Well hey there… I’m not your usual host, I’m her older sister stepping in to bring you up to date.
If your usual Vet were here, she'd surely say… “I’m SO sorry I’ve neglected my story telling duties, but it was for a REALLY good reason. I’ve been busy with changes in my job, and visiting my family, and I just needed a little sabbatical.”
If she were here. Which, sadly, she is not.
So you have me.
My younger sister was a wickedly smart, hugely talented, quirky, endlessly entertaining, complex, independent, and occasionally troubled Veterinarian who practiced her passion in the only place she could imagine living, Alaska. And she finally did take that sabbatical. One from which we will not see her return. In May, 2013, the Vet on the Edge - my sister - passed away.
If you have followed along with her tales of life in the wild, you know that a while back she had pneumonia. Although she had technically recovered, I think it took a much greater toll than any of us but her knew. Some of those closest to her were concerned for her health, but she chose to struggle with it alone, and in May that struggle came to an end.
She will be sadly and sorely missed. There are many years of tales that should be following here that she will not get to tell you. But if you will pull up your chairs one more time, I will tell you a tale of my own, one about your host and narrator, about a talented and funny Veterinarian who lived in the wild land of Alaska. About the little sister she once was.
I suppose I should tell you who I am. I’m the older sister, the one who, much to our mother’s dismay, took shears to my sister’s hair when she was three… something she remembers clearly and I remember not at all. Except, of course, from the many times it’s been told at family functions as part of our family’s oral legacy.
I am the missing sister. Our mom thinks of me as Haley’s Comet flying into the family’s night sky just once every 72 years. Our dad once referred to me as the geigenshine – the trail of particles left behind as the earth travels through space – something even astronomers rarely see. My nieces and nephews think of me as a unicorn – an exotic creature with mystical powers that they all know lives in the forest, but that they only barely catch glimpses of.
What they say is true. In one sense my sister and I have not been close since I left home at 15. Our relationship has been one of intermittent phone calls and rarer emails, often occasioned by my need of some veterinary advice. We did not keep up with the details of each other’s lives. And yet, once she’d helped me work through some veterinary conundrum, the conversation would bounce and spring and dash in all directions like spring lambs cavorting in the grass. My husband would shake his head and chuckle that any two people could talk so fast and leap so quick and never miss a beat.
In another way, and despite the long gaps in contact, we were as close as it’s possible to be – we were sisters, just 2 years apart, and I’ve known her all her life. I *know* her, who she is… was… how she was made, what strange mechanisms rumbled about in the darkness of the emotional undercurrent she hid with her ironic sense of humor and her quirky take on life. We sprang forth from the same genes, the same tribulations. We shared talents and intellect, quickness of mind and of words. We shared the ability to skip lightly from idea to idea, from observation to conclusion, like big horn sheep springing from outcrop to tiny outcrop along the edge of a vertical rock face.
Once, I was regaling some of my bellydance friends online with the tale of how I discovered that sheep eat goats whole (at least goats think they do), and how I know that dairy goats have much better brakes than draft horses. At the end of my story, a third-connection acquaintance – someone I’d never met in person or even emailed with directly – said I’d made her laugh until she cried. She said the only other person who ever made her laugh like that was a blog she read, and that I reminded her of that writer. She posted a link to this blog.
It seems that we were so much alike that even random folks we’d never met could identify us as sisters by our words alone.
And yet for all we were alike, we were as much different. I came into this world as blunt and raw as lava struck from Haleakala by the goddess Pele. My sister arrived with a winning, graceful charm, sailing smoothly in like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell.
I think I must have been 7 or 8 when I finally understood the power of her charm. We had been trundled off to bed and our parents had tucked themselves in for a bit of bedtime reading. Neither she nor I were ready to sleep, no shock to those of you who know she mostly functioned without it. I had gone to our folk’s bedroom to try to wangle out a stay of bed-time execution. I had hit upon a question, a science question, a clever and interesting one, no doubt – science questions were always good for getting their attention. Perhaps one question could be parlayed into another and yet another and maybe into half an hour or more of that delicious space beyond the bedtime rule. Somehow, my parents detected my ploy (who knew parents could figure out that sort of thing?) and I was sent packing back to bed.
As I turned the corner from their door into the hall, there was my little sister, slipping under my arm and through their doorway. I watched as she laid her head down on mom’s knee, turning just so, like a puppy going belly up for a tummy rub. She turned on that charming smile - if you ever met her in person, you’d know the one - and flashed her dark eyes with the thick velvet lashes. Then she said something that made mom laugh and it was done. Just like that she had captured the up-past-bedtime prize, the Stanley Cup of parental attention, won the Superbowl of sibling rivalry. I knew I had been aced, skunked, shut out. Well and thoroughly trounced. Game, set, match to the girl with the wit and the charm and the velvet lashes.
