Not so far back, as recently as the late 1980s, winter fell regularly upon my southern edge of Washington in the form of snow—real, honest to goodness snow. Snow that made the darkest night seem bright, that muffled the urban din so every sound I heard seemed pure and bright. Snow that rested for days and days in little white pillows on the branches of trees, and fluttered to the ground when a bird or a squirrel shook itself to life. As it layered on the ground the snow padded all the sharp edges and filled the gaps. It insulated everything so there was only me. It seemed to never melt.
Now it might snow a few hours, just enough to frustrate traffic as I slog my way to work. Heavy, waterlogged pieces of softened ice are as close as we get to authentic snowflakes nowadays. I sit behind my windshield, watching the sludgy inconvenience absorb the grime of the road. I hope it melts quickly. But when I was younger, smaller and less important, snow was a gift I had come to expect. Even our sea-level suburb of Vancouver, I remember, wore white for Christmas nearly every year.
Like most kids lucky enough to experience them, my sister and I indulged in every second of those winters. We played in the snow from pancake breakfast to tomato soup supper. We luxuriated in it, until it became physically apparent that we had spent more time blowing clouds of breath in our bleached-pearl suburban yard than perhaps was wise—until our sniffling noses were as red as the snow was white. When we would finally enter the house after those wonderfully brittle days, after taking our fill of the frost-bitten cotton air, our house seemed sweltering. It would almost sting. There I would stand, waxed-apple cheeked, the cold thawing from my nose and resting salty on my upper lip, while my cold-kissed little body struggled to re-acclimate. When I finally did, all my senses seemed renewed. A healthy snow enlivened me, soaked into me. It made me flush with vigor, perhaps not unlike that day I entered the world—I imagine the air felt cold just then as well.
My sister was vigorous. Not just in childhood, and not just on cold Washington snow days, but every minute of her life she was an oasis of fervor. Even depressed, her depression was dramatic and passionate. She had feeling enough for the both of us. Her skin was roses, her blood was always fast and hot.
Lexi was sensitive about her complexion all her life. But I think, now, her crimson skin was the flag of her eagerness and her fury. Each day was made for her to surmount, whether she liked it or not. She breathed so deeply, and exhaled so vehemently, that with the tiny sips of air left over it seemed I could scarcely breathe. Often she was the bane of my existence, for when such intensity manifests as anger, or as sadness, or as anxiety or self-consciousness, those things tend to percolate the atmosphere, and my atmosphere was slight and permeable. She was an epicenter, and I merely floated with the waves that swelled around her. I lived through my sister—I had to.
As a child, Lexi performed for our dad’s camcorder at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She filled every frame, her young voice never struggling to command each scene. I was three years younger than her, and no bother for her to eclipse. I was awkward in her light—it never really fit me. Lexi was the Pilgrim in every play, and she would always write my lines and make my Indian headdresses.
Her influence over my parents and I never withered as she grew up. After graduating high school she moved to Bellingham for college, which simply made for higher phone bills and countless emergency trips up north. Even when she left college, moved still farther, and married, Lexi daily drew us into her orbit.
I skipped college, joined a trade and began my career shortly after high school. By my early twenties I was tense, and growing inward. Most of the friends I had in school moved off to universities. The ones that did not seemed to clutch their immaturity, and we soon found little to keep us connected. With very few friends, my life fell quickly into a routine: go to work, hit the gym, go home to read or watch television, start over. I was quiet and comfortable. Not much of the outer world made its way into mine. I didn’t really want it to. Things are easier to control when they are small.
Lexi came down during the Holidays, and everyone would say how much they missed her. I would drive her back and forth between our grandparents’ and our parents’ houses, where she always made a scene. She would laugh and set the table at Thanksgiving like she had when she was just a child. She would dance and act silly on Christmas Eve, prodding at our parents to let her open early gifts. Her smile would blossom and fill the room. Sometimes I would chauffer her to Portland to meet with old friends. I would spend those evenings quietly observing, not quite grasping their nostalgic inside jokes, waiting for my que to take her home. Sometimes, before those nights, she would detonate in fits of turmoil because something wasn’t perfect. She would go back north and all would sigh behind her.
On July 11, 2007—I was twenty-five, and at work—my sister’s husband called me. “Something happened to Lexi,” he said with a trembling intensity. He spoke through tears. “She was at the gym and went unconscious. They took her to the I.C.U.”
