I came home one afternoon in the middle of October to find my mother on the couch, phone to her ear, hand over her mouth. I sat beside her. I heard my younger sister Maeve’s voice on the other end of the line, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. “I’m so sorry, sweetie,” was all my mother could say into the receiver. “I am so, so sorry.”
When Mom finally hung up, she sat quietly for moment before she spoke, her hand still covering her mouth. Maeve’s fiancé Dustin was in the hospital again. A new tumor on his spine pressed on his nerves in such a way that he no longer had the use of his legs. Maeve had found him on the bedroom floor after he had tried to get to the bathroom. At the hospital, the doctors performed a full body scan—if cancerous cell activity was detected, the area would light up. Dustin’s results illuminated like an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip. If he survived the year, Maeve was told, it would be a miracle.
“She’s optimistic, if nothing else,” Mom said, and told me Maeve’s plan to feed Dustin a diet of fruit and flax seed smoothies because she had read online that this regimen was proven to shrink tumors in bone cancer patients.
I thought that sounded like a crock of shit, and said so. “He’s done for,” I murmured later as Mom and I unloaded the dishwasher.
“He’s toast,” Mom agreed softly, sorting the silverware.
I didn’t know my sister’s fiancé very well. Maeve had been living in Fairfax, Virginia for about a year, and it was there she met Dustin, a twenty-one year-old bone cancer patient. We had met for the first time the previous year on Christmas Eve. He was tall, bald, and pale. He was quiet and a little awkward, wringing his hands when he spoke. He seemed fragile, and I found myself nervous talking to him, terrified I’d say the wrong thing, or I’d accidently knock him over if I got overly excited.
For some reason, I had thought Dustin was in remission, but this was not the case. He was receiving radiation treatment regularly for a tumor in his hip. Before this, there had been tumors in his skull and in his knee. Treatment was going well, but Dustin was still sick and in a lot of pain. On the first night of his stay, he clogged my bathroom sink with his vomit. He spent the majority of his visit on the couch, calling for Maeve to bring him more blankets and ginger ale and painkillers. At dinner, he asked Maeve bring him earplugs. “Your family is too loud,” he told my sister, his hands covering his ears, as if we weren’t sitting around him.
“The meds make his hearing sensitive,” Maeve whispered.
Christmas passed, and I decided that I didn’t like Dustin. It wasn’t simply because he was sick, although that’s what my family assumed. My sister was twenty-six years old—too young, in my opinion, to care for a cancer patient, and the situation made me nervous for her. When I researched this specific bone cancer, Ewing’s Sarcoma, my concern deepened. Once metastasized, the survival rate was frighteningly low.
Maeve swore Dustin was a nice person when he wasn’t stoned on Oxycodone. It was the drugs that made him mean and rude, she insisted. “He’s the sweetest guy, really. And so smart. Probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.” And she loved him. That much was clear. She asked me to give him another chance. I told her I would.
In January, Maeve and Dustin had driven to Massachusetts for a visit, but by the end of the weekend, Dustin was too sick to drive back to Virginia, and Maeve didn’t think she could stay awake the entire trip. I had a few days off from work, so I volunteered to help her drive Dustin’s rickety Chevy conversion van he had inherited from his father back to Virginia, and planned to fly home the following day. In the end, I drove almost the entire time while Dustin sat shotgun and Maeve slept in the back.
When our road trip began, I was optimistic, truly believing this was our opportunity to bond, but from the very start, Dustin provided a running commentary on everything from my driving, to my taste in music, to my reliance on GPS.
“I’ve never met a woman who could read a map,” he said at one point. I had been driving for over six hours. It was around 3:00 a.m., and we were somewhere in Pennsylvania.
“I seriously doubt that,” I said.
He chuckled, turned off the GPS, and announced that he was going to navigate.
“Turn the GPS back on before I kill you,” I told him.
“You’re just like your sister,” he said. “You rely too much on technology.”
“You’re using a map on your phone,” I said.
He paused. “Point taken.” He turned the GPS back on. He sat silently for a few minutes before saying anything else. “You drive like an old lady,” he finally said.
