In this week’s issue, David Sedaris writes about his youngest sister’s suicide and reflects on the time he spent with his family at the beach: http://nyr.kr/17bQMYs
The siblings, clockwise from top left: Gretchen, Lisa, David, Tiffany, Paul, and Amy.
"Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV: that’s what my parents had to deal with. Now, though, there weren’t six, only five. ‘And you can’t really say, "There used to be six, ”’ I told my sister Lisa. ‘It just makes people uncomfortable.’”
they all went to heaven in a little row boat
Did you hear the ‘59 sound coming through our grandmama’s radio
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over? Did you hear your favorite song one last time? Young boys, young girls, ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night.
I was a voracious reader as a child, and there’s something lucky in that. I experienced death early. It’s a hell of a concept, one most of us chase an understanding of for a lifetime, so maybe it ain’t such a bad thing to get started on it early. Back then, though, the people I cared for had ink for blood, and they passed as they lived—in dreams and in fantasy. My first real memories of death, death with a body, were reptilian. I was drawn to scales back then.
A real long time ago, maybe eighteen years, my brothers and my sister and I caught two salamanders down back behind the Freese’s, down in a creekbed—we cornered them, we darted in quick and we held them tight. My mom took us out for a proper tank and a heating rock and a little silicon cave—the tank was capped in flimsy black plastic and the rock glowed coral and the cave was crystal brown and it was everything they could want. This paradise—this paradise lasted them a day. I came downstairs the next morning to two tails, bodiless and stiff, and one satisfied cat.
The next time it was Spike. I used to drop cold baby mice into Spike’s tank out of this curious mixture of love and guilt, because he was not the thing that was meant to be to mine, but he was my snake and I did love him. See, I had this second cousin Mike, military bound and sweet to a nine-year-old girl as a young man could be. I only saw him a handful of times but he liked me, he knew what I loved, and he used to take me out back down to the creekbed to look for snakes to tame. We looked and we looked and he promised, but we never caught one. I never held it against him but he remembered and he loved me and he bought me one because of it.
Oh, I was so pleased! Olive green and black and maybe eight inches long, my ma helped set him up right away, opposite my little bed in a proper tank with a heating rock and little silicon baubles. I named him and I let him tangle in my hair and I fed him (that part was a little hard, collecting these dead pink hairless baby mice from the pet store and dropping in that proper tank, but I did it).
It wasn’t two weeks before his eyes started glassing over all white and filmy, these big silk bubbles that I knew, even as a child, were terribly wrong. My mom drove me to the pet store, she helped me ask for help. The fellow behind the counter, I still remember him telling us Spike must have caught something at the pet store before he got bought, something he wasn’t sure (he said to her in an aside) could be fixed. He’s sick, he said, he’s sick. We took him back home and I squeezed my eyes shut tight and I poked a cold baby mouse into his tank.
I remember so vividly coming out of the bath a few days later, wrapped in a towel and walking straight into my parents, both of them, solemn and holding the shoebox. He died. I felt that loss tremendously. I felt Mike’s loss tremendously—this not-so-well-known cousin who looked after me, who bought me this perfect gift that I must have killed. I was heartbroken. For ages, I was terrified to see him. I didn’t know how to tell him—this military bound boy, as sweet to a nine-year-old girl as a young man could be. I didn’t know how to tell him I must’ve killed it, this creature that he went out of his way to find for me, this creature with hard blood in its belly and milk in its eyes.