I understood loneliness the night of December 19th, 2006. The process started nine months before when my sister called me just before I started work to tell me that our 91 year-old grandmother wasn’t expected to live through the day. Wow! I took off work, went home, and packed. I called my sister and told her I was about to start my drive to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “Take me with you,” she pleaded. “I can’t, Deborah. We don’t have time to schedule your dialysis. You can call me on the road.”
And she called. And called. She did what she always did since our mother died. She called to hear a voice other than her own. After work, she’d call four or five times before I told her I was going to bed. I learned how to write while “uh huhing” all over the place listening to her chatter about ... things. On my days off, the total number of calls would double. She’d occasionally give me a day or two off while to catch up with friends. I looked at those days as vacation. Not that I didn’t enjoy talking to my sister. I did. Just not five to ten times a day.
But she kept me company on that long drive to say goodbye to our grandmother. Kept me updated. Kept me awake along with the Diet Pepsi. On my way home after our grandmother died, Deborah called and we reminisced about growing up visiting our grandparents in the black delta of eastern Arkansas. The peace. The quiet. The only place we ever went where we really could see the constellations.
I was at the Maui Writer’s Conference when my friend Jill called to tell me that Deborah had suffered a stroke. I was able to finish the conference, and went to visit her on my return. She’d lost the use of her left side, and the left side of her face drooped. She slurred he words, But the calls continued throughout her stay in the hospital and on into rehab.
Saturday night December 16th, she called to remind me that I was bringing lunch the next day and that she had a surprise for me. Great. Her favorite restaurant was Red Lobster so I brought it in around noon. This was the first time I saw her eat unassisted since her stoke, and I was so happy. She was happy.
“But that’s not my surprise,” she said, slurring no words.
“I’m going home for Christmas.”
Huh? What? “Hon, you are? That’s great!”
How could that happen? She couldn’t even walk. She lived by herself. She wouldn’t be able to get around. I didn’t say anything, but I had the feeling that Medicare had run out and they were throwing her out on her ear in the guise of going home for Christmas. Well, I’d handle it. I didn’t know how, but I would. I lived forty miles away. She called the next night she sounded tired so I told her to get some sleep.
My friend Jill called me the next morning to tell me that Deborah had died. And all day, through getting her arrangements started, to calling people and letting them know, I didn’t think about what was to follow.
That night I faced the sad quiet of my apartment, wanting desperately to hear her voice one last time. Her ghost, if you will. I called her home phone just to listen to her voice mail message, realizing that my phone would never ring again with her on the other end. The last of my immediate family was gone, and while the powers of the universe took my sister home, they left me on my own listening to her tell me again and again that she wasn't there.