I yanked the wheel, pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and hit the brakes so hard he jerked forward. I turned to him and said, “Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
“I was just kidding,” he said quietly, but I knew that he wasn’t. He didn’t say another word.
“He uses his cancer as a crutch,” I told Maeve the next day when she dropped me off at the airport. “He says whatever he wants, and nobody calls him on his behavior because he’s sick. That’s bullshit.”
“I wish you could see him the way I do,” she said.
I struggled to understand what she saw.
Dustin proposed on Valentine’s Day. I thought the engagement was a mistake, but I tried to be happy for my sister. I displayed the proper amount of excitement when Maeve texted a picture of the ring. When she asked me to be her maid of honor, I told her I’d be delighted and promised her a toast of romantic-comedy proportions. We looked at venues, sampled wedding cake, and even visited Kleinfeld’s in New York City where Maeve said “yes to the dress.” We picked out shoes and colors and songs. Meanwhile, the groom got sicker and sicker. The treatment wasn’t going well—the tumor wasn’t shrinking, and Dustin spent a lot of time sleeping. Still, we continued to plan.
My youngest sister Bridget had a better relationship with Dustin, and she had asked him about his cancer during a recent visit. He told her that it would it never go away. “It’s in my blood,” he had said. “It’s in my bones.”
“He knows he’s going to die young,” Bridget told me. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“Yeah, but has he said this to Maeve?” I asked.
Bridget shrugged. “I’m sure he has, but I don’t think it would matter. Maeve hears what she wants to hear. She’s sure he’ll get better.”
“The eternal optimist,” I said. Bridget nodded.
And then came the October day when Maeve found Dustin helpless on the bedroom floor. The cancer had taken over, but Maeve remained hopeful. By December, her hope had evolved into full-blown denial.
Maeve had a plan: she would quit her job and move Dustin to Massachusetts. They would live with us at our parents’ house and have access to some of the best hospitals in the world. My parents were okay with this plan, mostly because they wanted her home before she had a complete emotional breakdown. I had even volunteered to give up my room for the cause. But Dustin’s condition worsened rapidly, and when he decided to stop treatment, his doctors suggested hospice. There was nothing else to be done. Dustin would move to a hospice house, but Maeve insisted he would only be there a short time. Once he could walk again, she said, they would move to Massachusetts. When Maeve called our mother with this news, she flew to Virginia the same night.
Bridget and I drove to Fairfax a few days later to help Maeve pack her apartment. Though we were exhausted from the twelve-hour drive, Bridget and I visited the hospital the night we arrived. The room was dimly lit, Dustin’s family was there, and there was some Christmas concert playing on the small television attached to the wall. I had never met Dustin’s mother, brother, or sister before, and that moment didn’t feel like the right time for small talk, so I hung back. I’m not sure they even knew I was there. Leaning against the wall, I watched Maeve at her fiancé’s side, helping him take a sip of a smoothie she had brought him earlier—a smoothie she still believed would save his life.
Dustin’s mother asked Maeve to take a picture of the present family members, and I realized then she knew this was it—this may be the last picture they take together. His older brother joked about the glare off Dustin’s bald head as he rubbed it playfully. It was the end. They all knew it. I wondered what it was like to be so young and to know that you were going to die.
When Dustin’s family cleared out, I sat in a vinyl armchair and nearly fell asleep. Maeve and Dustin argued about something (probably the gross smoothie) and then Dustin said that he wanted Bridget and me to leave. He didn’t like being stared at, he said. “And she,” he said, looking at me, “doesn’t want to be here. I can tell.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, even though he was one hundred percent correct.
“She doesn’t even like me,” Dustin continued. Maeve tried to convince him otherwise as I stood to leave. “Why is she even here? She hates me.”
“Yeah, okay, Dustin,” I said as I walked to the door. “Have a good night.”
My tone was more sarcastic than I had intended, but I didn’t apologize. I had a feeling I would never speak to Dustin again, but at that moment I didn’t care. I left the room and didn’t look back.
