Chapter 20 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

september 2008

Sylvie leFt the library early. She told the assistant librarian that she had a headache. She walked home by her usual route, past

Cecelia’s murals. Pilsen looked particularly colorful that late-September afternoon, and Sylvie was glad to be surrounded by her sister’s art. Whenever she visited the twins’ houses, Sylvie traveled the halls to see if any portraits had been added or removed. She was guaranteed to see all the women in her life: her sisters, her nieces, her mother, and herself. Part of Sylvie’s desire to go home early today was to visit the piece of Cecelia’s art that hung in her own living room: the landscape Cecelia had painted for William shortly after he left the hospital.

Sylvie let herself into the quiet apartment with her key. William wouldn’t be home for a few hours. She felt her shoulders relax. The space was peaceful and designed exactly to their liking. She and William rarely entertained here; big communal dinners happened at the super-duplex, and Kent was a foodie, so he always suggested they meet at restaurants he wanted to try. The apartment was where she and William didn’t have to mute their love or pay attention to anyone else. They liked to be in the same room, so Sylvie would read next to William while he watched basketball games with the volume off. When Sylvie cooked, she prepared meals she knew delighted her husband: any kind of pasta, any kind of stew. When

William cooked, the recipe usually included chickpeas, because they were Sylvie’s favorite.

She leaned against the back of the couch and studied the painting of wind, rain, and light. The landscape had always looked like hope to her, and Sylvie needed some. She’d been to see her doctor the week before, because of an odd, recurring headache. Sylvie was able to see the pain when it arrived: It was lavender and emanated from somewhere near her right temple in concentric rings. Sylvie had drawn the headache on a piece of paper for the doctor, and he’d sent her to see a specialist. The specialist had run tests. Sylvie lay in an MRI machine, strangely proud of her ability to lie perfectly still, because it pleased the technician. Sylvie hadn’t mentioned her headaches to William or the twins, and she didn’t tell them she was going to the doctor. She’d assumed the headaches would turn out to be nothing, or perhaps a symptom of perimenopause. She was forty-seven years old, after all.

The specialist, a man who spoke at a fast clip—presumably because he was in so much demand and therefore had so little time

—told her that there was a tumor in her brain. Sylvie nodded in response, to be polite. He talked about the location of the tumor and the size. He used the word terminal. Sylvie nodded again, listened some more, and then left his office. The building she exited was near Northwestern, and she decided to walk home. She didn’t pay any attention to her direction; she knew that, like a homing pigeon, her body would take itself to Pilsen.

While she walked, Sylvie discovered that she wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. It settled so quickly inside her that she realized she must have known, on some level, that it was coming. When the specialist had used the word incurable, she’d thought: Of course. That sounds right. Whenever something went wrong in her house while she was growing up—the electricity went out, the washing machine flooded, the refrigerator died—her mother’s first words were: “We’re being punished.” Sylvie was being punished for the

choice she’d made twenty-five years earlier. Even though she’d stopped considering herself Catholic after her father’s funeral, she recognized the religion’s retributive justice in her bones. She was surprised, though, to find that she’d unconsciously kept that belief system. She would have thought that she’d evolved past the guilt that was laced through Catholicism and her childhood, past the concept of an eye for an eye. But apparently she had bought into that retaliative framework, perhaps in the pews of St. Procopius as a child. Sylvie had betrayed her sister, so her body had betrayed itself.

It’s also possible that you’re just in shock, Sylvie thought now. The painting in front of her was becoming less potent; the light, the hope on the canvas, was fading. Sylvie knew this was because she’d been looking at the painting for too long; its meaning was lost, the same way the meaning of a word is lost when repeated fifty times. She knew the hope was still in the painting; she just could no longer see it.

Sylvie hadn’t told William yet; she would tell him tonight. She wished her husband could remain ignorant of this; she wished she could simply grow sick and die without him having to watch. Sylvie knew that when William looked at her, he saw the twenty-something girl he’d fallen in love with. It seemed possible, and yet impossible, that she could fade away while staying whole under his gaze. I wish? Sylvie thought, but then stopped herself, because I wish was a dangerous path to walk down. She needed to stay with what is.

Sylvie wasn’t worried about herself. She was now in the unusual position of knowing how her own story would end—she would die from an aberrant cluster of cells in her brain—but she was deeply worried about her husband, about how and whether he would live after she was gone. William was so much healthier, so much stronger than he had been as a young man, but she knew they both believed his solid foundation had been built on three planks: his antidepressant medication, daily reckoning with his mental health, and their love. With one third of that equation removed, would he fall

apart? If he did, Sylvie would no longer be there to save him. Since leaving the specialist’s office, she’d been ruminating on William, wondering if there was a loophole that might allow him to be okay. At the same time, the rest of Sylvie, her mind and body, had turned in a surprising direction: toward Julia. The diagnosis had brought a physical longing for her older sister, a longing so deep that Sylvie felt breathless. Sylvie missed the timbre of Julia’s voice when she was coming up with a plan. She missed the specific fit of their hug and her sister’s smell. She missed lying in their childhood bedroom in the dark, listening to Julia organize all of their lives. This yearning enveloped Sylvie’s entire body now, while she tried to find the light in the painting. She wondered if the tumor was a punishment for hurting her sister and was even created by the separation between them. Perhaps Sylvie’s body had been ultimately unable to bear the distance between Chicago and New York.

That night, in the kitchen of their apartment, Sylvie told William what the doctor had said. She wanted to close her eyes so she couldn’t see the news fracture his beloved, worn face, but she made herself watch. She needed to catch him if he fell.

“Are you certain?” he said. “Yes.”

After a few minutes, he said, “What do you need? What can I do?”

She didn’t say anything, but the longing was still present, and William always saw all of her. Loved all of her.

He said, “You need Julia.” Her name sounded strange coming out of his mouth. They never spoke of her anymore.

Sylvie shook her head. “It’s impossible. I would never ask her for anything.”

William studied his wife, his eyes glassy with shock and sadness. He didn’t believe in words like impossible, because of what he’d been through. He believed in trying to help; that’s what he did at work—helped young athletes stay healthy and whole—and he

believed in his marriage to Sylvie. She watched him try to figure out what could be done with the materials at hand, while the sun sank out of the sky behind him.

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