Death and the Canyon

Elizabeth Berlin

January, 2010

Fifty years married, devoted to Jesus and family, Mom and Dad had remained your protectors in spite of your adult status and incessant lying, your manic highs and pitiful lows. (During one of your post-rehab confessionals and in a flip sort of mood, you said you’d “tried them all,” listing street drugs then smirking at our vast naïveté.) Even through the most terrible years of your addictive free-for-alls, our parents never lost sight of your original innocence. I tried to be as saintly, but I failed, my compassion wavering and cracking not long after you emptied your daughter Rose’s bank accounts, hauled narcotics from the hospital cabinets during your night-shifts, surrendered your nursing license and life’s purpose, and then your dignity with the strip search and jailing.

A round of your erratic phone calls marked the beginning of a new crisis. This time, with slurred and garbled speech, you declared a “move to another state.” The words, little sister, were a premonition, but everyone except Mom and Dad had stopped listening long ago.

Marked by an uneasy silence, the following morning felt too much like a period at the end of a sentence, so after Sunday Mass, our parents sped out of the church parking lot and onto Interstate 75. They would find you; they had flushed you out of hiding a hundred times before.

On a sub-zero, Sunday afternoon in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Mom and Dad selected a particular parking lot to begin the search, one deep inside your mean neighbourhood. Intuition pointed the way, like one of the angels Mom claimed stood guard over you. On the front seat of your car, you slumped in crooked sleep, emptied out, forehead rammed into the steering wheel. Your right hand reached for the plastic grocery bag on the floor that held your high-flying Saturday night date, still waiting for you and dressed to kill. 

Our fragile, seventy-seven-year-old father transformed himself, pounding on your locked car doors and windows, yelling, then howling your name, and with animal fury lifting the car from the ground and rocking it to wake you.

Too late. We could all stop praying now.

Our Lady of Sorrows had not been able to force your conversion into a good woman. You were prostituting yourself, your teenage daughter claimed, weeping in Mom and Dad’s living room, I’ll die if I stay another day. I believed her. Mom and Dad didn’t, but they took her in and away from you.

The fire crew in their neon truck screeched into the parking lot. A policeman wrapped in winter wool ordered Mom and Dad: “Stay back! Turn away. Don’t look.” Mom obeyed. Dad defiantly observed from the rear-view mirror of somebody’s parked car: the coroner with his grey smock pronouncing you dead; your stiff, wet, bloated body lifted from the seat. Four muscular firefighters hauled you out—the young, hunky types you liked, except here they were on a stark, dusky Sunday. Party over. Sliding you into a wide, black-vinyl bag and zipping it shut.

March, 2010

A year ago when my friends and I planned our Grand Canyon hiking trip, I remember I’d taken a break from you and your latest downhill run. You’d dodged death so many times—drug-induced blackouts, domestic violence, car accidents—I decided to adopt Mom’s “angels at work” theory and pictured the winged seraphim of our childhood catechism hovering at your back, providing a shield like a modern-day invisible fence. Then you died. Mom’s faith collapsed into crisis. Dad still leaves frantic messages on my phone service, checking for my safe return home from work each day. (Yesterday he begged me to call him as soon as we arrived today in Grand Canyon Village. When he started to cry, I promised I would.)

My friends don’t know it yet, but before I left home, I decided to turn this hiking adventure into a private memorial service for you; twenty-five years ago, you gave me my first trip to the Grand Canyon as a birthday present. I spared my hiking friends the academic Coroner’s Report with its curt decision about your death, Medication Intoxication, and all of the tawdry details because, selfishly, I worried about back-spatter: that maybe your reputation would affect mine.

The morning of our big hike, we rise before dawn. The sunrise illuminates the trail, its uneven steps and switchbacks, the slush and patches of black ice left over from recent winter storms. We know special places: rock shelves and overlooks with sheer drops and no protective barriers. When it’s early in the morning, peering in and down is like staring into a bruise with the black pools and purple shadows. The Colorado River, like the bottom line of my mental conversation with you, is hidden and remains so for miles, past the spring green lushness of Indian Gardens, the up-canyon mule trains, all the way to Plateau Point and cliffs overhanging the river—that’s our destination.

I grieved for years before you died and mourned the losses: of your clear thinking, your medical knowledge, and will to heal others. You were a nurse in the field of oncology, wearing sets of maroon hospital scrubs around your house, like other girls wore T-shirts and jeans. You were sober and determined, pregnant with Rose.