I wandered the hospital’s empty corridors unable to find the exit, or even a sign pointing me in the right direction. At the time I didn’t know if it was exhaustion or concern for my sister or the fact that Dustin would not survive or a combination of the three, but when I reached another dead end I leaned against a Pepsi machine and sobbed so hard that my entire body shook. I’m not sure how long I stood there crying, but it was long enough to attract the attention of a nurse who appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” she asked, sounding more irritated than concerned.
“I can’t find the exit,” I told her as I dried my face with my sleeve. The nurse gave a simple set of directions, and I left without saying another word.
Back at Maeve’s apartment, I snuck past my mother who had dozed off on the couch. I crawled onto the air mattress in the corner of the living room, and pulled a blanket over my body, still fully clothed. I pretended to be asleep when I heard my sisters return. Mom woke and met them in the kitchen. “How could she be so insensitive?” Maeve said. “He’s sick, and she’s being such a bitch.”
I assumed “she” was me. Maeve sounded liked she had been crying. I wondered if Mom and Bridget had the urge to correct Maeve—Dustin wasn’t simply sick. He was dying.
Mom tried to calm her down, reminding her how tired we all were, and how overwhelming this was. The bathroom door slammed. “So rude,” I heard Maeve say through the door. I’m sure she knew I was only pretending to be asleep.
The following day I drove a U-Haul filled with the contents of my sister’s apartment up the eastern seaboard. Maeve hardly spoke to me before I left, still upset about how I had treated Dustin at the hospital. I understood, but I wasn’t sorry. She reluctantly accepted a hug before I climbed into the truck and drove away.
The next time I saw Maeve it was a few days before Christmas. She came home, grudgingly, leaving Dustin behind in the hospice house. Neither of us brought up what had happened when we last spoke. She spent a lot of time on the phone with Dustin’s mother, making sure she was feeding Dustin the smoothies. “I know they’re feeding him junk food,” Maeve said at one point, pacing the living room. “I shouldn’t have left him.”
The night before Christmas Eve, Maeve, Bridget, Neila, Bridget’s two-year-old daughter, and I drove all over the South Shore to see neighborhoods decorated in Christmas lights. Somewhere in Hingham, Maeve announced she’d be heading back to the hospice house the next morning, two days earlier than planned.
“Can’t you stay until Christmas?” I asked. “Dustin’s with his family, and I’m sure the staff’s taking good care of him. He’ll be fine if you stay a little longer.”
“I have to go back to help him get well,” Maeve replied. “The sooner I get back, the sooner he’ll be home.”
I wondered if Maeve knew what hospice was, but I already knew the answer: of course she did. How could she not? She was a bright woman who worked in the healthcare industry; she must have known that when you check into hospice, you check out feet first.
I glanced at Bridget. I waited for her to say something; she never had a problem speaking her mind. She remained silent, slowly turning up the stereo’s volume. This had been the routine since the beginning of Maeve and Dustin’s engagement. Nobody wanted to tell her that planning a wedding with a dying man was terrible idea. We played along to avoid emotional fallout. Everyone but Maeve knew the groom wouldn’t make it to the altar. Even Dustin knew it was over, which I would have found heartbreaking if I wasn’t so furious. He knew he was going to die, but he still proposed. I couldn’t understand his reasoning. Did he do it for Maeve or for himself? Either way, it was selfish. Surely he knew this wouldn’t end well for either of them. This was the reason I was angry. This was the reason I didn’t like him.
I wanted to scream at my sister, shake her by the shoulders, rattle the denial out of her head. We were afraid for her. She needed to be with us. We needed to protect her, but we didn’t know how.
But I didn’t speak either. We continued to drive through the twinkling culs-de-sac, oohing and ahhing along with Neila.
In the morning, we waved goodbye.
