My sister’s skull was cracked. Her scalp was split with a gaping laceration. By the time she arrived in the hospital’s emergency room, she had sustained severe, irreversible brain damage. Her heart was still beating, tenuously, but she was brain dead already. Her husband claimed that she had fallen to the floor while doing yoga at home.
What had happened to her, really? My questions to the Long Beach Police Department were answered with denial, evasion, and disdain. To find out what had happened, I needed the Sisters of the Tower, the so-called renegade nuns. Answers are always in plain sight, according to the nuns, if only we are able to see.
LBFD Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department and Paramedics. What’s the address of your emergency?
Mack: 7053 Starboard Street.
LBFD: Is this a house or an apartment?
Mack: It’s my home. It’s my home.
LBFD: Is this for you or someone else?
Mack: It’s for my wife. She was doing yoga, doing a headstand, fell, and she’s bleeding from behind.
LBFD: Bleeding from the back of her head?
LBFD: Did she lose consciousness?
LBFD: Is she alert and aware of what’s going on right now?
Mack: You can tell she’s concussed, for sure.
LBFD: Any difficulty breathing?
Mack: She’s calm and steady. She’s sitting. I’m holding her upright.
LBFD: Can you lay her down?
Mack: I tried but she’s a little combative.
LBFD: How old is she?
LBFD: She was doing a handstand when she fell?
LBFD: Did you see her when it happened?
Mack: No. I heard a loud crash and came running into the room.
LBFD: Is there a possibility of her having a neck injury or a back injury? Did she twist her neck when she fell?
Mack: At this point, I’m going to say no.
LBFD: How heavily is her head bleeding?
LBFD: Do you have a clean, dry cloth you can grab?
Mack: I’m applying pressure with a yoga towel. At some point, I have to go unlock the gate.
LBFD: I need you to keep an eye on her breathing and alertness. Help is on the way.
I had just backed my sporty-but-aging car out of my garage when Mack sent me a text message. It was a chilly, bright, Monday morning in early March in Denver, Colorado. I didn’t know that I was about to be thrust into family tragedy, ancient mystery, and contemporary conspiracy. All I wanted was to arrive on time for once at my workplace.
With a cup of hot coffee in my hand, I felt ambitious—righteous, even. I was ahead of schedule rather than my usual fifteen-minutes late. I worked as a financial-donor profiler at Holy Cross Health, Denver’s oldest nonprofit hospital. I had a new philanthropic donor to investigate: the Ashton Foundation of New York. I was eager to get to my office.
Urgent, Mack’s text message said. Call me.
Mack and I rarely exchanged messages. If something is truly urgent, Mack will call me, I thought.
I watched my garage door slowly close. My phone rang. It was him, my brother-in-law Mack. I answered the call. “What’s the emergency?” I said, impatient, as my car idled in the alley behind my house.
“Becky,” he huffed as if he had just run up a flight of stairs. “Riva was doing yoga.” He was referring to my sister Riva, his wife. His voice broke. “She fell down. She hurt herself.”
“Is she okay?”
He whimpered. “She went to the hospital.”
“Hospital?” I asked, perplexed, wondering what injury from a yoga fall would require a visit to a hospital. “Why? What happened?”
“I found her on the floor,” he said. “She tried to fight me. She’s strong like that. She was fighting me, saying that she needed to finish her yoga routine, but I could tell there was something wrong. I’m scared. So scared.”
From Mack’s description, I could not imagine what sort of injury Riva had sustained. If she was arguing with him about whether to continue doing yoga, how bad could it be? “She’ll be fine,” I said in a tone that did not conceal my annoyance. I was irritated by Mack’s histrionic moaning and gasping. Why was he calling me about this?
Mack had a tendency to be melodramatic about minor mishaps involving Riva. One such instance came immediately to mind. A few years earlier, the three of us were visiting a geothermal pond while we were on vacation in Hawaii. When Riva got out of the pond, she slipped on wet lava-rocks as she was walking to her towel. Thanks to the physical coordination she had developed through her yoga habit, she was able to land on her butt and avoid serious injury.
I was in the pond, and I watched Riva as she fell. From my vantage point, I could see that she was uninjured. If she had tried to break her fall with her hand, or had hit her head on the rocks, it could have been a vacation-ending accident. Fortunately, all she suffered was a bruise on her butt, which we jokingly referred to as her “ass tattoo from Madame Pele.”
Regardless, Mack came unglued. He shouted frantically to get the lifeguard’s attention, as if we were in a war-zone and Riva had just been shot. “My love!” he shouted. “She’s hurt!”