I remember you as I follow Bright Angel toward the bottom of the depression. It’s like walking through our past—not the one represented in your journal: the scrawled, illegible pages Dad, Rose, and I struggled to decode after your death, then burned—but one mimicking a Canyon descent. Top to bottom—you remember. You loved this place and its layers of ancient time: the Kaibab Limestone; shale with tales of primeval mud flats and marine life; Tapeats Sandstone; the Dox Formation marked by fossilized wave ripples; and the most forbidding one, dark as sorcery, the billions-year-old Vishnu Schist, root of an ancient mountain range. Missing layers too—more than one of these—mysterious and invisible bands of lost history. The “Great Unconformities,” Canyon geologists call them, sheets and stacks of stone and bone likely pulverized and dissolved by advancing and receding seas.

Inside my story of you, vital pieces of truth have disappeared, but I believe solitude and a quieter mind will lead to insights and dreams—the vivid kind that use scrapings of old memories and recast them for new understanding. This walk toward the canyon bottom will help me begin.

October, 1984

Interstate 17 north of Phoenix and its attached suburbs is romantically empty of civilization, aiming at distant and purple craggy peaks. Lined with prickly pear, creosote, and the leaden bodies of barrel cactus leaning into the sun, I grasp it: the allure of the desert, the intimation of infinity, and its pull on you, my perpetually restless little sister.

You’ve married again after a disastrous two-year marriage to Dale. (Family resistance to him guaranteed your decision to wed.) Though you begged Mom to keep it a secret, she told me how every month at the full moon you ran home with your suitcase, and bruises as red and purple as our long-suffering, manhandled Auntie Bert’s. You swore every time you’d never go back. One day you didn’t, but that was because Dale had high-tailed it to Kalamazoo with a new girlfriend and his unemployment cheques.

In our childhood pretend beauty-pageants, you were always the winner— I played the role of judge rather than compete with you. But today, in stark sunlight, you are newly revealed, and you’ve gained years as well as weight. I notice other signs of change: hair bleached too white, eyeliner and lipstick applied with an aggressive hand. In high school, you smoked like you drank—only when Mom wasn’t around to see—but with your move to Arizona, more than 2,000 miles from our northern home, it isn’t likely Mom will drop by unannounced.

You’re almost pretty again when you talk about the baby. Four months pregnant, you know for sure it’s a girl. “I feel it,” you declare. “Her name’s Rose and you’ll be the godmother.”

I murmur my thanks but don’t show emotion. If I do, you’ll yank the gift away; it’s been your habit since my first memories of our sisterhood. From your remarks over the years I deduced you did this to humble me. I hogged too much attention, you claimed. To my grade school, middle school, high school friends, you re-introduced me, not kindly, as “Liz Perfect.” That was your favourite tag, but there were others including the much earthier “Lizard.”

Behind the wheel of the car, you expertly dodge giant, spinning tumbleweeds while signs with their Arizona lexicon pass by: Bloody Basin Road, Big Bug Creek, Camp Verde, Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, Red Rock Sedona. Miles before Flagstaff we catch our first glimpse of Humphrey’s Peak and the San Francisco Mountains. We talk about the past.

We shared a room together in our family’s tiny suburban ranch from the time I was three and you one, up until the day I left home for college. In this room we endured chicken pox together, held hands during thunderstorms across the narrow gap between our twin beds, and played a favourite game. “Uncle Neal” we called it.

In the game, our twin beds were houseboats, and at the bottom of the slot was a dark river that flowed into a swamp. In the river lived “Neal,” an alligator named after a real-life man married to Bert, our Mom’s tyrannized sister. The alligator, like our fifty-ish unctuous uncle, marked his presence with his Dean Martin records and the scent of his Bay Rum aftershave— swamp muck in our play. We were expert at gauging his proximity. Sweet Uncle Neal Alligator stared a little too long at females, no matter their age, he did it with me and you, but mostly with you. We spied on him lurking in the cool dank of his basement river hole, until—boom—he sprang from the mud. With one split leap over the gap between our beds, I knocked you away from the fatal snap of his jaw. Lost in our tale, you screamed, summoning Dad who tore from the TV room couch and into our room.

“Who invented that game?” I laugh. We played it for years.

“I think you did.”

“Why would I?”

“You hated him too.”

