Touchstone: A Word from a Different Time

I leaned in close to kiss goodbye and choked out words I hadn’t said in twenty-five years. “You’re my touchstone.”

Laura, my beautiful — big — sister, looked back at me. Tears trickled out of the corners of her eyes.

Touchstone. A word from when we thought we could change the world, naïve as to how the world would alter us.

“You’re my touchstone, Emma.” That was from Terms of Endearment, released in 1983. As two single young women in our 20’s in the early 1990’s, my sister and I quoted the movie whenever one of us was troubled, or in trouble.

We were both living in Cincinnati then. I, on Laura’s couch for the first weeks of my post-collegiate career. Laura slept on many of my couches, as she bounced from apartment to apartment. We were always moving Laura. Or maybe Laura was just always moving.

Now, she is moved, but only by wheelchair. She speaks, mostly with her hands.

Twenty-four months ago, a phone call from Florida had come to my younger sister, Jeanne, on a winter night in Ohio. After three days, my sister Laura had been found in an apartment, not hers, alone, and did not respond to ordinary measures.

Laura had experienced an anoxic brain event. Her brain had been had been without oxygen long enough to cause damage. The authorities deemed the incident fell somewhere between assault and neglect. No charges were filed.

In intensive care, Laura lay in a frightened state. Each time I visited, the pain of leaving left me wondering. What was the purpose in a life prolonged? Her vitals were stable, but her legs were not. Her organs were healthy, but not her brain.

Laura is back in Cincinnati now and my time with her is mostly silent. Her condition is similar to someone who has experienced a stroke. Laura can understand, but doesn’t speak.

We have signals and eye rolls, for words that do not come. Being Italian has come in handy for connecting using our hands. And Laura, is quite effective with them. She even has a modern-day translation of WTF.

Laura walks now, holding onto a finger, and often charges into a door. She transfers from seat to chair with modest effort. She barrels through hallways in her wheelchair in an honest attempt to escape, knocking at glass doors setting off alarms with a grin on her face.

She gets private assistance with physical therapy. We keep her hair cut short, colored. Makeup is a must, a part of who she still is.

The day of my visit, I had brought a photo book of Laura’s daughter’s Sophia.

Laura’s finger landed on one photo, where her daughter displayed her signature smile. It was a Januzzi smile. It was uncannily similar to my mother’s, to Laura’s. All three shared the same moon-light face where I saw the same lines of time. Mother and daughter loving, leaving, loving.

I had an hour before driving back to Cincinnati. Laura was willingly helped into bed for a nap. “I’ll be right here,” I said. Laura’s eyes fluttered open, unsure if she might find me when she woke.

For the past hundreds of days, I had been stung, immobilized by not knowing. Not knowing would Laura walk or talk, but wanting to believe.

Her eyes opened. “Sis, I gotta go.” I made a driving motion. “Back to Cincinnati.”

Cincinnati — another loaded word.

“Its four hours.” I held up four fingers. Laura did too.

I rose on my tippy toes over the bedrail and bent to hug her.

She grabbed me tight until my back ached. Then, I pulled away.

“You’re my touchstone.” I held a hand over my heart.

She and I cried. We hugged again for what felt like minutes to my calves. I sobbed into her bony shoulders, remembering the hundreds of times my big sister had come to my rescue.

“My touchstone,” I said my eyes still welling up.

I backed out of the room. She had to let me go.

I cried turning out of the care home. I cried through a suburb named Rocky River, aptly named for my disposition. Finally, the last drops of tears dotting my khaki shorts ran like water from a purer source.

Miles later, I understood.

After eighteen months I had finally felt hope for Laura’s progress pulsating in my veins. The first time I held a golden moment that wasn’t too fiery to touch.

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