I swam to the edge of the pond and got out. “Mack, she’s fine!” I yelled. “Calm down.” Mack appeared to be crying, but he wasn’t shedding any actual tears. He was trembling and sobbing like a talentless actor in a bad film. His response was completely out of proportion to what had happened.
“I don’t know what I would do without her,” he sobbed hoarsely, as if in defense of his overreaction. Riva and I exchanged a look of baffled concern. We wondered why he was being so melodramatic about nothing.
As my car idled in the alley behind my house on that chilly morning in early March, while I listened on the phone to Mack’s blubbering, I assumed that again he was overreacting ridiculously to whatever might have happened in the course of Riva’s morning yoga routine. He was pointedly demanding my attention and sympathy. But why? He and Riva lived in Long Beach, California—a thousand miles west of Denver. What did he expect me to do for him in this so-called emergency?
“Are you at the hospital with her?” I asked. “Can you put her on the phone?”
“I’m s-s-still at home,” he stammered. “I need to take a shower. I n-n-need your support.”
My support? For what? In a serious situation, he would be at the hospital already, wouldn’t he? If Riva had been healthy enough to drive herself to the hospital, the injury couldn’t be too serious. Mack was putting on an act, pretending that things were worse than they actually were.
“Mack, how can I help?” I asked, facetious.
“Get on a plane. Get out here right now.”
Mack and I had never been close. We’d barely managed to tolerate each other—and only for Riva’s sake. In the past, we had traveled together, and had enjoyed ourselves, but it was never effortless. Mack grudgingly permitted my many visits and phone calls with my sister. Why was he now begging for my company?
“Mack, does Riva have her phone with her?” I asked.
“Becky, get here as fast as you can.” Mack’s deep, demanding voice changed to a thin, helpless whine. “Don’t abandon me.” He repeated it half a dozen times. “Don’t abandon me.”
Suddenly, I was alarmed. I wondered whether Mack was having a psychotic break. He sounded unhinged. Regardless of what had happened to Riva, I knew that she would welcome my help in dealing with Mack’s inexplicable anxiety. She would want my moral support, if nothing else. She would want me to be there with her. She needed an ally. During the incident at the thermal pond in Hawaii, I was glad that Riva and I were both there, as if protecting each other, as if serving as each other’s corroborating witness to Mack’s bizarre behavior.
Now, Riva was going through something similar, and she was dealing with Mack on her own. I felt that I needed to be there for her, to be a witness for her at the very least. My research report regarding the potentially-deep coffers of New York’s Ashton Foundation would have to wait.
“I’m going to the airport now,” I told Mack, gritting my teeth at the thought of dropping several hundred dollars on a last-minute plane ticket. Mack wasn’t worth it, but Riva definitely was. “Tell Riva I’m on my way. Tell her to keep me updated.”
“Thank you, Sis,” Mack sniffled.
I hated it when Mack called me Sis. He was the only person who ever called me Sis. I always heard a mocking tone in his voice, and this time was no different.
“Stay strong, Bro,” I said. It was the most insipid, insincere thing I could say to a grown man who had been rendered hysterical by—what? His wife’s yoga sprain? I ended the call.
I waited for my garage door to roll back open. I parked my car and sprinted into my house. “Family emergency,” I explained to Lola, my boss, on the phone. “Some sort of yoga accident,” I added, aware of how outlandish it sounded. Lola was always gracious and understanding toward me. She knew that I would never take advantage of her laissez-faire management style. When I told her I needed to be away from the office for a day or two, she trusted that it was for a good reason. She kindly told me not to worry, to stay calm, and to focus on my sister.
I stuffed a change of clothes into my backpack. I grabbed my passport. I had become accustomed to using it as my primary form of identification when traveling, even though my passport photo was not flattering. It showed a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length brownish-to-gray hair, tired-looking gray-green eyes, and a resigned, closed-mouth smile. Not flattering, but accurate. I scrolled through a list of available departing flights. I booked one. I drove to the airport.
I sent a message to Mack: “The plane leaves around noon. Plan on an hour to get a car, plus another hour to drive to Long Beach. What hospital?”
I waited but received no reply from him. I boarded the plane. I asked again in another message: “Which hospital is she at, Mack?” I heard nothing from him. Was he toying with me? Was this all a test to see whether I would come running when he called?
I wouldn’t put it past him. Mack was manipulative, in my opinion. His tactics worked on Riva, but not on me. Mack knew that I shook my head in disgust at his frequent, bullying appeals for pity and indulgence. He blamed my lack of sympathy on the fact that I’m a lesbian. “Becky doesn’t like me because she hates men,” Mack would sulk to Riva. In truth, I was unsympathetic toward him for many, many reasons. No matter what I said or did though, Mack could always depend on Riva’s soft heart.
