Helix by Anne Gudger

Winner, 2017 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

ocean meets sky, horizon - sand and waves in forefront

Bare feet in the cool of sand. We stood almost pinky toe to pinky toe, pale pink polish (hers) to cobalt blue (mine). Two five-foot-two sisters. Brown hair. Fox red highlights. One with hazel eyes and flecks of gold. One with dark brown and a tiger-eye. Girl sisters who’d shared tutus and horses and their parents’ crazy divorce. Grown sisters who’d shared heart grief and death and birth too. Sisters pressing heels to beach. Sisters open-mouthed, swallowing ocean, soaking in horizon, sky meets sea, that in-between place fat with possibilities.

Hands in sand-lined pockets, I fingered two chalky white heart-shaped Malibu rocks that still smelled like ocean. One rock smooth with a pink vein. One with chiseled edges. Walnut sized. Plum sized.

“I hope this is right,” she said. Her voice slid on hope and right.

“Me too,” I said, pressing heart rocks to skin.

My brave sister. Ready to check herself into a treatment center in the morning, bribing her depression and anxiety wrapped in bipolar with Hang On Please Hang On Maybe We Can Get What We Need There.

We’d flown from Seattle to LA. Checked into a fancy Malibu Beach hotel close to Rivers to Recovery where she’d stay for 30 days. Where Depression would meet compassion. Where she could feel safe and understood. Where her shadow self could breathe.

A month before, I was with her when her therapist asked, “Are you hanging on by your last fingernail?” My sister whispered, “Yes,” her voice a squeak, a crack. Hollow cheeks. Pale skin. Tender skin. Skin that looked like tears could split it. I felt the wound under her “yes” and wished we could speed to LA.

Ocean air. Salty. Sandy. Smelled like seaweed and shore and moist. The ocean with power to melt troubles, flood pain in its molecules. The ocean. Spooled in. Out. Heart soother. A giant rocking chair.

Rolled up jeans, barefoot, squishing sand between toes. Waves crashed on the steep shore, licking our ankles.

“Are you sure the tide’s going out?” she asked, eyes flicking from me to the ocean to the hotel. Her anxiety tentacles winced.

“I am,” I said, staring at the rolling water, the wave pattern. My ocean sense said We’re Fine. Keep Walking.

Then. A sneaker wave broke and soaked us both up to our crotches, wobbled us like we were slinkies.

“No!” she yelled.

“Shit!” I screamed. “Hang on!”

I grabbed her hand and dug my feet into runaway sand. The surprise wave slipped off and there we were. Soaked. Shivering. Laughing. Her laugh lit her smile. When was the last time I heard her laugh? I couldn’t remember.

Sister bond. Sister relationship like a figure eight, always connected, sometimes close in the center, at the heart of the X, sometimes stretched to the outer rim. Sometimes in motion. Sometimes still. Always in the loops of 8. Infinity. Double helix. Shared DNA. Sister electricity. I think of either of my sisters and my phone rings.

After “Good night” and “I love you,” I set my beach heart-shaped rocks on the nightstand and curled between lavender-scented sheets, cool on my skin. Waves crashed outside my oceanside room. The comfort of the ocean spooled in and out, water smacking the shore, racing to its water body, swallowing worries, gulped by fish and sea lions and mermaids too. Double doors open-mouthed to the night sky, a plump moon and pinpricks of stars. I looped my finger through the night glitter, tracking figure eights, upright like the number, sideways like infinity. Tracked with two fingers, connecting star dots in double helixes.

* * *

My dad has a wound on his shinbone. Won’t heal. Won’t close. Started with radiation for a melanoma. It’s oozed for two years. He’s been to the doctor. Been to specialists. He’s on to wound specialists now. Wound Clinic. I like the sound of Wound Clinic. A place we could all go and say, “Here. This is where it hurts. Here’s my hurt. Right here.” I’d show them my heart, stitched with lightning, thick with scar tissue.

The wound nurses scrape at dead skin that circles my dad’s open wound, like the crusty shoreline of a shrinking lake. They rebandage him.

They tell him it’s getting better.

They tell him it isn’t.

They tell him, “See you next time.”

“Is it getting better?” I ask.

“About the same,” he says.

“Does it hurt?” I ask.

“When they scrape it,” he says, with a wince so small it’s easy to miss. My Boot Straps Dad. My Only Look Forward Not Back Dad. My All Grit Dad.

I want to see it. It’s always covered up. This wound with its barbed wire edges and clean bandages. This covering up instead of getting to the core, busting through hurt to healing.

My father’s woundedness. Unhealed.