It was just after noon on Christmas Day when Maeve called with the news. Dustin was gone. Bing Crosby crooned in the background. Dustin was dead, and I felt nothing. I thought when the moment came I would feel something, some twinge of grief, but there was nothing. Maeve had stayed by his side until the end, still optimistic that he was going to pull through. A Christmas miracle, she said. He died while Maeve was getting a coffee. When she returned, Dustin’s mother told her that he had passed. She felt that Dustin had been afraid to let go with Maeve sitting beside him—that he was afraid to leave her behind. My sister lay beside her fiancé one last time. She stayed with his body more than half an hour before she was gently ushered from the room.
Mom and I left for Pennsylvania that night. I drove most of the distance, consuming so many 5-hour Energy shots that I was sure my heart would explode. By the time we arrived at Dustin’s mother’s house, I was delirious. I slept in a room decorated with pictures of Dustin, but didn’t notice until the next morning when I woke to his large, pencil-drawn portrait staring me down from across the room. I wanted out of there, but I was afraid to leave and face my sister.
We ate breakfast at a crowded diner. I told Maeve stories about Neila saying curse words on Christmas Eve to make her laugh, which she did, but by the time the waitress poured the coffee, I was out of funny stories and sat quietly, stirring more and more sugar into my mug. Maeve wept as she gazed out the window, discreetly dabbing her eyes with a napkin. I gave myself a headache while holding back my tears; I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to cry for someone I didn’t like much. It didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t fair. The waitress didn’t come back for a long time. I didn’t blame her.
Maeve moved home shortly before the New Year. She slept a day and a half straight when she arrived, and she didn’t change out of her pajamas for over a week. I stood outside her door one of the first nights, my hand on the doorknob. She was crying so loudly. I didn’t open the door because I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what to say.
She rarely cried publicly, and we never talked about Dustin. I’m sure I was the last person she wanted to speak to about her dead fiancé. So we talked about other things and watched Pretty Little Liars obsessively.
After a few weeks, Maeve asked me to join her at yoga class. I was hesitant, but it actually worked well for me. I liked the idea of people gathering for one common purpose, lined up on our sticky yoga mats, arms stretched out in warrior pose. What I liked most was the sense of calm that yoga offered, and I began to understand why Maeve went to class five days a week. It must’ve been comforting for her to inhabit a space where she could just focus on herself and put her grief aside for an hour and a half. Where her goal was to get from one pose to the next and to position her limbs correctly and forget about what she had lost for a little while.
We lay on our mats, arms stretched out at our sides, eyes focused on the ceiling. When told to roll to the side, Maeve rolled right, and I rolled left; our hands touched, our eyes met, and her lips curled into a slight smile. I loved her more than I ever had at that moment. I wished I could crawl over to her and hold her like I used to when we were small.
I began dreaming of Dustin regularly, and I wondered if my subconscious mind was punishing me. I’d wake, panic-stricken, convinced that his ghost would appear at the foot of my bed. One time I dreamed that he and I were sitting in front of my childhood home in the hatchback I once owned. We needed to get inside the house, but he couldn’t walk well, so he leaned on me. When I woke, I swore I could still feel his weight pressing into my shoulder.
I feared Dustin knew about the comment I made the day after I left him at the hospital: I had told my mother that I wished that he would just “hurry up and die” so that our lives could get back to normal. We were standing in the middle of an Office Depot looking for bubble wrap when I blurted it out, and I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. Mom said she understood my frustration, but I was still ashamed. I figured I deserved this haunting.
On Valentine’s Day, my sisters and I went out with a couple of our girlfriends, but no one paid attention to the volume of wine Maeve was consuming. She and I decided to stay for trivia, and Maeve continued to drink. By the time I realized how drunk she was, it was too late. The bartender handed me a bucket just in time, and I held the bucket with one hand and pulled her hair back with the other. I helped her with her coat and guided her toward the exit, but before we made it to the door, Maeve turned to a group of guys at the bar because she thought they were laughing at her. “My fiancé is dead,” she shouted at them. “Happy Valentine’s Day, you fucking pricks!”
At home, I helped her undress and held her as she sobbed. “I wish I was dead,” she moaned, “I wish I was dead.” And I cried, too, still not knowing what to say, rocking my sister like a child until she was calm enough to lie down. I sat at the edge of her bed until her breathing evened out and I was sure she was asleep.