I sent her a message: “Where are you, Riva? I will be there this afternoon. I’m turning my phone off for the flight.”
Over the previous 14 years, the only substantial disagreements between Riva and me had centered on Mack. She thought he was a genuinely kind person who sometimes protected himself by wearing a mask of callousness and cruelty. I saw him in the opposite way. I thought he was a cruel, callous person who was wily enough to disguise himself with a mask of kindness and sensitivity.
From the very start of their relationship, I had a gut feeling that Mack was up to something, working an angle, trying to con people. But I never had any solid evidence. All of my “proof” was anecdotal and ambiguous. I had never caught him in a lie that he couldn’t wriggle out of. Believe me, I had tried. He was slippery. It was hard to tell whether he was cunning, or just obtuse and socially awkward. Each time I thought I had caught him in a lie, in his defense he would plead confusion, misunderstanding, or ignorance. He played stupid. He played stupid very convincingly. Still, I felt that a fiendish, unfathomable intelligence was at work. But what was he up to? Why? I couldn’t imagine a motive for his deceptiveness other than he simply found it amusing.
Often, when I expressed to Riva my skepticism about Mack’s truthfulness, Riva would defend him by saying that perhaps he was unpolished and naïve, but he didn’t have the personality of a conniver. Of course, to me, he was a conniver who pretended to be a clueless rube. When he abruptly changed his name, for example, I knew he was up to something, but I didn’t know what.
Mack was born into the name Carlos Velasquez. When Mack was very young, his mother fled in fear from his father. His father had raped Mack’s aunt—his mother’s sister—or so Mack claimed. Mack’s aunts on his mother’s side avenged the crime in a way that Mack never specified when he spoke ominously of the episode. Mack told Riva that he was related to Depression-era cop-killer and populist gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. “We don’t tolerate disrespect,” Mack would say, summarizing his family motto.
After Mack’s mother fled from his father, she married a country-club golf pro named Rick “Whitey” Johnson. Riva told me that Whitey Johnson never formally adopted Mack, a fact which Mack bitterly and perpetually resented. Even so, Mack became known as Carl Johnson. When he was in high school, he acquired the nickname “Mack” because of his physique. With his powerful build and broad, square shoulders, he resembled a Mack truck.
In middle age, after ten years of marriage to Riva under the name Carl Johnson, Mack suddenly changed his first name to King and took Riva’s last name—and my last name: Pine. When Riva told me about his name change, I sneered, “King Pine? Does he want people to think he’s a lumber baron?”
“Don’t tease him,” Riva chided me.
Mack explained that he had always been troubled by the fact that he and Riva had different last names. Therefore, he took Riva’s last name. He told me that I should regard it as a compliment to the Pine family. Mack said he wanted to honor my whole family by legally becoming a Pine.
Oddly, around this time, Riva told me that Mack had searched for and succeeded in locating his father, the alleged-rapist named Velasquez. The man was living somewhere in the Inland Empire of California. Mack discovered also that he had a half-brother—or maybe two half-brothers—living near Riverside. I couldn’t recall the details. Riva told me that Mack had never introduced her to these men, and she didn’t know their names.
Riva said it was ultimately a disappointment for Mack to have found his father’s side of his family. She told me that, after visiting his father a few times, Mack felt that he had nothing in common with him, and dropped the relationship. It was a shame, Riva thought, because Mack had always longed for brothers and a strong father-figure in his life. “He’s like a puppy who wants to run with big dogs,” she remarked.
At the time, Mack’s mother had been dead for five years, and Whitey Johnson had recently died. Riva told me that Mack had panicked at the thought of having no family. “Family means everything to him,” she insisted. “That’s why it makes him so sad that you and he don’t get along.”
Mack’s appropriation of our family name grated on me. My parents would’ve hated it if they had lived to see it. They had never been fond of Mack. Still, they always had smiled and behaved agreeably toward him for Riva’s sake.
Even after changing his name, he continued to introduce himself to people by his nickname. “Call me Mack,” he would say. “Mack like the truck.” It was the most fitting name for him, considering how he barreled through life without concern for other people, without tapping the brakes.
“Why doesn’t he just legally change his name to Mack Truck?” I asked Riva.
She shrugged. She and I agreed that “King Pine” was a grandiose-sounding name. By that time, we had learned that our opinions had no influence over Mack’s convoluted processes of decision-making and self-rationalization. For instance, he decided that he needed to spend thousands of dollars getting elaborate tattoos all over his body. He traveled to Hawaii, Vancouver, and San Francisco to be inked by artists he admired. He had become fanatical about tattoos.
