I was thinking about how we all have a story, and we want that story to matter. And how, sometimes, that story doesn’t get told. Then, as I was going through my files, I stumbled on something I wrote three years ago, when my sister Judy died. She didn’t get to tell her story, so I tried to. I thought I’d share what I wrote, and so bring her back for a minute. After all, stories are how we live on, in the imagination of others, and maybe, just maybe, in the way the lives we lived in some small way, touch theirs. This is Judy Nelson:
Start out with an enormous pot full
And boil down to a small thick sauce.
My older sister Judy wrote that. She wrote a lot. Her apartment was full of things she’d written – there were bags and drawers and closets full of notebooks, lists, observations written on scraps of paper. But the thing is, each thought, each exquisite snippet was separate. How do you put them together into a story?
I wish Judy was here to tell me. I have so many questions for her now. And knowing Judy, she would have had an answer for each and every one of them. Which she would have given in no uncertain terms. She wasn’t shy about how she felt. There was just as much chance that she’d say something that would hurt your feelings, as ask you the most insightful question ever.
But she was working on it. One of her last plans was to be nicer. “I want to live another few years,” she said. “And I know that that means I have to be nicer to people.” She was nicer. But it was really hard.
Not because she was mean, but because, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t independent. She couldn’t go home, close the door, be alone and write. Or play with her cat. Or cook herself dinner. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t even get out of bed. She had to depend on others for everything. For someone who’s always been fiercely independent, that doesn’t come easy. It’s enough to make you mean in the first place, and yet, Judy got nicer.
She was in pain a lot. She’d ask us to move her in her hospital bed. “Me, UP,” she’d say. And we’d try to figure out what she meant, exactly. My husband Stuart got pretty good at it; he could lift her, turn her, comfort her with ease.
Even so, the thing about Judy is that she never gave up, ever. In her last year she was wafer thin, bent over -- she was 81 but she looked a hundred. Until you glanced into her eyes. They were razor sharp. Her keen intelligence never once dimed. I remember we were sitting around her bed, and I was lamenting how maddening it is that everyone has a cellphone, but it’s so hard to get anyone to either answer or call you back. Without missing a beat she said, “There ought to be an app for that.”
An app? I thought. How does she know what an app is? But Judy knew a lot, and what she knew could always surprise you.
Like her bookcase – There was the collected works of John McPhee, the letters of T.S. Eliot, the lives of Plutarch, and a book on how to speak conversational Clingon.
After she died we were in her apartment packing up her books when the door, which was ajar, opened, and a young man we’d never seen before just walked in. It was a little scary. He took a few steps, stopped and looked around in surprise. My husband finally said, “Can we help you?” The man blinked, and shook his head no. He said he was a neighbor. He’d heard Judy was dead, but he couldn’t believe it. He was taking it in, and clearly it hurt. “She taught me to read,” he said, “when I was eight.”
Judy could be mean, but that was the surface. Beneath that, she was kind, and she always had a plan, she was going to make a difference, she was going to matter.
When she lost her job last July, her plan was to put a resume together and get another one. She was sure that if she went around to all the local businesses, someone would hire her. Looking at her, that seemed highly unlikely, but she was so determined that it felt possible. We believed her. And if she hadn’t gotten sick, maybe she would have.
She planned to get nicer, and she did. And when she was in bed, first at home, and then in the nursing home, every time we visited her, she’d ask, “What’s the plan? What do I have to do get out of here? I need to know, so I can set my mind to it.”
The last time she asked, she said, “I know it’s a fantasy, that’s okay. But tell me, what’s the plan, what should I do? I want to go home.”
It wasn’t long after that that she began to slip into that space between life and death. Her body was shutting down. She could barely talk. I’ll never forget the last time she looked at Stuart and said, “ME, up.” It was different. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be moved. It was that she wanted to be. It was as if she knew there wouldn’t be a “me” much longer, but damn it, she was still here. Still ME, still Judy. She fought to be, up to the very end.
Now she’s gone and I’m still here. But somehow I feel as if I’ve absorbed so much of who she was – as all those snippets, memories and observations coming together in a small thick sauce simmering at the bottom of the big pot -- that she’s here too. And together, hopefully, we still have time to carry out her plan, and do something matters.
What say you, writers? Here’s to that: doing something that matters!