Intermitting red flashing lights demanded my attention. It was the answering machine signaling a message. Rather than going to retrieve it, I walked the opposite direction into my apartment bathroom intent on taking a shower.
“I’ll get it later,” I declared to no one in particular--I was alone and enjoying the stillness of singularity.
As I was drying my hair from the shower, just beginning to feel refreshed, the telephone rang again. Completely unwilling to let anything disrupt my tranquility, I let the phone go to message.
“Sydney,” it cried out. “Pick up the phone. You have to come to the hospital.” There was a pause and then, “It’s your sister Annalise.
The end of the message was blurred by barely restrained sobs. My mother had just called to inform me of my sister’s return to the hospital. I silently cursed Annalise for ruining my afternoon. It was probably more hospital treatment, in which case there was nothing I could do to help the situation. As much as I loved my sister, I also hated her. I hated her for always being more important than anything I could ever do or be.
I walked to the kitchen, taking a quick survey of my surroundings-pristine white walls, accents in light blues and greens. These were all colors which reflected a lighthearted attitude I could never quite achieve. My new apartment still had unopened boxes stacked in the corners. I promised myself I would get to them later, maybe after a trip to the hospital. I had moved to this particular location because of its distance from Rush Memorial. I anticipated my parents staying the night on those occasions when Annalise was so sick they would have to remain in the city. Now, I regretted the proximity.
I hadn’t always felt so dissociated with my parents and Annalise. When we were younger, I had defended her with a vigor only an older sister could. I taught her how to bake in my play oven, how to find the square root of a number, and why you should never, ever cry over boys. I was the mother when our own was too wrapped in her own sorrows; a teacher on days Annalise was too sick to go anywhere; and a sister the rest of the time. I lived in this role until I was offered a sort of freedom, but it came with a price. College changed me; it made me bitter and cynical. Now I was too smart, too educated for my sister who had dropped out of high school my sophomore year of college.
Annalise had claimed there was nothing school could ever teach her that she needed to know--she had bigger plans. She wanted the kind of knowledge you cannot get from books or teachers. So she learned to live on practically nothing, working at a small organic grocery store and refused to take money offered to her by my parents. We, who were so close at the start of our lives, grew apart bit by tiny bit. I couldn’t bridge the gap that had grown between us, couldn’t reach for my little sister’s soft hand with the assurance that she would grasp my own, couldn’t brush the hair from her face or the tears from her eyes.
Beep, beep, beep. That sound, that dreaded sound of the heart monitor punctuated the room. Annalise couldn’t remember how she ended up here in this white gown with an IV taped to her arm. Barely able to move her head, she looked at the already purple bruise created by someone’s unskilled hands. Other parts of Annalise’s body were bandaged and bruised to the point she could no longer recognize herself. All these facts, individually horrific, added up to just one thought, Rush Memorial Hospital. Annalise was apparently making a return trip, but not for the usual reasons. The bruises, the bandages, the massive amount of pain did not equate to her reoccurring kidney failure. Something else, something entirely new had gone wrong. One quick survey of the room told Annalise she was alone with her parents, no Sydney in sight.
“Oh, George. George,” her mother’s shrill voice stabbed through the air “I think she’s awake.”
Annalise wasn’t ready to deal with her mother yet, wasn’t ready for the hospital trip to turn into something about her mother.
“Annalise. Annalise, baby, Mommy’s here.”
She tried to move her mouth, tried to tell her mother to go away, but it took too much effort. Instead, Annalise closed her eyes and concentrated on sleep.
Sometime later in the night, well after visiting hours, Annalise remembered what had happened. She was on her way out of the city to visit a friend when another car crossed the median and crashed into her. Years ago, her parents had tried to convince her that driving was too dangerous. Only Sydney, despite a reserved attitude, understood the need for freedom. She was the one who secretly taught Annalise how to drive.
Like so many other things in life, Sydney gave Annalise her wings. Their parents would blame Sydney for the car crash and she would suffer silently, all the while wishing for their affection. Sydney would make a martyr out of herself on the alter of her parents need for persecution of Annalise’s unknown illness. Annalise closed her eyes one final time, unwilling to let Sydney suffer anymore.