Why? Riva and I both wondered.
Mack insisted that getting tattoos was crucial to his mental health and continued existence. He explained that when he was a teenager in high school, he felt insecure and suicidal as the brown-skinned, presumed-stepson of a Caucasian country-club golf-pro named Whitey Johnson. Also, Mack pointed out that he’d had severe acne as a teenager. Therefore, acquiring tattoos as an adult would heal the skin-related psychological wounds of his adolescence. Tattoos would fix whatever was wrong with him. Riva gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I had no way of knowing it at the time, but one day I would see Mack’s tattoos in photographs taken by the Long Beach Police Department. On his abdomen, a figure of a Buddha was tattooed alongside an image of a rooster. On his chest, two tattoos of Japanese Oni masks faced each other, one mask above each of Mack’s pectoral muscles. Between the two Oni-mask tattoos, Riva’s diamond engagement ring hung from a chain around Mack’s neck.
Later, seeing the Oni images tattooed on Mack’s skin had eerie resonance for me. In Japanese folklore, Oni are demons or ogres armed with iron rods or wooden clubs. These demons supposedly bludgeon people and drag them into hellish death-realms. The Oni drawings on Mack’s chest depicted horn-headed demons leering at each other with gape-mouthed grins, showing off their fangs and blood-gorged mouths.
Mack thought these Oni faces were cool. He had gone so far as to acquire a collection of actual demon masks. He put them on display in the yoga room. Riva thought they were creepy. Mack had told her that they were antique Noh masks carved from sacred wood by enlightened masters. They had been used in an ancient form of Japanese stage performance, and had great spiritual significance, he claimed. Regardless, they were a disturbing addition to the décor of Riva’s house, which she did not appreciate. She insisted that Mack install a curtain rod and curtain in the yoga room, allowing her to cover up the wall of masks when she wished.
Strangely, for all the money Mack spent on his tattoos, he kept them scrupulously concealed, at least in my presence. I had seen his arms, but not much else. After Riva’s death, I found pictures that he had shared online showing off some of his ink. Mack’s arms and legs were tattooed with an assortment of Hawaiian turtles, Japanese koi fish, Chinese pictograms, and lotus blossoms. In the police photos, I saw that his back, surprisingly, was free of ink—no tatts on his back. This surprised me because Mack had told Riva that the primary purpose of his tattoos was to cover up teenage-acne scars on his back and shoulders.
This was Mack: he lied effortlessly and seemingly pointlessly. He was skilled at salting lies with small truths, making it extremely difficult for me—and for Riva—to delineate fact from fiction in all things pertaining to Mack.
Once upon a time, Riva told Mack that she would gladly pay for him to consult a licensed psychotherapist. He told her that the last time he had sought therapy, years before meeting Riva, the consultations only made him feel more troubled and suicidal. I called this Mack’s Get-Out-of-Therapy-Free Card: If you make me seek professional help, I’ll kill myself. It worked like a charm on Riva. She redoubled her efforts to placate and understand him. “All he really needs is love,” she said, and she meant it with her whole heart and soul.
As I saw it, Riva was a selfless, industrious giver—a perfect match for Mack, a self-absorbed, all-consuming taker. She was endlessly empathetic toward him, projecting her own guilelessness and kindheartedness onto him, always finding excuses for his bad temper and crass manner. I couldn’t understand why she put up with him.
At the same time, I knew she would never be rid of him. When he changed his last name to ours, I was certain that Mack would never leave Riva alone, regardless of the formalities or legalities of their relationship, regardless of divorce.
“If you’re going to divorce him, you’d better do it now,” I said to her at the time.
To my surprise, she told me that she had already talked to a divorce attorney. “If I divorce him, I’ll have to pay a fortune in alimony,” she said, resigned. “If I’m going to support him, I might as well stay married to him,” she reasoned. “At least he knows how to do household repairs.”
“Mack can fix a toilet,” I said, mocking. “Not that he ever does, but he can. So he’s worth keeping.”
“I consciously chose to marry him, Becky,” she said with sharp rebuke in her voice. “I choose to stay married to him.”
She was hell-bent on proving that Mack, if given enough love, would blossom into a joyful, caring, thoughtful, creative person—a person like her. She had failed to accomplish this with Brad, her first husband. She refused to fail with Mack. She was determined to succeed. This was pure Riva: her heart could never be hardened, and her will could never be softened.
