Loving an Ant Sadist

Ogunquit, Maine – 1966

When we were tiny white wisps, like foam on the caps of waves, my big sister invented a terrible game. Before our parents woke up, she would wander into the dune valleys in front of our family’s summer cottage to marvel at thousands of ants constructing their tiny empires.

The game went: stalk, capture, torture, observe, repeat.

According to six-year-old Sara, a good ant-orphan wandered like beggar between anthills. The best way to lure this bewildered pest was to get it to crawl up piece of dune grass dipped in apple juice. When that failed, Sara would simply cup her hands beneath the wriggling creature and carry it to a horrible new home.

When Sara dropped the orphan ant down in its brand-new kingdom a dune or two away, we would watch it interact with new ants of a faraway land. Worker ants would sometimes stop hauling bits of sand and stick their antennae out at the orphan, who would stop to poke its feelers out in return. This tentacle-touching looked to me like an ant kiss, and that satisfied me, but my sister’s thirst for excitement did not cease until the natives attacked the orphan mercilessly – or even better, until the orphan attacked them. When violence erupted, Sara’s fluffy brown eyebrows would rise up to her pixie cut. She would squat down and scrutinize as I gasped and clapped. Ant violence can be entertaining in the right company.

Of course I never was her true playmate. The title of Ant-thropologist’s Assistant might have suited me better than sister, or playmate, or friend. I had the following jobs: run the chosen ant back to its original habitat if something went terribly wrong; remember where the most aggressive colonies were; provide new glasses of juice and pieces of dune grass for the researcher as needed.

Typical interruptions to our game – which, if executed by a more erudite crew, might have been titled “Ant Reactions in the Face of Torture: Human Implications” or something – included thunderstorms, a cousin showing up to recruit us for a game of hide-and-seek, and the charred smell of hotdogs on the grill.

Phone Call – Spring 1988

Before my wedding (it’s probably no surprise that I married before the ant sadist), I asked my big sister to give the maid-of-honor speech. “Sara, you don’t have to, if you don’t have time. Just if you want to.” I knew she would do it; I just didn’t want to burden her.

“Sure…” she replied.

“You don’t have to, I just thought – ”

“No, of course I’ll do it.”

We had not spoken much in the last few years. Not because we weren’t fond of one another. Life got in the way. “Are you sure?” I asked. I felt my stomach drop.


Wedding – Summer 1988

Sara had grown into a spindly queen of a woman: scrawny, aloof, commanding. My palms perspired for her as she traipsed up to the podium overlooking the blue and pink flowers that dotted each crisp white linen tablecloth. As she began to speak, I choked up. Our once-beautiful sisterhood had grown thin and fragile, I realized when I noticed her hands tremble. Like just-burst bubbles it had sort of splatted mid-air and evaporated.

It’s my fault, I remember thinking. I get off the phone with her too quickly when she calls.

But looking back, that was a foolish thought. Sara always worked too much. Her obsession with success gave her a law degree, a well-paying job, debt, a beautiful condo, two engagements, no marriages, and few friends. It would be five years before she even considered children.

When I went to see her after her second engagement ended, her hair was falling out in patches. The scalp was visible in places, and her voice sounded cracked, defeated. Sometimes it was easier not to talk to her.

Early 1980s, Ogunquit Maine

Midway through my 8th grade year our father collapsed onto his steering wheel, and his car careened into a tree. His heart stopped beating before the impact of the crash. I have always taken comfort in that.

By that June, my mother had sold our three-bedroom ranch in the Boston suburbs. We picked everything up and moved to the summer cottage. My mother, a retired teacher, went back to work at the regional high school there. They were always hiring. She collected my father’s life insurance, which paid for our college tuitions and would pay for both of our weddings. Her salary barely paid for everything else, and life moved on.

On the outside, we looked like a family with a cute beachfront home who had experienced a tragedy and come to Maine to escape it. Shame what they went through, but they’re fine, the town seemed to say. And we were.

“Strong woman, that Mrs. Mahon,” I once overheard my history teacher saying to the principal about my mother, who taught math. His voice, I remember thinking, contained more than a hint of admiration.

