Looking Away

When my sister Paula got sick, I focused on her with the intensity I‘d give a rare and lovely beast. I’ve always suspected that the essential things were the ones that happened while I looked the other way. When I knew I could be losing Paula, I didn’t want to let any moment with her escape me.

I had the same feeling I’ve had when I’m close to something beautiful and wild. I focus as hard as I can. But even when an owl is calmly inspecting me from three feet away, or a black bear strolls right past me in a mountain meadow, I can feel something precious slipping away, I am distracted by mosquitoes and muscle aches. I fail to take in all of the gifts that come my way.

When Paula’s hair grew back in after the chemotherapy it was curly (it had always been straight before) and incredibly soft. I had trouble keeping my hands off this post-chemo hair of hers. Her doctors said the chemo had worked; for a short while she seemed to be OK. Then everything went terribly wrong. There was a second cancer in her liver. They tried to remove the disease by surgery, but it was too late. The cancer had got away, spread into her abdominal wall, and there was nothing they could do.

We had grown up together in a loving, oddly paranoid family. My grandparents were Russian Jews who had fled to America to escape the pogroms. They arrived here when they were young, still in their twenties, but spent the rest of their lives on alert, expecting disaster at any moment. My mother and father were both born in Chicago, but this wariness had filtered down to them. They seemed to worry about nearly everything we did; driving in traffic, riding the subway, breathing when the pollen count was high.

Paula was the oldest and inherited many of the fears and quirks my brother and I longed to escape. She was born generous, so she didn’t try to stop us from doing what we wanted. Instead she expressed the family fear of everyday hazards by praising us lavishly for minor accomplishments like parking a car or drilling a bolt hole.

She somehow skipped the whole process of adolescent rebellion. She stayed with our parents while she went to college, at the university a few blocks away. She was slow to take risks, and quick to take responsibility. She spent a lot of time helping to care for our grandparents as they grew older, sicker, and more irascible.

I used to wish she’d cut loose a little more, think of other people less, move a little closer to the edge. What I wanted most then was to break free of all the fears my parents had for me. Sometimes Paula would annoy me when she echoed those fears. I thought because she stayed close to home, because she played it safe, that she was looking away from life. I was wrong.

My sister went into a hospice ward on her 43rd birthday, and it was there she spent the last two weeks of her life. It was a grim place, but Paula’s room was always full of people — friends flew in from all over the country to see her — and a lot of the time they were laughing. It dawned on me that anyone who was loved as well as she was must have a strong grip on what life is about. Her body had all but quit, but she was more herself than ever. She was kind and gracious and funny. The pain meds seemed to make her just foggy enough to cut wilder quips than she had before.

Late at night, when she was restless and couldn’t sleep, I’d climb in the hospital bed with her and we’d talk. Sometimes it was wild, free-association gibberish, a dance of memory choreographed by all the pain killers. But a lot of it was very matter- of-fact. We talked about her death, a prospect which filled me with panic, but which Paula faced calmly. Paula’s leave taking at the hospice was the same as our many goodbyes at bus stations and airports. She was happy to be with me, glad to talk together for as much time as we had, and peaceful about going her own way when the time came.

On the last night of Paula’s life, she lay in a coma. Her lungs were full of fluid, and each breath she took made a loud rattling sound. She’d lost consciousness the night before, while all the immediate family were away from her room. I sat with her a while, with her husband and my brother and Paula’s friends. Then I went out of the room to listen to a tape I’d made of Paula talking. I was desperate to hear her voice. And in those few minutes, while I looked away, Paula’s death came, By the time I returned the noisy gasping had stopped, and she was gone.

People tell me I can talk to Paula anytime. I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife. Still, since she died Paula has come into my dreams with incredible vividness. In those dreams she seemed so much herself, and when she touched me, I felt it in my body and not in my mind.

If there is an afterlife, it’s hard to imagine that the people there are interested in the everyday distress of us mortals. If Paula is in the great beyond, would she be interested in the discovery that grief constipates me or the fact that my house is always a mess? In the face of pain and death, Paula seized her life by relaxing her grip. After showing me this, would she have patience for my eternal worry that I am looking away at all the wrong times?

This morning as I sat typing at my computer, a hermit thrush flew into the office window, right in front of my face. I watched the stunned bird sink down through the bushes. I grabbed the only box handy, an empty twelve-pack of Weinhard’s Beer, and ran outside. The thrush lay in a heap under the bushes. In my hand, he was much smaller than I expected.

I laid the bird in the Weinhard’s box and put the box on my filing cabinet and went back to work. He revived in less than an hour — burst out of the beer box and flew several circles around the room — then bounced off a window and came to rest on the sill.

I cupped him gently in both hands and headed outside, hoping the second impact hadn’t stunned him again. I stood on the front walk in the sunshine and opened my palm, but the thrush just lay there. The sun hit his head and highlighted some of the downy feathers that had been knocked loose when he fought his way out of the box.

After a while he found his feet, and stood on my hand instead of laying there. I watched him. and I watched myself holding a wild bird in my hand, and I was thrilled by it.

Then I turned my head away, just for a moment, distracted by a noise in my neighbor’s yard. In that moment the bird flew, for an instant doubling his small weight in my hand as he pushed off. He flew straight, he avoided the power lines and tree branches, he went beyond my vision, and left me giddy in my front yard.

When the thrush and I parted ways, for a moment I felt purely happy. I went back inside my house, where the neighbors wouldn’t need to wonder about me celebrating alone in the front yard, and I laughed aloud.

It was later that I cried. Because even though I glanced away, I can remember well the feeling of the thrush launching, that moment of weightiness before he flew. But when I remember that moment, I don’t see a small bird crouching in my hand. I don’t see the oak tree in my yard or the blue sky behind it. What I see is my sister’s face, in the moment before she turns to leave me behind.

Sharon Levy is a freelance writer based in northern California. She is a regular contributor to National Wildlife, New Scientist, and other science magazines.