Twenty Years Gone, Still Here

My sister.


She’s been gone twenty years today.

Sue had an “it” quality, no question. Her imperfections worked with her perfections to create a unique and bombshell beauty.  Her sense of humor and fun were contagious; her occasional klutziness was endearing. Men found her irresistible; women either wanted to share her fun or were insanely jealous of her. Kids loved her.

My one regret is that she left no kids of her own. She’d always say she didn’t want them, but then she’d admit to having an urge, so she’d borrow a nephew or niece until the urge went away again. She argued with my mom and my other sister over who got to take care of toddler Monster during my single-mom days. One time she went inside to answer the portable phone and came back out a minute later to find Monster gone from the yard, as kids will do. She called 911 in a panic and my son was found within minutes, invisible in the sagebrush where he’d sat down to cry when he’d realized he was lost. The next time she watched him, a deputy jokingly took her some MRE’s, “just in case.”


We seemed to swap personas as we matured. She’d been a timid child while I was the bossy older sister. I grew up to battle anxiety and panic disorders that tried to cripple me, while Sue morphed into a daredevil tomboy and outdoor enthusiast who would go almost anywhere and try almost anything. I still shudder when I remember her letting the neighbor boy’s tarantula crawl all over her, but mostly I envied her fearlessness. She was a speed demon who did snow dances in her yard, longing for powder to catch air with her snowmobiles. Sue was strong. A guy in a park tried to force her to the ground in a clear attempt at rape; she kicked him right into the lake. She could take anything apart and fix it and put it back together by instinct; she once fixed a broken rotor in her car with bubble gum and drove it like that for two months. She could keep an entire store’s inventory in her head and sell ice to an Eskimo, as they say. Sue was the one who first believed in me as a writer. For one birthday she gave me a beautiful portable electric typewriter so I wouldn’t die of writer’s cramp. You can’t buy ribbons for it anymore, but I still have that typewriter.

My favorite memory is of a trip we took to a K-Mart-ish store (I believe we were after bubbles and jax), where we were overcome with helpless laughter at some place our conversation had wandered into, about hippo hips. I won’t try to explain it;  you had to be there and you had to be us. We were so consumed with hilarity that we were asked to leave the store. For laughing. Whatever. That was funny too. Ever after, we could crack each other up just by saying,  “Hippo hips.”


She wasn’t perfect;  no one is. She was a kleptomaniac, at least with me. Go over to her house and see my missing books on her shelves, the purple dress I’d been tearing my house apart for hanging in her closet. She had addiction issues that contributed to (but were not entirely to blame for) a divorce from a man she deeply loved and hoped to reconcile with until her last day. After a self-imposed exile failed to help her get clean and stay that way, she moved back home to Mom’s and made arrangements for a program and a sponsor.

The first day she was back I went to Mom’s to see her. I cannot tell you how happy I was; her return was one of the things I’ve been most happy for, ever. I was seemingly locked in an abusive marriage and inability to find a good job; she was seemingly locked in a spiral of substance use, not wanting to be divorced, and an equal inability to find a good job. Both of us together, we knew, could find even the crappiest of jobs and make enough to pay for my small place and stagger our shifts to care for Monster together. She’d stay clean; I’d go back to school. (Sue hated school and was not book-smart, but she had a native intelligence far superior to my ability to test well.) We turned over different ideas, we played Mario (she kicked my butt, as usual), we renewed our faith in our ability to lift each other up and out of the low spots we’d each dropped into. We hugged and we laughed and we renewed each other. I left to pick Monster up from first grade with hope I hadn’t felt in far too long. Sue was back. Everything would be all right now.


But it was not to be. The very next day, as she drove home from seeing a friend in Paradise Valley, Nevada,  Sue was killed in a single-vehicle accident. She was 31. She was alone as she drove that empty desert road, so we will never know exactly what happened, but I am still so proud of her: She had not given in to temptation. The tox panel was squeaky clean.

I am never bitter about that last day; I treasure it. We shared every iota of our sisterhood, our love for and our faith in each other and ourselves. We laughed and we planned and we had each other’s backs. We knew what we meant to each other. When it was time for her to exit stage left, nothing was left unsaid.

I never picture her as an angel, floating around in some ethereal mist, or even at rest at all, really. Her afterlife is hanging out with Jesus, with the Buddha,  heck, she’s probably made friends with John Lennon and Elvis too, with everybody, because they’re all utterly cool and it’s cool wherever she is, sipping a craft beer and laughing and shooting pool and then maybe rewiring the place because it’s fun.

No, Sue, I know you’re not gone.  You visit me in the Dreamtime and I still feel you. The other day I grabbed my phone to text you about something and was pulled up short when I remembered. Hell, you left before we even had cell phones and text messages, but it still  feels like only last week. And what about my blue sweater, that mysteriously vanished? I bet you have it.

Hippo hips. Ha ha, madeja spit your drink. Hippo hips.



Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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