Sister Joni would have been fifty-four today, and she'd likely have been surprised to have gotten there: apart from a shared disdain for getting dressed, this was the one characteristic we shared, a conviction that we couldn't possibly last much longer. Otherwise, we were different as night and day: she was the quintessential party girl, even during her days as a parent, and I tended toward the reclusive. She drove large and loud motor vehicles; I preferred Q-ships that did not attract attention. But I don't think her automotive tastes were a factor: yes, she did once try to drive a Firebird up a telephone pole, but she survived that, sort of. (Repairs were extensive; the car was written off.)
She was the fourth child of five; the third child, brother Paul, was, at least in public, convinced of his indestructibility, and he never shrank from a confrontation. It helped, of course, that he was the size of a linebacker. (I am still amused by winding up the smallest of the three boys.) Me, I tried to avoid getting into fights and stuff, though my specialty, developed because I couldn't loom over anyone particularly well, was Bluster d'Esprit: say it fast enough and maybe they'll have to think about it. We had a discussion once about people who were just looking for trouble; I mentioned an incident at a fast-food drive-thru in which a car full of jerks suddenly disgorged one of its occupants, who began striding in my direction.
"Could you have taken him?"
"I wasn't in any mood for a fight, and besides, my burger would get cold."
He allowed that this was indeed a disadvantage, but assured me that he would have been victorious. "What did you do, then?"
"Just four of you?" I shouted through the open window. "Don't waste my time." And then, an expertly crafted 120 through the far edge of the parking lot and onto the Interstate. They did not give chase.
He laughed. "Good way to get yourself killed."
"I have better," I said.
Later that decade, I was actively looking for ways to get myself killed, but this wasn't in the interest of making sure my prophecies were self-fulfilling; this was a response to a life that at the time had grown too barren to tolerate any further.
Several decades beyond that point, I have reconsidered. Sort of. Every new ache, every new pain, reminds me that my days are numbered, and that the number of those days is declining at a rate I'm not sure I want to know. One's actual demise, I suppose, is to be taken more seriously than one's imagined demise, especially given the nightmares I've envisioned for myself, some of which would be laughable if they weren't so artificially gruesome. (I mean, there were Night Gallery episodes that left me hyperventilating, and these days Night Gallery is considered quaint.)
Yet Indestructible Brother is gone these five and a half years, having ballooned up to linebacker-and-a-half size: I didn't learn until the day of the funeral that he'd lost nearly two hundred pounds in his last year and was still larger and more menacing-looking than I. At least I was there on that last night to see him off, and the last words he said to me, mangled and gasping, were the words of Dylan Thomas. As the light died, I could see — I could almost smell — the rage. He did not go down without a fight, and I'm absolutely certain that this was his intention all along.
And I suppose this is what I regret most about the fact that I didn't learn about Joni's death until after I got back from a World Tour: not so much that they didn't tell me, but that I would have liked to know what those last few hours were like for her. "For reference," I tell myself. One other sibling remains, fourteen years and four hundred miles away; longevity doesn't exactly run in this clan, and he has just enough of a warped sense of humor to post, now and then, a photo of his glucose meter displaying a number the size of Texas. Maybe he feels, as I am beginning to learn, that perhaps it's better not to know.
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Copyright © 2016 by Charles G. Hill