My Sister Tina

Nov 30, 2012Tina’s Brain

Tina had brain surgery. For six hours. Not the bi-frontal craniotomy we’d been expecting, but an orbital zygomatic craniotomy. Incision extends from top-middle of skull to front of right ear. Flap that skin down, let the eyeball hang out. The bad eye. We’d had no hope of vision returning to the bad eye, but the point of the surgery was to save the good eye.

The tumor, size of not one but two golf balls, had been wrapped around both optic nerves, the carotid artery, and the pineal gland. She was heading for a stroke. Would have died of one, the doctor told us, my mother and brother Dave and me, in the hospital waiting area.

We spent a day there, we three, playing cards and trying to read.

The surgeon, a tall white haired Irish man, sat down in the chair across from me. I was on the couch next to my brother. I felt childlike sitting there in my lower position, in awe of this man who spent his day opening up two skulls. My sister’s surgery took most of the day.

It was bloody, he said, the tumor was, and hardened where it had attached itself. He couldn’t remove it all, but the mass of it was now gone—eighty percent of it. As the handsome doctor delivered this information, in his slight Irish accent, I found myself staring at his profile, noting the age lines, the skin tone, the line of his nose. I asked a question, so he turned to look at me. I felt myself being looked at: self-consciously aware of my awareness.

Prior to surgery, in Tina’s pre-op waiting room, the doctor came in to see her, did a double take, ever so slightly, when he noticed me. Or so I thought.

He held up two fingers to Tina. “How many fingers?”

“Two!” she said, without hesitation.

The doctor addressed me, “Well I scared the heck out of your mother last we spoke.” Something to that effect. He went into some details, ones that would freak anyone out. But we were talking in front of the patient—one who couldn’t comprehend it all, but still.

When he turned to leave, he turned back, remembering what he came in for, and marked a purple X in front of Tina’s right ear. (The insertion point. I guess you don’t want to get out the scalpel and have to think, “Now which side was it again . . . ?”)             Later that day, in the endless room of waiting, when the good doctor came to tell us of Tina’s outcome, I thought I’d never been so happy to see someone. He was pleased but not ecstatic, calm and serious, and probably exhausted. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes looking at my knees—the thin strip of flesh above my knee socks and below my long dress. The only flesh visible other than my hands and face. I felt compelled to pull my skirt down. I wondered, as he spoke of my sister’s tumor removal, if my knees were fat.

Of course, I tried to stay focused on the reality of my sister’s situation. As he described fluid removal and scraping, I tried not to imaging falling for this all powerful and attractive man—his occupation, what he actually does for a living—adding to his attraction.

Anyway . . . my sister’s brain!

We got to see her later. She could see us, too, in shadow, lying there in the intensive care room, the bed, large as a fishing boat with a mechanical arm above it.

She looked pretty darn good! Puffy as hell, but WOW. Huge staples where she’d been cut open. A round, black circular thing on her neck that added to the Frankenstein effect. Dave asked me to take her picture.

The nurse advocated on Tina’s behalf. I said, “This is for Tina. So she can see it later.” Then I added, “I wouldn’t want one taken of me, however,” referencing my own vanity to express my understanding of the nurse’s rally to Tina’s defense.

Tina is a unique case because of her disability. She is mentally challenged (hey—aren’t we all!) but does not have Downs Syndrome or any other nameable cause for her uniqueness. When she spent time panhandling in downtown Portland, the drug and/or alcohol addled people she met thought she was one of them, damaged somehow.

She is a bit slow, perhaps age eight if going by reasoning or reading ability, but she’s also visibly different. Her teeth are big and jaggedy, her ears stick out, and there’s something saggy about the eyes, a turned-down-ness, if you will. She has very fine and thinning hair. She is heavy set and bow-legged. She’s ADORABLE!

The day after surgery, Tina looked absolutely horrific. Like Rocky Balboa at his worst, only with that huge scar across her head, bulging where the metal staples crossed it—about sixty of them. Dave and I continued taking her picture each day, so that we could show each other if we were not there to see for ourselves, and so that we could try to determine whether or not the bruising and swelling were, in fact, dissipating.

