February 1, 2015

CNF/ESSAY BY LIZ GILMORE WILLIAMS "APRIL LOVE"

Liz Gilmore Williams is a retired writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in the private and public sectors. Most of her work was done for two agencies of the U.S. Congress. She asks that we please don't hold that against her.

This essay, "April Love" won an honorable mention award in the Summer Shorts contest held by the Virginia Writers Club in 2014.

April Love
   
A month after my sister April’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in September 2007, I rolled my suitcase up to the door of her home in Wilmington, Delaware. I was spending the weekend with her. When she came to the door, she looked like Daddy’s mother, whom I’d known only as an old woman. April’s 61-year-old face looked gray, drawn, and longer than before. Her permanent eyeliner made her eyes look eerie (minus other makeup). Her thick reddish blonde hair needed cutting and stuck out all over her head. Her petite frame looked shrunken. Her painted toenails accentuated the bunions on her big toes. She moved her boney arms and everything else more slowly than usual. Though everyone said we looked alike, the differences in our looks seemed enhanced now: for the first time, I noticed the roundness of the nail beds on her tiny fingers; mine were less so. Compared with her flat back side, my full one looked even fuller.


April’s appearance shocked me, though for her sake I kept a straight face. As a child, I watched her sit at the mirror and apply makeup to a face so beautiful you couldn’t look away. Her large green eyes shone brightly from the mirror back at me, under a fringe of thick blonde bangs. She put on her lipstick and smacked her full, pouty lips to smooth it out. Then, she crinkled her mouth into a smile as bright as the sunlamp clamped to the headboard of the bed. “How do I look?” she asked as my heart melted. I adored her. If only I could soak up an ounce of her glamor and poise. Her makeup perfect, her girlfriends came to pick her up: Gayle, the homecoming queen, and Joanie, a petite blonde. My teen-aged sister and her friends seemed as beautiful and stylish as the Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds paper dolls April and I had played with as children.


When I entered her living room, about 40 cards from well-wishers stood on a round table. Many had included money to help with April’s medical bills. Although her home decorating smacked of genius, thick dust coated the tabletops and knickknacks. Debris covered the rugs. The smeared windows clouded the sunny day outside. The kitchen floor sparkled, however, a new floor of light oak laminate, and the kitchen was freshly painted—pink, April’s favorite color. Still optimistic about her future, she’d improved the kitchen.


We went to her bedroom, where she perched at the head of her unmade bed—her “command post”―with her pillows propped up behind her. The ever-droning TV glowed from its hutch. Her hoarding tendencies on full display, catalogs and scraps of paper with information that might someday come in handy covered her bed. Pill bottles sat atop her night stand. Gone was the wise cracking, mean-drunk party girl of the last 35 years or so. April had agreed to answer my list of questions about Daddy for my book on his experience in World War II, and she seemed eager to help. She looked real, thoughtful, and gentle—the sister with which I had grown up.  Her mask was off.


“Daddy was playful. He played games with me as a young girl and took me to parades and other activities. . . . He was popular with the ladies and always tried to make people laugh.” She recalled going to the park and playing on the swings while my parents played tennis. In fourth grade, she sat for a portrait that Daddy painted of her. “I had to sit still and not talk; that was hard.”


When I prodded her for more about Daddy, she looked down and spoke in a halting voice, barely above a whisper: “Daddy wanted to keep me to himself. . . . He was obsessed with me. I think sometimes he wanted people who saw us together to think I was his girlfriend.” She paused. “He used to take me to Korvette’s to shop for clothes, picking out tasteful things but not the latest fashion. . . . They were more for a younger girl. He wanted to keep me a little girl. . . . I wonder if that’s why I’ve had problems with men.” As she spoke, a faint memory surfaced of our whole family revolving around April, her frailties, her asthma, and her illnesses. Agape, I asked, “Did he molest you?”  
“No, there was no inappropriate touching. . . .”
“One night, I went to a party in the Myers’s basement rec room. I happened to look up at one point and saw Daddy peering in the window.”
“Did your eyes meet?” I asked her.  
“Yes, for a second. Then he backed away from the window.”
“Did you ever ask him about this afterwards . . . or did he bring it up?”
“No, I was too embarrassed and afraid to ask . . . and he never brought it up. I never thought he was much of a man after that. . . . Looking back, I think Daddy was bisexual or gay.”   


