Twenty-six damn steps. I knew exactly how many because I'd climbed them dozens of times over the last several months. However, that day it seemed like there were twenty-six hundred. What on earth could have possessed my sister to buy a house on a hill?
Head down, I felt the hard touch of each step resonate throughout my body as I struggled, climbing on legs that no longer had any bounce left in them.
While my tired body begged for relief, my brain was in overdrive, involuntarily moving from one thought to the next, refusing to shut down. All I wanted was a little peace, but again I was being denied even that simple pleasure.
For the last three days I had been going non-stop and the effects were starting to wear on me. Exhausted, I collapsed onto the soft overstuffed chair on my sister's patio. Forget dinner. I lost my appetite yesterday after I made the final arrangements for her service at Saint Paul's Church. I remembered thinking about the cold beer in the refrigerator. Too tired. Maybe later. I closed my eyes and prayed that when I opened them the last couple of months would have been nothing more than a nightmare. No such luck.
After the funeral there wasn't much left to do, all the important tasks were behind me. At least when Mom and Dad died back then, Beth was there to help me. This time around, no one was left to help.
The text from my ex-wife came as a surprise, considering the way I'd ended it.
"Sorry about your loss. If I can do anything, please let me know."
Too little too late for that, I thought.
Beth and I were born eleven months apart. I liked to tell everyone we were twins, and since we were born in the same year most believed it. That is until my spoilsport sister set the record straight. She relished in having her own identity, but we were as close as any twins could ever be. That memory brings a smile to my lips only to be replaced by a pang of emptiness.
Our parents died eight years ago, in a car accident, while vacationing in Hawaii. It was their first big vacation in twenty years. Beth got the call about 2:00 AM but waited until 7:00 to call me. She told me later she wanted me to have one more good nights sleep. Besides, there was nothing we could do until the morning anyway. That was my sister, always thinking about everyone else first.
Our dad was an only child, and mom had two sisters whom we hadn't seen in years. We called them the next day with the bad news. Both said they would fly in for the funeral but wouldn't be staying.
The funeral home took charge and did most of the work. They arranged for transporting our parents' bodies back home, set up the church service, and even helped us write the obituary for the newspaper. We were both a mess; though together we got through it. Now I was alone and not just with my thoughts.
Every time I saw Beth's picture come up on my cell phone my heart felt a bit lighter.
"Hey Sis. I know I should have returned your call yesterday but Mandy and I were at the marriage counselor's office until late, then we went out to dinner to talk further. We just might make it after all," I gushed, happy for the first time in quite a while."
She was quiet.
"Beth, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm still here. I'm happy for the two of you, I really am."
"Steve, I seem to have a little problem. I kind of need a favor from you."
I hadn't heard her sound this serious since she and David separated four years earlier.
"What's the matter, you lose your license again? How much to get your butt out of hock this time?" Beth had to be the worst driver on the planet.
"It's a little more serious this time."
She went quiet once again and I thought I heard muffled crying.
"Beth, what is it?"
"Steve, I've got ovarian cancer," she blurted out.
In a millisecond my life changed forever.
"How's that possible? You're only thirty-three."
"No one is totally sure why. All I know is I'm in that damn unlucky seven-percentile group and need to get it taken care of. I found out a week ago and they've scheduled me for surgery on Monday. I sure would like to have my big brother here, if at all possible."
"Let me take care of a few things, pack a bag, and I'll be there by tomorrow afternoon. Why didn't you call me sooner?"
"I didn't want to worry you. Besides, the doctor said it should be a walk in the park. He's done hundreds of these surgeries before and said my prognosis looks pretty good. It's just that I'd like you here with me, that's all."
I didn't know until after the surgery that my sister had greatly downplayed the severity of her condition. A walk in the park my ass. The cancer was worse then she'd let on. Her surgeon ended up removing a lot more than he originally planned.
"I'm sure we got it all. Nevertheless, your sister will need two or more rounds of chemotherapy, to make sure we kill any remaining cancer cells. Beth is in for a long and difficult recovery, but she's young and a fighter, that will help."
Like my sister, I can't say the doctor intentionally lied to me that morning. Though months later I remembered he never looked me in the eye. I should have known.
I lived three hours away from Beth, but spent every weekend traveling back and forth to help.