He hit our Auntie Bert. I saw the bruises by accident one day when Auntie dropped by our house as a late-afternoon surprise. Mom never offered details when I asked; I figured it out and whispered the adult secret to you through the electrified air between our beds.

The weirdness of the play was in its script: the words of fear (yours) and rescue (mine) from which we could not stray, the dread like a mask on your face. “He has big, crawly hands,” you spilled once or twice, in the thick of it, but when I probed, “What hands? Alligators don’t have hands,” you denied you’d witnessed or experienced anything in the clutches of Uncle Neal. So we killed the alligator in our bedroom river over and over again, night after night.

Killed him dead and went to sleep.

Around the same time you grew the peculiar habit of pawing deep inside my dresser drawers when I was away from home and exposing me: the sanitary pads waiting for my first period, or my diary from beneath a tumble of modest, white underwear. You broadcast all of my diary secrets to our neighbourhood friends. When Dad demanded why, you only shook your adorable head and surrendered a pitiful, I don’t know. You said the same thing when we grew from girls into teenagers, and you stole my boyfriends. You didn’t need them—you always had boys of your own, boys with money and cars, boys with eyes only for you.

Mom and Dad were no help. In their sunny and calm, Catholic household, innocence ruled. Married at twenty-one, parents at twenty-two, each other’s only lover, they never thought to analyze your Uncle-Neal anxiety, your raids of my panty drawers, or your urgent, ritual room cleanings.

One day, two years before you died, I sat cross-legged on the grey, concrete basement floor at our parents’ house, sorting through memorabilia: my Girl-Scout sashes crammed with achievement badges; report cards and honour roll ribbons; grade school and high school yearbooks; pictures of you and me in our cranberry-plaid Lady of Sorrows uniforms, arms around each other’s waist.

I uncovered a yellowed business envelope holding a small stack of greeting cards Mom had saved from our early years. On the inside of one particular Mother’s Day card, beneath the Hallmark rhyme of love, “Liz the Great,” I’d signed in my big, loopy, pre-adolescent hand, and beneath it, “Jo the Nothing,” you’d scrawled in a tiny and fragile but spiky script.

Up the stairs I carried the outrageous message and showed it to our parents. The resulting discussion led us, surprisingly, to the subject of Uncle Neal. Mom revealed you once hurled his name at her during a loud exchange, though you refused to answer questions.

“We never left her alone with Neal, or Bertie. Never,” Mom declared. Dad was silent. Then he said he wasn’t sure. “Never,” Mom repeated. “Why in the world would we have done that?”

“I don’t know,” Dad answered. And we wouldn’t ever know; Auntie Bert and Uncle Neal were dead by this time.


It’s 3:56 a.m. according to the luminescent dial of my watch. In our rustic room in Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge, I’m warm underneath the starched sheets and rough, wool blanket. You’ve stepped outside for a cigarette; smoke drifts through the rough, pine doorway, propped open. I feel your mood, and it’s joyless. Was it something we discussed yesterday?

Yesterday, you drove to Desert View Overlook and the Canyon Rim for my initiation, the overlook is your sacred spot. The terrifying, blood-red vista packed the wallop of a religious conversion. You knew the impact it would have on me, but I pretended detachment, lowering my eyes, willing away any expression of awe. I strolled around the nearby stone watchtower, a park landmark, as if it interested me more than your view; I did these things because to be emotional in your presence is to risk ridicule. When I’m overcome, you attack, like your past blabbing of my mournful, teenage diary entries, or your pet “Liz Perfect” ridicule.

Walking up the Rim Trail this morning, you lead, I follow, and you find our sunrise vantage: an overlook east of a vast, granite wall that juts into the Canyon. Implied lines lead our eyes down into the blue-black void, and up and out to stone faces turned east and red, gold, yellow, mica glitter-white. Patterns shift rapidly according to the increasing light. Now the mist rises from the depths, taking with it the topmost blue. The sun ascends.

Men, women, and children with backpacks, binoculars, and sturdy shoes stroll or dash in both directions. You and I trek a few hundred feet down Bright Angel Trail before you moan about “altitude change” and we turn back. On the way up you’re panting, wheezing, too young, I think, to be so spent, but I don’t dare criticize. You lead me to a shuttle stop. “You can’t go home without hearing the river,” you gasp, still catching your breath. At least you’re speaking to me.