I scribbled down everything April told me, aghast at the implications and sure that Daddy had caused her problems with men—she’d had three husbands―but not knowing exactly how. In ensuing weeks of research, I discovered that Daddy’s focus on April in childhood―dubbed
“spousification”―so stimulated her that no man could ever measure up. She served as Daddy’s real-life paper doll, wearing clothes to express his tastes and need for creative expression, not those of her choice. Worse, he sought her companionship over his wife’s, driving Mother and April apart. When April tried to forge her independence as a teen, Daddy condemned and punished her, severing the relationship forever. She’d had no emotional support: she’d had only me, a kid sister. Feeling unloved, lonely, and ashamed, she rebelled and started smoking and sneaking out at night. In 1967—three years before Daddy died―April left our suburban Philadelphia home at 21 for flight attendant training in Pittsburgh with Allegheny Airlines (now US Airways). She flew for 40 years.


Three months after her diagnosis, April oozed charm and cheerfulness when she hosted Thanksgiving dinner. April’s friend, Trisha; April’s daughter, Missy, her boyfriend; and my husband, Charlie, and I gathered at April’s. The table wore a wrinkly pink tablecloth—who could fault her for not ironing it? She had already prepared her side dishes, and I brought the green bean casserole and hors d’oeuvres. The house smelled of roast turkey. Charlie had brought now-bald April a multicolored plastic clown wig. She laughed, put it on, and posed for a picture. Then she donned a wig lent her by a friend. She looked marvelous. Though the turkey took too long to cook, April pulled off another wonderful holiday dinner. She had attended a charm school in our hometown run by an airline stewardess. Wondering at her finesse while sick, I asked her, “What did you learn in charm school?”
“How to get in and out of a car . . . how to let a man light your cigarette . . .”


We all smiled at the quaintness of those images and connotations. That evening, April reveled in her guests and only served sparkling cider. Maybe the cancer or her doctors had scared her sober. I had hope for her determination to beat the disease, but I knew the survival rate: 5 percent.


I visited April monthly as she worsened. By February, her platelets were too low for her to receive chemo. In March, I went to make sure she drank all of the liquid required for her CAT scan, which would check on the tumor. She had gained weight in her midsection and her color had improved. But when I saw an almost-hidden jug of vodka on the kitchen counter, about two-thirds empty, my spirits sank. I dropped my hope for a warm and fuzzy visit with the sweet, vulnerable sister with whom I’d recently reconnected. Swallowing my sadness, I braced myself. Her mask back on, the mean drunk resurfaced. We watched TV, a show with Diane Sawyer.
“I never thought Diane Sawyer was that pretty,” I said.
“Oh, yes she is, you’re just jealous.”
I bit my tongue, said nothing. Later on, I tried again, “I don’t see why all these women think Patrick Dempsey is so great. He does nothing for me.”
“Oh, no, he’s handsome,” she said.
I stopped talking.


A few minutes later, she picked up and dangled with one finger one of her shoes, a navy ballerina-style flat. “This is a woman’s shoe—not those things you wore,” she said, pointing to my brown L.L. Bean sport shoes. I told her the shoes supported my flat feet; that’s why I liked them. “I’m just kidding,” she said. But she wasn’t. The criticism didn’t bother me; I’d heard worse from her. But the loss of our renewed closeness deflated me. I absorbed the pain as one does a cut from a paring knife. It did no good to get mad: I hadn’t the heart to confront her about her drinking. Besides, the hurting business goes both ways. Guarding against her barbs, I had distanced myself from her over the years. Now grasping my importance to her in our girlhood, I saw that my remoteness had stung her. She’d had enough hurt. The next morning, while she slept, I cleaned the dining room. She awoke late, ate breakfast as lunch, and we went out to some antique stores and the grocery and hardware stores. We spoke only when necessary, the air still strained. She tired and we returned to her house. She fixed an Easter dinner of ham, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. The next day I left for home after lunch. Though she didn’t say it, she didn’t want me to go and probably regretted her combativeness. On the way home, I called Missy and warned her that her mother was drinking again.


