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The Cards Dealt
They say times stops for no one. It goes on, and on, and on, and on, never paying mind to what happens to us. So we go on, living life, starting families, growing old. We say “goodbye” to old friends and “hello” to new ones. But all the while there is something that we keep hidden from the rest of the world, a secret of sorts. Maybe it’s a memory, maybe an embarrassment; maybe a bad habit. We all have our disappointments. We all have our faults.
That’s all I could think about as I’m walked up the porch of my childhood home for the first time in thirty years. As I went to open the doors, I froze as I notice a set of boxes stacked on the porch, pushed off to the side. They were full calendars, many of which were spilling over onto the ground. I picked one up and opened it. 1952. Pushing aside the box lid, I soon realized that the boxes contained multiple copies of the same lighthouse calendar. They were all new, unused, but not for this year. All of the calenders were for 1952. As I felt the hot sting of impending tears burning my eyes, I gingerly laid the calender back down and hurried inside the house.
In all honesty, I should have been less shocked, less affected, at what I found when I entered the home. Everything looked exactly as it had all those years ago. Time truly had stopped in this house, from the pictures that hung on the wall to the way the curtains were drawn from the windows. And I’m sure that if I were to walk down the hall to the room I had shared with my sister for so many years, that it would have look the same as it did when I had left it.
Emma was my younger sister, the youngest of the four of us. She was the baby of the family, and our parents had always treated her as such. We all treated her like a princess. We were all older than her by the time she was born, I was already ten years old, she became the little girl that we needed to protect. She was bright, beautiful, charming…she would have gone far, would have gone on so many adventures. Out of all of us, she should not have been the one to crumble. She should not have been the one to break into tiny pieces of what once was a person, to shatter into tiny fragments that would never quite fit back together the same.
I graduated school in 1953. That summer, I bought a plane ticket to London. I knew it was a bad idea seeing as Emma was not coping well with the deaths of our parents, but my friends and I had planned to tour Europe before college for the longest time and I wanted to have fun, to not be cooped up in the house with mopey, depressing Emma. It would only be a week or so that I’d be gone. Two weeks at the most. What could it hurt? I’d bring her back a gift and everything would be fine. I returned with the perfect present for her, too. While in Ireland I had picked up a deck of cards for her. They came in a small green box with silver lettering on the top that said “Playing Cards, 52 selected views of Ireland.” Each card depicted a different location in Ireland on one side, and a lovely shamrock pattern on the back.
Emma loved playing cards, running her fingers across the smooth, cold plastic surface. She wondered and dreamed of visiting the black and white sketches of the beautiful brick buildings, of strolling down the halls in the old Irish castles. She could sit for hours playing games or building towers. Her eyes went wide when I handed them to her. She ran over, plumped down on the rug and begun flipping through them, wonder and curiosity burning through her face as she examined them. Her face lit up when she came across the three of spades. It showed a picture of Kilkenny Castle. Emma would marvel at it, how it looked just like the castle that Cinderella would live in. She would carry the card around with her everywhere she went and boast about how one day she was going to go there. It was the happiest we had seen her in a long time. That was the last time any of us had seen Emma truly happy.
I made my way through the house, warding off unwanted memories that seemed to be flying at me like mosquitoes. I followed distant voices until I reached the kitchen. My brother Jack was sitting there with the nurse that lives with Emma. He stood up, his entire body shaking at the effort and weakly opened his arms.
"Janie!" he greeted me, a wide smile on his face. He pulled me in for a hug. "It's been too long. how are the grandkids?"
"They're growing like weeds, I can hardly believe it now. How's Bette?"
"Same as always. Her bones are finally catching up with her age, Lisa has been coming over to help her garden. As long as her daffodils come in right, she'll be happy."
"That's great." A few minutes of silence followed. I kept looking around the room. Jack seemed to know exactly what I was thinking.
"It's odd. Hasn't changed a darned bit, has it?" he marveled as he sat back down. A thud resounded from somewhere upstairs. The nurse stood up quickly and excused herself. Once I heard her footsteps on the steps, I sat down across from Jack, my hands folded together tightly on the table top.
"Have you seen her yet?" I asked, my voice quiet. Jack shook his head.
"I haven't been able to drop by for awhile. I can't handle the cold like I used to. She always thinks I'm Paps, anyway. I've been calling her every Sunday, though." I smiled. Paps was our grandfather. He passed away a number of years ago, but looking at Jack now was like looking at an old photograph. He was the spitting-image. We grew quiet once more as we heard footsteps coming back down the stairs. I felt a nervous feeling wash over me. It had been years since I'd even called her. As selfish as it was, I couldn't live in the past for her. I wasn't strong enough or patient enough to do that, not like Jack was.