Mom texted me a few days later with this message: “Dr O is only 8 years older than you.” She had told me—before I met him—that he was extremely good looking. When I met him, he wore a blue surgical cap that covered most of his white hair.             “He is handsome,” I said, when I called her later. “You haven’t even seen his hair!” she replied.

I love my mom because she thinks that I actually have a chance with Dr O. “He’s probably married,” I said. “I’m sure doesn’t wear a ring because his hands are inside people’s heads all the time.” I could actually hear her disappointment over the phone.

My daughter and I went to see Tina the day after Halloween. I worried that Mads would shy away from Auntie Tina—as she had when we first start seeing Tina again. This was exactly a year ago. Back then, Mads would recoil whenever Tina was near. She would hide from her aunt and cling to her mother. Tina didn’t smell too good in those days, living on her own, before we learned of her blindness. But at the hospital, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mads had come to care for and accept her Auntie Tina and didn’t express the slightest disgust—only a mild fear of germ catching at the hospital.

Mads sat on my lap in the chair at Tina’s bedside. I said, “I heard you played Skip-Bo with the nurse.” Skip-Bo is Tina’s favorite card game, and we’ve played it with her often. Madeleine said, “Let’s play!” Tina said, “Okay. Turn on the light!” Madeleine looked at me and smiled. The light was already on.

I snuck in two pieces of Halloween candy for Tina. I didn’t know where to hide them. “I’ll hold onto them,” Tina said. Then she promptly unwrapped and ate them. Madeleine smiled at me again.

Ever since the tumor removal, I kept asking, doesn’t that hurt? Aren’t you in pain? She never took pain killers, never once complained. She said, “I don’t let it bother me. If I let it bother me . . .” and she trailed off, the implication being, “if I let it bother me, it’d be pretty fucking bothersome.”

As I told Madeleine when we left the hospital, “Tina’s amazing. Doesn’t complain at all. If it were me, I’d be complaining the whole time.” Madeleine could not agree more.

The next time I saw Tina, I brought her a new set of Skip-Bo cards. We played a game but I had to tell her where the piles were, what the numbers were. Her vision had clearly worsened since the surgery. It was a struggle for us both, but she won. She wanted a soda, but I told her she probably shouldn’t drink so many sodas (because I’m convinced her tumor was caused by her aspartame addiction!) “They’re not good for you,” I said.

“I’ve been drinking them a long time,” she said.

We were silent for a bit, and she kept looking from one side of the room to the other. I feared she might be pissed at me for the soda comment. “What are you looking at?” I asked.

“Just thinking,” she said.

“About what?”

“Just to be happy every day, ‘cause you never know what can happen.”

I don’t know how she does it.

The anti-seizure medication makes Tina flat. She is devoid of personality. Sleepy most of the time. Until she came home, I had yet to see her smile. Mom said she was full of personality when they took the staples out—without pain killers. They removed the first one, where the purple X had been, just below the temple, and Tina balled up her fists and would have punched the nurse if Mom and Dave hadn’t been holding her arms. Tina was f’ing this and f’that at each staple pull. Hell yeah!

Mads and I went to Mom’s to see her. Something I said made her smile, something about mashed potatoes and meatloaf, I believe. It was progress.

After dinner Madeleine suggested Skip-Bo but Tina said, “Better wait until I can see better.” We hope it will, and Tina can’t see the looks Mom and I exchange.

I showed Tina one of her horrifying post-surgery pictures. She held the iPhone up to her good eye and said, “Pretty picture.”

I held up five fingers. “How many fingers?”

“Two!” she said.

Tina has been blind and adapting for a long time.

At Thanksgiving, Tina said, “I am thankful for my eyesight,” then added, “in my head.” We all laughed, but I know what she means. She has a way of seeing without her eyes, as do all of us, and she may not have the language ability to describe it, but she knows it’s there.

After dinner, she suggested a game of Skip-Bo. Her vision had clearly improved since our last game in the hospital. Again, Mom and I exchanged looks.

Next week Tina will get to see Dr. O. Mom asked me to go with them. “I saw the way he looked at you,” she said. Somehow, his looking never crossed a line. It was within all the parameters of propriety, given the circumstances.

I will bring my list of questions. I will try not to be self-conscious. I will not get my hopes up, but I will probably wear something besides sweatpants. Because, as Tina is fond of saying, “Sometimes, you just never know.”