She always was proud of her ability to pick up and move on, and to take care of the two of us. And she had a right to be.  Inside that house though, we lived on little bed-islands or desk-islands. It was rare that we spoke to one another without a tone of contempt, or desire to escape that place and each other. 

Sara adjusted to the move more easily than I did.

“You’re Sara’s sister?” teachers would say, looking up from the roster with an eyebrow raise, not believing that my black eyeliner, pudgy thighs, and cheap jewelry could be associated with the illustrious Sara Mahon.

Ogunquit, Maine – Summer 1986

There was that one night, the first summer Sara came home from college. I came into our shared room, sobbing. We shared a room, and Sara sat upright reading a book on her twin bed, as cool as a goddamned cucumber when I blundered past her. I crashed into my pillows, and buried myself in the quilt.

“What happened?” she asked, annoyed.

I forget the details, but I think I told her that there was a boy – his name was Russell Pace– and that he had been drinking, and that’s all I was able to get out.

As that wisp of information lit up the whites of Sara’s eyes, she snapped up and turned the big lamp on the word wooden dresser on. Her eyes darted right to the bruise on my wrist. She didn’t ask about it, but she saw it. Then she crossed the room to my pile of blankets and tears and sat down next to me.  She asked me some questions, but I don’t remember the conversation. All I remember is this:

“I’m going to hurt him,” she said at some lull in the questioning. And I swear, her eyes changed color when she said it. They went from green to slate grey somewhere after “going to” and before “hurt him.”

I knew she was only half serious, but until I turned eighteen I sometimes picked up a newspaper and half-expected to come across a headline announcing that Russell had been found in a basement somewhere, covered in ants.

Wedding – Summer 1988

It rained the night before my wedding, but that morning the sky cleared and the weather turned humid and thick as the sun rose higher. August brings that kind of weather up the coast. The air just hangs.

Sara never drank, and sometimes I think it was because Dad did. Sometimes I wished she did. When she made her maid-of-honor speech, for instance, a drink or two may have helped.  Despite her tremble though, and one deadpan joke I can’t remember that no one except the drunkest of my seven uncles laughed at, her speech felt like love. Fights that filled the days before the wedding, the sick after-death feeling that hung in the air around the cottage, and old-fashioned sisterly jealousy crawled away under the sand, or evaporated into that light mist that clung to the ocean.

Cambridge, MA – September 2015 – One Year Ago

“How you feeling Sara?” I asked one Friday evening last fall as I sat down on the bed next to her. Her room smelled like rancid bubble gum, probably from the cheap cleaning supplies the nurse I paid for used to clean the vomit.

Sara opened her eyes, yawned, and smiled. Wrinkles bloomed in the corners of her mouth and around her eyes. “Has Sam come to see you this week?”

“Yesterday.” She lit up with a smile that only drugs and the memory of your son’s visit can produce. She was usually ornery, so this was better. “Let’s go to the cottage,” she mumbled with that same ecstatic grin.

“Now? It’s two hours away.” That, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. Take care of her, I mean. Part of me resented my nephew Sam for going away to California for school, away from his sick mother. I didn’t blame him, though. And he came back a lot. When you are an only child, your only parent’s ALS diagnosis is difficult to face head-on.

Twitching, for she had not yet taken her medicine for the day, she reached up to my shoulder. “Come on,” she slurred. With effort: “It’s nice there in the fall.”

After she said that, I looked out the window and knew I wanted out of that bedroom room filled with its freshly laundered sheets and cleaner-mixed-with-vomit smell. Taking care of her there for the night would be better than doing it here. The nurse came in. “Can I take her on an overnight trip, do you think?” I asked. “She wants to go to our beach house in Maine.”

The nurse nodded politely. “That’d be nice for her. She’s been doing well, getting food down. Make sure to crush up all the pills in the morning. And bring her back in time for her massage.”

Maine Beach Cottage – 2015 – One Year Ago

As I lifted her body out of the wheelchair and into the car, Sara stood up, feet solid on the ground, and pushed me away. “I can do it myself,” she said with a grumble and a wave.

I hesitated and hovered behind her. Baby steps landed her in the passenger seat, and she grinned up at me, head limp, proud and quite satisfied with herself.