Too easy of a metaphor.

The things he’s never said.

Burrowed hurts. A worm under skin. In Vodka. In divorce.

The father wound he inherited. Drinking. In his DNA. Granddad who would drive off the ranch into town, a pile of grandkids in the back seat of his clay-colored Lincoln Continental, leave us kids in the car while he pounded a bar drink or two. More. Did he lean in his cowboy boots coming back to us?

Dad and his drinking brothers. Vodka. Gin. Rainier Beer. One uncle drove drunk. Crashed his car. Died. He had three small boys.

Dad went to rehab on my 14th birthday.

But he quit, I told a therapist when I was in my 20s and afraid to look.

“You were 14?” She asked.


“A lot happens by 14,” she said, and I got the shivers.

Unspoken hurts that seethed like underground fire. Festered and spread.

“We never fought,” Mom said proudly for years after Dad left.

“We probably should have,” she said too, her regret voice. Her cigarette inches from her coral lips, smoke curling towards the popcorn ceiling in a lazy helix.

* * *

Weathered hands. Bumpy veins, the tributaries to my heart. That kidney-shaped scar on my left palm. Bean sized. Pink and smooth. Like a burn wound. Like a puncture. A scar I came with.

Was it bright pink when I was a girl? “What’d I do here?” I’d ask Mom and she’d shrug. Neither of us with a memory.

I read that sometimes scars are carried forward from past lives. A fizzle and pop of recognition: I’d been stabbed in the palm. Maybe burned. In another life. And I brought that scar. Brought it through the stars. Carried it from an older hand to a young one. It’s never ached or itched or grown or shrunk. Brighter in heat. Duller in cool. Small pink scar that rests between the life and marriage lines on my left palm.

Marriage line. Broken line that says two.

“No way,” I told the palm reader I’d snuck off to when I was a teenager. Used baby-sitting money to peek at Down The Road. My skin prickled. A full body shiver. Then a pinch deep in my side. Gut wound. Sludge from my parents’ divorce that rides in ribs, sleeps in my cells. Scars from the ulcer too I grew when I was eight.

“No way,” I said to the woman with dark hair and wrinkles etched around her eyes. “I’ll never get divorced.”

I stared past her at piles of books on metaphysics, at her collection of hourglasses. Mini ones like egg timers. One a foot tall with black sand. Another two feet tall with white sand and brass legs.

That palm reader cradled my hand. Soft. Her eyes fuzzed up. Light glinted off her hand-sized silver hoop earrings. No words. Did she know?

No divorce.

Know widowed.

Know broken.

No protesting would alter my Down The Road.

Know two marriage lines was true. Would be true. At 13 I didn’t know there’s more than one way to be married twice. Widow. Widowed. Widowhood. Words not in my lexicon. Yet.

* * *

In the morning a limo picked up my sister. The driver tipped his hat to shade his face. Sun bounced off his brass hatband.

“Here,” I said, pressing a plum-sized heart-shaped rock into her palm. Chalky white rock bisected by a pink vein snaking the surface. My favorite of the two I’d scavenged the night before.

My throat a soggy sponge. Chest squeezed hard. Heart drunk in worry. “Keep this with you,” I said like all the times I offered her gifts when we were little: dandelions, daisy chains, shells, rocks. “Like I’m with you.”

“But—” she started. The wind flattened her bangs against her forehead. I curled her fingers around the rock with its pink vein.

We stood in the parking lot. California sun shining up my sister’s copper highlights.

Did the driver clear his throat?

“I gotta go,” she said.

I hugged her, hard, whispered “You sure? I can still take you.”

“Better this way,” she said, tucking the chalky white heart rock with its pink vein in her front pocket.

“Travel safe,” she said in that big sister way since I was flying home to Portland that afternoon.

“Love you.”

“Love you too. Times infinity.”

The lump in my heart swelled as she patted her pocket with the heart rock and folded herself in, then stretched out in the back seat of the limo.

I told myself Rivers to Recovery was way better than the psych ward I left her at years ago. The psych ward in the old part of a hospital: celadon colored walls, each room with a twin metal bed, bleached white sheets and a frost thin blanket. The nurse with the frizzy hair and gap between her front teeth who smelled like tuna salad who asked, “Do any other family members suffer from depression?” My sister nodded. “My mom,” she said. “Our mom. Our grandma.” My sister bit the corner of her bottom lip like she does. “And my sister,” she added and blinked at me. “When her husband died.”