Many years earlier, Riva had tried to ditch first-husband Brad, who was her boyfriend at the time. Brad was a soft-spoken, slightly-built aerobics instructor with a delicate constitution and a Carolina drawl. To get away from Brad, Riva had moved from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia. She enrolled in a master’s degree program at Savannah College of Art and Design. She took a job selling kitchen appliances. As soon as she was gainfully employed, Brad followed her to Savannah. He pleaded with her. He elicited from her just the right blend of sympathy and romantic hope, I suppose, because Riva let Brad move into her new apartment in Savannah.
A few years later, after she had earned her master’s degree, she tried to ditch Brad again. She moved to Long Beach, where I was living at the time. She got a job with a kitchen-design company. As soon as she was earning money, Brad followed her to Long Beach. He insisted that he truly loved her. Exhausted from trying to get away from him, she married him.
Riva and Brad looked good together in photographs. They were both wholesome-looking blondes with large eyes, prominent cheekbones, and dazzling smiles. After years of Brad’s financial irresponsibility and skillful lies, however, Riva finally faced the hard truth that she was dragging an anchor. Brad was nothing but a burden. The fact that Brad had been arrested for trading sex acts for cocaine in an alley behind a gay bar had helped her reach this conclusion.
Even after their divorce, Brad continued to contact Riva, pleading with her for money and sympathy. A dissolution of marriage is just words, after all, not an emotional shield. A restraining order is just a piece of paper, not a physical barrier.
Riva started dating Mack soon after she divorced Brad. Mack was a gruff, semi-literate construction contractor. Riva met him while he was installing a kitchen that she had designed. To Riva, Mack seemed to be the opposite of Brad. Mack had jet-black hair, deep brown eyes, and a powerful build. He looked as if he could strangle a person with one hand. Mack knew how to swing a hammer and re-wire a house. Mack was licensed, bonded, and occasionally employed. He made her feel safe.
This was the irony. Riva wanted a man to protect her from other men. The presence of Mack would repel Brad and all other would-be Brads, Riva thought. But who would protect her from her so-called protector?
From their first meeting, Riva insisted on seeing only the best in Mack. Riva wanted to give Mack every opportunity to “find himself,” whether as a builder, an artist, or an electrician. Early in their marriage, however, Mack revealed himself to be the same as Brad. He announced that he was too sensitive to be weighed down with the responsibilities of earning a living. He told Riva that financial obligations and workplace commitments were too stressful for him to handle. He stopped accepting jobs. He allowed his contractor’s insurance bond to lapse.
Riva worked feverishly and expertly. She paid all of their bills. She built a booming business as a kitchen designer. Mack could’ve been equally busy installing the kitchens that Riva had designed—and, at one time, Riva wished for them to have a working partnership. She saw that he had talent and potential. However, as time went by, she came to see that his workmanship and customer service were not up to the professional standards that she had set for herself. She did not want to admit this to Mack because she believed it would crush his fragile self-esteem. Instead, it was easier for her to work hard enough for both of them.
Mack spent his days surfing, skateboarding, and smoking pot like a surly teenager trapped in the body of a now-middle-aged man. Riva told me, and told herself, that this was just a phase—a phase that had lasted a decade.
Who was I to criticize Riva’s devotion to him? While I could see the problems in Riva’s marriages so clearly, I didn’t have the same clarity about my own relationships. In retrospect I could see that I had chosen romantic partners who, like Brad and Mack, had great potential but zero desire to take the concerns of other people—me, for example—into honest consideration.
In my relationships, everything was always about her, whoever she happened to be at the time. At first, I thought that my girlfriend-of-the-moment was kidding. I thought that no one could be so self-involved, not really. I thought she’d snap out of it as soon as she relaxed into the relationship, if only I could be patient, pliant, and agreeable enough for long enough. But no. It always ended with my feeling taken advantage of, and her complaining that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
Maybe there was something wrong with me. Why did I always involve myself with the same type of person? I always chose women who were fantastically entertaining and delightfully captivating. Over time, however, I came to see that she, whoever she was, expected my role in the relationship to be that of an adoring audience. The awful thing was that I sincerely tried to meet this expectation by suppressing my own thoughts, feelings, and critical analyses. So it’s not as if I was being authentic in these relationships. I behaved more like a willingly brainwashed fangirl. It was bitterly disappointing all the way around when I suddenly stopped applauding.
Through all my relationships, Riva was my ally. She wanted me to be happy on my own terms. She would never tell me that she disliked my girlfriend, even when I asked Riva for her frank opinion. Riva wanted me to reach my own conclusions without her interference. I, on the other hand, vocalized my dislike of Riva’s men often and in withering detail, for all the good it did.
