As I was growing up I had a sister. She was almost four years my senior, had unmanageably thick dark hair, loved at a strangely precocious age the Talking Heads and the Beatles, and had an uncanny ability to make friends with the most interesting people around her. There was Matt DeMerrit, a talented saxophonist on whom Orpheus himself probably had a crush; there was Erin the dancer, already wry and wise to the world; there was the gorgeous Shawn Garcia who, even though living in Denver, had clearly been cut from the same surfer-deity cloth as Laird Hamilton. There was Elizabeth the witty redhead and Andrea the stable, somber “adult” of the group, and there was Craig, the brilliant, angry, astutely political boy who was as beautiful as a god. And there was me, chasing after all of them, knowing without being able to name it that my sister understood and drew to her good people.
Her name was Amy and I adored her. When we were very little we fought viciously, and could not have been more different in looks or temperament. Our parents were young, too young, and were struggling to create their own peace and place in the world. We took the chaos this created and turned it on each other, yet this anger and raging seemed to make us cling all the more to one another. While our fights could be heard down the block, our collaborations were made of private, secret, sturdy stuff, of the type only sisters can contain between them.
Amy and her friends smoked dope, tripped acid at the zoo, went hiking and camping, and explored together the joyous, achingly painful road that wends its way from childhood to independence. They were obsessed with Neil Young and David Bowie, as all good children must be, and to this day some of my own most vivid memories of young girlhood are of listening to “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere” while staring at huge posters of David Bowie in his Thin White Duke phase. (Of the latter memory, little has changed: I still stare at prints of David Bowie, and my infant daughter is partially named for him.)
In the shining early spring of Amy’s senior year in high school, she began to hurt. And then bleed. The hurting and the bleeding came from places foreign and unnatural to a young body: back, legs, gums, nostrils.
Amy’s very bones had turned against her: cancer. Leukemia. Her pale, dark haired new body was somehow rejected, from the inside out. Just as her friends were rapidly preparing their minds and spirits for the great stepping forward into a newly unfettered life, hers was ending just as quickly.
Chemotherapy. Radiation. A bone marrow transplant, the marrow coming from my own cells because, as different as that girl was from me to all eyes, we were genetically twinned from within. This twin-marrow-match was unsurprising to me, even as I somehow knew all the treatment-torture would fail, and that Amy was as condemned to die as I was condemned to go on living without her.
Amy died on October 29, 1988. It was close to midnight when she took her last agonized breath. It was not a peaceful death. There was nothing redeeming or poignant about it. It was violent and painful and tortuous and would give the most fervent believer pause about just what kind of god would do such a thing to a beautiful young woman-child.
I think of Amy every day. I think of my father thinking of Amy. I think of my mother thinking of Amy and I almost buckle with the strange truth that we’re all still here. I think of my mother on Amy’s birthday: how my mother must remember that child now horrifically dead birthing from her own body. The dark haired infant, suckling and asleep at the breast. Her first smile. Now gone.
Of all this I think and I am split open with wonder. The wonder of endurance. The wonder of love. The wonder of grief unending, each year adding another shovel of soil and earth between my sister’s body and the rest of us. The wonder that most humans have a story just like this or something similar to tell. The wonder that despite the revolting and unfair pain granted to and laid upon the human race most of us indeed continue to sometimes know the mystical wonder of Joy and of Bliss. The wonder that the gift of wonder remains. Sometimes. On the good days. Or the open ones.
Yesterday was the anniversary of Amy’s death. She’s been gone far longer than she ever was here. I still weep when I listen to Neil Young. And, wonder of wonders, my children, my pale dark haired young children, simply love the sound of his voice.