Sister Guilt

 

I’m not going to take the blame for this, Allison told herself. I don’t care. I’m not going to take the blame.

She stopped in front of a monitor and scanned the estimated arrival times until she found Pat’s flight. Twenty more minutes. She took out an antacid tablet, looked at it, and then closed her eyes hoping to keep the nausea down. She’d already had enough antacids to cause her stomach problems, not cure them. When the worst of her sickness had passed, she returned the pill to her pocket and continued on.

When she got to the waiting area, it was full—people in all the chairs, luggage strewn around. A red-headed woman carrying several shopping bags jostled her.

“Excuse me,” Allison said, backing out of her way.

The woman, as old as Allison’s mother, glared, her eyes burning with unspoken censure as if to say, who was Allison to make an older person’s life harder by standing in the way?

“I’m sorry,” Allison repeated. “I mean . . .”

The woman waddled on, a bag hitting each hip.

“I don’t want to be a burden to anyone,” her mother had written. She had written it on a piece of pale blue stationery in her flowing, flawless hand and then left the note on her nightstand beside the empty bottle of sleeping pills.

Allison wanted to scream: When did I ever make you feel like a burden? When? But then with a calmer, more controlled sub-voice, she reasserted herself. I don’t care what Pat says, I’m not going to take the blame for this.

At the same time, she could almost hear what her older sister was going to say: “My God, I sent money every month. All you had to do was check on Mother once in a while. How could you let her do this?” Pat could say that because Pat had escaped their mother. She’d moved a continent away and taken up a career in Washington, D.C., and when she wasn’t home, Mother favored her. “My daughter, Patricia, met Muhammad Ali at a party last week,” she bragged to friends in Allison’s presence. “Imagine, my daughter and Muhammad Ali at the same party?” And Allison always knew the day her mother received another check from Pat.

One time she’d tried to give her mother money. “What’s this?” Mother asked. “And when I saw Jimmy yesterday in pants so short his ankles stuck out? You take this money and buy him some new pants from his grandma. That boy might grow up to be something if he isn’t made ashamed of himself.”

Pat won’t be coming home any more, Allison thought. She won’t need to send money, either. When Father died, she remembered, everyone thought Mother would have to move in with me. I knew Father’s illness had wiped out their savings. I knew Mother deserved a real home where she could belong. Still I’d dreaded having her move in. I’d dreaded becoming a little girl again in my own home. Pat’s checks prevented that necessity. I suppose I owe her something for that. Still, I’m not going to take the blame.

Allison spotted Pat coming down the corridor. She wore expensive tennis shoes, designer blue jeans, and an open-necked sweater accented with two gold chains. Her dark hair had been cut to toss any direction and still look good. Yet there was nothing casual about the way she moved. She came on with an air of directed, nervous energy, clutching her baggage claim in her right hand, flipping its edge with her thumb as she walked.

Allison caught her breath. She straightened down the front of her skirt. I’ve overdressed, she thought. Nobody put on heels and hose in order to meet someone’s plane. That’s why Pat takes over. I’ve given her the impression that I can’t do anything right. She waved.

Her sister looked up, smiled and hurried toward her. They embraced. Allison couldn’t tell which of them pulled back first, but their greeting was shorter than usual. An awkward silence followed.

Pat said, “I didn’t think the plane would ever get out of Chicago. Did you have long to wait?”

“No,” Allison answered, not because she hadn’t waited, but because the waiting hadn’t mattered.

“How are the children?”

“Fine.”

“Let’s see, Jimmy must be in the fourth grade now.”

“Fifth.”

“Oh, I’ll bet he’s gotten so big I won’t know him. That’ll be a switch. Remember when he couldn’t remember me from one visit to the next?”

“Yeah.”

As they walked to the baggage claim area, Pat kept asking about Allison’s kids, her husband’s job, the other things she’d been doing lately. To Allison it seemed as if Pat were trying to shout down their mother’s death with plain, everyday platitudes. But Allison knew, sooner or later, Pat would slip. Sooner or later, she’d make some reference. When she does, Allison vowed, I’m going to tell her: It wasn’t my fault.

They were outside, putting the suitcases in the trunk of the car, when Pat finally spoke to the point. “I just don’t understand how this could happen.”

“What makes you think I do? It happened. That’s all.”

Pat shook her head. “I didn’t mean it like that. You didn’t fill in many details on the phone and so naturally I wondered. I guess for me it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

“How could I have said much?” Allison asked. “The police were still there. People from the neighboring apartments were gawking. They wanted to take the body away. I had to sign papers. I was doing absolutely the best I could.”

“I know. It must have been awful. I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk about it.”

“All right,” Allison said. “I’ll tell you.”

They got in the car. Allison started the motor. “It was yesterday. I always picked up mother on Thursdays. We usually drove to the market and if she had an appointment downtown, I waited for her. I want you to know it wasn’t always convenient to pick up Mother on Thursdays like that. I had to get a babysitter and sometimes other things would come up, but I always did it. I always picked her up and drove her wherever she wanted to go. Mother could count on Thursdays.”

She paused, swallowed, then continued. “I have a key to Mother’s apartment. Mother wanted me to have it. ‘You never know,’ she used to say, ‘what if something should happen?'” But I never had any reason to use the key before yesterday.”