Riva and I had similar relationship patterns. The difference was that Riva had more patience. I would get fed up, whereas Riva would patiently wait, watching for microscopic signs of improved mutual regard in her relationships.
I finally escaped the pattern, I told myself, when I made the decision to relocate to Denver. I had been living in Los Angeles and had been out of work for several months. I told potential employers that I was open to relocating. A health-care charity in L.A. offered me a job. My girlfriend at the time informed me that if I took the job, she would break up with me because she had her heart set on living somewhere else with me. I turned down the L.A. job and accepted a better one in Denver. My girlfriend told me, on second thought, she would never relocate.
I had gone along countless times prior to that particular moment, always putting my girlfriend’s opinions and concerns ahead of my own. I had tacitly consented to being undermined. To hell with that, I told myself. I accepted the job in Denver—my current job at Holy Cross Health. I broke up with my girlfriend, moved away, and didn’t look back.
When I left California, however, I also left Riva. Secretly, I hoped that she would join me in Denver. Years earlier, in her attempt to escape from first-husband Brad, Riva had moved to Long Beach because I was living there. I was quietly—and sometimes loudly—rooting for Riva to escape from Mack in a similar fashion. I would be ready and waiting for her in Denver. I hoped that, one day, both of us could leave our disappointing relationships in the California dust, a thousand miles away. Since relocating, I had not had any more failed relationships. Then again, I hadn’t had any romantic relationships at all in Denver. I couldn’t exactly claim success.
Now I was on a plane, heading back to California, awash in ghosts of girlfriends past. Riva would tell me not to dwell on them. She would tell me to stay optimistic and dream big because some day, somehow, the perfect one for me would find me at last. “Follow your heart,” she would say. “It will never steer you wrong.” And yet, it always seemed to do precisely that.
When the plane landed, I turned on my phone. I had a message seemingly from Riva: “This is Mack on Riva’s phone,” the message read. “Saint Mary the Tower Medical Center. Intensive-care module 5 bed 3.”
I could not imagine what might’ve happened in the course of her morning yoga routine to put my sister in intensive care. Did she have a stroke? Or a heart attack? My heart pounded in my chest. My hands trembled as I sent a reply: “Just landed. On my way.”
Mack responded immediately: “She is out of surgery. Resting comfortably.”
Surgery?! My head swam. Why?
I hesitated to send another message to Mack. I didn’t like the fact that he was sending and receiving messages from Riva’s phone. I didn’t like that he was volunteering only the bare-minimum information. He acted helpless, but he was controlling the situation in his ever-controlling way. Something serious had happened, obviously. I didn’t trust Mack to be an intermediary between my sister and me. I hurried to get off the plane.
The atmosphere in Los Angeles felt heavy and damp. The sky was overcast with what locals called the marine layer, light fog rolling in from the Pacific, mixed with air pollution. As I waited outside on the curb for the car-rental shuttle, I could smell car-exhaust fumes and the rotting scent of the ocean. With these smells came a deluge of memories, jumbled and ambivalent, from the time when I called the city my home—a mix of fond feelings and lost hopes, but I couldn’t remember specifics. I had been young here, once, a very long time ago.
I rented a car and drove as fast as possible in slow traffic on the freeway down to Long Beach. Afternoon sunshine had dispersed the marine layer by the time I reached downtown.
I had never been to St. Mary the Tower Medical Center. I had never even heard of it. It was an old institution located a mile inland from the harbor. At one time, the hospital’s neighborhood had been a wealthy suburb. Over the past century, the area had been overtaken by poverty and crime. I drove past fast-food restaurants and discount stores, past men pushing carts full of trash, and others drinking from bottles wrapped in brown-paper bags. Palm trees swayed above it all like sardonic reminders of California’s reputation for balmy elegance.
The medical campus looked like a movie set comprised of 1920s Art Deco palaces and 1930s Craftsman bungalows. The campus of St. Mary the Tower reminded me of Holy Cross, the hospital in Denver where I worked. It was a mélange of architectural styles built over many decades. I followed signs to the main entrance. I parked near a modern-looking tower of steel and glass.
Mack waited outside the building. He was wearing camouflage commando fatigues and an olive-drab jacket. I had seen him wearing the same clothes at Christmas. Quasi-military attire made him look hip, he believed. I had heard him describe his fashion sense as “cool warrior,” and “grown-up surf punk.” To me, it meant, “middle-aged man trying to look like a teenager.”
He looked terrible. His graying black hair was wild, as if he had been in a wind storm. He looked as if he hadn’t shaved his face or trimmed his usually neat Van Dyke beard and mustache in days. His facial hair was grayer than I remembered. His brown skin looked unusually ashen.
