Paper | By Kerby Caudill
It wasn’t even close to a decent time to wake up but I couldn’t ignore the rumbling coming from the other side of my bedroom wall. The whirr, whirr, whirr sounded like semi-trucks parading through my room. I banged on the wall as hard as I could. “Oma! Stop pulling the toilet paper!” The noise stopped and I put my head back on the pillow. After a few minutes of silence, the whirr, whirr, whirr began again.
“You’re going to clog the toilet!” Now completely awake, I had to get up and assess the damage. I’d counted six whirrs. That could produce a lot of toilet paper. I hopped down and landed on the hard wood floor, shocked at how much colder it was than my warm bed.
I inhaled deeply, held my breath and opened the bathroom door. Oma was perched on the toilet, pajamas at her ankles, holding a giant wad of toilet paper over her nose that was still connected to the roll, like a party streamer.
“Oma, you’ve been in here long enough. Are you done?”
“My name’s not Oma, it’s Annie.”
My family had seen the play Annie at a local theater and it became a family joke that Oma was the lead, our dog Jack was Sandy, and naturally, even without the fortune, our Dad was Daddy Warbucks. The part that wasn’t funny was our mom became known as the abusive Miss Hannigan. Although we knew Mom loved us and did all of the dutiful mom-stuff like cooking and cleaning, we knew she didn’t really like to do it and we often felt we were a nuisance or burden, just like the orphans. And when provoked, our mom’s high pitched rage could be heard all the way in the cheap seats, just like Miss Hannigan in the play. I never got an official role, but by default I was Molly, Annie’s side kick. We referred to the play on and off for a few years, but after our family finally got a VCR—we were definitely the last people I knew to get one—we rented the movie and watched it over and over. Little by little Oma decided she was Annie and by her seventeenth birthday that was the only name she answered to. It was never changed legally, but to us she became Annie. Her headstone reads Oma “Annie” Kunstler.
“Well, when you’re bad, you’re Oma. When you’re good, you’re Annie. And if Miss Hannigan sees this she’s going to flip.” I helped her up, made sure her butt was clean as we sang our new getting dressed anthem, unabashedly stolen from Bob Marley: “get up, stand up, stand up for your pants.”
My sister used to be able to go to the bathroom alone just fine, but gradually her left side stopped working. Doctors said it was because she had series of mini strokes. They were amazed she was still alive, but they didn’t offer answers or treatments. Nothing happened suddenly. As she changed we changed with her, adjusting our routines as needed, until eventually our whole lives were transformed.
The bathroom was by far my least favorite part of our new routine and made me appreciate being able to grip things firmly with both hands. She didn’t have the strength or mobility to hold the roll steadily enough with one hand to be able to rip off a normal sized piece, so she would try to use her right hand to pull it hard and rip it off— the result being enough paper to cover a man-sized mummy or a high school enemy’s house. She piled it so high in the toilet that you could actually see the top of the paper mound above the rim. To this day I can’t eat mashed potatoes and gravy.
We looked down at the mess. “Sorry,” she said with a slight lisp—which was another side effect of the strokes—as she looked up to me for a solution. She had started wearing the kind of cotton turbans that old ladies wear instead of her hand-made bonnets. Her wide and innocent doe eyes shining brightly from that turban disarmed any anger I had over the disgusting task that lay before me. Bambi was always one of my favorite movies.
As I helped her wash both of her hands, our reflection in the mirror confirmed Annie’s biggest fear. Her little sister had become bigger. Her medications and lack of mobility continued to add to her weight gain so I was tall and skinny and she was short and plump. She started to resemble a Winnie the Pooh balloon from Disneyland with half of the air let out—still cute and cuddly enough to make you smile, but sad enough to make you wish you could go back to the time when it was fully inflated.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’ll take care of it. Go back to bed.” I rubbed her back and massaged her shoulders while pushing her towards our room.