In lieu of a traditional funeral, Dustin’s family decided they would scatter his ashes off the coast of Sarasota, Florida and then have a party on Siesta Key. This, Maeve said, had been his favorite place. They set a date in the middle of March, arranged a boat ride with a clergyman, and planned to have the beach reception catered by Olive Garden, Dustin’s favorite restaurant. Dustin’s mother had asked Maeve to prepare a few words. “Like a toast, I guess,” she told me. She refused to call it a eulogy. She wanted my help because she thought words and public speaking were more my area of expertise than hers. But mostly she was afraid she couldn’t do it, even for Dustin.
On the morning of the ceremony, Maeve and I headed to a Target near our hotel; Maeve needed a container to hold a scoopful of Dustin’s ashes. She wasn’t satisfied with Tupperware, and we were about to give up when she found small Mason jars, miniature versions of the ones we used to trap insects when we were kids.
She realized that she still needed something to transfer the ashes into the container, and was upset by idea of using a kitchen spoon. When I told her, gently, that it really didn’t matter how the ashes got into the jar, she didn’t reply.
At the pier, we met up with Dustin’s mother, siblings, and extended family, and learned that the boat wasn’t as big as they thought it would be, and some of us would have to stay behind. In the end, Mom and Maeve went out on the boat, while the rest of our family stayed onshore. We agreed to meet at Siesta Key in a few hours for the reception.
As I stood on the dock and watched the boat chug away, I thought about how different things would be if I really knew Dustin and loved him like those twenty or so people heading toward the horizon. Over time, Dustin’s death had left a void I didn’t expect, and strange grief I didn’t understand. Years later, I’m still grappling with this loss, and the only conclusion I can draw is that I was mourning the way things could’ve been. If I could go back, I’d like to think I’d try harder with Dustin. Maybe I’d be more patient. Maybe I’d try to understand him. But then I realize some people just don’t get along, and even if it were possible, going back wouldn’t change anything. I’d still think he was jerk, and the feeling would still be mutual.
When we arrived at Siesta Key, I realized I’d never been to a beach in Florida, none that I could recall, anyway. The sand was as white as baby powder and just as soft, I noticed, as I bent over to pick up the flats I’d kicked off. I understood then why Dustin preferred Florida’s beaches to ours in Massachusetts, and I could almost agree with him. Almost.
As I walked toward the ocean, I tried not to think about death, but I couldn’t help imagining Dustin’s ashes floating in the Gulf of Mexico, swirling in the waves, chips of bone drifting to the ocean floor. He was once a living, breathing person, and now he’s nothing but scattered ashes. Siesta Key was spectacular at sunset, and it seemed wrong to be having such heavy thoughts while surrounded by bare-chested runners and bikini-clad women playing volleyball beneath a rose-colored sky.
The party was held at a large cluster of picnic tables, and I sat by myself as far back as I could manage, pushing cold fettuccine around my plate with a mostly-stale breadstick. Stories of Dustin were shared, and I knew then Maeve was right—they were toasts, not eulogies. I raised my Moscato-filled party cup at the end of each one. I watched Maeve flit about in her bright red dress, throwing her head back and laughing louder than anyone, and I knew if she wasn’t laughing, she’d be crying. We made eye contact briefly at one point—she smiled, and I waved, and then she returned to entertaining the guests.
Back at the hotel, Maeve removed the Mason jar from her purse and placed it on the nightstand. A scoop of Dustin’s ashes was inside, fine as the beach sand still in my shoes. Her eyes fixed on the jar as if she still didn’t believe that he was gone, as if the ashes weren’t enough evidence to convince her. She made a joke about Dustin sitting on the nightstand, and how could we not giggle imagining a six-foot tall bald man perched between the beds? I climbed into bed beside her, trying to be unobtrusive as possible, because I knew she was devastated, and I knew she wished it was Dustin beside her instead of her older sister. I said goodnight, but she didn’t respond. I convinced myself it was because her earplugs were in and she was already asleep.