Oct 19, 2012Tina. An update.

On Sunday we celebrated Tina’s 56th birthday. See photo. It’s quite nice, if I do say so. She agreed. “Pretty picture,” she said, in her wee voice. She’s been using her wee voice a lot more lately. Since moving back in with Mom, since finding out she’s completely blind in one eye. Mom told the doctors she wasn’t blind ten years ago, when she first started living on her own. Tina’s apartment, near the Arlene Schintzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland—a more than decent zip code—was in a building shared with others of similar financial means. That is to say, they are on social security due to one kind of disability or another. Tina met a man there and they were married. After that, what with all those levels of newfound independence, we didn’t see Tina much. In fact, we didn’t see her at all for over two years, I believe. She disconnected her phone. Didn’t respond to our mail. If we knocked on her door, she wasn’t home or she didn’t answer. She got into sleeping until 2:00 and staying out until 2:00 a.m. Her husband (it was a backyard ceremony, the paperwork never filed, so after he went into assisted living, there was no need to file for divorce), he was a hypochondriac. He had physical issues, sure, but he truly loved to call an ambulance. Which was a perfect fit for my sister, who has been an ambulance chaser since I can remember. One year she got a police scanner as a gift, so she knew the whereabouts and why-for of every siren in town. But this guy, her man, wasn’t so good and he gave Tina all kinds of parameters, and got it into her head that she didn’t need her family. One time we insisted she come for a visit and after we got her, we insisted she stay the night. She was so pissed. She balled up her fists and screwed up her mouth and made decent arguments for why she shouldn’t be forced to stay. It was after that we didn’t see her for a couple of years.

Prior to my working the toy store last November, the only times I’d seen Tina were random sightings, when she’d be camped out on a corner begging for change—and getting it too. She’s always worked the disability angle to gain sympathy. She was notorious for going to garage sales around town as a kid and coming home with free stuffed animals. She’d tell people it was her birthday. Eventually it would really be her birthday so she wasn’t exactly lying.

On Sunday, I gave her a gift certificate for the toy store, where I started as manager last February. Tina used to shop there at least four days a week—for ten years. After I was working there, we were able to get her some doctor’s appointments. We got her new glasses, too, but they didn’t work. Soon thereafter, Tina moved in with Mom, because her vision was so bad her apartment was too filthy to inhabit. Back then, my 7-year-old daughter wanted nothing to do with Auntie Tina. Didn’t want to sit next to her in the backseat or eat with her at the pizza place. Now, she thinks nothing of sitting next to Tina at the dinner table.

After receiving her gift certificate, Tina said, “Thanks. I’ll have to come into the toy store someday soon. After tomorrow.” Tomorrow was her doctor’s appointment. We already knew about the brain tumor. She’d just had the MRI. But “tomorrow” the doctor would tell her more. What kind. The size. Her prognosis.

She called me on Monday. The mobile phone Mom got her when she was still on her own has three numbers in it: Dana, Dave and Mom. She couldn’t tell the difference between Dana and Dave. So she dialed her sister instead of her brother. I asked how she was doing, knowing she’d just had her doctor’s appointment. “I have a tumor . . . in my brain,” she said in that calm, childlike way of hers. Mom said it was loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear.

We can’t completely discern how much of this Tina understands, but when Mom first told her, she cried.

That tough layer she wore when she hung out on the streets of downtown Portland with her cardboard sign, that part of Tina has been washed off with the grime that made her blue coat black. She’s fragile again, now that she’s being taken care of.

Meningioma. Golf ball sized. Pushing on the optic nerve. Benign. Most common kind of primary brain tumor, representing one-third of all brain tumors. Many meningiomas are asymptomatic.

They can’t say whether or not she’ll regain sight in her one eye, but removal of the tumor will prevent loss of eyesight in the other eye. Mom says, “This wouldn’t have happened if she’d gone to those doctor’s appointments I made for her!”

“Good thing I started working at the store when I did,” I offer. An attempt at the bright side.

On Tuesday Tina will undergo a Bi-Frontal Craniotomy. Cutting along the hairline at her bangs means they won’t need to shave her head. (Another bright side, I suppose.) Next—and this is the part that freaks Mom out—they’ll pull the skin of her face down over her face. They will then remove the front of her skull. I suspect some sort of electric saw is involved. This is the part that freaks me out. Surgery will take three hours or more.