I had never been a fan of my sister’s husband. Despite his physical stature, Sean was small and subservient, the negative pole to Lexi’s expanding energy. She liked him because he took so little room, all of it was hers to revel in. Nevertheless, in that moment on the phone, that insignificant bit of day, his voice had gravity. Across two hundred and ninety-seven miles and several years of allergic relations, it gave me the slightest tug, and I worked to brush it off.
“What happened, Sean,” I asked, calm and doubting. “Why did she pass out?”
He could not tell me why. He only repeated what he knew: she had lost consciousness while exercising; she had been admitted to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B. C. Beyond that, nothing.
I hesitated for a long time before bothering myself to make the trip, struggling to persuade myself it was serious while all the mundane obligations of the day—the gym, the internet, my own bed—nagged me to stay. Leaving behind that routine stirred deep anxieties. The thought of Lexi in the hospital seemed distant, remote.
The gym was quiet, my workout rushed. I went home to shower, and in it I could trace the paths of each drop of water as they smoldered down my arms. Flares of the cresting sun refracted through the steamy window and lit prismatic strips in the condensation. They loitered with me in the frothing, sterile spray. After methodically preparing the day’s remaining meals, I pulled away from the apartment where I lived. I wondered if I would have to stay the night, if I could get a chance to run. Maybe I could use Lexi’s gym. I wondered briefly how I could think these things.
July had made a gravid, balmy day, and my car slugged through it like a runner underwater. The air was limp and gross. It rested in heavy folds that sagged lethargically from an opaque and breezeless sky. It seemed to push back at me as I hurled onward.
During the countless trips I had previously made to visit Lexi, along those same stretches of road, I had felt an ambient serenity emanating from the Olympic Mountains looming blue in the distance. Long sweeps of rural Washington, relieved by undulating wilderness and leas of agriculture, made those drives peaceful, meditative. Even the steel and asphalt of Seattle seemed to me a majestic sanctuary. But so loud was the freeway that day, that no matter how high I played the radio, the vaporous, deafening whip of traffic engulfed and overwhelmed it. Vehicles droned and cursed about me as I seared impatiently over the parched concrete, caring little for the landscape blazing past. There was nothing peaceful about that day. The noise was cataclysmic, and I never felt alone.
As I approached the town of New West—that is what Lexi called it after she moved there with her husband—I became increasingly concerned with my own inconvenience. From nearly three hundred miles away, she was still swallowing my air. I labored to convince myself that, at the moment, her life was paramount to my own. Nothing is more terrible than a loved one in distress, except, maybe, the reprehensible feeling of forcing yourself to worry for them.
Arriving at Royal Columbian, I learned that she had suffered an aneurism and had undergone surgery, which spurred further aneurisms. She was on life support and in critical condition. Her blood had finally overrun its constraints and poured unbound within her brain. I imagined the capillaries erupting throughout Lexi’s mind like flooding river deltas, boiling over and saturating her cerebral cortex. It was just my imagination.
I was ushered to her room by a nurse whose face remains a formless wisp of memory. A cream colored blanket shrouded Lexi’s body, tightly drawn so that only her indistinct shape could be seen beneath it. Our mother was on her left, our father on her right. Between them a complicated circuitry of synthetic veins and vessels snaked across Lexi’s chest and neck and into her. Her eyes, glassy and opaque, were three quarters shut. They had the pallid hue of watered down milk. Her mouth was drawn slightly open by the tube which forced oxygen into her lungs and caused her heart to beat. Her skin, once florid with warmth and blood, took on a silver sheen. It was tightly stretched wax paper—fragile and shiny and slick. Her texture was firm and absently swollen, a sculpture void of detail.
Lexi had come in from her day in the snow. She had taken off her earmuffs, unlaced her half-rubber half-leather boots, taken off her ski gloves. She would stay indoors now.
My parent’s horror dully pulsed at every oscillation of the respirator that gasped beside Lexi’s vacant face. My mother did not lift her head when I stepped into the room. She only sat, running her fingers softly through Lexi’s shining auburn hair, cradling her sallow face and sobbing. Her tears had left a glistening path down her tormented cheek, and where they landed formed a tiny pond above my sister’s collar. It vanished almost instantly into the hospital linen. She held Lexi sweetly—lovingly—as though she had only just been born. My mother’s eyes were blankly focused on her daughter as she waded through the kind of pain that no one should attempt to fathom. Visibly hollowed and exhausted, all my mother’s strength was sapped by every labored beat of Lexi’s heart—like she was giving all her years of life to stall her daughter’s death.
