I haven’t seen or spoken to my sister for weeks. She is lying low, drowning out the truth of the world with the 4000 songs she keeps on permanent party shuffle on her iPod. The good news is that she is taking her medication, grasping at lucidity with both hands, and that her husband for the moment, isn’t drinking.
A few days ago the God of karma, or retribution or just plain old sobriety, struck. My sister’s husband took a fit and had to be rushed to hospital. Years ago he was involved in a serious car accident where he was in a coma for a month with a severe brain injury. Turns out that drinking to the point where you pass out or lie for hours in your own vomit is not recommended when you have had a brain injury. In fact, it is recommended that if you want to keep on living you must stop drinking. Period.
Millie, my sister, called us all to the hospital, claiming the need for moral support. We went, full of ‘why should-we’s’ and ‘let the guy rot’, our feet dragging in a murky kind of sorrow. Oliver was pale in the hospital bed, frail as an old man clinging to life by a hairsbreadth. My heart did that funny little tugging thing it often does when I am moved by the sight of someone and I swallowed it down, digging my nails into my palms. ‘I will not feel sorry for this guy,’ I thought. ‘He is a pig.’
Oliver was a ward of the state until he was 16, in and out of foster care. His father was an alcoholic and used to beat Oliver’s mother as well as he and his sister. He also engaged in regular acts of torture and cruelty involving the children which really are too horrendous to mention here. Oliver told me all this when I first met him as well as his most vivid memory of childhood.
He was about five years old and was still living with his father. He had been given a plastic truck for Christmas by the Salvation Army. It was red and blue with little doors that opened and closed. The little steering wheel moved when you turned it. Oliver loved that truck. He had no teddies or action figures to put in it so he used to fill it with rocks he found on the street, or sticks or feathers. He called it his Treasure Truck.
One night his father got into one of his venomous rages and decided the contents of the truck were dirty and that it was no longer welcome in the house. He was a builder’s labourer, wearing steel-capped workboots even on his day off and he crushed that little truck with those boots in a series of stomps that are forever etched into Oliver’s mind. Stomp, stomp, stomp – all that remained of the truck was red and blue powder that got stuck for weeks in the pile of the carpet.
Oliver didn’t get another toy until he was 11 – a secondhand GI Joe that had been chewed by the dog of his foster mother. Poor old GI Joe’s foot was covered in teeth marks and hung at an odd angle as if he had a palsy but Oliver loved him nonetheless, taking him everywhere. ‘For years he was my only friend,’ he said.
I knew all this when Oliver was drunk, raging, using everything he had inherited from his father with all the strength he could muster, to push my sister further and further into the shadows. I wanted to understand that this was all he knew, that there was no nature or nurture in his childhood, just unabated despair; but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make excuses for him, but when I saw him lying there in the hospital bed, empathy loomed.
At one point when my sister was chasing up a doctor and my mother was hunting down some coffee that didn’t come from a vending machine, Oliver and I were alone together. It was a scene lifted straight from a spaghetti western where I was Clint Eastwood and he was some hapless gunslinger. I paced the dusty desert, throwing my brightly striped poncho over one shoulder as I pulled out both of my pearl-handled Smith & Wessons; doing a series of mind-blowing tricks and whirls with them before firing straight at his heart. Except that I wasn’t Clint Eastwood and there were no Smith & Wessons.
Oliver beckoned to me. I could feel myself sighing internally, clenching my lips so no sound of protest could escape. Approaching his bedside was like climbing a stone staircase covered in moss, slippery and treacherous.
‘I know what you think of me,’ he said. ‘I have no luck for a good life. It’s like I am cursed or something. I wreck everything I touch. It’s almost like I want things to go wrong. But when I am with Millie I get a glimpse of a different life, a different me. I could have been someone if I had been with her from the start. Someone who meant something.’
Millie came back into the room with the doctor in tow, my mother returned with coffee and biscuits. I am tired of second chances but I also crave peace and the ebbing of hurt. Maybe Oliver could have been someone if he had known Millie from the start. Maybe he still can. Is it ever too late to start again?
My sister would walk for miles in glass slippers that hurt her feet for this man. I still haven’t forgiven him but I would offer him freedom from the enslavement of his past if I could. I hope he takes the doctor’s advice and stops drinking for good. I hope as he looks into my sister’s eyes he can feel the firmness of possibility in his hands. I hope if he wants to be someone – in spite of my mixed feelings and the reservations tangled in my head like they have been blown there by the wind – that he still can be. The rhythm of my hope is doubtful but I hoist it over one arm, dragging it down the hospital corridor and out and out into the light where it settles like slow feet in a dance on the lawn, before flying up, light as tissue paper, to the clouds.