“I’m not tired.” The warmth and sympathy I had for her cute little face was starting to disappear as it usually did when she made things unnecessarily difficult. Her childhood bossiness was growing into full on authoritarianism as she grew older and weaker. She brought toys and blankets into the living room like we used to, but now she would stretch out with them on the couch so there was no space for me to sit while we watched the shows only she was allowed to pick. If it was my birthday, she would be so upset she’d put her head on the table and mope, so eventually she started to get a pile of presents for my birthday, too. I couldn’t complain. How could I dare? For my birthday I once got a (used) root beer-colored three-speed bike I could ride gleefully throughout the neighborhood. She got my old bike with rusty training wheels to ride very slowly back and forth in our driveway. Things were never fair between us, but I don’t blame our parents. It’s hard to make things even for your kids when the world didn’t.
“Go draw or something,” I said. Then it dawned on me. “You know what, it’s Mom’s birthday. We forgot to make her a card.”
“I’ll make a masterpiece,” she said. Although she probably wasn’t thrilled she wouldn’t be getting any presents today, she didn’t mind our parents’ birthdays as much as she minded mine, so she was happy to draw for our mom.
I gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I know you will. I love you.”
When your mom is an artist and wants to keep her kids busy so she can paint, she buys you a lot of art supplies. Annie turned out to be an incredible artist in her own right. Although her human figures looked like Mr. Potato Heads with circles for bodies, eyes and teeth, her abstract drawings were covered edge-to-edge with rainbow colored shapes and scribbles coming together to make magical, mystical terrains I wished I could run through.
I didn’t have the imagination she and my mom had, but I used to draw all the time. Once when it rained on Mom’s birthday and I could tell she was really depressed. I thought the sun would cheer her up, so I drew and cut out a big yellow one and drew a happy face on it. Then I traced it with gold glitter and hung it on the fridge. While she thanked me, the drawing didn’t cheer her up at all. Years later, when she checked herself in and out of several mental hospitals, I found out she’s bi-polar, but back then I just thought she didn’t like us very much, that we were not enough to make her happy.
“You good now?” I asked once Annie was all set up at the kitchen table with her pad and fairly new box of 64 crayons.
She answered with a thumbs up and went to work. So did I. I got a plastic grocery bag from under the kitchen sink and went back to the bathroom. I held my breath and used the toilet brush to shovel the heavy, drippy mess into the bag. Once I got enough out to allow the toilet to flush, I used more paper to wipe up all the drips from the floor and toilet, tightly tied up the bag and took it outside to the trash. The bag was leaking toilet water so I had to run. I retraced my steps to wipe up those drips with a hand towel, collapsed in a chair next to my sister, and watched her draw.
I heard the hiss of a match being lit. It was Mom lighting her cigarette first, then the pilot light on the wall heater near her bedroom. I peeked around the corner and down the hall. She was sitting on the floor in front of the heater smoking and crying, the mauve-colored velveteen robe we bought her for Mother’s Day tied tightly around her thin waist. She must have taken an early shower because her hair was dripping down her back in long black tendrils, water darkening the robe like blood. She often sat there and smoked, but this morning she seemed especially sad. Birthdays were hard for her. Maybe she counted up the years and they didn’t amount to what she wanted them to.
Later that night we went out to celebrate at a Japanese restaurant. This was a big deal for because although walking wasn’t the easiest for Annie anymore, she refused to try a wheelchair. Taking her places was becoming more difficult she walked more slowly, got tired easily and then sometimes even a little grouchy.
“This is like a palace,” Annie said while we waited for our table. Her wide eyes slowly took in the golden paper screens depicting peaceful images of cherry blossoms and cranes flying over lakes and the shimmering pink and blue kimonos hanging on the walls. Although l was a young teen out with her family, I had to admit I liked it too.
“Well, you are all my princesses,” Dad said as he bowed to us. Mom coughed loudly. “And my queen of course.” He kissed her hand and bowed to her. Mom smiled and reluctantly curtsied.
“I can take you to your table now,” said a lovely young woman. Our dad dropped Mom’s hand and gave the hostess his full attention, chatting with her as they walked to the table as if she were his date. Mom’s smile dropped but when her eyes met mine she tried to play it off.
The table sat in front of a mural of Mt Fuji and was very low to the ground. Around it were four silky cushions the same colors as the kimonos on the walls.
“Where are the chairs?” Annie asked loudly.
