Chapter 23 – Sylvie

Hello Beautiful

october 2008

Sylvie picked up a book and put it down somewhere else. She rolled three carts of books to the side wall, for the teenagers to

shelve the next day. She glanced at the top shelf of one cart—it was filled with new releases. The bright, shiny covers of new books always made Sylvie a little sad. The authors and publishers were hoping their book would take the world by storm, and that was almost never the case. Sylvie had been working in this library since she was thirteen, and she’d seen hundreds of thousands of books move on and off the shelves.

She thought that witnessing this endless merry-go-round of books was what had ultimately put her off trying to publish her own. What she was writing was too precious to her to put into a commercial marketplace. Also, publication demanded an end to a story, and she wasn’t done. She had continued to write and revise in the years after she’d printed the book for Izzy, including a few memories the twins had shared with her. Sylvie had become interested in how the different stories and time periods demanded different pacing. Writing about Cecelia’s pregnancy, and Julia’s too, and Rose’s rage, had felt like trying to write her way into a tornado. The childhood memories were separate, though, like puffy clouds in the same blue sky. They didn’t touch one another: There was the time Father Cole called Sylvie out in front of the entire church for reading a novel during mass; the time Cecelia locked their family out of the house for an

hour while she finished a painting; the time their rental car broke down on the side of the road, and Rose taught them a song from her own childhood to pass the time. But during the Padavano sisters’ early adulthood, events sat on top of each other. Only in writing about them did Sylvie truly comprehend that the same day her beloved Izzy had entered the world, Charlie had left. And the day Alice was born, Rose had departed Chicago.

Sylvie couldn’t help but wonder what her own death might bring. What one-two punch would she deliver? No one in her family was pregnant; her sisters were too old, and Izzy was nowhere near motherhood, though she had a nice boyfriend who liked to watch her play chess and who managed the accounts for her tutoring business. Cecelia teased Izzy that he was more like an assistant than a boyfriend. “Works for me,” Izzy had said, with a shrug. “The sex is great.” Perhaps Alice is pregnant, Sylvie thought, then shook her head in self-recrimination. She knew nothing of Alice’s life; it was none of her business and couldn’t possibly have anything to do with Sylvie’s life or death.

Since the diagnosis, Sylvie had returned to Leaves of Grass. She wanted to absorb Whitman’s optimistic take on death; she wanted to share the poet’s open mind about what came next. Whenever Sylvie felt a quiver of fear, she repeated to herself the line: And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. She heard these words in Charlie’s voice, which placed her in the garden behind the grocer’s again. Her father had been close to death that day, and now it was Sylvie’s turn. Charlie had told his daughter what he perhaps needed to believe: that everything was beautiful, which meant his life

—even though it disappointed Rose, even though it was almost over

—had beauty. It was true: It had, everything did. Since her diagnosis, Sylvie saw beauty everywhere: in a perfectly arranged shelf of books, in the smile Emeline offered the baby in her arms, in the familiar lines of William’s face. Sylvie would catch herself staring at the stripes of light on the library floor, marveling at their loveliness.

She didn’t think about her illness except when she had one of the peculiar headaches that had sent her to the doctor in the first place. She’d continued to draw the headache and its concentric rings, almost as if she were keeping a journal. The headache was so personal, and unique, that Sylvie wanted to document it. If she’d asked, William would have looked at the drawing and listened to her explain how sometimes she even heard dim music inside the pain, but that would have been cruel. Sylvie wanted to help William, not increase his suffering. She wondered every day how she could make sure William lived—more than that, wanted to live—after she was gone.

When she’d met Kent at a café, nowhere near Pilsen or the Bulls facility, to show him her chart and MRI scan, she’d said to him, “You might need to save William again, after I’m gone. One way or another. I’m sorry about that.”

Kent, heavier in every way since his divorce, said, “Don’t worry, Sylvie. I can handle it.”

She wished William was still working on his manuscript, because she thought writing might help stitch him to his life. He’d stopped writing about six months into their relationship, though. “I don’t need it anymore,” he’d told her, and Sylvie had understood. William was working for the Northwestern team by then, and he’d replaced the silence inside him with love and friendship, his medication, and the daily thunder of basketballs hitting the court floor. William’s writing had never been a book, after all. It had been a struggle inside himself. Each sentence he wrote about the sport he loved was a match lit against his internal darkness. In his life with Sylvie, he’d no longer required this practice.

A co-worker called her name, and Sylvie turned. Her husband was walking across the library carpet toward her. William smiled at his wife, but it was a manufactured smile, the kind he’d worn when she first met him, many years earlier. He’d gone back to needing levers and pulleys to make his face do what he wanted it to do. She

could feel him thinking: Make Sylvie think you’re okay so she won’t worry.

She knew she couldn’t afford to worry now. He’d come to pick her up so they could tell Emeline and Cecelia about her diagnosis. Sylvie had told William that he didn’t need to come, but he’d insisted. Her husband’s face had been set ever since she’d told him she was sick two weeks earlier. Something inside William had turned in a new direction, and he was intent on making sure his words and actions lined up with his new route. Sylvie knew that route had to do with her, but she didn’t know what it entailed. She was newly aware of a drain—like in a bathtub—deep inside her, through which her energy was escaping. She could no longer try to understand everything. She had to let this go. She wondered if dying was simply going to be an exercise in letting go of one thing after another.