"Steve, you don't have to come every weekend. You have a life outside of here, don't you? Besides, I don't want you shopping for me anymore. A red wig? Really? I look like I should be selling my ass on a street corner when I put it on."
She slipped on the wig and struck a pose. We both laughed—it felt good.
Over the next six months two things happened. My sister's condition grew worse, and my marriage fell apart.
"Steve, I know this is going to sound harsh, but how can we work on our marriage if you're never around?" Mandy was right, it did come out harsh, and it soured me on what was left of our marriage. I ended up picking my sister over my wife.
The last two months were rough. I became an almost permanent fixture in Beth's house. I had accumulated three weeks of vacation and had ten days of sick time. I came every third day after work, spent the night, and left by 10:00 the following morning, in order to be back at work by 1:00. It made for some awfully long days.
Her neighbors were a godsend. They cooked her meals and someone always slept in her house when I couldn't be there. Between us all, Beth got the best care a person could possibly get.
"You do realize I'm not going to make it, don't you?" Beth asked. The solemn question floated around in the air after leaving her lips. "All I'm doing is putting off the inevitable and we both know it," she said in a voice just above a whisper.
"There you go again, talking stupid. Don't you know there is no way in hell that I'm going to let you give up?"
She was down to about ninety-five pounds and looking worse by the day. Even so, there wasn't a power on this earth that was going to take her from me.
She wrapped her bony arms around my neck and pulled me in close. In a soft, but firm voice, she made her wishes known.
"I love you more than I ever loved anyone else, including David. But it's time. I already told them no more chemo or anything else. I'm too tired to fight anymore, and it's not fair for you to give up your life for a lost cause."
"Maybe you don't understand, that's what twins do; they make sacrifices for one another." That brought a small smile to her face.
"You're a nut, you know that?"
"And your point?"
I used up every minute of my vacation and sick time and with HR's blessing, I took a ten-day leave of absence as she neared the end.
I did everything possible to keep her comfortable. In the end, it was the drugs taking over that kept her pain free. During the last week our eyes never left one another. I wasn't just losing my sister; I was losing my best friend along with a bit of myself.
How do you let go of someone who has been a part of your life for thirty-three years? I could still close my eyes and see us as children, playing in the yard, getting out of bed and sneaking down into the kitchen for a late night snack of pickles and olives. We experienced all the joys and sorrows that life threw at us, together, including this.
Too weak to talk, or even cry anymore, we faced the end together. I cradled her in my arms, resting her bony body against my chest. With my head next to hers, I closed my eyes and whispered into her ear what was in my heart, as my tear ducts were drained of what little there was left in them. I felt her breathing go shallow; her faint heartbeats slow, and finally stop. My beautiful sister was gone.
Her service was small and intimate. I found some comfort knowing she was now with our parents. Beth's last wish was to be cremated, and her ashes strewn over a field of wild flowers. I would respect her wishes but not yet. I still wasn't ready to let go.
Beth had made prior arrangements for all her personal effects. A few women, from her church, came over a couple of days later and packed up all of her clothing. They planned to wash and donate them to the needy of the parish. Her next-door neighbor knew of a family that had fallen on hard times and could really use her furniture. Beth was still helping others.
Her will was handwritten and simple.
Big Brother, I know I don't have much but what I have is yours with the exception of my wedding album. Please give it to David. Maybe it'll help him remember what we once had.
Lastly brother, do not mourn for me. I'm in a better place now, and I need you to go on living. Find someone or something to give your life a purpose. If not for you, do it for me.
I put the house up for sale, picked up my sister's urn, and headed back to what used to be my old life.
My job gave me a reason to continue breathing. For the first time in my life I felt truly alone—no family, no wife. I had friends, just none close enough to help me unload what I was carrying deep inside of me. For almost a year I had lived for my sister, now I had nothing to fill up the hours of loneliness that plagued me.
At night my brain continued to torment me. Hadn't I suffered enough? Memories came in the form of flashbacks, images dancing on the inside of my eyelids. I'd been praying for a little insight, and all I was getting were remembrances of a life that was no more. My soul was lost inside an empty shell.
