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  • Writer's picturePatricia Reilly

Two Heads

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

I saw them the moment I left my office. They were standing at the end of the hall by the elevator, their two heads together, the blonde and the brunette. Sisters, inseparable. They worked in the Capitol in different offices from mine, and I saw them every day as they met for lunch, the dark head and the light, angled so, bowed almost in a reverence toward one another. I stood looking up, watching the arrow indicating sixth floor, fifth floor, but conscious of the women beside me. I thought of my own sister, Maureen, gone so long now. We might have been like these women, close and comforting to each other as we grew older. The arrow indicated that the ancient elevator was on its way down. Five. Four. I closed my eyes and flew back through a viscous fog of memory to a long-distant day.

My baby sister was in my arms. I put my face down to feel her fuzzy head with my mouth. Only five, I was allowed to hold the infant if I was sitting on the couch or in a big, soft chair. Maureen was warm and comforting and soon moved into the maple poster bed we would share until I got married.

I opened my eyes. The elevator was still on Four. Time is such a strange medium, stretching and truncating. I allowed myself to waft through the mist in my mind, ignoring snatches of other parts of my life that would distract me from this moment's dream awake, and I went back to that maple bed.

We were laughing and kicking our heels against the footboard. Every time Mother yelled for us to be quiet and go to sleep, we'd giggle more because we knew, although we could never understand why, that for some inexplicable reason, whenever we were being silly, Mother thought we were laughing at her. Often, our father, drained of hope and filled with booze, would come home after we were all asleep. He'd slam the door and yell, "He's home." On those nights, we'd lie very still in the bed, heads so close together we could breathe the fearful shallow exhales and inhales coming and going in each other while we waited for our father to come to his own bedroom door and for the fight to start.

Deep into reverie now, at the silent, closed elevator door with its expandable folding gate, I allowed myself to dip into ultimate sharing with my sister, when she was twenty and I was twenty-five.

Maureen lay in the bed she had hardly left at all for four months. Tests and treatments had filled her days and nights. All had been borne with stoic optimism. The last visitors had gone, and she was in an agitated state, coughing and scratching at the skin on her arms and legs where the nerve endings were raw. "I felt so weird tonight," she said. “It was as if I were up in the corner of the ceiling, looking down at Mother and Daddy and everyone else in the room, even looking down at myself in the chair."

It would be years before death and dying experiences were lionized, but I never doubted that what Maureen saw that night was real and true. I remember calling the doctor that night, and his coming to administer a sedative.

"Please, I don't want it." We both knew how painful it was to have a needle stuck into that papery flesh, but that was not the reason Maureen didn't want the shot. There would probably not be enough energy left for her to come awake again from that deep sleep, and we both knew it. The coughing became so severe that, with a final resignation, Maureen accepted the drug. She moved her hand to the bedside table and set down the rosary she’d been holding for so long, right next to the pictures of her fiancé and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Maureen looked at me in all honesty, and closed her eyes. I placed my head next to hers on the pillow and whispered, "I know, I know." I sat on a little stool next my sister's low cot in the dining room through all that night, our two heads together, until the breath not taken.

"Going down." The elevator came and the two sisters got on and called to me, stuck in the gel of total recall. "Aren't you going down?" Sucked out of the past, I gasped, "Oh, sure I am. What am I thinking?"

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