In 1995, my younger sister, Patti, died suddenly while working as an English teacher in the northern Namibian bush. I felt moved to write about her, and thus began a quest that would stretch more than 15 years.
Over that time, my sister’s story became my story, too, told through the filter of blood and memory. The result, IF THIS ISN’T LIVING, is a memoir about lives intertwined and teased apart, about making peace with no longer having what I wanted so desperately.
Only by seeing Patti’s tiny corner of Africa for myself—and piecing together a journey that included the remnants of apartheid, an isolated mission and an off-the-radar school—am I able to make peace with my sister's untimely death.
This is a tale of love, loss and renewal—of the unshakable bonds of sisterhood.
I am seeking representation for this completed manuscript.
See below photos of Patti (some also with me) and an excerpt from IF THIS ISN’T LIVING.
Humidity so viscous it catches in our throats. We jog across Key Bridge, across the brown, churning waters of the Potomac for our warmup. We’re late, and because I hate being late for anything, I feel nervous, keyed up. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it,” Patti assures me, and we do—by maybe thirty seconds.
The gun cracks and hundreds of us begin to jog along the gravel path through Georgetown. We veer over to Canal Road, where splinters of sunlight break through the low-lying canopy of box elders and river birch. The heat swirls around and through us, and at Mile 3, we pour Dixie cups of water over our heads. We stride past a tall, stocky runner, who calls out Patti’s name. Turns out they went to high school together, and now he’s a lawyer for the Justice Department. He asks Patti what she’s up to these days.
“I’m teaching English in Africa,” she says. While she’s nonchalant about it, his eyebrows shoot up. Just as he opens his mouth to ask her more, we wish him well and speed past him.
The race gets hillier, more demanding. It climaxes with one final ascent, a steep and winding rise up Reservoir Road, away from the canal. It climbs toward oblivion, but even so I feel strong and must have picked up the pace without realizing it. I’ve failed to notice my sister’s ragged breathing until we’re a half-mile from the finish, and then she waves me ahead.
“Don’t worry about me,” she says. “I’ll find you at the end.”
“C’mon, we’ll just run slower,” I tell her. “We’re almost there.”
Patti shakes her head. “Just go on without me. I don’t want to slow you down.”
I stay glued to her side. We all have bad days, and I want to help her get through this. I want to finish with her, and I tell her this. But Patti won’t stand for it. With less than a quarter-mile to go, she stops, just stops, dead in her tracks.
“Go on without me! Go!” It comes out as a growl, and she pushes me by the shoulders, shoving me forward. She won’t even look me in the eye. “I’m not starting again until you take off! Pam, will you go … just… go!”
So I go. Stung, I take off. I leave her behind. I make it to the top of the hill and break into a near-sprint to the finish line. I feel strong, but somewhere behind me, Patti feels lousy, so I feel a little lousy, too. Just before I hit the chute, I remember I’m crashing this race, so I pull up short and stumble onto the crowded sidewalk. I wait for a couple minutes before I finally see Patti jogging toward the finish line, drenched. She has pulled off her tank top and wadded it into her hand. Her ponytail has come undone, and slick strands of hair fall into her eyes. Her face is placid and dreamy. She has no idea I’ve caught sight of her. When I call her name, she snaps to attention and smiles, then pulls up beside me. We slap high-fives. “How was your time?” she asks.
I shrug. “No idea, Pats.”
For a change, I couldn’t care less about my time. As we push through the crowd in search of water, I find myself thinking about all that’s changed since our long-ago Cooper Run, that night we flew together down the streets of McLean. I wonder why Patti forced me to leave her behind when all I really wanted was to stay by her side.