Monday, March 1, 2010

On Tripping over a Dog

Yesterday was your older sister's birthday, and you can't help wishing she'd be around to enjoy it as much as you enjoyed it. She died not from some catastrophic invasion such as cancer nor some epic failure of organ such as, say, a heart that didn't have it to continue, but rather complications arriving after tripping over a dog. If one has to exit, and you have every reason to believe we all have some exit in store for us, what a lovely exit catalyst, what a splendid statement in general about what life actually is, what can be taken from it, what wisdom and understanding it can pass along.

She did not die immediately after falling over the dog, whose name was Rocky, which name was arrived at after your sister had tried too many times in exasperation to call after the dog by its full name, Rachmaninov ( as in, come back here, Rachmaninov!). Death that does not come from catastrophic invasion or failure of such vital parts as brain or heart or lungs is death by misadventure. Tripping over Rocky merely broke a hip, and as you were able to tell your sister while she was being tended to for that relatively minor event, your own titanium hip and its implantation was a mere step or two up from a mosquito bite or a sore throat. The misadventure comes from misdiagnosis and misdirected medications, following a path of absurd side effects and consequences that truly are metaphor for life in the abstract. Fortunately for so many of us, there are the personal interactions, transactions, promises, gifts of time, attention, and substantial support.

You have from your sister the memory of being led up the yawning steps of the public library main branch in Providence, R.I., whereupon you were assigned a card whereby you could withdraw--that was the word you remember--six books per visit. You were also given the week-end use of her bus and trolly pass, which allowed you to visit yet other branches of the library, thus increasing the number of books you were able to withdraw. It was not that you were less a reader before this instance as it was an awareness of shift in geography and your own growing interests. Before you came to be in Providence, R. I., you were accorded the "run," as Mrs. Angelo put it, of her library at the Hancock Park Elementary School in Los Angeles, where she was principal. In Providence, some of the books you asked for were kept in locked cabinets, and although these were opened for you and you were never denied any book you asked for, you were not looked at the way Mrs. Angelo looked at you. Thus in a metaphoric way, your older sister had provided you with a passport to the world of nuance, subtext, and the grainy background of adulthood toward which you were plummeting.

You thought of her on her birthday because only a day earlier, while trying to find some documents, you came across a folder of letters you'd written to her when you were living in Mexico City, trying to finish your first serious novel, then another batch of letters written from a time when you were living on a boat moored in a suburb of Seattle, philosophizing about how the advances you were offered for your novels were causing you to think more about being prolific than about being thoughtful. You had no idea that she'd kept these letters, or, for that matter, a copy of the multifarious reaches of your publications.

As you thought of her on her birthday, you recalled being The Uncle with her children and grandchildren, proposing the commemorative venture as you hefted the container in which the ashes of her mortal remains resided. Thus you began a caravan about the parts of Los Angeles she loved and cared about. First off, several pinches of her outside the anthropology department at UCLA, whence one of her degrees. Then down toward the UCLA memorial gardens where we had sometimes met her for picnic lunches; a pinch here, and here, and there. Save some for the Hollywood Bowl, don't forget Ferndell in Griffith Park, and a generous supply for the large permanent planter box outside the museum where she worked, then some for the La Brea Tar Pits, where you and she had wandered so often when you were living nearby, and then the final measure, saved for the avocado tree in the yard of what had been her home for some forty years; this particular tree being one she'd grown from a seed and then had learned how to graft. Thus you distributed her to the places she loved, causing each of you to feel how widely distributed her life had been, and how widely spread out through your life she had been.

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