My throat ached between my ears. I didn’t want my depression on my sister’s chart. No. It’s exactly what I wanted. Like when we poked our fingers with a needle and she rubbed hers with mine, mine with hers. Blood sisters. Side by side sisters. Sister love at the heart of the X. The cross of figure eight. The center of infinity. That place where we go on and on.

“It’s okay. I’ll be okay,” my sister said, soft, slumping into the curve of the orange plastic chair, pulling on her fingers.

After a long hug that wasn’t long enough, I peeled myself off of her and slouched out the heavy,

locked door.

I couldn’t turn and look back.

I couldn’t not turn.

When I did turn, the fortress-like double doors were closing to a sliver of grey linoleum.

My stomach crashed to my toes and rocketed to my throat. I threw up in the parking lot and cried all the way home.

I had to leave her again.

This time in a beautiful place.

Still, I had to leave her.

Ancient ache. Buried in muscles and tissue. Burrowed in my gut. That Make It Right Ache.

Bottomless with fangs and garbage breath. Wound with boozing family roots, depression roots. Wound with tentacles that can still stretch to now on hard days even though love swells in my cells.

I cried as the limo pulled out of the hotel driveway. Black limo so shiny it reflected the cotton candy clouds. Tears dripped off my chin, plopped on my T-shirt, and spread in salty wet blooms.

Like watercolors on wet paper. A pinch in my chest. My heart sac shrunk a little more.

She half turned and waved right before the car disappeared around a curve, and I was glad I’d stood like that. In case she looked.

* * *

“This wound,” my dad says. “Sure wish it would heal.”

His eyes are small and watery now. Pupils deep. They remind me of the center of a lake. Eyes protected by a hood of skin under his brows like shade trees on the lakeshore.

I want to tell him it’s not about his shin oozing.

I want to tell him it’s subterranean hearts, unspoken words.

This DNA of words stuck in throats, hanging off helixes.

Words I long for:

I’m sorry.

Please forgive me.

I love you.

Visiting Dad in Arizona and he clears his throat. “I have to tell you something,” he says, and my gut goes to Oh-oh, Am I in trouble.

“I have to apologize for how I’ve been this week, he says.” At for, at how, at I’ve he starts to cry. Full tears. Wet and slick. Words and tears under pressure. Released. So many tears he’s held back.

I drop to my knees near his feet. “It’s okay,” I say. My own tears swamp my chest and spill out.

“I love you Dad,” I say.

“Love you too,” he says and pushes tears with the pad of his thumb.

Soon after Dad apologized. After I dried tears and calmed my heart, I called my grown kids.

“I’m sorry for my fuck-ups,” I say.

“What?” they both say.

“I know there are things I missed,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“What’s going on?” my son says.

“What happened?” my daughter asks.

And a memory mouth opens: me reading to my kids at bedtime in the calm of the night. My reading warm-up laced with sorries. “Sorry I snapped at you over the mess, the broken.” I over apologized to my kids. I always wanted them to know I love them endlessly.

“Do you have to write all that?”

“I do.”

Because. Words. To my loved ones. In the world.

Love words in my marrow, seeping through pores, weeping on skin.

Word healing.

Heart healing.

I won’t get it all right. It takes generations.

Healing ripples backwards and forwards. Love winds through the ether–to great-great grandparents, to great-great grandchildren. Helixes of healing, plumb with love.

* * *

My sister and I visited Rivers to Recovery a month before she went. Toured the residential mental health facility in Pacific Palisades. A gorgeous place dotted with Cape Cod cottages tucked in the hillside. Resort feeling. Like you’d exchange luggage for spa slippers and cucumber water. Luscious gardens. Looping stepping stone paths. The ocean, coiling in and out, pounding the shore, flooding back to its sea blue self, leaving behind a milk mustache. Tangy sea air. The taste of salt on tongues. “Ooh,” we both said when we were shown a room with antiques, Egyptian cotton bedding and robin’s egg blue walls. “Are all the rooms private?” my sister asked. “I really need a private room. I haven’t had a roommate for almost 30 years.”

She has bipolar disorder—mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs that can last for weeks or months. It’s a chronic disorder that can last years or a lifetime. Bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million American adults.

My sister was diagnosed in her early 30s after drinking and drugging through her 20s.

Self-medicating. Self-soothing.

Bipolar. Something she has. Not something she is. A label with symptoms and suggested treatments. This brown-haired, hazel-eyed woman with a heart the size of the sky is so much more. Daughter. Sister. Aunt. Cousin. Friend. She’s artist. Writer. Dog lover. Cat lover. Horse rider. Skier. Best gift giver in the universe. Born under Cancer sign. Water sign: imaginative, loyal, intuitive.