“Those cushions are your chairs. Here, I’ll help you.” The hostess, trying to impress our dad, took Annie’s arm and tried to help her sit. She didn’t take into account that Annie was heavy and was surprised when she fell limp into her arms almost knocking them both down onto the wooden table. Somehow she wrestled Annie to the ground and Dad took her arm to help her up. She pulled away from his grip red faced and said our server would be with us shortly. Mom didn’t sit down with, us but instead walked away.
“I’ll be right back, ladies,” Dad said as he followed Mom.
“They’re fighting,” Annie said.
“It’s not that bad. They’ll be back in a second. Mom probably had to smoke.” Just like Mom, I tried to hide how embarrassed I was.
“She should call Schick,” Annie said.
“I know. You’re right. Let’s play I Spy,” I said.
We played a few rounds. It was easy to win because she always picked whatever was right in front of her vision. Each time it was my turn I correctly guessed: chopsticks, water glass, table. She got frustrated quickly. Annie was never good at games. Most of the time I would just let her win or say she won even if not one checker was moved properly. But she was good at Hungry, Hungry Hippos, because all she had to do was slam that little handle down and try and get as many marbles into the mouth as you could. I usually pushed extra marbles towards the mouth of her hippo but she had no problems gobbling them up on her own. When we went to an arcade I’d set her up in front on Pac Man but wouldn’t put in a quarter. She just moved the joystick left to right with no idea she wasn’t controlling it. That may seem mean, but it saved a lot of quarters and she had a ball.
Our parents returned smelling of freshy toked pot and were much more relaxed. “We’re back. Sorry for the delay my royal highnesses,” Dad said as he lowered himself into a cross legged position. He was limber enough to do it in one move even though he was so tall. Mom was at least a foot shorter than Dad and sat down with the ease of a yoga instructor. She smiled graciously when our waitress, a much older woman this time, came to get our order.
“I’m starving. Let’s get one of everything!” Mom said.
We didn’t get one of everything, but when the food came it seemed like we did.
“This is delicious!” I said as I stuffed my mouth with meats and vegetables covered in sauces I’d never had before. Dad took us to a lot of authentic places he found when he filled their cigarette machines, but this was by far my favorite. I forgot everything else for a while as I happily ate and talked to my parents.
“I got an A on my essay about the Amish,” I bragged to my parents.
“Good job, Nick,” Dad said. I didn’t choose that nickname but I loved Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, so my Dad called me this a lot. Still does. I was glad I had graduated from being called “Ina,” which came from the sound I used to make when I sucked my thumb.
They changed the subject to my Dad’s upcoming gig with his Reggae band and I lost interest. I picked up an origami paper crane table decoration and flew it around my water glass. Annie and I got an origami set as a gift once and neither one of us could make anything good from it. I couldn’t figure out the directions and Annie couldn’t follow them anyway, so the delicate paper went in with our arsenal of art supplies. I flew the crane towards my sister but she wasn’t there. She had lain down completely flat, right from where she was sitting, making a perpendicular angle from the table so that her head almost hit the cushion of the person sitting behind her.
“Mom, Dad, where’s Annie?” I whispered.
They couldn’t see her at all from where they were sitting and looked panicked. They were pretty high so they may have actually thought she was gone. I pointed down at her and they leaned over the table. We watched her big belly rise up and down like a hibernating bear sleeping at the foot of Mt Fuji. Her hat had come off slightly and you could see wisps of thin brown hair float over her otherwise bald head. The peaceful scene was interrupted when Mom let out the huge laugh she had been trying to suppress from deep within her throat. Dad and I joined and we all laughed until we cried. Most strangers had a hard time figuring out where to look or what to say when they saw Annie, but the kind family behind us noticed something strange was going on and laughed along. They even scooted over to give her a little more room.
Mom wiped away her tears with a silky napkin. “Oh Annie, what would we do without you?”
About the Author:
Although born in Ashland, Oregon with family roots in New York, Kerby Kunstler Caudill has spent the majority of her life in Southern California. She earned a BA in Film from the University of California at Irvine, an MA in education from Cal State Long Beach, and then taught elementary school for 20 years. When she decided to switch gears, she joined a writing workshop with author Francesca Lia Block. This piece is an excerpt from her larger work, a memoir exploring her relationship with her terminally ill sister. Kerby lives in Culver City with her husband, daughter and two dogs.