It didn’t feel like a gradual thing, although I suppose it must have been. There must have been clues, things I didn’t see at the time. Or things I did see, and chose to ignore. Because I did so much of that. But I don’t remember it that way, not that night. No buildup, no logistics. I was just up and running, crashing through the door and out into the darkening streets, blood roaring in my ears. It must have been raining hard. I remember the pools of water around my feet when I got to the apartment. I was dripping all over the welcome mat and hammering on the door. I remember a fire extinguisher in the hallway. Blank. Then a tearing, splintering sound. Blank. And then I was in the bathroom, in front of her, tasting bile at the back of my throat. Her face had slipped under the rusty water but her legs were bunched up, her knees clear of the surface. And all I could focus on was the slivered scar on her right knee that she got on Labor Day, 1993, when we were biking in the cemetery. She was ten and I was eight. She came off her bike on a downhill freewheel and skidded over gravel. She just blinked at the blood and got back on, shedding fragments of grit as she biked on, past the foot of the hill, swooping over to the side of the lake, calling back for me to follow. My brave twin.
A long dark pause before the explosion of sirens and lights, before the flashes and the counsellors and the neighbours and the rivers of hot, sweet tea.
An explosion ignited by the downstairs neighbours hearing me shrieking over and over, slivering my vocal cords.
Don’t do this
Please don’t do this to me .
Here, O’Hare, Here
Three months later
I arrived into O’Hare airport with a pounding headache, the kind that makes you nauseated and dizzy. I had left my good painkillers behind in favour of paracetamol – don’t ask me why – and that hadn’t touched the thundercloud of pain swooping from the backs of my eyes around to my temples. It had set in when we were about an hour from landing and only holding my head rigidly still, my eyes half shut, was keeping it at a bearable level. As we drew in for landing I comforted myself with the thought that I would be totally fine, so long as I didn’t do anything stupid, like blink or move. Luckily the kid who had been so enthusiastically kicking the back of my seat at takeoff had fallen asleep somewhere over the Atlantic. Luckily, that is, for him; because I was fully primed for an Exorcist head twist and well-aimed vomit should he start up again.
And as one of the fortunate side effects of having malevolent resting face (that’s bitchy resting face for grownups) compounded with the greenish tinge of migraine is the severe discouragement of casual chat, everyone was leaving me well enough alone. Goody.
When we finally landed and I gingerly stood to depart, a self-important individual in the aisle in front of me tried to push ahead to get his crucial, undoubtedly executive-type bag out of the overhead. I fixed him with slitted eyes and emitted a low dyspeptic growl to go with my cold sweats.
He stepped back and I got off the plane. I like to think he has nightmares still.
Airports are strange places at the best of times; most places Tom Hanks is in a movie about tend to be. But enter ye one in the grips of a savage headache and it takes on a certain psychedelic vibe, the simplest things becoming slowed down and blurry until you start to notice that concerned parents are steering their children clear of you and nervously eyeing up your shoes for hidden compartment potential.
So there I was, an attractive shade of hunter (S. Thompson) green and swaying gently in the air-con breeze. It is a credit to the layout that I made it between the terminals. I think I remember a train between the terminals for my connecting flight; convinced this was a hallucination, I later looked it up online and discovered it is a real thing. The emperor penguin giving out directions to the bathroom, however, remains unconfirmed.
Slight panic ensued when I discovered the airport had no pharmacy (my requests concerning this eliciting, I felt, unusually baffled responses). Driven on by the rising need for something to achieve a less undead sensation, I came upon a newsagent with basic and wildly overpriced meds. Two Advils and a Dramamine later and I was able to open my eyes three quarters and keep down the water I took them with. Success. And as I retained the look of mild lunacy that comes with slowly recovering muggy pain, I deterred would-be chatters and oddballs. For I was the oddest of balls, not to be approached. Bonus points.
Double bonus if you didn’t giggle at “balls”. You are a better human than I.
The Whys and Wherefores
You’re probably wondering what was going on the first time you heard from me. Dark, no? Arguably no more dark than experiences many people may have had. But I know you have a vested interest in the things I do, so let’s just go ahead and focus on that, as much as I can at the moment.
There is a Joni Mitchell song that I particularly like. Possibly because I was named after it, but also because of the main hook it keeps repeating. Amelia – it was just a false alarm. I used to listen to it when I was studying, when I was happy, when it looked like anything bad might be on the horizon. All little false alarms, nothing that couldn’t be changed, nothing that was so bad it couldn’t be fixed. False alarms. Everything essentially OK. Everyone has their close calls and their near misses; and then eventually something truly bad occurs. (All about the dark realism.)
When I found my sister in the state she was in, that one line kept running through my head over and over. A little unfair of my brain, really; but there it is. And there she was, and there it was: the Real Bad Thing, no false alarm, no chicken game. Actual death. My twin, the only one I would ever have; my parents’ daughter, a collection of atoms that arranged themselves in her own mysterious way and then lost the life that made them cling together. Quantumly speaking, by the time I got to her apartment her atoms were already shooting away form each other, to be rearranged throughout the universe into countless new creatures and things. None loved as much as she was; nothing that could be recaptured or identified or found to make any one of those reconfigurations resemble her. She was just gone. What codes you can do so only once; then it’s done, moving on to other things, leaving your system to sustain itself as long as it can before collapsing. But I thought, in some ridiculous sense, that we had some sort of link. A bond that would warn me.
No dice, I am afraid to say. When someone is going to go they will; and you cannot go with them, and you might not even know.
I have to say I didn’t take it very well. There was the initial reaction (bloody and awful); the ensuing fanning out of the news, the apparently endless details that follow a death; the paperwork, the cleaning of house, the cancelling of credit cards and phone contracts. Deletion of the Netflix queue. Stupid, personal, overwhelming, meaningless things. All to avoid getting a letter addressed to her months later, overtones of irritation behind the company lines reminding her to renew services she won’t need again.
And I just couldn’t. Death can be viewed in a somewhat philosophical way; I can break things into atoms and find a kind of rationality there. What is worse is the pain that is left in other people. My parents. My friends. Her friends. All of these people, sharing the kind of intense pain that can’t be rationalised or broken down. And looking like her, sounding like her, made me feel like a walking ghost.
One morning I walked into the kitchen and my parents looked at me. For a split second I saw their faces without the worry lines or heavy eyes that had characterised them since Lydia died. And then, after the second that reminded them she was gone, these features returned and set. And I knew I couldn’t stay.
So I did what turned out to be the cruellest thing I could, broken into manageable pieces. I planned; I packed; I flew. Gone like a ghost.
In all the known universes, perhaps there is a reality in which I didn’t completely break my family’s hearts and do this cruel thing – not cruel to be kind, but cruel to be free. Perhaps there is one in which I could return, and it would eventually be alright. But I doubt it. So I’m cold and awful. OK. All that remains is to accept that and move on.