“Need anything?” I asked. I looked at her frail body. The disease had drawn all of the life out of her once-wiry muscles. Sadness pierced my heart, and the blood that flowed out was a steady stream of guilt.

“Nope,” she replied as I buckled her in. I had to tighten the strap.

In the car I thought about the house. It was a three-bedroom shingled cottage, built some time in the fifties, and it had not changed much since our father’s death. It still had an old-fashioned sleeping loft (the third bedroom) and a wood-burning fireplace that still worked because I paid to have the chimney cleaned once a year. My mother never had the money to fix the cottage when she was living, and I still don’t have the heart to sell it.

The air inside felt damp and smelled like the ocean and mildew, so I threw some wood onto the fireplace, crumpled up some newspaper, lit a match, and watched it grow.

Sara pointed without raising her arm. “Let’s both sleep in our old room. It’ll be a sleepover,” she mumbled with her characteristic twitches. I had grown used to them. “Look – whitecaps.” She pointed again, now at the ocean outside. The waves did look a little angry, I remember, despite the weather report’s prediction of a calm, cool weekend.

We slept in our twin beds in accordance with Sara’s suggestion that night, even though the other bedrooms had better beds. The twins were old rickety things with sunken mattresses and worn handmade quilts layered on top, but the room was the nearest bedroom to the fire, which made it the coziest.

When I woke up the next day the dune grass whistled, and I could hear the rain pelting. So much for the forecast, I thought. I went over to Sara. Her body had sunk into the bed and something about her looked all wrong.

I went to shake her. Nothing. I ran to the kitchen to crush up her pills. Was I supposed to do it last night? No the nurse said in the morning. I crushed them frantically. I put the powder in some orange juice, ran back into the room. The muscles around my neck tightened and my jaw clenched. Breath could barely escape my mouth. When I sat down on the bed my eyes bled hot, panicky tears.

“Sara? Sara!” I repeated her name ten, twenty, a hundred times. I shook her, then slapped her face lightly. “Sara, wake up. Wake up,” I demanded. I went to feel her pulse and a tiny thump, thump, thump sent the sweetest relief to my system. It was like that faintly bulging artery poured intravenous fluids chock full of vitamins into my own bloodstream. I felt more awake than I had in a year.

Her eyes opened, but because of the lack of medication in her system, she still couldn’t speak. I sat her up, and she managed to swallow some of the orange juice mixture. Most of it trickled down onto her chin.

Finally, I sat back on the rickety headboard of the twin bed right next to her and exhaled. Something thick lodged itself between my heart and throat. I swallowed to get rid of it. No good.

I looked out the room’s windows at the dunes and at the waves crashing into the sand like suicide bombers. The rain had stopped.

“Nap,” my sister mumbled.

She needed more rest, and I was relieved to be rid of the guilt and the panic for the length of one nap. “I’m gonna go for a walk, is that ok?” I asked, petting her grey hair down.

She blinked once and sort of nodded.

I opened the screen door and glided outside into the cold autumn. It had stopped raining, but the wind hadn’t given up. The tail end of a fall storm is the best weather for a sunrise, and the sky around the sun was bright red, and the red bled out to pinks and purples around the clouds above the choppy water.

That’s the last sight I remember before I wound up in a little dune valley, a cocoon that gave me a lovely view of the ocean. A stabbing pain in my chest brought me there. I thought I was having an honest-to-goodness heart attack, but I wasn’t. This pain, like a knife jutting beneath a rib, can be symptomatic of a panic attack, my doctor told me later.

The earth felt tilted and whirling, and I remember being glad that a storm had recently passed. If someone had seen me they might have been concerned: there I was, greying old lady in my flannel pajamas and a big puffy coat, staring out at the ocean, holding the side of my chest. I can’t lose her, I can’t lose her, I can’t lose her, I kept thinking, or saying. I watched the ocean crashing over into the shore with dumb fury, taking little grains of sand away. I had never thought of the waves that way, as sand-stealers. But in that moment I was angry with them – for taking away the little grains of sand, for smoothing them down into soft, tiny specs that the ants would one day lift, piece by piece, as they built their little kingdoms of hope and isolation, making some kind of love.