She and William held hands while they walked the few blocks to the super-duplex. It was the middle of October, and the leaves were changing colors. What a tree, Sylvie thought, when they passed an old oak. She nodded at a cardinal sitting on the roof of a car. It was a cloudy day, but there was a triangle of blue in the left corner of the sky. William and Sylvie didn’t speak; they didn’t need to.

Cecelia and Emeline both met them at the door to Emeline’s house, their faces creased with concern. Sylvie had asked them to be home, said she had something to discuss. The four of them stood in the kitchen—Josie was at work, and Izzy wasn’t there—while Sylvie said what she had to say. It reminded her of the last time she’d gathered her younger sisters to tell them something they didn’t want to hear; the one-two punch of that day had been that they’d all had to let go of Julia, like releasing a balloon. Sylvie was still grateful to Emeline and Cecelia for forgiving her, and she felt terrible that she was about to break their hearts again. It was a relief that Izzy happened not to be there; the young woman had her own studio apartment now, but she still floated from one bedroom to another, the way she had her whole life. It would have felt like too much to have

to speak to Izzy too. Sylvie needed to do this slowly, at a pace she could stand. She knew she would have to tell Rose as well, but she couldn’t bear her mother’s reaction yet. In a few months, when Sylvie was feeling sicker, she would call her mother or ask one of her sisters to.

When Sylvie managed to say the words, the twins responded differently than she would have expected. Cecelia cried, while Emeline got mad.

“Absolutely not,” she said, her voice raised. “No way. That’s not right!”

William looked at Emeline. “Nothing about this situation is right,” he said.

Cecelia said, “You double-checked everything with Kent?”

Sylvie nodded. It was remarkable how deeply they all trusted Kent. He was a sports doctor—not even a general practitioner, and certainly not an oncologist—but they all called him when they had a bad fever or texted him a picture of a cut on the back of a hand to get his opinion on whether stitches were required. Doctor was an unshakable identity, and Sylvie and her family, and all of Kent’s many friends, showed him their wounds and symptoms with a look that said, Can you fix me?

Emeline paced around the kitchen. Cecelia wiped tears off her cheeks, and more came.

It was supposed to be me,” Emeline said, in a hard voice. Sylvie and Cecelia stared at her. “Why?” Cecelia said.

“I’m supposed to be Beth, out of all of us. Not you. I always knew I would die first.” Her voice grew quieter. “Beth and I even have the same personality,” she said. “I’m the quiet one, the homebody.”

Sylvie stared at her sister with wonder. Emeline had apparently written a narrative for her own life, and Sylvie had just erased the ending. Emeline must have thought this would be the case since they were little girls. She’d always mothered and protected her sisters, and that meant taking the pain for herself. If there was a

bullet, Emeline wanted to step in front of it. She had planned to do so and hated that there could be any other result.

“Oh, Emmie,” Sylvie said. “I’m sorry.”

William said, in a hesitant tone, “Isn’t Beth a fictional character?” “This is awful,” Cecelia said.

“We can’t bear it,” Emeline said.

A great weariness ran through Sylvie, as if her blood had grown heavy. She thought, We felt that way when Julia moved away. But we got used to her absence, which means you’ll get used to mine too.

later that iGht, sylvie sat in bed with a book open in her lap. She was too sleepy to read, but the proximity of the book was comforting. Telling her sisters had required more strength than she’d had, and she was relieved it was over. William was lying next to her; he’d gotten into bed without a book. If he didn’t have the attention span or desire to read, he wouldn’t pretend to. Sylvie had always admired this about her husband. She carried a book at all times—to read, yes, but also as a handy shield for when she wanted to deflect the attention of other people. She would position a book in front of her face and think, or simply hide. For William, a book was picked up only when he wanted to read the contents.

“You and your sisters have so many reference points, such a dense history,” William said. “I never get used to it.”

Sylvie studied his face. She saw something new there, a suggestion that he was considering a long-ago piece of his own history. A reference point of his own. She said, “Are you thinking about your sister?”

William gave his smallest smile. “How could you tell? I haven’t thought of her in…” He paused. “A very long time.”

Sylvie thought, I just knew. She was aware that she had recently begun to think instead of speaking out loud, as if the two were the same thing. As if both carried the same weight and crossed the same distance.

William seemed to hear her, though; he nodded. “I was remembering when I was in high school and I broke my leg. That’s the only time I remember thinking about Caroline when I was a kid. I couldn’t play basketball, and I wanted to be gone, like her. But I think…I think I wanted to be gone in part because I wanted to be with her. I didn’t like living in my house without her. It never occurred to me in so many words, but I missed her.” He paused. “I somehow miss her even though I never knew her. Isn’t that strange?”

Sylvie put her hand over his. They had both seen the raw pain on her sisters’ faces today, when Emeline and Cecelia were forced to consider life without Sylvie. It felt true that if one of the four Padavano sisters had died as a baby, the other three would have missed her—and been missing part of themselves—for the rest of their lives.

“It makes sense to me,” she said, and tightened her grip on William’s hand. She remembered holding his frozen hand in the ambulance, decades earlier. She wanted to hold on now, so tight that nothing could pull them apart.

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