It’s funny though, I never held her to account for it. I knew it was her gift. And even though we were rivals, she charmed me with it too.
If you’ve been keeping score, you know we have a plethora of parents and an even larger number of siblings – full and half and step – not to mention friblings and others who have volunteered as family. Four of us share the same two parents, and of the four I think she and I were the most different. I’m fair skinned and freckled, with gray eyes and straight blond hair that turned mouse brown as I grew. She had olive skin, curly chocolate hair and hazel eyes with lashes lush as pampas grass. I was a stick until my mid-twenties but she always curved like a girl. While I’m not tall, I break the average. And she, as you know, was always short.
When I was 10 and she was 8 we both had 4-H lambs. They started out as they usually do - bottle babies with big liquid eyes and soft nubby white wool and tails that waggled wildly when they nursed. And they ended as 4-H lambs are expected to - in white waxed paper in the freezer. My reaction to a dinner of lamb chops we knew by name was to eat hearty and become a sheep rancher when I grew up. Hers was to cry for weeks, then grow up to be a Vet.
We differed on what did and didn’t matter in men, too. I said the right man had to be smart and have table manners, she said she didn’t care if grease ran down his chin and he wiped his fingers on his shirt, as long as he made her laugh. We differed on marriage - she never married, and I kept marrying until I got it right.
I brewed wine and she brewed beer. Even in the same hobby we took counterpoint.
We even differed on the blessing-ness of the late-graying gene we both inherited from mom - she thought it was a gift and I wish my hair would just finish going silver already (something Mom assures me it will never do. Ever. Salt and pepper is the final endpoint. Live with it.
Despite all that difference, I think she needed to *tell* me that we were different. She used to call me up with one problem or another she was having and ask for my advice. She’d listen carefully to the best I had to offer, all very practical and well thought out, then she’d set about telling me all the reasons it would never-ever not-even-remotely in-a-million-years not-on-this-planet-or-any-other work for her. At the time it used to frustrate me no end, but now I wonder if she needed to build the contrast because, underneath, we were in some ways so much alike.
Both of us believed that the things we did without much effort - the talents we were born with - didn’t create anything that anyone could really value. That if someone said something nice about our artwork or our intelligence or our contribution to others it was only because they were polite. Neither of us believed they could really mean it. Neither of us could take in people’s appreciation or respect, their gratitude or thanks, their acknowledgement or praise. I think it created in her a sadness, an isolation that she defended against with her charm, her wit, her ability to entertain. Her gift gave her a way to cope, a way to keep that sadness at bay. Without that gift, I had to live with my demons, share space with them all the time, and eventually I had to confront them and make peace. I think perhaps my sister never did.
Once, while I was working in Florida, I took the glass-bottom boat tour of Wakulla Springs. We cruised over the outlet where the underground river flows out into the greater pool. Wakulla flows more gallons per hour and at greater speed than any other freshwater spring in the country. Looking down through the glass, you can see the outlet like an underwater cave. And that huge volume of water rushing out by the thousands of gallons looks like … nothing. It’s so clear that you cannot see it at all - just the bottom sand sparkling there beneath the boat as if the torrent of water at the outlet was as placid as the surface we were floating on. I asked the guide how far up the spring the divers had explored and he said not far, that the current was too much for human beings to swim against for long.
I think my sister was like that. On the surface, she was sparkling and light, with a humorous observation for even the darkest events. But underneath there was in her a current of sadness that she swam against, camouflaged by her humor, transparent and unnoticed. I think that’s why she often didn’t sleep, because she needed to keep swimming. I think its why she always entertained us, because that humor brought her light.
I think her humor was her truest gift, her compassion was the power in her life. And I think the pneumonia took her stamina and finally the strength she needed to swim against the tide.
Sleep, my sweet sister. Rest. Our dreams go with you. Calm waters await, you do not need to fight. Just know that sometime in our long future I will flow down the mountain like Pele’s lava and I will meet you again when you return like Venus on the tide.
To you who knew my sister through her writing… she left a little gift. There are unpublished stories. From time to time I will post one for you here.
And she left a manuscript. It will take a while, but we (her siblings) are working to bring it to print. It was her dream, something she worked long and hard to realize and we will take it through that final step.