It Wasn’t Up to Me


I imagine that a double helix strand brushes my children’s feet like long weeds in a still pond. The slim green strands of heredity are easy to slide past, but impossible to snap if you get caught. Somewhere in the haphazard, wet exchange of creation, there exists one small assemblage of genes that spins through our generations, landing back then but maybe not today.

Encoded within that narrow band is the urge to sink low in the murk and accept the darkness of what grows at the bottom. It is the desire to swim deep and to run the palms of your hands lightly over those low-living weeds so that they feel like a little boy’s crew cut. It is the wish to give in to the call of the quiet, and the deadly, and to leave the bright world to itself.

My sister got caught in that genetic tangle. An invisible illness snags one of ours every 40 years or so. My small girls never knew her. She couldn’t wait that long. But each of them wears something she left – a sardonic curve to the lip when angry, the wave of a small-boned hand when laughing. I tell them that she’s still with us and worry that she is. She hovers like a prediction growing clearer as the years click by.

What would she say if she could explain? Would she say why she didn’t choose to stay with us? Maybe she’d say: "It wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t up to me. It was coded in my fingers, my eyes, my viscera – even the lining of my throat." Maybe she would explain that each one of her cells was hoarding a secret launch sequence. They grew and they ripened in optimism and infant joy, but they counted out their replications carefully, stingily.

"You!" heard the skin from someplace deeper than its own mitochondria. "You may renew yourself three times. You get seven years each time but after that third cycle, when all of you is fresh and the epidermis is its most flexible and fertile, you must stop all the pushing up and the shedding."

The lungs knew too. What was it, 3 billion breaths since the first one? And even that first most important one, she reminds me, was not accepted easily. They had to turn her on her head and press air into the wet spaces.

Sooner than we expected, and long before we knew the schedule, the breaths she was allocated had dwindled to thousands. And when in those late hours, there were but hundreds of inhalations left, the lungs continued though it was clear that the filling and the emptying had to stop.

Meanwhile, the brain was still and necessarily oblivious – mixing salt and sugar, stacking chocolate chip cookies in rows on paper plates, adding up checkbook numbers as if there were time to spend the money. But as the heart reached its last 800 beats, the mind could not ignore the rumblings of what was to come. Without trembling, it asked the body to go upstairs and find the right instrument.

"Will a gun do it?" asked the mind.

"Yes! Use the gun," sighed the hazel eyes.

"It will be fast. And then we can close up and drift down to where the sunlight doesn’t hurt."

"Yes," agreed the slender hands and the freckle on her nose. "Of course," shrugged the birdy shoulders, which, in truth, were never that good at saying no anyway.

"We have blinked and stared enough. We have contracted and stretched as much as we can. We have absorbed as much of the world and its food and its help as we really wanted or were meant to," said the congress of the body.

Not one cell grieved its demise. And at last when each had made its point – the chest refusing the oxygen forced into it, the veins and arteries spitting back the foreign blood fed them, the torn tissue refusing to close, to heal, to begin again – all the cells sighed in victory.

"We have done what was asked," they murmured. "To stay longer would not be right or expected."

And so they settled into death, sinking into the silent comfort of the silt that lies between the weeds.

I haven’t yet told this story to my children. I show them where she is buried, and I have found her in pictures so often that they name her as an aunt along with the ones that are still here. But I don’t say how she left us. I can’t be sure that the knowing would immunize my girls from whatever grim possibility is woven into the codes that define them. Would the knowledge ignite something that I have no power to extinguish, or is it the other way around?

For now, I wait and I watch my girls for signs of something unfixable. In dreams I see my sister’s hand reach for them in the dim glow at the bottom of their young minds. Sometimes in these dreams, she pushes them back up toward the wavering surface. Other times, she draws them close whispering instructions that I can’t quite hear.