Ruth was behind glass and under a sheet. The nurse manager who took me to identify her was jumpy. I filled the uncomfortable pauses with odd elliptical observations. I had arrived at the hospital about 18 hours after the phone call from the anaesthetist. She'd told me they were working to revive my sister after a heart attack on the table. Half an hour later there was a call from the surgeon to say they’d failed. Since then I’d spoken to a few people, booked some accommodation, made sure that my daughter had what she needed, woken after a perfunctory sleep to catch an early plane to Melbourne and then a slow train to Shepparton. Now, suddenly I’d stopped moving.
I immediately noticed how smooth and white her forehead was. Then I saw the breathing tube that would remain in place until the autopsy. Yet the profile above that was as lovely as ever. So beautiful and peaceful. When I finally ran out of odd things to say, the nurse opened the glass doors and I went into the cold room to stroke her cold forehead and kiss her goodbye. Then they gave me her carefully packed bag. It was stuffed full of the signs of her reasonable expectation that she would be walking out of there. In all it took 20 minutes. She was on her way to the coroner.
I spent a week in Shepparton packing up her flat. In just a couple of years she had assembled a pretty impressive set of hoardings. I packed many boxes with all the special international floods she adored but which her ulcerated stomach could not digest. Then all the kitchenware for cooking those foods she dreamt of eating. Then there were many bags of clothes that she might have worn out more if she hadn’t been so deeply shy. And all the silver jewellery. I packed up five boxes of silver jewellery and semi-precious stones and sent them home to myself. Dragonfly Silver. That’s what she called her eBay shop.
It was always my job in the family to handle the fall out. I would call Ruth regularly and just listen, knowing there was nothing I could say that she could hear. I could feel her restlessness from thousands of miles away across the country. In our younger lives she cast me as her sidekick, her drinking buddy, her pet. It took me a long time to learn to keep myself at a safe distance from her compulsion to control me through an unpredictable combination of kindness and insult. Our mother had just played too many cruel games with her. It wasn’t Mavis’ fault. No one bears any blame in my mind. But the net effect was that Ruth couldn’t trust anything or anyone that she couldn’t control. I learned that in time.
But my blood is her blood. I felt her pain. It was so intense that she could never
acknowledge it. Her sorrows hung in the air I breathed as a small child. She was a lovely little child who had just cause to grow into an angry young woman. Her emotions were dangerous, passionate and resentful, full of pride and pain. She found distraction in taking lovers when she was young and in being endlessly busy as she grew older. She found both liberation and oblivion in the bottom of a glass but it took more and more drinks over time to get there until finally she slept all day and her hair and teeth fell out and her skin crawled with imaginary parasites that were actually the outward marks of organ failure. Even after a long stay in rehabilitation, indomitable Ruth dragged herself back into life. Her hair returned then dentures resurrected her beautiful face, and step by step she restored a decent quota of independence, autonomy, activity. In the last year or so she kept her demons on the leash by very slowly drinking out of a very small crystal wine glass. And she bought and sold her silver jewellery.
Six weeks after I got home, I called the undertaker. I asked where her ashes were. They had to check. They were sitting on a shelf out the back of the mortuary. Somehow the instruction to post them to me had been overlooked. They apologised. Two weeks later I called again. They had received a card saying that she was being held at the Woolloongabba Post Shop. I went down to pick her up. The parcel was Cash On Delivery. I made a hurt complaint. They sent me a cheque for the postage. I never cashed it. It wouldn’t make anything better.
Today is a year since she died. This week I unpacked the jewellery. Maybe I can sell it to a marketeer. Maybe I could choose the pieces that might appeal to an inner-city crowd and take them to a market myself. My first job is to understand what they are. To make an inventory. To try to understand the last great love of my big sister’s life.