Mom and Dave and I will be in the waiting area.

I am fine with all of this until I imagine the moment where she’s lying there, her head opened up, and they find the black golf ball wrapped around something very serious. There will be some sort of emergency, something they can’t fix. This will cause her to die. Then they will sew her up badly because she’s dead anyway. And then we’ll think, “If only I hadn’t started working at the store at all!” She’d still be shopping happily, her face up close to the packages. Her clothes smelly and her teeth unwashed. She is the happiest of everyone in the family. Is it an ignorance=bliss thing? Is she blessed by her disability? Are we cursed with the ability to know our own suffering?

Mom didn’t show Tina the images of the Bi-Frontal Craniotomy she found online. As Mom put it, “I wouldn’t want to know, if it were me.”

I guess what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Neither can what you’re incapable of comprehending. Still, all of us fear the unknown and the known. We’ve seen enough movies and news broadcasts to know that bad things can happen to good people.

We never told Tina she wasn’t legally married. We probably could now. And after the surgery, we can tell her they flapped her face down over her face. We’ll have a good laugh about it then. We’ll really get her going, like when we were kids. My daughter will get in on it too. Get Tina laughing until she cries, until she begs us to stop. And we’ll stop . . . only to start again.

Dec 18, 2011Ways of Seeing

Leaving downtown last week on the bus, there was an accident in an intersection, preventing the bus from going forward. Cars could get around the SUV blocking the roadway, but we couldn’t make the turn. I was in a hurry to get home. My daughter, who just turned seven, had been with another mother and her daughter since 3:00, because after-school classes had ended for the term. It had rained earlier, though hadn’t been raining for several weeks (something I felt the need to whisper about during lunch, should the rain gods hear me and shed their wrath). First rains often result in accidents, when the greasy roads become slick with rainwater. After five minutes of not moving, I was impatient.

Then I noticed my sister Tina standing on the corner, watching the proceedings—as best she could in the dark. Tina, who is mostly blind in one eye and losing her sight in the other, is what we like to call an Ambulance Chaser. She doesn’t drive, but she loves to be on the scene of the crime—or accident. She once owned a police scanner—and probably still does—so that she could listen to the city’s goings-on from the comfort of her own bedroom. If the incident was nearby, she’d head out.

I asked the bus driver if I could get off the bus and speak with “that woman standing on the corner.” She said no, but said I could yell across her and out the window. “Tina!” I yelled. “She’s my sister,” I told the driver, concerned that I might have a day’s worth of bad breath blowing across her breathing space. Tina turned to look at the bus. “Stay there,” I yelled. “It’s me, Dana. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 5:15. Okay?” Tina nodded, laughing. She couldn’t see me at all, I could tell, though she could obviously see the bus.

Tina’s appointment with the opthamologist was scheduled for Friday morning, and I hadn’t seen her at the toy store all week to confirm a pick-up time for Thursday evening. Mom wanted Tina to stay overnight. “Thanks,” I told the driver. “She doesn’t have a phone.”

The next night, I didn’t get off until 6:00. I’d had the earlier shift all week, so I should have told Tina I’d be there an hour later than I said. My friend Mike had picked up my daughter from school, and they were coming to get me but hadn’t shown up. They were unable to find parking—which had Madeleine a trite miffed because she loves coming into Finnegan’s with her envelope full of dollars. “Her bubble’s burst a little,” Mike said. Madeleine didn’t throw a fit, however, which was a relief.

We went the few blocks to Tina’s and she was standing out front. She noticed my car right away when we pulled up, semi-blocking the crosswalk, the rain only a light mist at best. I moved stuff out of the backseat so she could get in. Madeleine said, “No you sit next to me, Mom.” I didn’t want to cave to this request—it wasn’t about being closer to me, I knew. It was fear of Auntie Tina.

Madeleine had seen photos we took of Tina on Thanksgiving; Madeleine had been at her Dad’s this year and hadn’t seen Tina for several years. None of us had—unless I ran into her on the street. Until I started at the toy store, we had no way to communicate other than one-way, via mail, which is how my mother reaches out.