No cure and, while treatment helps, the dark side of some of my sister’s meds are ugly.

Hallucinations. She slept at my house. Evening spilled to night. And “Time for my nighttime drug,” she said.

“Alright,” I said, thinking I’d sit with her.

“You should go to bed,” she said and blinked a beat or two. “Sometimes I see pterodactyls before I fall asleep.” I winced and wanted to stay. “Really,” she said when I didn’t move. “You don’t need to see me shiver under the covers.”

I’ve felt helpless, useless all these years, witnessing her highs and lows (Manic creating. Art. Writing. Manic shopping. The flip side. Depression. The deep down to her high up. Blinds squeezed shut. Only dragging out of bed to pee and eat peanut butter toast.) Me wanting to be the Good Sister, kind and loving, the right words, the right silences. Wishing those magic wands we made as girls—out of twigs, rulers, the insides of paper towels, sprinkled with fairy dust—worked.

Wishing for ways to bring girlhood delight forward. When we yanked on stick-out slips for tutus and danced ballets for Mom or tangoed cheek to cheek with the schritch of slips pressed between us. When she painted both our faces, dressed us up in Dad’s old shirts, used sticks for canes and we were vaudeville characters. When we sang “Officer Krumpke” from West Side Story, full tilt:

Gee, Officer Krumpke, we’re very upset;

We never had the love that every

Child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents,

We’re misunderstood.

Deep down inside us there is good!

There is good.

The Good Sister part of me wanted to do the impossible: fix her. If I could be with her the way she was with me 25 years ago when my first husband died. I was 28 and six months pregnant. Then I couldn’t see goodness and love on the other side of loss and grief. Couldn’t predict that oceans of thunder tears, mountains of swear words, crushed heart, stumbling through grief’s fire would lead to healing and growth, would lead back to love. Couldn’t imagine after my sweet son, I’d remarry in another two years, have a beautiful daughter in two more. Couldn’t imagine Happily Ever still knew my address.

Family and friends loved me through the belly of grief. My sister understood my depression.

She slept over, armed with bottomless bags of peanut M&M’s and The National Enquirer. We watched childhood re-runs: Brady Bunch, Mr. Ed, Bewitched. She understood “be with.” No I Can Make It Better. No It Was Meant To Be. No There Must Be A Reason. Fuck that. Be with. Countless countable evenings side by side sinking into the old plaid couch, but I always knew I wouldn’t sink all the way because my sister was there.

“M&M?” she’d say and pass me the party-sized bag.

Sometimes sitting thigh to thigh, I’d lean my head on her shoulder and cry. She’d hand me a Kleenex when my snot got thick and slick.

After my son was born, she and I took turns wearing down the carpet in a lazy 8 loop around the family room. Circle the rocking chair. Circle the playpen. Repeat. Repeat. “It’s okay, Baby,” she’d coo, rubbing his tiny back. “Your mom and auntie are right here. I’ll always be here.”

I wanted to be right there with her even though I knew I couldn’t.

Wanted girlhood magic.

Wanted to tell salt water and waves how brave my sister is. Her own hero who traveled into the dark with her heart and questions and hope.

Rooted to the shore. Salty. Sandy. The crash of the ocean then hum between waves. Heart rock in my pocket. Chalky white with chiseled edges. Sand in my pocket seams. The horizon. That in-between space where sea meets sky, where infinity lives. Where You’ve Done Your Best lives. Where Love and Grace live. Love. Blunts the edges of hard. Love. It’s where I want to say I stood.

Anne GudgerAnne Gudger is an Oregon/Montana/Oregon writer. Sea and sky flood her cells. She’s been lucky to have words in Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, Slippery Elm, Pithead Chapel, Entropy and more. She lives with her sweet husband and has two fabulous grown kids and a bonus son-in-law.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Barbara L. Hanson

  7 comments for “Helix by Anne Gudger

  1. Dear Anne,

    Congratulations on your winning essay! It left me breathless with both nostalgia and hope, as well as a deeper appreciation for the bonds we have as a family. It was a beautiful essay. Congratulations again!

  2. Wow. I kept trying to slow down, to savor the words. But I honestly could NOT wait for the next line. And then the next. Oh, gosh – thank you so much for sharing that. I know it will stay with me for a very long time.

  3. Breathtaking. Really fabulous to have the experience – a taste – of such love as you have for your sister. Swept up and away. Thank you!

  4. That was absolutely lovely. You captured the beauty, mystery, and unflinching love of sisters that endure the battle and tend to one another’s scars. Brava!

Share a Comment