"Jane," he started, a serious look taking over his face. "You should know, she's getting worse." My chest tightened at his words. The footsteps got closer, and soon the nurse was rounding the corner with Emma close behind. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and for a moment I wondered if she was really seeing me or someone else.
"Paps!" she exclaimed, giving Jack a hug. She looked so frail, and her hair had gone gray since I'd last seen her. She had aged so much, but she someone looked the same. Her eyes her still vividly green, her smile was still wide and excitement.
"How's it going, kiddo?" He grinned, not bothering to correct her.
"I'm doing very well, thank you." She sat down in between us, at the head of the table. She looked at me and smiled. "Hello, my name's Emma. What's your's?" A terrible feeling dropped from my heart to my stomach, and I felt baby tears prick my eyes.
"My name is Jane. It's very nice to meet you."
"My sister's name is Jane, but we call her Janie." She reached into the pocket of her bathrobe. A faded green box held together by barely more than a rubber band was placed softly on the table. I could tell from the corner of my eye that Jack had glanced at me when she set it on the table. Emma pushed the rubber band off and lifted the lid of the tiny cardboard box. She proudly began lining the cards on the table.
"Janie went to Ireland and got me these as a present. They have pictures of places on them. Aren't they swell?" Emma shoved a hand into her other pocket, digging around for something. She pulled out another card, one bent and more faded than the rest. "This one has a picture of Kilkenny Castle on it. It's in Ireland. I'm going to go there one day, too. Just like Jane. Do you know her? She lives in Chicago now. She calls me every Wednesday. I think she forgot last week. Do you think she forgot about me?"
I took a deep breath. I was not prepared for this.
"I'm know your sister loves you very much." I assured her, hesitantly putting my hand on her arm. It was like she didn't even notice it there. She just kept laying the cards on the table, scooping them up, shuffling, and then dealing them back down to imaginary players.
"But she doesn't call on the telephone or write to me anymore." I looked towards Jack, silently pleading for some help. I wasn't any good with this. our older brother Eugene was always so good with Emma when she was like this. He passed away about five or so years ago. Jack looked at me and then back to Emma. He put a hand on Emma's, halting them from moving the cards around.
"Emma, you know Janie loves you more than anything in the world. There's something we need to talk about." He paused, resituating himself in his seat. "We've decided that it would be best for you to live somewhere else." Emma kept her eyes locked on the table.
"But I like it here." Short, simple, quiet.
"I know you do, sweetheart, but wouldn't you be much happier living with other people? Think of all the friends you could make! You could have a giant game of cards!" Emma shook her head vehemently.
"I don't want to leave"
"It's not a choice, Emma. It's final. I'm sorry you don't like it, but it's what's best for you."
"No!" Emma shouted, pulling her hands out of Jack's grasp. The nurse quickly stood up, but made no move towards my little sister.
"No, no, no, no, no! You're sending me away because you think I'm a looney-tune. I'm not crazy! I'm not! The doctor said I'm perfectly fine. You can't send me away! I don't want to go, I don't!" I sat in stunned silence and watched the tantrum get worse. The nurse quickly walked towards Emma. She placed her hands firmly on her shoulders.
"Calm down, Emma." Her voice was stern, yet quiet.
"No! No, no, no, no!" The nurse started pulling back Emma's chair.
"Come on, Emma, it's time for your nap. Aren't you sleepy?"
"I am most certainly not!" Emma shouted. It was unnerving, seeing a grown woman giving the tantrum of an six year old. The nurse walked over to a draw and pulled out a tiny syringe. She fiddled with it before walking back over and taking a gentle but steady hold on Emma's wrist.
"Emma, I need you to stop moving so much." She tried pulling her wrist away a couple times, but gave up. Still, she sat there shaking her head back and forth and saying 'no'. The nurse took the needle and poked it into Emma's arm. She lightly tugged Emma upwards until she was on her feet and began guiding her out of the room.
"I'll be right back," she assured us. I almost immediately brought my hands up to my face and willed the tears away. Jack placed a hand on my forearm, and no matter what I could do a few drops managed to slip down my cheek. I felt shame at the bit of relief I felt when she was gone. I hated myself for it. Emma is my sister, and I'm supposed to love her no matter what. But resolving this Emma with the girl I used to know was too difficult.
"Jack," I choked out.
"I know." He looked at me, pity for me written all over his face. "I know."
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
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