My Only Sibling
She and her husband lived at one of our old homesteads for thirty-eight years. It was on the Red River prairie of North Dakota. He worked as an administrator in the schools of nearby Fargo and became well known as a potter. She was a master gardener and a weaver and played Scrabble at tournament level. She did higher math for fun.
In summer 2011 she drank herself to death. I do not mean “it was like” or “what it amounted to was” she drank herself to death. My sister did it knowingly and with calm deliberation. She told me. I told her that I respected her choice but did not like it.
In 2005 she had drunk herself close to it but came back with my overassertive help. Her recovery stunned the doctors. “You should be good for quite a few more years now,” they said, “but if you drink, you die.” Advanced cirrhosis.
By 2011 her husband of over four decades was in decline. She knew that her life on the farm would soon be over. The farm was everything. “I do not want to go where you can’t smoke and drink,” she said to me (or garden, she might have added). She chose to die.
I write a lot of poetry and knew I would not have to “sit down and figure out” how and what to write about her dying. It showed up in the new poems willy-nilly, as did the death and what came after. In not even four months, her husband died as well. Both were younger than I. The farm stood vacant.
My choice had been not to intervene this time. How could I have made her want to live? (I did try but not as I had done in 2005.) The pain of it was mine; also, I had written myself into a dilemma.
It would have been wrong not to write the poems. Would it be right to publish them? Would I violate the privacy of a very private woman in doing so? She and her husband were gone, true enough. But their memory endured in the minds of many.
They were not the only dead I had to consider. Our maternal great-grandparents Sigvart and Oline Gundersen (later Gunderson) had bought the farm from the original homesteader in the 1890s and sold it to our other maternal great-grandparents, Johannes and Sabina Jansson (later Johnson), who willed it to their daughter Signa (later Signe). Our grandparents Ole and Signe left it to Eva Nelson, our mother, who followed Grandma Signe’s wish in asking my sister and her husband to live there.
The farm was not only the setting of a recent quiet tragedy, it carried tradition. Others had lived and worked and died on it. This was what decided me to collect the poems and send them out. My book would be a memorial. It would not disgrace, even name, anyone. My sibling and I had spent childhood summers there, many, and the book would take me back to them, too—not that it would be a collection of reminiscences.
The accepting publisher and I agreed on the title In Wait, and it is coming out in late November 2012. Cover illustration and a drawing of the poet are by local artist Trygve Olson, who knew and knows everyone in the story. Readers interested in ordering can visit the publisher’s site: http://nightbombpress.com/