Allison hesitated. The experience was still vivid enough that she had to force herself to relive it. “I remember taking the key out. I remember thinking Mother might have stepped out for a minute or simply forgotten to turn up her hearing aid. Yet somehow I knew. I knew when I had to use the key that something terrible had happened. The TV was going. Mother left the TV on and there was a teacup and a few breadcrumbs on the kitchen table. As I passed the bathroom, I noticed that she had washed out some stockings and hung them over the shower door. Mother was never one to leave anything undone. I found her in the bedroom. At first I thought she was asleep. She’d lain down and pulled the quilt up over her. It was the blue and white patchwork one I gave her last Christmas. I made it for her myself because she kept saying how she wanted something pretty on her bed. She hoped before she died, she’d have something pretty on her bed. Remember how she used to say things like that?”

Allison paused and shook her head slowly before she continued. “For her everything was life or death. She used to claim that the strangest things might cause her end. You know. You remember. If this wasn’t right or that wasn’t right, it was sure to be the death of her. Remember?”

“I remember. What did you do when you found her?”

“Nothing.” She shot a glance at her sister. “No one could have done anything. It was already too late. I tried to shake her awake, but I knew before I touched her. Even before I felt how cold she’d become, I knew.”

“You said there was a note. What happened to the note?”

The note. Allison remembered picking it up. She remembered reading it, staring at it, wondering what it meant. But she couldn’t remember what she’d done with it. When the police arrived, the lieutenant asked her if there was a note. She’d said, “No,” and then, “Yes,” and then, “I don’t know.” What had she done with it?

“I tore it into little pieces and flushed it,” Allison answered.

“Why? Why did you do that?”

“Why not?”

“You’re right.”

They drove in silence. Pat fussed with the loose edge of the car’s upholstery. Finally she said, “Why do you think she did it?”

“How should I know?”

“I don’t know. I just thought . . .”

Allison shook her head. “I think she thought she had cancer. You know how Mother felt about cancer. You know how afraid she was that one of us would have to take care of her the way she had to take care of Dad.”

“Did she see a doctor?”

“I tried to get her to see one. My God. Don’t you think I tried?”

“Why didn’t she tell me about it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, she didn’t want to bother you with it. You’re always so busy.”

“Oh, I see.”

“I’m going to stop at Mom’s apartment,” Allison said. “We need to pick out a dress for her to wear.”

“Sure,” Pat said. “That’s fine.”

Inside the apartment, Pat circled their mother’s living room, pausing once to touch one of the knickknacks, a spotted china dog. Allison watched her for a moment and then walked into the bedroom and began flipping through the dresses in their mother’s closet. Pat entered, paced to the window, turned back and perched herself on the edge of their mother’s bed.

Allison stiffened. How could Pat sit on that bed? Then she knew. Pat hadn’t seen their mother lying dead there. Pat might have testified before Congress and been on TV and held positions no woman had ever held before, but she would never know how it felt to find her own mother dead.

The bed itself had been smoothed. The blue and white quilted coverlet had been pulled up straight and tucked under the pillows. A neighbor lady had come in while the police were still there, Allison remembered. She’d asked if she could tidy up. She must have made the bed. It seemed strange. Every time she turned, she expected to see the bed as she saw it yesterday. She couldn’t get over being surprised at the neatness.

Pat cleared her throat each time before she spoke. Still she only mumbled niceties. “I don’t know,” and “Whatever you think,” and “I suppose that one will be fine.”

Allison folded a navy blue suit over her arm. “We might as well go then.”

Pat glanced around her as if there was something in the room she’d missed. She sighed. “I’ve got something to say.”

Here it comes, Allison thought. At last, here it comes. She looked toward the window. It was nearly dark. Michael and the children must be wondering what has taken so long. They don’t know about stopping at the apartment to pick out a burial dress. They offered to come with her, but she’d preferred to come alone. I know what Pat wants to say, she told herself.

“I could have come home more often,” Pat said. “I get six weeks of vacation a year. If I had come home oftener, maybe . . .. Last month, I had some time . . .. If I’d come home then.”

Allison shook her head. Why was the story always the same? Maybe it didn’t matter where you went—east, west, round the world—women always carried the same baggage, the same sense of responsibility that they could never, never shed.

“You couldn’t have known,” she said.

“No, I could have sent more money, too. I own two cars and two fur coats and two toasters. What person living alone needs two of anything? But I didn’t send more money because of you. Whenever I called, it was always the same. Mother talked of you—you and your kids, you and your husband, you and your house. ‘I went shopping with Allison today,’ Mom would say. ‘Allison has such a fine family,’ she’d say. ‘When are you going to get married?’ she’d ask. She never understood about my work. She’d ask, ‘What is it that you do exactly?’ Even after I explained, she’d just make that clucking noise with her tongue—you know the one—and tell me about your quilts and the quilting classes you were teaching.”

Allison felt a new nausea rising in her.

Pat’s voice broke. “I wasn’t good enough. If I’d been better . . .”

“No, don’t say that.”

“You must hate me. You probably never want to see me again.”

“No,” Allison said. “No, I won’t let you take the blame for this. I won’t. I won’t.”

Allison reached for her sister. She felt Pat press her head against her shoulder, hot, breathing hard. Her own tears ran down her cheeks and sprinkled her sister’s hair. They hugged closer, rocking gently on the edge of their mother’s bed.

At the same time they whispered in each other’s ears, over and over, “It’s not your fault. It’s not. No, don’t say that. Really, it’s not your fault.” Until they should have believed their own words, if anyone ever does.

If anyone ever does . . ..