The “what-ifs” in life bother me; I suppose it’s what bothers most people about this plane of existence. What If Napoleon had won at Waterloo; What If Lee had won at Gettysburg; What If Hitler invaded England instead of Russia; What If Kennedy was never assassinated; What If the Cubs won the World Series in the 2000s?
Okay, that last one was a personal question but it is germane to my soliloquy: What Ifs do not have to be world-shattering. It won’t matter to anyone but the city of Chicago and me, if the Cubs won the Series again. In fact, winning the Series doesn’t make a hair of difference in the big scheme of world events. For most ordinary people this holds true, in nearly every facet of our lives. What if I had moved to California right out of high school instead of going to college? Or what if I had studied medicine instead of theater? What if I had taken auto mechanics in high school instead of wasting time in home economics class Freshman year? Would anyone have cared? No, not one person I knew would have given a hot damn about auto mechanics or acting or the Chicago Cubs except me. And my sister Annie. She loved Chicago.
What if my sister Annie had not gone skydiving August 4, 1979? The world would have kept turning, but my family was changed forever. She loved jumping. She had been skydiving for several years and knew what she was doing. She was fastidious about packing her chute and had a good bunch of friends she went on jumps with. But during her jump that day, she couldn’t balance herself enough to grab her release handle. Observers said they saw her repeatedly try, but as she did the movement made her tumble. Finally all she could do was trust in the automatic emergency chute mechanism, which was supposed to open at a specific altitude if the main chute had not deployed. Those were the Emergency Chute manufacturer’s guarantee and the jump club trusted them. This was the one fateful time, when that trust was empty. My sister plummeted to the ground in an Illinois grain field. She was 31.
She was a private individual, and I never had much opportunity to get to know her. She was nine years my senior and interacted with my older sisters. She taught me to play guitar when I was a middle-schooler, and then she moved out of state and her visits home were infrequent. She regularly sent money home to my mother to help her with expenses, and she always brought home unique plants for my mother’s yard, turning it into an exotic botanical area that was the envy of the local Garden Club.
She was an artist of stunning ability, turning out pencil sketches of horses that looked photo-realistic. She never thought her efforts were good enough and in fact, often destroyed artwork once she was done with it. Mama had to sneak a piece away in order to save it from destruction. Annie did not destroy the wonderful papier-mache creations she crafted and used to decorate her dorm room. I remember going to help her move home for winter break and seeing a fantastic spider web and spider in one corner of her room, along with ducks and peacocks and all sorts of creatures all around.
She listened to Simon and Garfunkel, Al Green and the Grateful Dead. She taught me to play “Ripple” with a delicate finger-picking style. She taught me a Spanish song “Dona” that sounded pretty, but was actually a terribly sad song about a calf going to slaughter. To this day I call it “The Veal Song” and don’t play it.
My mom had a hard time celebrating Mother’s Day after Annie died. She certainly observed it with the rest of us kids, but ‘celebrate’ was not an apt term. Annie’s birthday was May 9, and Mother’s Day invariably falls around that date. Of course, Mama’s own birthday was even harder on her because Mama’s was May 10. I cannot imagine celebrating my birthday following on the heels of the birthday of a child who no longer has birthdays.
What If Annie had lived? My sisters would still have their best buddy to hang with. My daughter would have had an additional practical, thoughtful sounding board to discuss life’s options with, and with whom to rail against injustice. My oldest son would have had an aunt what totally understood and shared his interests in science fiction and dry fly-away sense of humor. My youngest son would have had awesome advice on landscaping his yard in a way that would totally stun and maybe even cause pissed-off envy in his neighbors. The world would have had a talented horticulturist/ artist/ guitarist who would have had a ball with the Internet. She probably would have liked Minecraft and World of Warcraft and Dynasty Warriors. I would have had an awesome beta reader and an ongoing inspiration for creativity.
Wish you were here, Annie. You are deeply missed.