Donna is my big sister who is living now on the brink of late-stage Alzheimer’s. She is 89 years old.
Even so, Donna continues to live an outsized life. With a lot of help from Dan, her 86-year-old second husband, she recently managed to buy a house across the way from the assisted living facility where they had been living unhappily, and move in to a one-story condo with more privacy and autonomy. She has a very competent caregiver five days a week. It’s a beautiful setting in Charbonneau, Oregon, about 30 miles south of Portland. That’s 2,069 miles from Austin, TX, where I live. She calls it her “doll house.”
In her prime, Donna played a round of golf at the famous St. Andrews golf course, and stunned the crabby Scottish caddie with a chip shot that landed right in the hole. He thought women shouldn’t (and couldn’t) play golf. Same story when they went scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The guide initially refused to take her down, as women shouldn’t be scuba diving in those waters. He made her demonstrate that she could do somersaults and other maneuvers before he consented. After the dive, he said “I would take her anywhere.”
Donna’s work life was on a grand scale. She wasn’t just a nurse. She became Associate Dean of the Oregon Health Science Center School of Nursing. After retiring, she didn’t just become a volunteer. She became a top dog in the American Red Cross and on the front lines of 9/ll in NYC.
There was a dark side to my sister’s life. She drank too much. Her oldest son (of five children) died of a cocaine overdose in his 20’s; a wound that never healed. She could be jealous and vain. She always referred to “my mother” when talking to me about our mother. She never accepted aging, and railed against it these last years.
Donna is six years older than I am, my only sibling, and I grew up loving her desperately. She told me ghost stories, and tolerated me tagging along with her “gang” of friends every once in awhile. As we got older and had our own families, we had get-togethers with our kids (no husbands invited) and spent hours drinking and analyzing what was wrong with our parents. I always seemed to be living far away—Zurich, Palo Alto, Seattle, Spokane, Austin, while she stayed right in Portland Oregon.
Since the pandemic, I have felt unable to travel to see her because of my own frailties and the threat of COVID. Until last week.
I have three middle-aged sons who each had their own point of view regarding me flying to Oregon on my own, renting a car, driving a car, staying in a hotel, and basically solving my own problems for five days. John started out by saying “it’s a non-negotiable NO,” Michael said “Mom, if you want to be safe, stay home!,” and Zach said, “it will probably be the best or worst trip of your life.” I listened, and then made plans. Safe plans, in my opinion. As it turned out, the travel gods were with me almost the whole time.
Donna’s son Johnny picked me up at the Portland airport, which was under construction, but not a problem because I had arranged for wheelchair transport to the right place. He filled me in on what to prepare for: Donna may not recognize me right away. She has both bowel and urinary incontinence. Dan has lost his license, but drives anyway. They are both still drinking, although Donna doesn’t drink much anymore. The best time to visit was between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., before the daily nap of three hours and the possible drinking begins. I thought I was prepared by the many phone-calls to Donna where I had endured her hearty fake voice and her failed attempts to be all there.
She knew me immediately. I felt the love and hugged her deeply. We sat together and she asked me if I was real. She cried and said she was afraid that after I was gone, Dan would tell her I wasn’t really there. She touched me up and down my arm and pinched me gently. I held her and held her and held her.
She wasn’t the same sister. She would stare at me blankly and it was clear no one was home. She would flash a wicked scowl. She cried and keened periodically. Yet she held onto my hand, and patted my arm, and smiled, too.
My sister can barely walk from her bedroom to the living room couch. She disdains using a walker, and will barely consent to using a stylish cane. Nevertheless, the next day Dan decided to take us to lunch at the Tualatin Country Club. Dan insisted on driving. With the help of the caretaker, we got her in the car, Dan helped her get out, and I walked her into the Country Club restaurant, where every eye was turned our way to monitor our slow progress to a table by the window. It’s the first time in my life I have been stared at like that, and I was furious! Donna and Dan seemed oblivious. They each had a martini before lunch, and we monitored the 18th hole together. If someone had taken a picture of us then, we almost looked normal. Donna enjoyed her fish and chips and ate with zest. It was a good day.
The last day of my visit was not so good. I knew it was unlikely I would ever see my sister again and I pretended that wasn’t true. I think Donna knew too. She cried and I cried. I told her I was keeping her safe in my heart, and I told her I would see her in the Spring. I left for a 200-mile drive to Pendleton, Oregon, our home town, where I was going to say goodbye to or parent’s graves.
Thank God for beauty. The drive east on the Columbia River Gorge is drop-dead gorgeous. Right out of Portland on I-84, a National Scenic Highway, you turn a little corner and Mr. Hood looms ahead of you. And I mean LOOMS. It just got better and better. I felt I knew every inch of the land. It was a liminal space, as I transitioned from my sister’s present to my own past. I played Led Zeppelin on my Pandora channel and started singing along to “Stairway to Heaven.” I drank in the loss. I tried to drink in the loss. I was still alive and I started chanting to myself “Thanks be to God that I have risen today, to the rising of this life itself.”
My time spent in Pendleton felt enchanted. I stayed in a house owned by my niece Emily and her husband Greg, who live in Portland but keep a house in Pendleton because they love the country where Donna and I grew up. Everything worked perfectly. I found the graves and even got the complicated remote for the TV to work so I could watch the Oregon vs. Washington rivalry football game. I talked to Donna on the phone and assured her I had been there, that she could look at the pictures we took to prove it. The trip back to the airport was uneventful, except for the unrelenting beauty, and me wondering, once again, why I am living in Texas. The travel gods fell asleep and seated me next to a very unhappy two-year-old boy on the trip home.
I went to Portland to see my sister. Instead, I felt the magnificence of our journey of loss and more loss and beauty and more beauty. I touched my sister, and she in turn touched me.