I’m fuzzy on the details but I know it happened while she was running. She is an endurance athlete, striving to complete her first 100-mile ultra-marathon. The farthest she’s accomplished is 72 miles on a run almost a year ago through central Washington in March – her body gave out due to hypothermia. Her feeling of failure was absolute, her shame considerable. Freddie’s made two attempts since then – both times disqualified at a checkpoint, moments too late. She’s determined, my sister, running thousands of miles a year and perhaps a hundred over a “normal” weekend – long back-to-back runs, often overnight, over the hilliest terrain metropolitan Portland has to offer. Ultra marathon runners don’t get medals – they get belt buckles. She is determined to get that belt buckle of accomplishment even though as girls in Montana we joked that large belt buckles are “tombstones for a dead dick.” It’s okay though. She’ll never wear the belt buckle and no one could confuse a woman with massive balls with someone who has a dick.
But last night Freddie died during her run. She didn’t get the belt buckle. No one will make jokes about her dick.
Maybe I should’ve seen it coming. Earlier this week as I was driving to couples therapy I received an urgent text from her:
Sitting at desk. Felt all of a sudden like I dropped like Tower of Terror dropped, room started spinning, and I started dropping sweat instantly. What the hell happened? Should I be worried?
My guess? Low blood pressure or low sugar. Go drink juice now and sit low in a corner. Are you nauseous?
Get juice and then crackers, white bread, or a banana. But juice first.
I’m texting while driving, against the law in Oregon but a bad idea anywhere. I could pull over but I’m running late and my marriage has problems. Sister or husband? Sickness or health? I casually look around and rest my phone on the wheel, continuing to text while I drive.
How can my blood sugar below? I just ate 100 calories of grapes.
My sister is trying to reach a goal race weight of 119 pounds. She’s slender and muscular, very little visible fat. She counts calories the way Scrooge counted his coins – relishing each one, hating it for not being more.
Driving behind cop. Can explain later. Get a Baby Ruth if you can. Something with nuts and sugar – low burning calories and high burning calories to keep your blood sugar level. Sit low, drink water in case it’s blood pressure. No caffeine.
I arrive at counseling, late, as always. There’s always something. A meeting running past time, traffic, an item I forgot at home, something. I’ve been late more than I’ve been early. My husband is there. He doesn’t know it his early arrival fills me with shame and guilt. I become defensive and offer detail I normally wouldn’t.
“Sorry. Freddie’s sick. I was texting her through it on the way over here.” That has nothing to do with why I’m late but I can be the queen of excuses when I want to be.
He doesn’t look up from the game on his phone as he stands and walks into the office. “No worries,” he says casually, and I know he probably means it but I anticipate this coming up again in therapy some time later — how my family relies on me, how I take care of them, and the reason I don’t contentedly spend time watching hours of TV with him is because I never have time any more due to my family and my workout schedule. He confuses cause and effect.
We sit with the therapist and begin with the small talk. How was our week? How are we feeling? Isn’t it soggy out? We’re pleasant. My husband is a good looking man, small eyes but a warm bright smile. I’m reserved but polite – I save my energy and speak when I’m spoken to in therapy. I’m the one who brought us to this point, I feel like I’m always the one to suggest things, organize things, address the topics. In therapy, I huddle into the corner of the hard couch and let him talk. I’ll speak when spoken to.
My purse vibrates. Tracey asks, “do you need to get that?” I don’t want to. It’s rude but when I lean over to turn it off, I see it’s Freddie.
“Would you excuse me for a sec? My sister’s been taken ill and I want to check in.” I’m worried about appearing thoughtless and inconsiderate so I leak heavy concern in my voice, something that if I were not acting I’d never do. Even when my father was dying my voice was still.
I step out. “What’s up?”
She sobs through the phone. I can’t make out anything more than vomiting, sweating, on floor of bathroom, everything’s crashing around me.
“I’ll come and get you. Text me your address.”
I step back in and with heavy concern I tell them I must go get my sister. She’s 30 but I’m her caretaker of sorts, her surrogate mother because she can’t stand the one who birthed us. But before I go…
“Before I go, I wanted to share with you the talk Brent and I had Sunday night in case you want to talk about it while I’m gone.”
Tracey and Brent agree. I unload in short, declarative sentences. All the reasons I’m not in love with my husband, why I think he’s good looking but completely unattractive to me sexually, why I recoil just a little when he touches me intimately. I share all the reasons but one. Then I need to go.
So I leave.
I retrieve Freddie from her office. She is a shivering mess, clammy, and can’t look anywhere but down for fear she’ll feel like the sky is falling. I take her to urgent care, check her in, pay her copay.
Urgent care sees her quickly. The verdict? They’re unsure why a healthy, physically active woman took ill like this but her blood sugar and blood pressure are both fine so no immediate risk of collapse. They suspect a virus causing a nervous system problem or something with the inner ear, a spectrum of possibilities so broad it would’ve just been better if they’d said, “we really have no fucking clue.”
I take her home and carry on with my life. Later Brent asks how she is. “Oh, she’ll be fine.” I’m not one much for sharing details and communicating drama and besides, things normally are fine. I have a pretty unshakeable faith that there’s a certain cosmic balance and things work themselves out.
Then last night Freddie went running. She started probably around 4:00 am, running through Forest Park, a fairly isolated island of wooded acreage in downtown Portland with miles of trails. Sometime in the dark she had an attack of whatever afflicted her to begin with, the “no fucking clue” disease. Maybe it caused her to fall down a ravine or choke on her tongue or go into cardiac arrest or lie prone lone enough she was raped and killed. I don’t know. But I knew she was dead.
Freddie is not quite five years younger. She was a red-faced colicky baby who I diapered and cared for when our mother was at school. She’s always been high-strung, beautiful, working so hard to be smart, constantly afraid she’s mentally retarded. In that way she’s my polar opposite. I’m low-key, somewhat intelligent, working so hard to be pretty. Put the two of us together into a single person and you might just have a balanced ego.
At her death, less than a year after our father’s, I’m left bereft. My daughter’s been taken from me, my little sister who is one of the most accomplished and yet one of the most broken people I know. I wrote a recommendation for her to pledge our sorority, planned and help pay for her wedding, navigated her through buying her condo, and supported her when her husband and partner of 12 years left. She’s smart and capable, opinionated and unforgiving of weakness in anyone but particularly herself. But she has no close friends, no lover, not partner prospects. She has too many demons to be in an intimate relationship with anyone right now. There’s no room in her bed for a partner.
We haven’t always gotten along but I help nurture her now – invite her over to dinner, loan her my children to help her feel joy, encourage her when she feels bitter. I have nine siblings and I’m one of the youngest. I’m not prepared for a younger sibling to go first. It sickens me. I imagine my husband judging Freddie’s life from a distance: “she’s stubborn and never should’ve been running. What can you expect?” He’s probably right, but she’s my sister. How dare he.
My stomach hurts, like it’s being kicked.
My stomach is being kicked.
My stomach is being kicked.
I open my eyes. My six-year-old son crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night. My goblins must be troubling him, too. He’s kicking me in his sleep.
I wake up and check my phone for text messages. There’s one from Freddie.
“Finished my run. Going home to shower and then to work. Feeling okay today.”
It’s time to start another day.