A Survivor's Tale

Weightless Again

In her suicide note, my sister spoke of not wanting to be a burden

It was one of those days when it never stopped raining. I was visiting San Francisco — something I did more frequently when my mother was alive, but she was gone by then. My sister Pat had driven down from Placerville and, though she had said she would come, you never knew with her.

Pat and I weren't close. She was a few years older than me, and she and my older brother, Brian, had gone to live with my dad when our family split up in Crescent City; my younger sister and brother, April and Ethan, and I stayed with our mother. While I think of Pat's influence on me as negligible, she was the person who turned me on to the Beatles. She never let us forget that we missed the band's American debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (February 9, 1964) because we wanted to watch Disney.

Soon, though, I quit listening to my dad's Irish music and my mom's show tunes. My first ecstatic rock moment came that summer, when I was listening to my freshly minted copy of the "Hard Day's Night" soundtrack with my friends John and Mark on their parents' phonograph. We were rocking out as only ten-year-old kids can when we got to the bridge of "Tell Me Why": "Well I'm beggin' on my bended knees/If you'd only listen to my pleas/If there's anything I can doo-hoo" — and John and Paul sang that last line in a falsetto that sent us over the top.

"Play it again!" we yelled, putting the needle back to the same spot over and over, until their mother came out of the kitchen and told us to stop.

Pat's bedroom was a trove of Beatle paraphernalia: inflatable Beatles created in the image of their cartoon show characters, pictures of the band ripped from the pages of Beatlefan Magazine and Tiger Beat. She was particularly fond of a mop-topped troll doll she christened John, after her favorite Beatle, and I recall the wrath that ensued when I snuck into her room and wrote "Mick" on its belly.

From my perspective as a child, the band was changing at light speed; by the time "Rubber Soul" was released (December 1965), they looked and sounded like a different band because they were: They'd become young men, discovered drugs, became disillusioned with success, saw loved ones die. I remember listening to the new album in Pat's room on her little phonograph, looking at the strangely elongated faces on the cover, the chiaroscuro images of them on the back; I remember not knowing what the hell "Norwegian Wood" was about and I remember leaving her room before the first side was over, walking outside beneath the perpetually gray skies and feeling, for the first time, what I later identified as depression.

I don't know how Pat felt; we didn't have the language of feelings then (I honestly don't remember anyone asking me as a kid how I felt about anything), but I think it's safe to say she was probably depressed, too. It's safe to say because she was two years older than me, and entering the dark hallway of her adolescence; because our parents were fighting at night while we listened upstairs; and because, when she killed herself at age 61, she left a note saying she'd been depressed for 47 years. Since about the time John crawled off to sleep in the bath.

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She went to live with my dad rather unexpectedly; it had already been decided that Brian would go with him. But Pat had made her arrangement without talking to Mom, and the day she left, she came downstairs with her little suitcase packed and walked out to meet Dad at the curb without a backward glance. I think she came to regret both what she did and how she did it, but the stubbornness of youth has its own coil. Once the fuse is lit, it's hard to put it out.

We saw each other summers and holidays over the years. We'd all escaped Crescent City — us to Auburn; Dad with his new wife, her kids, and Brian and Pat to Rio Vista — and when she visited, we'd pretend we were the Monkees, strumming badminton rackets and banging imaginary drums. Our musical tastes diverged as we got older — Cat Stevens was her big go-to in high school, while I was listening to Traffic — but we would still play new music for each other well into our twenties. She blasted Bruce Springsteen; I countered with Elvis Costello.

We were both middle-aged by the time we met in S.F. that weekend and my life had taken me to the other side of the country. Pat seemed to be in the beginnings of a retreat then. She had been married and divorced, had dated without much luck and was planning on retiring early from her government job, though she didn't seem to have big plans for her life post-work. She often failed to show at family gatherings, sending word at the last minute that her stomach was upset or that one of her cats was sick. It got to be kind of a joke among her siblings, like my mother's habit of telling strangers that she wanted to be cremated when she died — telling them right after she'd met them.

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For some reason we were alone that day — just me and her, and rain on the roof of my rental car. We were driving through Fisherman's Wharf of all places — I'd lived in SF for almost twenty years and knew better — and Pat was happy. I remember thinking that her meds must be going right, and I wasn't taking anything stronger than Sudafed at the time. We were listening to the album "Twilight" by the Handsome Family when a song called "So Long" came on. It's a litany of lost pets and stray animals, felled by neglect and occasional acts of cruelty ("So long to the seagull/I hit with a rock/So long to the squirrel/I accidentally shot"), ending with a Woody Guthrie like chorus: "So long, so long/I'll see you on the other side."

"And I bet all those animals are going to be happy to see you," said Pat. She had a dark, almost W.C. Fields-like delivery at times and she was clearly relishing the idea of some animal payback in the hereafter.

The Handsome Family isn't really a family; it's the husband and wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks, and they may not be particularly handsome. I first became aware of their music via an indelible song called "Weightless Again." Like a lot of their songs, it had a kind of comic aspect, too, describing a lost tribe of Indians who forgot how to make fire and had to haul burning logs everywhere. The kicker, though, was the chorus: "This is why people O.D. on pills/And jump off the Golden Gate Bridge/Anything to feel weightless again."

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That rainy day in San Francisco wasn't the last alone time I spent with Pat. I remember a sunny afternoon in the Mission, waiting for my son in Dolores Park some years later. His issues were greater than hers then, or so it seemed at the time. It's part of the problem of being alive, I guess, of having a family and choosing to care. In her suicide note, Pat spoke of not wanting to be a burden to anyone as she got older and sicker; maybe she envisioned someone dragging her like a burning log through a wet forest.

We play triage all the time, tending to the sickest one first and hoping that death doesn't overtake the rest. We take each other at our word: I assume you'll tell me if you're so down you want to die, and I'll try and convince you that the weather will change if you wait long enough. For her I think it never stopped raining.

So long, so long, I'll see you on the other side.