Tina is developmentally disabled, 55 years old, and has been on her own in a somewhat-assisted living, low-rent apartment building for the last ten years. You can tell from looking at her that she didn’t come out of the womb quite right. She wore her new coat and shoes, which Mom had given her on Thanksgiving, and her clothes were clean. At least today, Tina didn’t look homeless.

On the way to the pizza place, Madeleine said nothing but did scratch at the back of my seat, so I reached around and held her hand. Mike was driving.

This close to Christmas, the toy store had been crazy-busy and I had been going up and down stairs for most of the last eight hours. I’d also been awake since four in the morning, unable to sleep. For lunch, I’d had a small salad. Pizza was Mike’s idea because he’d taken a look around my house and determined we had nothing for dinner. “There’s pasta . . .” I said, but the idea of standing to stir and wash seemed beyond my energy level, so I easily caved to the pizza idea, even though it meant spending two hours worth of wages. “You feel like a slice of pizza, Tina?” I asked. She nodded readily.

Hot Lips is Madeleine’s favorite restaurant, but our going there hadn’t cheered her. Mike let us girls off in front, then went to park. I helped Tina up to the curb, while Madeleine ran inside. She ran inside and hid. I put Tina in line, then found Madeleine behind furniture in the far room. “What are you doing?” “First of all, we couldn’t park and that bursted my bubble. Then you didn’t sit next to me, and I had to sit next to—” I cut her off there. “Auntie Tina is my sister,” I began. And I don’t recall what I said after, something along the lines of not tolerating such shenanigans. I got her in line, Mike showed up, we ordered. Mads wanted milk with her pizza. This had everything to do with our experience from the night before, wherein I regretted allowing her to drink an Aranciata with her meal. I had told her then she could only have milk or water at dinnertime from now on, i.e. “no sugar.”

The three of them took a table while I paid, and of course I forgot the milk. How did Madeleine react? She squatted next to the condiment counter and pretended to tremor. I pulled her up by the arm and said, “I’ll take away your [new toy] for two weeks if you don’t get up right now. We sat down—which was all I really wanted to do—and I took a nibble from the point of my bacon and potato pizza, and M said something more about the milk. I attempted to get her to forget about it, and apologized for forgetting about it myself, but the line was long and I had paid with a credit card. “I don’t have a dollar,” I said. Then, in a bratty voice she said, “Well why don’t you pay with one of my dollars.” It was a great idea, in theory. Her envelope was in my back pocket. “Fine,” I said, standing up, but not wanting to. Mike and Tina were eating quietly, and the kid and his mom at he next table were watching us. Madeleine’s whine and Tina’s appearance, which is something I don’t think about, made our table for more interesting than their own, apparently. Then I added to the drama by saying a very mean and hurtful thing to my daughter, audible to this other table, too. I said, as I got in line, “I hope your pizza’s cold.”

I still can’t believe I said it.

I felt terrible—worse—immediately. I got out of line, grabbed a milk, and asked the cashier if I could toss her a dollar rather than wait. I sat back down and opened the carton for Madeleine, who was now in tears. Pretending to nibble on a slice, she was completely overreacting (in my book), as she is wont to do. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said it.” But that didn’t help, because her martyr-self was turned on and she wasn’t going to let this one go.

The little boy next to me, practically nestled between us, though his back was to us, had his face toward our table. I stood up and scooted Madeleine’s seat in, and said to her ear, “You need to buck up. You need to eat. We don’t have a lot of time.” I had to be somewhere and Mom was coming to get Tina.

But no. I had said a mean thing, ‘tis true, and my little love, in her own headspace, having had a few bubbles burst by now, continued to express her unease most dramatically. Meanwhile, too tired and hungry to parent effectively, I stood up again and said, “I can’t take this,” grabbing my coat and purse. “I’m walking home. Mike, bring the pizza, please.”

Now, of all the times I’ve wanted to walk out on my parenting duties, I’ve not had the luxury to do so—at least not since I was still in a relationship with Madeleine’s dad. I suppose there were times, before she was three year old, when I may have a left a room in frustration. But this was a first—leaving the building. I should have gone for a walk around the block. I should have gone to the bathroom. I should have sat there and taken an even deeper breathe. I could have taken M out of the equation, too, and sat her down in the far room for a chat. Or just taken her home with me. Home was only four blocks away.