My father stood and rushed to me. He wrapped his arms around me and I shriveled into his embrace. The shirt he wore smelled of work and cigarettes, and his grey beard was dark and soaking wet. I felt him struggle to speak as he harbored my ordeal, but his words were strangled by his heaving chest, and all he did was cry. We moored each other there, like fraying cables weathering the tears and sweat, as the inhospitable flow of medical sounds swept the room around us.
Lexi was silent amid the frenetic refrain of alarms and indistinguishably clinical voices that cracked and stung the disinfected air. I wanted to hear her speak, to hear her laugh. I wanted to see her young face, blushed from frigid weather. How I longed for snow to mute the cacophonous bedlam of machines that tethered her to life—a chorus of artificial voices demanding that I watch her failing body. I pleaded with the cauterizing heat, begged for winter to settle on her room and cool the steeping fever.
Although I thought that she was gone the moment I arrived, the cruel choice to let Lexi’s body go was ostensibly given to us by the doctors who said her brain was irreparably injured. The choice to end her life was never ours, it was made by that first swollen vessel that burst, by the blood that for twenty-eight years fought its captivity and in the apex of her health decided to drown her.
For hours after her mind had slipped, Lexi’s body lingered. It was a sinking vessel, still visible just below the surface, but taking on water and being gradually subsumed by the dark. I held her as she waned. I could never say how long it was. It seems at times like seconds, at times like ages—like agonizing lifetimes studded with flashes of sublime grace. I cried so hard, but I don’t think she heard.
Sean had chosen not to see and hear and smell the loss of life. For that, I cannot blame him. He occupied himself as the messenger of tragedy, phoning all of his and Lexi’s friends with what I thought were falsely optimistic words. I had no room for Sean in the confined intensity of those hours. Once Lexi left me, so did he.
During her final minutes, which were perhaps the most awful and the most beautiful minutes I have ever lived, I clutched her hand so tightly, so violently with love and horror, that I would have hurt her had she felt me. I gripped her hand with anger, anger that she left me here, that she would do this to me, anger that it took so long for me to care that she was going. I felt every beat of her dying heart like it was mine. They never lost strength. They simply grew fewer and farther between, until they ceased altogether.
I’d love to say that the fire Lexi had in life I took for inspiration at her death, that when she passed away her fervor became my own. But it did not. My sister was the linchpin of our tiny little world. She was the family proper. Her life was so big that when Lexi passed away I felt as though the ground dissolved below me. She took so much with her when she left that everything is simply less.
Lexi died on July 13, 2007, at the age of twenty-eight. She was three years my elder when her ember dimmed and whispered out, and now I am five years older than she will ever get to be. What I notice in this thought, a thought that remains with me always, is that my world keeps revolving even after hers has come to rest.
But Lexi’s end left empty spaces that I stumble into often. Tremendous regions of the world in which I dwell have eroded in her absence, and when I wish to walk upon that ground it crumbles at my feet. We no longer have family traditions, and thus the Holidays have become for me muddled wells of puzzlement—pieces laying all around that never seem to fit together. Sometimes I have a story that I think Lexi would love to hear, but when I try to tell it to her all the words fall flat. For months I would pick up my phone in the evening and dial several digits of her number before realizing she would never answer.
It is easy to say that life goes on, that you must suffer and rebuild. Those words have left my own mouth a time or two, I know. But my sister was the scaffold that upheld so much of what I was, and it seems I have not the material to reconstruct those expanses ablated by her death. I am left only with memories of how they used to look.
I hear Lexi scream, excruciated that her hair is imperfect, that her face is blemished. I recall her childish annoyance that I was ever born, and I feel her pinch my young skin as she struggles to express her contempt. I see her round, toddler face, laughing carelessly as a snowflake brushes her ruddled nose, a blue sled standing a little taller than her silly knitted hat. I can’t help but smile as I forget that I exist.
We lived for the crisp snap of winter—the crunch of dry snowy ground, pure and white under our young feet. We relished the sting of frozen hands warming over steam from cocoa mugs, always young and ready. We saw it start to snow at night and wished so hard for it to stick, to lay a glorious carpet of white for us to wallow on. Below a universe of falling snow we felt our world shrink, and built it up again just exactly how we wanted. And as the snowman on our lawn stood, watching the neighbors traipse their slushy tracks to work, his waving arm drooped a little lower every hour.
I know it’s still a few days early Lexi, but Happy Birthday. I miss you, and I love you.