I had intended on eating a bowl of cold cereal, but thoughts of my little sister in the hospital brought a curdled taste to my mouth even before I had poured the milk. With growing urgency, I changed out of the robe I donned after the shower and grabbed my wallet and keys. The distance from Rush didn’t really merit getting my car from the parking tower, but the surrounding area did. I guess you really couldn’t win. Great apartment. Bad neighborhood.
I felt the purr of the engine as I started my car; it gave me a sense of power in an otherwise uncontrollable world. Usually, I would drive slowly, purposely angering my fellow drivers, but tonight I was on the offensive. No one could drive or change lanes fast enough to make me happy. I pressed on the horn and the gas pedal simultaneously, worried I wouldn’t make it to the hospital in time.
The curtain and blinds of the window had been pulled aside to allow thin shafts of light into the room. Annalise watched as dust particles danced around, never quite landing, but frozen in time and space. That’s just how she felt at the moment--permanently suspended.
To keep from dwelling on the nagging feeling of hopelessness, she traced her fingers across the pattern of the faded arm chair. Sun bleached green and red fleur-de-lis reminiscent of the French monarchy were prominent in the fabrics design. Perhaps the owner of the arm chair considered themselves a descendent of a royal blood line.
Other people shuffle in around Annalise, briefly sitting, heads down, whispering quietly amongst themselves until they progressed into the adjoining room. No one approached her or asked why she was sitting in the arm chair. No one spoke her name or even looked at Annalise. She caught a familiar face out of the corner of her eye. Happy to see them she raised her hand in an inaudible hello, too afraid to break the silence; but they refused to look her way. Slightly hurt, Annalise reasoned they probably hadn’t noticed.
Now that Annalise’s gaze had been broken from the window, she looked around the room. Everything was in varying shades of green, red, and gold--warm colors in an oddly cold environment. A piano stood in the corner opposite the front door and coat closet while a large wreath of flowers was positioned in the other. She began to notice a soft melody, but it wasn’t emanating from the piano. Rather, it drifted in from the other room and like a beacon or a siren it hooked her into its pull. With muscles stiff as if she hadn’t moved in years, Annalise pushed herself out of the chair and slowly walked forward. A sense of foreboding told Annalise she needed to remain inconspicuous, but upon entering the room obtrusiveness became the last of her worries. Annalise’s older sister, Sydney, stood at the head of the room tears sliding down her face as she silently moved her mouth. Sydney was in a desperate struggle to force words from her unwilling vocal cords, for next to her lay Annalise’s body.
I stood at head of the room, vision blurred by tears. My mouth worked to force out the words of my speech, but no sound was audible. I looked up at the many faces hoping someone would save me from my anguish. Surely they can all see I am not fit to deliver Annalise’s eulogy.
My eyes rested on a figure standing in the doorway. Who would come to a funeral late? Hands tensing, I crumpled the paper between them and tried to focus on the figure until my vision steadied. There she stood, Annalise, looking gorgeous and completely heathy. She had on the delicately silver beaded cocktail dress she had worn to our parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary only a few months ago. I remembered her laughing, vivacious with life yet vainly trying to conceal the dark spot in the crook of her arm and the circles under her eyes. These were the signs of an illness that traveled with her, but never consumed her.
In the short time since Annalise’s death, I had been to the doctor twice. Each time I returned home with a new drug for sleep, but nothing worked. I blamed myself everyday for teaching her to drive, for her death, and for not getting to the hospital in time. It wasn’t fair that Annalise died from a car crash and not her illness. In the past I had tried so much to help her, to protect her; but in the end, I had given up on her. I took Annalise for granted and now I was left with a bone deep ache. I missed the relationship I had willingly given up because I had lost sight of the importance of sisters.
I looked from Annalise to the body shrouded in white silk laying next to me and back again. Nothing made sense, I really had gone crazy with hallucinations. She smiled at me and then did something only Annalise would--she stuck out her tongue. I laughed, the crowd must think I’m crazy now. Truthfully, I didn’t care what they thought; all that mattered was Annalise. She was here, even if only in spirit. She wasn’t angry with me for not getting to the hospital in time. Annalise, in her own non-conformative way, came to say good-bye. A smile crept to my face as I realized nothing would break my bond with Annalise. We would always be a part of each other.