But no. I had said I was going home and now I felt I had to do that. I immediately felt bad for Mike—what had I done?

At home, I gathered myself and my things together. Had to leave soon. When they came home, Madeleine banged on the door. I opened it. She filed past in anger. After apologizing to Mike, I got her bath ready. While the tub filled, she came in and got undressed. I ate my very cold slice, sitting atop the toilet seat. Madeleine wanted to talk and as soon as the slice was eaten, I was able to. We worked through it, she eventually forgave me, and by the end of the bath, we were tight again. She had her jammies on, and wanted me to carry her around for the duration of our time together.

The next morning, we got in the car to take her to school and she said, pointing to the backseat, “I’m never sitting on that side ever again.” “Why? Because Auntie Tina sat there?” My voice warned her to jump that train of thought. “Well, how come her teeth are so big?” she said, switching to a spirit of inquiry.

Tina is a my sister. We were little girls together. She was born that way. She can’t help it. If she’d been around the last few years, Madeleine would have been comfortable with her. Wouldn’t have such prejudices.

We had another talk then, sitting in the car. I think Madeleine gets it now. None of us is perfect.

Nov 7, 2011Jobs

Ten days after running into my sister on the street, I saw her at the toy store. It was my first day there; a second job to subsidize my first one. A co-worker showed me how to wind up this shooting toy, and the ring, once shot, whirled over to where my sister sat cross-legged on the floor, in front of the mystical figurines section, talking to herself—silently but with great expression. I walked over to her. “Hey Tina.” She looked up at me. Said hello as if I were anyone. I was interrupting her. “See you on Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks,” I said. “Yep,” was all she said.

“That’s my sister,” I said, softly to Rona, the co-worker. “Tina’s your sister?” She said Tina comes in every day, sometimes twice, and has been for years.

When Tina left, a few minutes later, she went straight to the door and out on the street. Rona wanted to know more so I explained Tina’s situation. Somewhat-assisted living in an apartment building nearby. Social Security. Developmentally disabled. A family who loves her. “But she doesn’t want to lose her freedom now that she has it, so we don’t see her unless we run into her on the street.” “I just figured she was homeless,” Rona said. “She’s always really nice, but she usually says something really dark, too, like ‘Aren’t you glad you weren’t that guy who got hit by the MAX train last night?’” That sounds like Tina.

Later that afternoon, I saw Tina at the front counter. When I said hi, she said, “I didn’t know you worked here.” “I just started.” “It’s a good thing. A job is hard to get,” she said, nodding in that way she nods when she’s being serious. When she knows a thing or two about a thing or two. We stood side by side and she hugged me. Then she said to the sales clerk, Megan, “She’s my sister.” Tina was much more engaged with me now that her goal had been met. Megan had unwrapped the little figurine, a king in a cape—the same one Tina had singled out earlier that morning. Tina shoved the king in her pocket.

As she started to leave, Megan told her not to forget her change. A dollar bill sat on the counter. Tina took it. “Thank you,” she smiled, her big swollen-gummed, crooked-toothed grin.

Tina had panhandled enough money to buy the figurine. This is where her money goes. Rona said she must have a big collection. Megan wants me to take a picture when I get Tina for Thanksgiving. “It’s good to know more about her,” Megan said. “She’s always really nice, but always has something sort of morbid to say, too. Always wondered what that was about.”

Our mother is a worrier, but that was all I could think of as an explanation. Tina loves disasters. She’s an ambulance chaser. A junkie for the really bad news. She has a police scanner–at least she used to.

Everyone in the store knows Tina. I sort felt like I belonged, somehow, because she was my sister. We juxtapose where we intersect. She earned in three hours what I earned in one.

To look at her, you’d think she was homeless. To look at me, you’d never know how close I am to the curb.

Oct 23, 2011Homes

Last night my friend Mike and I went out to dinner. A rare treat. He’d helped me with some heavy duty yard work, so dinner was on me. And thirty dollars of it came from my mother in the form of a Groupon. Mike saw this as an opportunity to wear his new clothes, having recently purchased new jeans, shoes, and a jacket. A gift to himself for quitting drinking two weeks ago, something he could afford since he wouldn’t be spending money on booze. The opposite of a vampire, Mike’s not used to being out at night. He always had to be home by 5:00 where he could get drunk and not have to drive.

