What if you hadn’t died.
What if it hadn’t been two weeks before I found out.
What if it hadn’t been years since I’d spoken to you.
What if you didn’t live two thousand miles away.
What if I’d made the effort to visit you anyway.
What if the plaque that began to grow on your brain when you were only forty hadn’t started, hadn’t given you an old person’s disease when you were still young, still lovely. (You were only a year older than I—“Irish twins” they called us, but no real twins were closer.)
What if you hadn’t ended up—despite your master’s degree—working as a bartender in a gay bar in Key West, where your regulars bought you too many drinks at the end of the night and you always went home drunk. Once you dreamed of becoming a photographer, of turning the waterscapes of the Keys into tiny postcards that tourists could send home, writing “wish you were here.” But that went out the window, thanks to your husband.
What if you’d never met that guy.
What if he hadn’t decided to drink himself to death.
What if, later, he hadn’t told you he only married you so that you would take care of him while he did it.
What if you hadn’t felt so alone, so adrift, so cut loose by us, the ones you should have been able to depend upon, that you couldn’t think of a way to leave him.
What if you’d fallen in love with someone who actually loved you back, someone who saw in you (in addition to your beauty) the smart, accomplished, independent woman you were and wanted to nurture those aspects of you.
What if you could remember your strength, your daring, your curiosity, and how you drew me into your romance with the world, persuading me (for example) to hitchhike through Europe with you during the summer I was twenty years old, each of us with less than three hundred dollars in our pockets to last us three months. It was you who insisted that we go to see Aïda at the Baths of Caracalla, even though we couldn’t afford it. Later, under a full moon, to save the bus fare, we walked home through Rome’s famous squares—deserted at that hour—all the way back to our campsite on the edge of the sleeping city, while we reviewed every scene and aria.
Back when we were both in high school, we would sit on stools at the kitchen counter until one or two or three o’clock in the morning, talking about anything and everything, falling again and again into helpless laughter while the rest of the family slumbered at the other end of the house.
What if you remembered how, on one of those giddy nights, you tested the colors of your nail polish on my ragged, bitten nails.
What if you remembered challenging me, when I was seven, to a contest that consisted of climbing to the top of a six-foot stepladder and jumping off onto the barren, hard-packed soil of our front yard in Lemon Grove (the rental house where crabgrass grew in under your bedroom wall), a contest that ended when I broke my arm during a bad landing.
What if you hadn’t been so adventurous.
What if you hadn’t had to try everything once.
What if we could un-argue our disagreements, un-feel the petty slights, un-decide to allow the drifting apart that was due mostly to laziness.
What if I could forgive you for allowing yourself, the sister I loved, to fade away behind the drugs and booze, long before your mind began to fail as well.
What if I could forgive myself for doing nothing.
What if I could forget how I saw you last, at a family gathering, trying to join in a word game and only managing to arrange the tiles to spell your own name, over and over, like a precocious four-year-old: Rebecca Rebecca Rebecca.
Some months ago you sent me a box of your photos, without a letter. I put them under my bed and dreamed that night of gentle Gulf swells washing against a rocky shore. I didn’t realize until today that they were your postcards to me, saying goodbye.