When she was young she collected rocks – oddly shaped, interestingly-hued stones, mostly from the many tropical beaches we knew, and a few from the chilly riverbeds we visited in New Zealand.
I’d smile at the congruity of her hobby. That she with the iron will, the unrelenting stubbornness and the coconut head would choose to collect rocks? Nothing else in our world made as much sense.
She displayed these stones on a large shelf in her corner of our bedroom. They were her trophies, spoils from a time in her life when dragging us around with her to explore the wonders of nature was fun. And easy.
That time spanned several years, actually, but looking back now, it raced by so fast.
After a while, her rock pile didn’t grow very much. Like storm clouds closing in on the sun, her general mood churned and darkened. She was quicker now to hurl those stones than to collect them. Sometimes through open (and not so open) windows. Sometimes into the thin panels of her bedroom door. Once or twice, or maybe three times, at me.
And I – hardly a saint – would retaliate the way dysfunction does: with a storm of my own.
The neighborhood knew to steer clear of our dragons unleashed. Only our parents (and then, only sometimes) would venture near our natural calamity. Our clashing ocean currents. Our volcano meets tsunami.
And I – older, bigger, determined to prove I was angrier – was too many times the prize-less victor.
In the silent aftermath of one memorable explosion, as I picked up torn curtains and mumbled vain promises to fix holes in the walls, I caught a glimpse of her that crushed me.
She was seated at the edge of her bed, seething still, but catching her breath. Covered in tears and angry perspiration, her usually pale cheeks were aflame with emotion… but they were also swollen and blue-ish, her left temple highlighted in a purple that was almost black.
Her face stayed like that for weeks. She couldn’t heal as quickly as we do, I learned, and in my head I cursed her for triggering my temper. Then for years after, I cursed myself for my cowardly blindness.
How did I miss the turmoil in her world? It was easier not to see the fear in her eyes as her muscles began to weaken, or the frustration as each breath became harder to draw. Lost in my own self-centered dramas, I barely noticed her withdrawing from her friends, moving a lot slower and sleeping a lot more.
But I did notice those damned rocks flying across the room at me.
She only had a few more on her shelf the day I left home. Despite how freely she disposed of them when she was in full tantrum, these last seven stones she guarded with her life. “Don’t touch them!” she would scream whenever anyone got close. Like I ever wanted anything to do with her ugly rocks.
And anyway, I was out of there. Yes! My long-held fantasy of leaving this crazy house – moving to another country even – was finally coming true.
I’d spent weeks in an excited flurry of shopping, packing, deep cleaning my side of the room, unpacking, catching up with all the friends I was going to miss, reorganizing, throwing out useless stuff from the childhood I was also leaving behind, re-packing and planning in detail how I was going to take on the world.
Then on that last day, showered and dressed, my family waiting downstairs to take me to the airport, I did a final walk-through of the house I’d spent the last of my high school years in. I peeked into my brothers’ room, then my parents’ room next door, then headed back to ours to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything.
My side of the room was spotless by now – just a bare double bed and a box of old books. As she was downstairs with the rest of the family, I couldn’t resist one last snoop on her side of our imaginary boundary line. What I found in her closet mortified me.
Arranged on the floor in the back corner were the stuffed bears and bunny that used to live on my bed – the ones I’d clearly outgrown and thought I’d thrown out. Near them, I recognized the rolled-up posters of my favorite bands and movies. They’d once hung on the wall above my headboard, and I was sure I’d chucked them into a bag for recycling.
I leaned in for a closer look and saw that the tall stack of notebooks lying next to the posters were mine from school. What could she possibly want with my old music, drama and math notes? And then I noticed two pairs of my shoes, a couple of my dresses hanging above them – all way too big for her – plus an assortment of the tin boxes, candles, costume jewelry, postcards and other little ornaments I’d once kept on my dressing table.
I backed away from her closet confused and embarrassed by her new collection. She, the angry little gnome I’d known the whole of her life, was now hoarding pieces of me.
I was motionless for a long while, trying to process the ‘why’ of it all. In that moment, I had no idea that it would take over a decade of more stormy weather for me to truly understand…
That I’d be back from my years abroad in time to witness her final decline. That I’d get so used to calling emergency and riding in ambulances. That we’d lose our father first, though, and our mother would shoulder the burden of her constant care. That she’d spend so much time in the hospital, we’d call it her holiday home. That I’d be part of a shift system because she could never be left alone…
That she and I would learn how to tolerate each other and eventually become friends. That we’d discover a secret language only the two of us understood, and it didn’t require the tedium of speech. That one day, I would hold her hand and reminisce with her – not a spoken word between us – about those long, lazy, sun-drenched days at the beach. That I’d hear her child-like giggle in my head, one last time, as she quietly slipped away.
The only thing I knew that day, standing in a stupor in front of her closet full of my stuff, was that something big had just happened. Something significant.
“Ua ea?” my mom called up to me, breaking me out of my haze. “You’re going to be late to the airport! Let’s go!”
“Coming!” I called back.
Then, as if on auto-pilot, I turned to my sister’s shelf of stones – her sacred shrine to long-gone memories – grabbed the largest, smoothest rock, shoved it under the clothes in my carry-on bag, and closed our bedroom door behind me.