The words and music of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones came to mind as I made the decision to post a new MIP piece after four months. The Fantasticks was a 1960 Broadway musical that burst into our household at some point when I was a very young child. My sister, Ruby, loved the music and managed to acquire the piano music for the entire show. Proficient at the piano, she would play and sing these songs, which I grew to love. Although I am not a big fan of Broadway music, this song has remained on my favorites list. I have chosen the final verse of “Try To Remember,” as a tribute to Ruby, who left this planet on August 16, 2009.
“Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember,
Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”
*Words flooded my mind as the Red Bank elevator rose towards the seventh floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. “Mel, make me an iced tea. No, Mel, you need a comma after that word.” And of course, “Mel, go to Friendly’s and get me a chocolate soda.” How many times had she spoken these phrases to me? Hundreds? Probably.
Truth be told, I was a nervous wreck and suffering tremendous anxiety about Ruby for several weeks. How happy she had been when Bobby and I had driven her home from Wilson Hospital, only two weeks before. She was thrilled to be home and able to take a shower and wash her hair. After all, she had been in the hospital for 5 days. I made her toast and tea. She had hardly eaten while recovering from a bad angina attack.
As I made my way towards Unit 7-1600, I met up with a cardinal, who stared at me with knowing eyes. It was curious and made me smile. Why? Well, my mother’s favorite bird was the cardinal, and ever since her death in 1995, cardinals have managed to appear to members of my family on a regular basis – and especially during rough times in our lives.
I spoke to the photograph saying, “Thanks, Mom. Glad you are here with me. This is a good sign.” Yes, everything was going to be A-Okay with Ruby. Nurse Mary was with us.
I told Ruby about the bird, and even took a picture of it with my cell phone camera. It made her smile. A few days later, as she walked from the Cardiac ICU to a step-down unit, we stopped at the photo. She pondered the bird for a few moments, smiled, then proceeded to tell her nurse Maryanne about the significance of cardinals in our family.
“See Rube, everything’s going to turn out fine,” I said selfishly. She nodded… knowingly.
When Dr. Carter called me at 2:40 am on Sunday, August 16, 2009, only 3 hours after my final chat with Ruby, I felt betrayed by our cardinal. How could this happen? Why didn’t my sister let the doctors help her and take her back to the CCICU so that I could be with her? Why did she want to die alone with strangers and with no family member by her side?
I was angry. How could my sister do this to me? She knew I wanted to be there with her and hold her hand. She had made up her mind and I respected her decision, but why this? What about her beloved bloodhound, Baby? Would her friend Jill still agree to adopt her?
I was confused. Her doctors were brought to tears, and her friends and family in shock. How could this happen to Ruby?
The day before her funeral, I drove toward’s her home and managed to pass right by it. I was dazed and saddened, but managed to turn around in a driveway on a nearby street. I was shocked by the condition of the homes. Only two blocks from Ruby’s home was a ghetto. I had always wondered why my sister had left her beautiful neighborhood in nearby Vestal, NY and moved back to the South side of Binghamton. Ruby replaced her quiet suburbia with a noisy urban street, only a short walk from where drug dealers did their nasty deeds.
As I pulled into her steep driveway, a vision of her previous flat drive came to mind. What had happened? Why did my sister move here? Why was she dead? It made zero sense to me. I walked towards the breezeway and felt compelled to turn and look at MacArthur Park. There before me was the pretty school, mature trees, and the sounds of children playing in the park and local pool. A ballgame was about to begin, and I suddenly realized that Ruby had moved here because she was lonely. The din of the cars, school, and park were music to her ears and kept her company.
Memories of her childhood were in this neighborhood, and despite the nearby poverty, Ruby felt safe here. She was back home and at peace with her life. She loved her little home and enjoyed decorating it and keeping her garden pretty.
I smiled and felt an immense sense of relief. Ruby was free now. A flash of our hospital cardinal burst into my brain. That inquisitive bird was never there for my benefit. It presented itself to Ruby for a far deeper reason. Yes, everything was going to work out fine. She would suffer no more. Mom was there for her.
A large dog barked in the distance. It was a deep, sorrowful bark and sounded like Baby. Perhaps this was how my sister would come to me now. A reminder that not everything that hurts is bad. My heart was broken, but my sister was in Paradise.
*I wrote the preceding words four years ago and read them to my family after the funeral and memorial luncheon were complete. I ended my remembrance with the following words, which still bring tears to my eyes.
“Ruby, I will never forget how you helped me with my writing, took care of me when mom had to work, and how loving you were to Bobby, Kara, and Rachel. God Bless You, dear sister. You will never be forgotten.”