Late July, 2014. My sister is hanging off a rock face not far from our house with a perfect look of concentration and consternation on her face. We’re picking Virginia Wine berries, which, along with every other typical Southwestern Virginia berry, has simply taken over the hedgerows and borders between groomed yards, fields and the forest beyond. We’ve picked nearly a gallon of Wine berries, which are also known as red raspberries, along with a few gallons of blackberries and black raspberries. We are in a deep conversation about how that the most perfect berries are always, somehow, just out of reach. Finally, she uses my knee as a start and pulls herself up just enough along a semi-vertical crack in the ancient dolomite to reach the berries, which are adorned with tiny stinging nettles that have a way of finding your skin no matter how well protected you think you are.
She manages to shake the vines, and a cascade of red berries fall around and on us, so ripe and succulent that they burst upon the ground and in my hat, which I’ve turned up into a makeshift bowl in an attempt to catch them on their way to the ground, where they will no doubt be carved and carried away by hungry ants to feed their colony. Bees will light on them regardless of where they are and both will be preyed upon by black wasps, looking for food to stuff their mud tubelike nests so that their larvae will hatch with plenty to eat.
We, on the other hand, are much more crude. We will mix the berries together, completely oblivious to the microscopic struggle for life and death that we inadvertently trampled upon in our zeal to obtain the wild fruit for immediate consumption, greedily stuffing our mouths and pails with this manna of the mountains.
We talk, as we always have. Although we are fifteen years apart, we share more in personality, experience, passions and general zeal for life than anyone else I know. We’ve always understood each other: Me, her passion for independence and privacy; Her, my rebellious nature and tendency to wander unexpectedly in search of what I know not.
Soothed by the sound of the creek burbling by us, the smell of the berries sometimes crushing in my hands as I think of jam and pie and smoothies and how much my wife and son will enjoy these, I don’t hear her the first time.
She was horribly maimed in an accident while she was in college, crushing her spine like glass. A team of doctors, all experts in their field, assembled in an attempt to reconstruct the tattered remnants of what was left of her broken body. She wasn’t supposed to have been able to walk again – yet here she is, hanging off a cliff face after leading me through an early morning yoga session.
“How have you stayed clean?” Her clear brown eyes have a way of looking straight through you to the core of the truth, a gift from our mother that she doesn’t know yet she has. She drops to the ground, all in one seamless movement. She picks up her berry bucket, nothing more than a plastic jug, cut so that the handle is left and the top is enlarged, easily strapped to your belt.
“I mean, so many people with addictions, they simply can’t do it. They can’t even begin to recover, or they can’t move on and leave their past behind. They become what society expects, a train wreck waiting to happen.” She speaks from experience, I think. She is perhaps the strongest person I’ve ever met. I think back to my most recent experiences in this strange journey in sobriety.
It’s about ownership, I explain, starting to roll with my thoughts and words. I’m sick, badly sick. My liver does not really work. I’m dependent upon a plethora of medications to stay alive. Some days I don’t feel well at all. I’m always a razors edge from sliding into a coma. “I can’t really do anything at all about my liver. I can’t remove it, I can’t replace it. I can’t kill someone and take theirs, and even if I did I’ll be on medications my entire life, which I really, really don’t want. What I can do is take ownership of the disease, take the blame and above all else, not become a victim.” She is staring at me. “That is our only solution, as humans. I can’t personally do one thing about the wars all over the world, or mergers and politics, or food shortages and the direction the New River flows in. What I can do is take ownership of what I can control. I can control what I eat. I can control how much exercise and what type I get. I can control not drinking. I can not pick up new addictions. I can choose to not blame the government, the liquor stores, my genetics, my parents, my wife or anyone or anything else for my addiction and subsequent disease.” We are walking back to the house, where our significant others are no doubt worried about our absence. I think further: “I can choose to enjoy this moment. I can choose to sit still and watch the stars at night. I can, I repeat, choose to NOT be a victim, someone awaiting their own death. I think that has allowed me some control over this disease, some ownership instead of despair”
She listens to me, nodding. “You’ve got it. That’s what I had to do. Did you know the doctors said I would never be able to go to the bathroom on my own?” I stared at her. “I’ll race you home!”
I watched her run for a moment, as the early sun laced the ground with shadows of bamboo, thinking of how it could be for both of us in that moment, how sad if we had just given up, just limited ourselves to the doctors expectations. Would we even be here? Would we still be such good friends? Would we even be alive?
Her dark hair is becoming distant in the mid-morning mist. I begin to run, loving the feeling of moving on my own, the primal satisfaction of feeling my body do what it evolved to do.
Wait on me, Little Sister. I’m, as usual, right behind you.