I walked toward him.
He glanced up from his phone and saw me. A beat passed as he remembered that he was distraught. He started to cry. He outstretched his arms. He hugged me.
“Thank you for existing, Becky,” he blubbered into my shoulder.
I got the distinct impression that Mack was acting—overacting, really, like a honey-glazed ham. He was being fake—more fake than usual. I suspected that I was being hoaxed. “What happened to her?” I demanded, breaking his embrace.
“I don’t know,” he sobbed. “Ask the doctors.”
“I want to see Riva,” I said.
“I can’t go back in there,” he retorted, as if I’d told him to drink poison. “People think I’m a tough guy because I look tough. But I’m a teddy bear on the inside. I can’t take it anymore. All this stress.” He wiped his eyes. “I’ve been here all day waiting for you.” He said it in a way that sounded accusatory. “I need to go home and feed Caldo.”
Caldo was Riva’s beloved dog, a devoted, reddish-brown Vizsla, a Hungarian pointer.
“Fine,” I said. “Go feed Caldo.”
“Will you sleep with me tonight?” Mack blurted. When he registered my appalled expression, he clarified: “Will you stay at our house tonight? You can use the air mattress in the yoga room. I don’t want to be alone.”
When I visited Riva, I usually slept on the air mattress in their guest room, which Mack had recently converted to the “yoga room,” the room with the Japanese masks. I didn’t want to make any arrangements before talking to Riva, so I lied. “I checked into a hotel already.” I took a step toward the door.
“I don’t want to be abandoned,” he said.
Why was he so worried about being abandoned? It struck me as odd—but everything about Mack struck me as odd. “I hear you, Bro,” I said.
I went into the hospital. A receptionist wrote down my name and gave me a visitor-badge to wear. She directed me toward the nursing staff station for the intensive-care unit.
Intensive care. I repeated the phrase as I walked. Intensive care. Why?
When I arrived in intensive care, I explained that I was Becky Pine, sister of Riva Pine in module five, bed three.
The nurse was a young-looking man, Filipino I guessed from his name badge, which said Aquino. “Someone will be here to talk with you.” He gestured for me to sit in a waiting area filled with empty chairs.
I sat. I fumbled with my phone. I hoped to see a message from Riva. No message.
After several minutes, a woman hugging a clipboard to her chest came into the waiting area. I think her hair was blonde. She was my age, I assumed. Fortyish. I doubted that I would recognize her if I were to see her again. I suddenly felt as if my eyes weren’t working properly.
The woman said, “Are you Becky?”
She told me her name and job title. For some reason, I wasn’t able to remember it, but I understood that she was a social worker. She sat next to me. “How are you related to Riva?” she asked.
“She’s my sister.”
“Not your sister-in-law?”
I thought for a moment. Why would she question me on this point? Then I remembered: King Pine. “No, I’m Riva’s actual, blood sister. Her husband changed his last name to our last name a few years ago.”
“I’m very sorry,” she said. She wrote a note on her clipboard. “Your sister Riva sustained a severe blow to the back of her head. Her brain swelled rapidly. Doctors performed emergency surgery to reduce pressure on her brain. They will run a test to find out whether brain-stem herniation has occurred.”
The woman’s face was a blur. She was speaking in a way that made no sense.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Is Riva unconscious?”
“No, her reflexes are not responding.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, confused. “Is she in a coma?”
“No, she is not in a coma. The test will confirm whether her brain function has stopped.”
I tried to decipher the woman’s hyper-cautious medical-speak. “Meaning, she’s brain dead?”
“Doctors won’t be able to make an official declaration until after the tests.”
“But you’re telling me my sister is dead?”
“State laws govern the declaration of brain death. It’s not decided by one person.”
“She’s dead?” I asked, softly. “Is that what you mean?”
“It’s not something I’m allowed to say,” she said, pursing her lips as if trying to hold back words.
“What are you allowed to say?”
The woman looked at her clipboard. I could tell that she wasn’t reading anything. “We were told that your sister fell and hit her head on a bare concrete floor while doing yoga at home this morning. Her husband was in another room. He heard a loud thump. He found her on the floor and called paramedics.”
“And she’s dead now?” I spoke calmly, quietly, and intensely. “That’s insane. You know that’s insane, right?”
I did not know it at the time, but many months in the future I would remember this moment as pivotal. Many months in the future, I would hear this social worker’s voice again. I would hear a recording of her call to the police: “The doctors are saying that it could be foul play. She’s going to be declared brain dead. Her injuries are suspicious.” In the recording, the social worker sounded hesitant; she didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone, but she had a duty to her conscience to notify the police.