By August, the cancer had spread to April’s lungs. Charlie and I walked into the oncology ward of Christiana Hospital, where April lay attached to an oxygen tank; a plastic tube drained fluid from her lungs. The room had a walker and wheelchair at the ready. She sat on a portable commode, from which she could not move without a nurse. “Are you afraid?” I asked her. She nodded. We stayed for two hours, fed her some dinner, and then went to our hotel, where I lay awake all night. Missy arrived the next morning. Outside April’s room, she sobbed on my shoulder, while I held her and stroked her head of long silky hair. She was only 28 years old. Afterwards, we all went in and sat with April. Missy fed her lunch. Some of April’s flight attendant friends―as elegant as our paper dolls―visited. At 3 p.m., Charlie and I headed back to Pennsylvania. The next day, Missy took her mother home from the hospital and hospice was arranged. Morphine robbed me of bidding April a proper goodbye and telling her how I’d loved her; only a vestige of my sister remained when I last saw her.


I awoke from a sound sleep after midnight on the last Wednesday in September. I lay there fully alert, feeling disconcerted. In a few minutes, the phone rang and I knew why. Missy was calling to say April would die soon, according to the hospice nurse. Charlie arose and drove to Wilmington alone; I had to work the next day. When he got there, April had passed away. Charlie consoled Missy, met with the funeral director, and identified the body before cremation so Missy didn’t have to.


Who else but I could write the obituary, and doing so gave me focus. I sent it to the funeral home and planned the memorial service for October 2. Charlie had brought back some of April’s photo albums for the DVD. I paged through them to pick 100 pictures of her and chose the music—“Come Fly With Me” and “April in Paris,” sung by Frank Sinatra, and “April in My Heart,” sung by Billy Holliday. As I scanned in the photos, I realized I’d have to eulogize my sister. I enlarged and framed a favorite picture of April, still young and full of promise and hope, smiling that radiant smile, for placement by the urn.


Charlie and I arrived at the funeral home before anyone else. I wore a navy linen suit with a trumpet skirt. My hair had thinned in the last several months, and my eyelashes fell out entirely. April’s friends from high school arrived. Her flight attendant friends came, all ethnicities, gay and straight, packing the chapel. Missy’s father came with his second wife. Mother and my two younger sisters arrived, one with her two children. Several of Missy’s friends accompanied her. I hoped that April could see, through her photo, all the people who loved her and came to honor her. I spoke, choking back tears, but gained composure as I went. I talked about playing hopscotch and with paper dolls in our childhood, her quick wit, her toughness in the face of cancer. Others spoke, too. Her lifelong friend, Jeannie, described how the men at her wedding tripped over each other to dance with April, a bridesmaid, who took the attention in stride. Afterwards, Missy’s father said, “This was the nicest memorial service I’ve ever attended.” “April would have been so proud of you,” said Joanie, April’s lifelong friend.


The execution of her affairs, along with my grief, occupied me for months afterwards. But I also researched my book on Daddy. In the months before April died, Mother had corroborated April’s sense of Daddy as gay or bisexual. I’d also found evidence in his war letters and would continue to investigate this notion. What April had denied herself, she gave me: she unlocked the mystery of our family’s dysfunction, allowing me to make sense of my life. As Daddy had leaned on April, Mother had leaned on me, her “veritable brick.” My whole life, the needy had flocked to me like the homeless to a soup kitchen. Thanks to April, I would live well aware of the need for my own veritable brick. No one could have given me more.

Weeks after the funeral, I cleaned out April’s house to prepare it for sale. Opening her hope chest, I could hardly believe my eyes. There, in the bottom, with missing limbs and tattered clothes, lay the paper dolls we’d played with as girls.


~Liz Gilmore Williams~

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