“Both Nina and the nation were in decline. Their fates combined read like a logline for a film noir script: a War on Terror has been declared; poison letters, mailed, and a dark-haired dame is in a heap of trouble.”
So what happens when a Canadian transplant to Los Angeles who happens to love gardening in her bikini top contracts Lou Gehrig’s disease?
This is not Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s Lily Salter’s dark, poignant tale of three sisters with a head start, as she puts it, in the Tragic Arts, and the relatively slow path of one deadly disease. When the glamor puss of the family, Nina, contracts an incurable illness, an already precarious sibling balance is thrown into disarray.
Salter is the baby of the family, the narrator, a self-hating artist who wishes she could escape her stock character, but instead finds herself stuck, single, falling for bad-news Hollywood cats, waiting tables to make ends meet and biting her tongue when her controlling brother-in-law, the lord and master of Sick House, diagrams the kitchen cupboards just to be sure each spatula makes it back into place each time she cooks up dinner for her sister.
In this noirishly humorous, yet emotional memoir, Salter sketches out her older sister Nina in adoring detail, from a teen, “shaking her skinny hips to Average White Band’s ‘Pick Up the Pieces’” to an airline stewardess and tanned goddess in California. It’s ironic, though, she writes, that if her sister hadn’t contracted ALS disease, she might never have known Nina’s real power. Lou Gherig, an all-American athlete, died just two years after his diagnosis. Thanks to modern technology and an Olympian will to live, Nina holds on much, much longer. But not through saintliness. Nina is human through and through and doesn’t see any reason why illness should force her to give up her perfectionistic standards.
There are too many memorable lines, both funny and sad, for me to quote them all, but I’ll end with this tender one on the pain of not knowing which good-bye will be last, she writes, “Like an athlete, I train my heart to hurt. Strive to make the pain familiar.”