“Scooter, I need your help.”
Nanci always called me Scooter but she rarely asked for help, from anyone.
If she did, it meant the task at hand risked the chipping of a well manicured fingernail or required the knowledge of a trade. But certainly, in the big picture scheme of life, my sister took care of herself and she equated asking for assistance as a sign of weakness. Nanci was very conscious of her image, and the image she had developed and established over her lifetime was one of strength and independence.
But on this particular day, my sister’s voice sounded tired and weak over the phone, and for the first time Nanci sounded vulnerable to me.
“Boy trouble?” I joked, knowing it wasn’t.
She exhaled a short laugh, knowing that I knew it wasn’t.
“No, it’s definitely not that. Can you come down?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’m on my way home from work now and can be there in a few hours.”
There was an awkward pause, then I said I would see her soon. I told her that I loved her and she said she loved me too.
Nanci lived in southern Rhode Island, in a quaint little Cape house in a quaint little town called Wakefield. We, her family and friends, had known for some time that there was something wrong in her life but we did not know exactly what. We had notions and thoughts - work was slow and money was tight, the ex-boyfriend was an ass, a mid-life crisis…but these were educated guesses based on general conversations. We all tried to dig deeper, but my sister was just so private – too private I thought at the time - and any probing on our part was met with deflective statements like, “I’m fine. I just need some rest,” or “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
Nanci was extreme in every way - her laugh was more of a cackle, her sense of humor dark., and her clothes and music were always of the finest quality. In my sister’s world, nothing was ever good or bad, instead it was “THE BEST!” or “Oh my god, it was so bad you would not believe it.”
Those who knew Nanci well were quite aware that if you tried to push her to do something that she did not want to do, she could go to one of two extremes - anger or silence. So after some run-ins with her extreme-side, we backed off and gave her space, and instead of pushing Nanci we settled for supporting Nanci. Looking back, with all of the pieces of the puzzle put together, I realize that her refusal to share details about what troubled her was due to a strong sense of resolve rather than a need for privacy.
But things often seem to make more sense after you have gone through them.
So I stopped at my house and grabbed an overnight bag, said good-bye to my family, and got back in the car and made the trip from my home in Massachusetts to my sister's home in Rhode Island. I had no idea if I was going for a quick visit or an overnight...or more.
It was rush hour, and I grew frustrated with the traffic that kept my speed well below the limit. Nanci rarely asked for help and I wanted to get there before she changed her mind about letting me in, behind her wall of privacy. But there was also a part of my brain that was grateful for the delay - for beneath wanting to know the truth was a fear of finding out the truth. While I refused to dwell on the possibilities, I could not shake the feeling that I was heading straight into a storm.
I tend to think of myself as an eager to please do-er; someone who wants and likes to help others. I am not a very good manager of things, and Nanci was certainly more of a manager of things than eager to please. We were very different she and I, but aside from an occasional childhood squabble over things I can no longer remember, we got along quite well. Our personalities worked well together – as children, young adults, and middle-aged adults.
But the part of the story that I have not yet revealed is that I had good reason to think there could be something scary looming. I knew there was trouble (more trouble than a lousy ex-boyfriend), because something had happened a few months prior that scared the shit out of me. It was a moment that caught me off guard and set me back on my heels. It was a rare moment in time, a moment that changed me…changed a few of us who knew my sister best…forever.
So as I made my way down Interstate 495 in a stop and go fashion I had plenty of time to think about my sister and that incident, and to wonder if I had fooled myself (let Nanci fool me) into thinking things were going to be okay.
The mid-October evening was getting on, and the air was caught somewhere between brisk and a chill. By the time I made it to Wakefield, the night sky was half-lit by a half-moon and shadowy clouds floated overhead, pushed along by a gentle breeze. My headlights caught the dancing leaves and revealed the still green edges of lawns, and as I turned onto Winter Street, the quaint neighborhood and looming stone church sat quiet and in the shadows. Beams of steady yellow or flickering blue escaped from an occasional window. I envied the people inside, unwinding from a long day and preparing to retire for a new one, while I feared what tomorrow might bring.
I turned into Nanci’s driveway. Her house was completely dark, but my car’s tires crunched on the stones in the drive and had probably announced my arrival. I cut the engine and the silence of the night resumed…and the silence seemed loud to me.
I sat in my car for a minute, with the keys in my hand and the door open, my left leg dangling just above the ground. It was not fear that kept me from getting out of my car. I just wanted to prolong the world as I knew it for a little while longer - for once the truth is known, it cannot be unknown.
My sister’s house sat high above and to the right of the driveway, set apart by a large railroad-tie retaining wall with narrow, curved slate steps at the end; steps that brought visitors up to a small concrete block base patio and rear door. I made my way up the steps and found the knob of the heavy wooden door unlocked. I tapped lightly and walked into my sister’s house.
“Nanci Dale?” I called out.
Her voice replied faintly, “I’m up here.”
I peeked around the corner and into the kitchen on my left. Her gourmet pots and pans hung from the ceiling, like sleeping bats in a cave. I glanced in the living room to the right, hoping to see some kind of hint or clue as to why I was there. All the furniture was in its rightful place. The pictures decorated the walls where they always had. There was no sign of trouble, no obvious change. The house revealed nothing.
I made my way up the creaky, wooden staircase, stepping over Nanci’s “martini money jar,” the place where she threw her loose change at the end of the day. I knew that at the top of the stairs was a small landing, a bathroom and spare bedroom on the left, and my sister’s bedroom on the right. I used the wooden railing for guidance in the dimly lit staircase, and when I reached the top I turned right. I had no idea what I would find.
My sister was always simply elegant, and her bedroom was no exception. The room had a slanted ceiling that made it seem smaller than it was, and there was not much furniture - just a small dresser and small television, and in the center of it all, her bed. Nanci was lying on the side furthest from me, her head was propped up by a couple of overstuffed pillows, and her body was covered to her chin by a fluffy, pure-white down comforter. There was a small lamp on a side-table and it cast a warm light upon her.
Nanci had turned her head and was looking in my direction. She looked tired…worn out...and her head seemed so much larger than her body. I forced a brave smile and said, “Hi.” hoping a friendly face or greeting was all she needed.
She let out a pained smile, as if she knew something I did not. Then patted the edge of her bed and said, “Come here.”