It was 6:00 and I was just walking out of work. Like always I was in no hurry to go home to an empty house. As I turned the corner, the smell of him filled my nostrils long before I saw him. He was leaning up against the brick wall of the building where I worked. His greasy hair covered his face. He struggled to remain upright. I stopped about two feet away.
"Here," I handed him three twenty-dollar bills. "Get yourself something to eat and maybe a change of clothes."
He raised his head and his hollow dark eyes met mine. A thin shaking hand reached out and slowly plucked the bills from my hand. A hoarse, "Thanks, man," was all he offered.
"Just don't drink it up. That will be all the thanks I need."
I turned and walked toward my car, the putrid smell of body odor and urine still violating my senses. I got in and glanced back toward the wall, fully expecting the man to be long gone, relishing in his newfound wealth. Instead he just stood there, watching me, the three twenties still protruding from his grimy fist. I smiled, waved, and pulled out of the parking lot.
I spent the next two days asking myself why I'd done it. I could have given him a lot more but that wasn't the issue. I'd done it without so much as giving it a second thought. His look of utter surprise still took me aback. Did he, like me, also have no one who cared if he lived or died?
Memories sustained me. I made a scrapbook of Beth's and my years together. I was still living in the past.
I saw her when I was picking up something for dinner on my way home from work. She had to be at least fifty and wasn't happy that I was invading her space. Her clothes were essentially rags, and the once white tennis shoes on her feet looked to be at least three sizes too big.
"Don't come any closer. I got a knife," her voice warned me, but her eyes told another story.
I stopped about four feet away and showed her my open hands.
"Are you hungry?"
She said nothing.
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"Wait here," I said, motioning to her.
I darted across the street into McDonald's. I bought two Big Mac's, two large fries, and two bottles of water. I handed her the bag of food. She snatched it, stepped back, glanced inside, and then locked her eyes on mine again.
"At least I'll know you'll have something in your stomach tonight."
I removed two twenties from my wallet and told her to get a pair of shoes that fit. She looked at the money but didn't move.
I took a step closer and stretched my hand out a little further. We stood there watching one another. She finally took the money, maybe fearing if she'd waited any longer I'd put it away.
I took a step back, which seemed to diffuse the tension between us.
"Have a nice evening."
Through my windshield I watched as she clutched the bag tightly to her chest. It was as though that bag of food was all that stood between her and death by starvation. Maybe it was.
Three times over the next four weeks I helped someone who was far worse off than me. In the end, we both left with a little something more than when we'd first met.
I spotted her in the alley near where I worked. I'd heard her deep hacking cough echo off the walls between the buildings and watched in horror as she split out a mouthful of blood on the ground at her feet. She ran from me the first three times I tried to approach her. Each time I opened my mouth to speak, all I saw was the back of the dirty coat she wore, heading down the alley away from me.
The standoff Saturday took the better part of an hour. She was crouched behind a dumpster and I was sitting on the hood of my car watching her. Neither one of us said a word or made any sudden movement. Her eyes kept darting from me to the small blue suitcase and stark white bag from the drug store on the ground between us.
"What do you want from me?" A small voice from the alley asked.
"Nothing. You're sick and need what's in the bag to get better."
"What's in the suitcase?"
"Clean clothes and a few other items I thought you might like."
"Why are you doing this? Did my mother send you?"
"Don't know your mother, but to answer your question, I'm doing it for my sister."
"Is she there with you?"
"Nope. She died a couple of months ago."
"Me too. But if you don't get better soon, you might be joining her." She didn't respond. The wait went on for another twenty minutes.
She was sixteen tops, life on the streets was taking its toll. Watching me, she looked in the bag, took a long slug of cough medicine, then opened the suitcase.
"I guessed at your size. Hope you like them better than what you've got on." She smiled when she looked inside the envelope on top.
I never saw that girl again. I can only hope she found her way back home. Me? I'm still paying it forward one person at a time, trying to make a difference, just like Beth would have done.
Mandy and I have started talking again. I sent her an e-mail and followed it up with a phone call a week later. I hadn't realized, until recently, how much I missed hearing the sound of her voice. Though I'm not sure if anything will come of it, at least I'm trying, and not for Beth but myself.
In the spring, like I'd promised my sister, I spread hers ashes in a field of purple phlox. With that act, Beth rejoined the earth, and I finally found closure, knowing one day we'd be together again. For now though, I had a life to live.