She knew damn well she wasn’t supposed to be smoking so I was surprised to see the gnarled fingers of her right hand holding a cigarette while she lit it with a slightly less gnarled left hand. She looked me in the eye as she took a deep puff, smiling with that shit-eating-grin and mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Hey, I’m gonna die someday. Might as well enjoy myself before I go” she chuckled, blowing smoke out.
My sister recognized the look of judgment on my face and laughed, “Look sis, I hurt like hell every day. I can barely walk, my hands and feet are worse than ever, and I’m living in a tiny trailer in Texas with a bad ticker. Give me a break!”
She was right. How could I judge her decision to smoke, even though after having heart surgery at 56-years-old, her doctor advised her to never smoke again. That was nearly eight years ago and she was determined to enjoy every day no matter what anyone else thought, including me.
“I don’t know, this place doesn’t seem all that bad,” I countered, knowing she was happy here. We were sitting on wooden kitchen chairs outside our older sister’s home-away-from-home in Southern Texas. It was late March and already hot and humid and we were happy to be in the shade chatting together.
Both my sisters lived in Michigan during the late spring and summer months, but traveled to Texas for the winters, the cold and wet no longer agreeing with them. They lived in a modest park with other Winter Texans where John and I were now visiting.
While Linda and her husband would be leaving soon, Janet said she thought this year she’d stay in Texas. “I have my little place here, I have my freedom and I have friends”, she smiled at me, putting her cigarette out in a tin can. “I guess it’s as good a place as any to be, even though I miss my kids.”
I watched her for a while and felt a pang of sadness. What would her life have been if rheumatoid arthritis hadn’t crippled her from such a young age? Or if she would have found a partner who loved her and cared for her the way she deserved?
Instead, she lived alone with a pathetically small monthly social security check but also with a smile and lightness in her heart. My sadness gave way to admiration as I realized she had something I lacked…a true acceptance for things just the way they were. She didn’t complain that life dealt her a hard blow but instead accepted whatever came and found joy in as much as she could.
“You figure out what’s wrong with my golf cart, John?” I heard her yell as I came out of my fog.
I glanced over at John, laying in a contorted position, legs sprawled out from the floor of Janet’s golf cart looking for the cause of the sputtering, and felt my heart swell.
I met John when I was 52 years old with little hope left of finding someone that fit. It wasn’t easy getting to a place of trust with each other, but here we were, years later, very much in love… and in like.
Janet smiled, as if reading my mind and said, “He’s a keeper, sis. Took you long enough to find one!”
“She didn’t give up! And that’s what I admire the most about you little sister”, Linda shouted as she came out of the house with a tray of lemonade, her husband George holding the door.
“Come and get something cool to drink, John. That golf cart will wait”, Linda ordered while she put the tray on an old tea cart she had on her front porch.
Linda was short, barely five feet, but what she lacked in height she made up in stature. As the matriarch of our family, we all looked up to her. When John first met her he told me later, “She’s all sweet and feisty at the same time.”
The five of us sat together in the shade sipping our lemonade, going over our plans to visit San Padre Island the next day. This was our first visit to see my sisters in Texas and they wanted to show us all the great tourist places.
It made me think of another visit. “Janet, do you remember that time you came to see me in Napa? We went to San Fransisco to a hippy festival at Height and Ashbury?”, I asked.
She laughed, “Oh I remember. We fit right in with all the young hippies.”
“After the festival, I took you to Ocean Beach”, I said.
“Yeah, the one with the beach that’s about a mile from the ocean!”, she lamented, shaking her head at the memory. “You take a cripple to a beach that is damn near impossible to reach the ocean from?”
I smiled explaining, “What I remember the most about that day was your determination, sis. You were going to put those deformed feet in the ocean come hell or high water.” She called her feet “Frankenfeet” because they were so twisted from arthritis.
“Took us long enough, but I made it, didn’t I?”, she asked with a big smile on her face and that gleam in her eye I had seen so many times in my life.
That day we walked, excruciatingly slow, arm and arm from the top of that beach all the way to the ocean’s edge. We stopped several times, Janet bent over in pain waiting for enough courage to muster on but she kept going.
When her feet hit the water, all pain and doubt washed away with the white foam of the waves. The look on her face that day, in that moment, will always be with me.
Each time I get together with my sisters, we share old memories and make new ones. Those memories may not seem like much, or important to others, but each one holds a place in my heart.
It’s just Linda and me now. That trip to Texas last March was our last chance for the three of us to make new memories together. Janet died a year ago today.
Today is also the 4th anniversary of my blog, and I dedicate this day to you, my dear sister. We may not be able to make new memories, but I still have the old ones to share. (correction 07/14/2020 18:45 – Today is the 3rd anniversary of my blog, not 4th)
Rest in peace love, rest in peace.