My sister phoned me out of the blue last April. I was surprised to see her name on my caller ID because I hadn’t spoken with her in over a year.
“Hi, Bon, I wanted you to know I just talked with Bill’s wife and he isn’t doing well, so I’m planning a trip to Austin to visit him. It may be the last time to see him before the Parkinson’s gets him altogether. No, I’m not taking anybody, just going by myself.”
My brother Bill was the second oldest of our three brothers. Through the years, I had little contact with him. I had known of his Parkinson’s diagnosis but didn’t realize the disease was terminal.
“Well, hey, Barb, would you like some company? I could join you in Austin.”
“Yes! It would be nice to have some company. I’m also planning to rent a car and drive down to San Antonio to see the Alamo. Always wanted to see the Alamo — it’s been on my bucket list. We’ll make a vacation of it!” she said, sounding hopeful.
A vacation with my older sister was a novel idea. Our relationship had been contentious because we competed for attention in our big family as we were growing in the Midwest. Barb was the picky eater, always slim and proper, the “smart one.” I was the “chubby one” who loved making cookies for everyone, a dreamer who wrote poetry.
We taunted, teased and barely tolerated each other. She named me Bean-brain. I wore her clothes without asking and once returned her tangerine lipstick broken and lopsided. Adolescent girls sharing a small bedroom caused a few screaming and hair-pulling matches.
By high school we got along better — after we could have separate bedrooms. Later we went away to separate colleges, but relished brief reunions at home on holidays when we stayed up late talking for hours in the dark about our classes and our new boyfriends. After college, Barb raised her family in southern Indiana and I escaped to the Pacific Northwest.
The day finally arrived and we met at the Hertz counter of the Austin airport. Approaching Barb’s back, I saw that she still looked stylish for her 70-plus years, with her slim figure and flaxen hair. She turned around. Tears welled in my eyes. Age had not changed her that much to me.
The next morning, on the way to Bill’s house, we stopped at the local garden shop and had fun picking out a gift of a large white bougainvillea for Cindy, Bill’s wife. Something to lighten the visit.
Bill was standing on the front porch waiting for us. He was thin and pale in a faded plaid shirt and sweat pants. His face showed little expression, which is characteristic of Parkinson’s. Bill participated little in conversation with us, but then, Bill was always the quiet one. As a kid, he would lose himself assembling model cars or airplanes.
I never really got to know Bill very well, and now it was too late. Cindy made us a nice lunch while Bill sat at the other end of the table like a ghost, lost inside of himself.
The following morning, Barb and I were on our way to San Antonio. The Alamo Plaza was swarming with tourists. We checked into our hotel across the street. After getting settled in, we joined a large tour group to listen to a young tour guide’s spiel (which was, word-for-word, the description I had read online the night before).
Barb looked pleased. I felt privileged to be with my sister again. The following day we visited several other religious outposts to explore other Spanish missions that were more tranquil, with few other visitors.
On the morning of our departure, a downpour of rain slowed our drive to the Austin airport. We crept along but felt snug together in the car. Finally she delivered us safely to the airport.
Barb and I have indeed grown old in separate ways, in separate parts of the country. But on our trip together we shared that kindred spirit of being with family, like no other feeling I know. Barb drove the car, I navigated. I did the room checks and she helped me put the lens back into my glasses after I stepped on them. Barb still needs to be in charge. I still have to stifle a desire to use her stuff.
But as aging adults, it was good to be together again with my sister. It was good to stay up late, in the dark, talking about lives and times. We managed to be good company to each other for six days in Texas.
On the plane going home, I looked out the window across a sea of luminous clouds and felt content. Yes, this trip was a very good idea.
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