If she’d been able to leave us at home on the island, I think sometimes. (‘Sometimes’ means ‘once.’ ‘Sometimes’ means ‘I thought that once, a week ago, and I am still thinking it.’) If I hadn’t come back to Wellington for those five months last year, if she hadn’t moved to Tampa as she’d planned long before the diagnosis. If I had stayed, and she had stayed, before she left and I did too.
Her room was painted pink and had a little balcony that looked out onto a garden of some sort of palm tree and bougainvillea. There was a white bed with crisp sheets in the middle of the room, and a deep tub in the bathroom. She Skyped me every week from a rickety desk she’d had since I was a kid that held all her documents in neatly labeled manila folders, and on the wall behind her I could see the silk hanging I got her from Cambodia a couple of years ago. Sometimes she would hold up one of the cats for me to wave to.
If we had known it would be such a short time. If I had immediately got rid of my job and my flat and my stuff in Wellington. If her next door neighbor had continued to go on gentle walks with her around the block, under the palm trees, because even by April the beach was no longer an option; if her best friend and her co-teacher had continued to visit a couple times a week with Cuban coffees. If I’d kept scrambling the eggs and driving to the appointments, until she stopped eating and there were no more appointments to drive to. If she’d been able to look out at the palms and the bougainvillea through the balcony window, instead of at the live oaks and Spanish moss ringing the parking lot of the Place.
My freshman year in college she sent me a beach box, full of sand and shells and a piece of seaweed and I think even a tiny dried crab shell. I kept it for years. I could have made her one too, I could have brought the beach to her the way she did for me.
My curse is to be relentlessly practical while having an overactive imagination, and so part of me knows that this could not have happened, even if I had not returned to Wellington last year. My rational side knows this, for so many reasons. First of all, what was my sister supposed to have done: drive five hours each way, every weekend from Tampa? Long-term care insurance paid only half as much for home care as it did for care in an assisted-living facility, and we would have needed a lot of it, very quickly. She would not have been able to walk up the stairs, after a couple of months, and eventually I wouldn’t have been able to get a wheelchair down the outside steps. I wouldn’t have even been able to help her into a wheelchair by myself. And who knows what Miami hospice would have been like—who knows what they’d have said, or how they’d have treated her.
But I still think of her pink room with its balcony, which got painted plain white for the renters, after she moved. I plan in great detail all the dinners I would have cooked for her, all the cakes I would have baked. The light coming through the palms and bougainvillea, the box of beach sand I’d have put on the desk where she could see it, before she closed her eyes.