I had on my best jeans and top, which I bought last Christmas with a cash gift from my father. I needed new clothes. New clothes were going to make all the difference in getting a job, would aid in my turning a new leaf with the divorce and graduate school behind me. New clothes were instrumental in my 2011 New Year’s resolution to stop looking like shit.

Now I got a job, but it don’t pay (to quote The Clash), so paying a gardener was out of the question, but the city was going to fine me if I didn’t make the sidewalk reappear, and Mike was saving me. Going out to dinner is never within my budget, but it was certainly earned and deserved in our case. It was decadent, and tasty too. Afterward Mike and I strolled from the Pearl district toward downtown, him in his new jeans, me in mine, wearing my new-looking boots purchased over seven years ago, the year I made seventy grand. To look at us, you’d think we lived in the Pearl. The checker at the grocery store was visibly stunned when I asked if they accepted the Oregon Trail card.

Strolling southward, I said, “Maybe we’ll see Tina,” the heels of my boots clicking with each step. Heels. I’d taken half a Vicodin and a nap this afternoon, achy from trimming ivy and juniper, then piling up the branches. And this was our second attempt. After the first back-breaking day, the city said I still wasn’t compliant and a fine was eminent.

After crossing Burnside, we made an arc that brought us northbound on 11th. “There she is,” Mike said. “Who?” “Tina.” “No . . . it isn’t.” “It’s her,” he said. “You don’t recognize your own sister.” Mike wasn’t being critical. His tone was one of concern: that my sister had become unrecognizable to me had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with her. Her aging, her spending time on the streets.

She’s not homeless, but she lives like she is. Still a block away, I saw her mostly hairless head bobbing, her hand gesturing—so familiar—but she seemed to be talking to the wall. Tina is mentally challenged, and I’m used to seeing her having conversations with no one, but she’s never been mentally ill. Her self-propelled chats were more like silent re-enactments of conversations she’d already had with someone, so she mouthed them and gestured with her hand, often smiling. Just reliving a funny conversation, as we all do, only hers involved physical gesture. And sometimes her mouthing of the words included sound, so you’d get snippets if you happened to catch her in reverie.

But to be talking to the wall! Perhaps she had finally acquired a bit of mental illness. She walked away from the building, her bulky body in a dark coat, two white-socked shins sticking out of her short pants, more bowlegged than I remember, the awkward side-to-side gate too extreme and therefore unrecognizable. “That’s not her,” I said. “It’s her,” Mike gently insisted. “Yep, that’s her,” I said, as Tina let herself down onto the sidewalk for a sit.

We passed a woman who stood in a doorway. She must have been who Tina was talking to, not the building. Tina sat in a trapezoid of light emitting from the Pita Pit, and she already had her cardboard sign drawn, a green coffee cup placed on the cement in front of her.

“Well if it isn’t Tina Layne Cuellar!”

“Hullo there,” she said, her face lit up in surprise and sincere joy at seeing us standing there. “You remember Mike.” “Hi Mike.” As she spoke, she swiftly moved the cup and the sign, which said only “25c” into her bag, which she wore with the strap across her body. “Why haven’t we seen you?” “Because I don’t have a phone.” “You could use a couple of quarters in a pay phone.”

She stood up, open armed for a hug. I noticed the drool on her coat and hugged her anyway. Mike too.

“Tina Layne who just had a birthday last week. How old are you now?” I wasn’t sure she’d know, but she did. “Fifty-five!” “And how old am I?” “You’re forty, at least, I know that,” she said. “Forty-four,” I said. She side-hugged me. “And Madeleine’s almost seven,” I added. “She doesn’t remember you.”

I asked her how she was. Her answer is always the same. She replies with an enthusiastic, “Fine!” before I can even get the question out. “Nobody’s taking your money?” “No!” she grins, and seems to be telling the truth. Her teeth need brushing, the gums swollen and red. Her face seems to sag, especially around the eyes. “Where are your glasses?” “They broke a long time ago. And my insurance ran out.”

