Thursday, April 23, 2015

How old are you? Don't ask, don't tell

Well, I had already started a column for this week, but when I went to save what I had done, using the date as the file name, I realized my older sister Moira's birthday is in a couple of days. Would have been in a couple of days? That has always confused me. When the person is dead, is it still their birthday? I can see it's still their date of birth, but birthday? Don't know.

How old would she have been? Don't know that either. Age was a taboo subject in our house when I was growing up. Swear to God, no one knew how old anyone else was. Well, let me rephrase that. I didn't know how old anyone was.

It started with my mother who absolutely refused to tell her age. That, of course, meant no one else could say how old they were because, with the help of some hinky math, it might have been possible for someone to figure out her age. Look, I think I'm 66, but if someone told me that wasn't true, it wouldn't be a shock to me.

My mother did finally start to reveal her age when she hit her late eighties. It gave credence to her incredible toughness to be able to say, for example, “I'm 89 and I still come to America, by myself, twice a year.” Which she did. No one who knew her would ever say my mother wasn't incredibly tough, though they couldn't say “for her age” with any degree of certainty.

Moira was the oldest of the three of us. She was born during World War II, some time before the end, but after a German invasion of Britain began to seem less inevitable.

In many ways, my sister Moira was an amazing person. She battled depression and was in and out of mental institutions until the late 1970s when the medications she was being given finally seemed to gain traction. She also battled alcoholism for her entire adult life and her getting drunk after 23 years of sobriety paid a major part in her death, even though the official cause was cancer.

About now, you're probably bracing yourself for yet another Arnold column about people being inspiring and providing an example that changed his life. Well, no. I loved my sister, and came to do so despite the fact that love was something of a rarity in my family. My sister's story is more of a cautionary tale than a story to inspire.

Not knowing our family, the relationship between Moira and me would seem, well, non-existent. We rarely talked to each other. Never wrote. Very rarely visited, unless it was a side visit when I went to New York when my mother was in the country. Still, we had what in our family would be considered a really good relationship. When we found out in 2008 that she had lung cancer, going to visit her was a no-brainer. I actually visited her three times, though she was in a coma during the third visit, but even at that I was able to hold her hand and it comforted me to be there.

Moira, my other sister Betty and I visited the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City where her doctor told her there was no reason she wouldn't live at least three more years, probably more. And she may well have, but here's where I believe her alcoholism shortened her life. She didn't really care to live another three years “at least.”

Her drinking had picked up where she left off 23 years before and by the time we were visiting the doctor, she was in financial and legal messes that she was not going to be able to fix. If she left the hospital, she was not going to have a home to go to because it would have been subjected to foreclosure and she had spent every penny she had on drugs and alcohol, so she wasn't going to be able to start again.

In addition to all the other challenges she had to face on a daily basis, she was also addicted to cigarettes. She could not stop smoking. Each day I visited her in the hospital, the first thing she would do was ask me to take her out for some “fresh air,” a euphemism that fooled absolutely no one. Her addiction was so severe it caused by almost-70-year-old sister to do the following. She asked the nurse if she could apply a nicotine patch to help her stop smoking. I really tried to impress upon her the fact that she COULD NOT smoke while wearing this patch. Fine, she said, I won't.

The next day when I walked in her room, she immediately wanted to go out for some fresh air. “You can't go for fresh air when you're wearing the patch,” I said, feeling somewhat foolish suggesting that fresh air, true fresh air, was a problem. Well my sister, bold as brass, as our mother liked to say, looked me in the eye and said, “You can if you put it on backwards,” and proceeded to show me how you could do that. Oy.

My sister was a good person when she wasn't drinking and far less so when she was. There are times I really wish she was here now so we could talk about cancer and what to do about it. But she isn't, and my sister Betty has only what I would call required interest in my health. As long as I'm alive, that's all she really needs to know. Please don't look at that as a critical statement, it isn't. The way we've lived for 60-plus years would make any other reaction... well... just plain wrong.

So, we all carry on. Each doing the best we can. All of this stuff resurfacing, though, has reminded why I used to tell people I disliked Olive Garden: When you're there, they treat you like family.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.