We step off the bus at the Desert View overlook and return to your cherished vista. I grab on to the railing again, still dizzy at the sight; the Canyon from this angle is too vast, too deep, too vibrant and sculpted. At the moment, we’re alone. A breeze moves through the piñon pines and wind accumulates, creating a low roar.

“Do you hear it?” you demand, staring at the river, the visible, green line at the Canyon bottom.

I want to say, yes, yes I do hear it, just to please you, to guarantee you’ll talk some more, but I’m a terrible liar. I think the sound I hear is the wind, only that. The old, mistrustful look on your face implies I’m holding out and choosing to act superior, contrary. So I say nothing and gaze at the faraway stream and its cold, green, roiling waters.

“You think everything’s fine, but it isn’t.”

I don’t know if you’re criticizing me or explaining your mood. When after a few minutes you haven’t elaborated, I ask, “Is something worrying you?”

You light another cigarette and find a bench. “My job,” you mutter with the cig in your mouth.

This is everyday stuff. I can handle this. Your stays of employment are typically brief. But, “Nursing,” you clarify as you remove the cigarette and exhale. “I might have to leave nursing.”

“What? Why? You love nursing!”

You drag deeply, refusing to speak until I’m calm. “I do love nursing.”

“So why quit?”

“ … because of stuff going on. Things I don’t like.”

“What kinds of things?” In my head I run through your usual complaints: union, working conditions, boss. I grapple with the possibilities then panic at this latest display of impulsiveness. There’s a baby on the way and medical bills, your house payments. Your husband is an insurance agent with a brand new job. You’ll expect Mom and Dad to step in, step up, to cover the instability and your complaints about a refrigerator holding nothing but milk and bread. “This time I’ll find it,” you’ll swear to them, meaning the “right” workplace.

When you leave the bench and return to the railing, I follow, anxious for more explanation. Minutes pass. You light another cigarette. Although I am staring directly at the river and straining to hear it, I don’t. Then I hear you:

“I’ve been accused of taking drugs from the lockbox. I might be suspended while they investigate.”

I consider this, shocked. “While who investigates?”

You don’t answer.

“Are you suspended?”

“ … No.”

You’re lying.

“My boss has tried to cause trouble before. She’s never liked me … I’ve decided to quit,” you conclude.

I know you’ve already quit.

“My boss is medicated,” you snipe. “She steals narcotics for herself and sells the leftovers downtown.” You laugh, but the joke like the veiled information doesn’t include me. I detect your mood shifting—some of the heaviness lifts—and I also understand the conversation is finished. You’ve shared your version of the truth, and it’s nebulous enough that I can shape it into whatever I like, whatever is needed. That’s my job, especially when Mom and Dad call me to ask if I know why you need help with your house payments.

We don’t revisit the topic that day, or the next when we speed back to Phoenix. You won’t talk to me or anyone about it again, even after your arrest.

March, 2010

At Plateau Point on the cliff’s edge, I shed a top layer of clothing and lie on my stomach on a bed of sun-baked rock. My friends pose for pictures a few feet away. Down and down I stare at the wide, brown and churning Colorado River. I smell it: the spring melt, the death and debris it carries, all of the winter flotsam.

I don’t have the power to crack the surrounding walls open or split them end to end like giant loaves of bread, lifting up the seams of granite and schist to study all of the concealed evidence of evolving life. When discoveries are made, like a hominid skull in a layer thought too early to contain it, another link in the natural chain is forged and all of the other links must be uncoupled and reordered. This requires a mind open to possibilities. When it comes to you, I want a mind like that.

We survivors sift through our ashes, seeking fragments of bone and teeth, the clues that will move us closer to truth, closer to love. I need more, though there may be no more: everything about you I missed because I was too innocent, or too jaded. Too sanctimonious at times. Always too unconscious.

Below me the river storms, sleepless and fixed on its downhill course, ramming the Canyon walls and careening out of sight. Today it is an unquiet thing and I am listening now, as you once asked me to, but this is springtime and high water. The river is too dangerous to approach; whirlpools spin and cataracts roar, and the Canyon walls echo the pandemonium—it all fills my head until I’m crazy, swimming in memory. Flooded by you, fathoming you. This will take a long time.

Elizabeth Berlin is a writer, Special Education teacher, and Learning Disabilities Specialist for children in Tucson, Arizona. Recent publications include short stories in the literary magazine The StoryTeller, published by the Society of Southwestern Authors. She loves to travel and hike and recently visited Vancouver and Victoria.

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