Tina has worn glasses all her life. She still has insurance. She has an income, too, from Social Security, and low-income housing near the park blocks, across from the concert hall, in one of the best zip codes in the nation. Last time our mom made her a doctor’s appointment, Tina didn’t show. Ever since she figured out—or someone showed her—how to cash her own checks, we never hear from her anymore. She doesn’t want any money going toward anything she doesn’t think she needs—like a phone bill or glasses. I tell her she could use some quarters to wash her coat. She says she needs a new one, “If I can find one in my size,” she says.

I ask if she got the box of stuff Mom sent last week. Apparently she’d not been notified of it by the building office. Which makes me wonder what else they’re not telling her.

The woman walks up, the one Tina had been talking to, and asks Tina where she’s supposed to go, if not the doorway.

She’s carrying a large new-looking black backpack and a silver Nordstrom shopping bag that holds a gold colored blanket. Her hair is streaked brown and blond, the long bangs parted so she can see, the sides swept up in a clip. She is about fifty, I guess. Slim.

Tina tells her the police have been arresting people who loiter there, in that doorway. “So don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” my streetwise sister tells her. “Where am I supposed to go?” the woman asks, only looking at Tina, never at Mike or me. “I’ve never been homeless before.” She’s not whining, but she’s got an insistence in her voice, something hovering near blame.

Tina merely reiterated her original advice, and eventually the woman walked away toward Burnside. I watched her go, her jeans were tidy and her black jacket in perfect condition. Flat black shoes. It must be her first night out.

“You need to come home for Thanksgiving this year,” I say to Tina. “I will!” she says with surprising enthusiasm. “Great! I’ll pick you up.” “Like you did that one time,” she said. I had run into her just before the holiday that year, too, and I insisted, then, that she join us. That time she had said, “But I stay up too late,” and, “I like to eat at the homeless shelter.” She had not wanted to come.

The woman was back again. Again, her words and eyes directed only at Tina, though I felt we were meant to hear them too: “Where would someone go to prostitute themselves around here? I need a place to sleep. I’m going to have to shoot up. I’m desperate.” The thing was, there was nothing desperate-sounding about the way she said her words. They were matter-of-fact, though pointedly spoken, as though inquiring about the nearest gas station or cash machine.

“Go to the Mission,” my sister says to her. “They’ll take care of you.” “You can sleep there,” I add. “It’s to the right on Burnside. A homeless shelter.” But she won’t be able to feed her addiction there, and we all know it. All but Tina.

The woman, with her flawless French manicure, seemed to think my sister had answers, seemed not to notice that my sister was mentally challenged by birth rather than by circumstances of living. I don’t know that my sister even knows what ‘prostitute’ means, but maybe she’s added to her vocabulary since getting her apartment eight years ago.

She’s not above prostituting herself, we know, because when she was in her twenties, when we lived in a small town, an old man at a rest home paid her for sexual favors—until Mom found out about it. Tina spent the money on fast food.

She’s prostituted herself, but does she comprehend the word? I don’t think she comprehends the concept, or senses anything wrong with it. Or maybe she does and that’s why she doesn’t come home for the holidays anymore. Doesn’t want us to judge her, or confine her. She was about the age I am now when she finally left home. She’s in a rebellious phase.

“She doesn’t know anything about that stuff,” I said to the woman. The woman looked at me briefly—I think I saw her eyes behind her bangs. “She’s my sister,” I said, to edify my words, to prove my knowledge of the subject.

She walked away again, but not before saying, “I need a homeless boyfriend,” as calmly as one might say, “I need a taxi.”

“Mom will be glad you’re coming for Thanksgiving, Tina. I know it’s not as fun as the Mission.” Another side-hug from my sister. “What did you do for your birthday?” “I had a pita,” she said. “I really like them. And at least they’re healthy.”

We hugged again and, then Mike and I left her there in front of the Pita Pit. Mike’s asked before why Tina begs for change. “Because it works,” I tell him. She’s smart enough to use her disability to get sympathy and change from people. She wants to buy her junk food. At least now she’s addicted to pitas.

I really wanted to get a drink, wanted to process the evening over an alcoholic beverage. Wasn’t ready to go home. Mike said he was fine if we stopped somewhere. Bars aren’t triggers for him. Being home, alone, that was where his addiction held him.

At a stoplight, we caught up to the newly homeless woman. We let her walk in front of us and then, at the next stoplight, she mumbled something to herself before turning up Burnside, the opposite direction from the Mission.

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