Ultimately, I would be grateful to this woman forever for making this phone call, but I had no way of knowing it on that terrible day. She stood up wordlessly and led me out of the waiting area and down a hallway. We walked through a doorway. We walked past several occupied hospital beds. She pointed at a door, and she left me to walk through it on my own.
Inside the room, machines beeped and clicked. On a white bedsheet, I saw Riva’s hand. An intravenous tube had been taped to it. “Riva?” I said. I stepped closer to her. The Filipino nurse was on the other side of her bed, adjusting one of the racks of machines that flanked my sister.
Riva’s blonde head was half shaved. An incision had been stitched across her scalp by doctors trying to save her life. A blood-filled plastic pump protruded from her skull. Riva’s swollen tongue lolled from her mouth, pressing against her respiration tube, straining against a strip of white adhesive tape. Dried blood was caked in the corners of her mouth. The nurse explained that the lower back of Riva’s scalp was split with a deep laceration that had been surgically repaired in the emergency room.
I stood at the foot of her bed, shocked at how distorted her face looked, and wondering why her left eye was purple and swollen, as if she had been punched.
“Riva, it’s me.” I rubbed the soles of her feet. I gently squeezed her toes. I watched her face. Despite obvious signs of extreme medical intervention, she appeared to be asleep. I expected her eyelids to flutter open. “Riva,” I said, louder. I shook her foot, trying to wake her up. I knew that when she woke up and saw me standing there, she would smile.
“Is she knocked out on painkillers?” I asked.
“She’s not on any painkillers,” the nurse said gravely. He explained brain-stem herniation to me. When the brain is injured inside the skull, the brain swells. To reduce pressure from the swelling, doctors perform a craniectomy. Meaning, they cut open the skull to give the brain more room. If they can’t relieve the pressure soon enough, the brain swells downward toward the brain stem, crushing brain tissue as it expands through the hole in the base of the skull. This is catastrophic and irreversible because it destroys neural function and blood flow.
“I’m going to check her reflexes,” the nurse said. He pressed his fingers into Riva’s eyebrows and around her jaw. “I’m not seeing any reaction,” he said. “Earlier, we did a cough test and a gag-reflex test with no response.”
With his thumb, he lifted Riva’s eyelid. I expected her to wake up and blink her eyes. She didn’t move. Her eye was dilated and motionless. The nurse flashed a light into her gray-green iris. “No response,” he said. He checked her other eye, the one with the swollen eyelid. I expected Riva to wince with pain. “Nothing,” the nurse said.
“How did this happen?” I asked softly.
The nurse moved nearer to where I was standing. “Earlier, we thought we were getting a reflexive response in her feet.” He ran a metal point across the arch of her left foot. “I’m not getting anything now.” He ran the point over her right foot. “No, nothing.”
“She’s dead?” I whispered, not comprehending.
“She’ll have a cerebral perfusion scan, and an apnea test. There are more tests to run. But her condition is not going to improve,” he said gently but firmly.
“So she won’t wake up?” I asked, dazed.
“Brain death means irreversible damage to the brain caused by trauma,” he said. “Your sister cannot breathe on her own. We are giving her oxygen and glucose, which is why her heart is still beating. Brain death does not mean sort-of death. The key word is death.” As he talked, he moved toward the door. “You’ll have a chance to talk to the neurosurgeon in the morning.” He seemed hesitant to leave. “You’re welcome to stay here with her as long as you want,” he offered. He nodded at a nearby chair. He sounded both sympathetic and resigned.
“Thanks,” I said, letting him know that it was okay for him to leave. There was nothing he could say that would help me grasp the enormity of the situation. Riva was dead. What more could be said?
I stood at my sister’s side, looking at the needles and tubes taped to the backs of her hands. Her heart continued to beat because of medical intervention. A ventilator breathed for her. A plastic blanket filled with cool air regulated her body temperature. Riva could no longer think, feel, or even twitch. She was completely helpless and humiliated.
“Riva, what happened to you?” I asked. I touched the backs of my fingers to her cheek. Her skin felt hot and feverish. “Riva?” I said, trying to wake her. Delicately, I put my thumb on her right eyelid just below her brow. I looked into her clear, wide, silently-staring lens. I tried to smile. “Riva, it’s me. I’m here.” I watched for a contraction in her iris, or any sign at all that she could see me. There was nothing.
I pulled up a chair next to her bed. I sat. I rested my hand on her forearm. I was still sitting there hours later when Mack called.
“Get here now, Becky,” he commanded. “The cops won’t let me in my house.”