Duty and the Diva

The thin straps of her nightgown slip down her arms as she gathers herself, lifting her torso till her bare rounded shoulders are level, she favors the good side. Although they say she needs help - in adjusting the bed covers, in fluffing the pillows - Marlene knows her sister will do it by herself. Marlene waits by her bedside to put her sister's Margaret Mead books back down on the bed.

Her sister is the oldest, the one who struggled down the birth canal first, the one who made Marlene's passage easier. Marlene feels guilty about this also.

She, the exotic one, the diva, coming home with one lung.

One lung.


A former opera singer, for practice she deposits a note into the air. It rises to a crescendo, rattles, lingers over her bed. Her capacity in one lung seems equal to both of Marlene's.

Marlene wants no part of this, she wants a full-time job, a legitimate excuse, a get-me-out-of-the-house job. So she goes to the dry cleaners - forgetting her husband's blue suit so she can make another trip. Purchase onions for the soup and purposely forgets then at the check-out. Her sister criticizes her inefficiencies, then measures her own competency by blowing into her pulmonary tube, the blue ball spiraling upward to its highest point.

At supper, Marlene's daughter says, "You're losing it, Mom," when her sister tells them how many times Marlene goes to the dry cleaners. Marlene's husband shakes his head in disbelief.

They don't know that for Marlene going to the dry cleaners is like going to Nepal.

The little red telephone by her sister's bedside rings constantly. Her two ex-husbands telephone every day. The ex-lover who traveled with her across the plains of the Serengeti telephones every other day. She speaks to them about strange, exotic things, she reads a passage to one of them from a book entitled "Whale Songs and Wasp Maps." She never mentions her missing lung.

Marlene doesn't want to be around the smells of illness, she can smell it in the pores of her skin at night when she tissues off her eye makeup. She senses the purple shades of death seeping through the floorboards of her house.

She helps her sister cleanse the crude scar that begins at the back near her underarm and tracks down her side almost to her waist. She cannot stretch that side. Marlene helps her put on silk ski socks: her feet are cold. She does this with focused intensity, as if the socks, properly placed, will make everything right.

Marlene notices a scar on her sister's shin. It is exactly like hers. They compare scars and how they got to own them. Her sister's? Tagging sea turtles in Costa Rica, kneeling on a muddy beach in the black of night, a piece of sea glass shaped like the anal fin of a carp stuck in her leg. Hers? The chrome edge of the opened dishwasher door had been bent, jutted out, a pointed razor. Marlene's husband had meant to repair it.

Her sister traces her own scar, fingers trembling, barely touching her leg; she smiles a fond memory and says their scars are exactly alike, but Marlene knows there is no comparison.

When she dies - if she must die in New York - her sister says she want to have "Ave Maria" sung at her funeral. "The Gounod version." Marlene tells her, "I may go first, there's no ways of knowing, you better tell someone else."

She says, "No. I can't tell someone else because I'd like you to sing it." Marlene is stunned. Her sister says, "I always thought you had a bewitching voice, incredible in range - with training your voice would have been better than mine."

Marlene feels choked up, she wants to say thank you for this, for telling me.

Lying in bed at night next to her husband, Marlene says she doesn't know why everything her sister says is so important to her. She doesn't know how long she can take it. She tries to detach. "This is not my problem." She says, "I wish she'd be more aggressive, bossy, the way she used to be." Her husband says there's no choice, she's your sister, she's family.

Cough. She must keep coughing to keep the lung clear.

Clear. She believes the lung is clear.

Then there are the showers. Clean. She must stay clean. Marlene stands behind the plastic curtain with a bath sheet watching the shadow of her sister getting clean.

After a while the telephone calls begin to wane. Around the same time, the showers become more difficult. She doesn't know why she feels weak. She asks Marlene, "How are my eyes, are they cloudy? You know eyes are the truest barometer of health." Afraid to look herself. Marlene sees her eyes for her, they seem to go deep inside her, to some jaundiced part of her being.

Standing guard at the shower curtain watching her sister's shadow. At first her sister laughs because she can't left her arms to wash her hair, she feels weak, a little dizzy, then angry with herself. "Such a simple thing, she says, "such a damned simple thing." Then there is a long, low moan. Marlene slides the curtain back. The shampoo bubbles on only half her head, she has soap all over her body; leaning against the tile wall, trembling, she suddenly becomes frightened and begins to scream words to some pagan god.

Fully clothed, Marlene steps into the shower, and grabs hold of her sister's soapy body. She seems so small, slippery, like a newborn thing. She tries to inch her sister in closer to the shower head, to remove the soap; she holds her sister up, her body slumped against hers. Her sister cries - weak, childlike cries.

Marlene feels the water surround their bodies. The beads of water sting her face, her body heaves with the struggle of holding tears back. When they get out of the shower, and Marlene manages to get her sister seated on the toilet in a terrycloth robe, her sister says, "I guess I'll have to cut this."

She stares at the ends of her long black hair. "That is, if the radiation doesn't get if first." She begins to laugh. She laughs at the wetness of Marlene's clothing. She tries to get up to help Marlene dry herself off, but she is too weak.

That night when Marlene says goodnight, her sister says that if she has to dies, she wants to die in Africa. "I want to swim naked in the Kokohora river near Mombassa, be attacked by an old crocodile because I invaded his territory. Or," she says, pulling thoughts from another time, "run from the crocodile into some grassy knoll and be trampled by a playful baby bull elephant. I want to be buried under an acacia tree and have the calcium from my bones seep into the roots of the tree, so I may live again."

Marlene feels confused. The grandiose ideas, the drama of her sister's life, seem to swamp her own existence - she begins to feel that her own life is shallow. "This is a mistake," her sister says pointing to where her lung used to be. She calls Marlene back from the hallway, and says, "Did I ever tell you you're my favorite sister?" She laughs.

"Thanks, and I love you. I've always loved you, more than anyone." Both of them choking back tears, Marlene closes the bedroom door and wishes she didn't love her sister so.

When Marlene puts her head to her pillow she imagines or dreams this: Her sister stands naked on the bowsprit of a sailboat. The decks are warm lacquered wood. Her ebony hair hangs wet on her shoulders; although she is naked, Marlene can only see part of her body where her lung had been, yet somehow she knows that her breasts are young and tanned. She stands there like a masthead, boldly exposing her body to the gleaming sun and sea. Large sea turtle and porpoises swim below her, an intense sun lighting their way. Marlene squints from the brightness of this image; she doesn't know why she can see underwater.

A humpback whale is coming fast under the ship. Her sister seems to know he is there; it makes her so happy she begins to sing. The whale responds with its eerie high-pitched ballooning screech. Her sister turns to the helmsman and blows a kiss. Marlene see herself sitting at the helm. She is frightened: The rudder will not move. All at once her sister is swimming with the whale. Marlene is chilled with fear, even though she knows her sister is just teaching the whale to sing.

Alarmed, her husband wakes her from her sleep. The sound of a whale's song comes from her sister's bedroom. Her sister is gasping for air, a sound of sucking wind, of air closing down, collapsing in her chest. Marlene holds her sister's head in her arms. No. She throws the pillows off the bed, presses her mouth over her sister's and breathes into her struggling body. There is a flat, almost sweet metal taste flowing from her sister's mouth. She counts. Breathes. Counts. Her sister's eyes fall still, paralyzed toward the ceiling. Try, Marlene pleads. Try.

She gathers her sister in her arms, rocks her body back and forth - breathe, she cries - sing, try to sing.