Where the Wild Things Were

by Garth Upshaw

I learned about Carolyn’s diagnosis when my kid sister, Ashley, phoned me at work.   “Cancer,” she said, and I felt sucker-punched.  A co-worker, in marketing, told me my niece would be fine.  “Modern medicine’s a miracle.”

Two months earlier, at Carolyn’s eighteenth birthday party, my dad had joked. “Now you can legally be a stripper.”  

“What the fuck, Dad?”  I said. 

Ashley ignored him, but Mom gave Dad the hairy eyeball.  “Mister!”  

Carolyn looked at her plate and pushed the chicken around in little circles. 


Shortly after Carolyn was born, Ashley asked me and my wife, Irene, to sign a document she’d made.  If anything happened to her, we agreed to take her baby.  Ashley stroked Carolyn’s cheek.  “The sperm donor’s an asshole.  He’s out of the picture.”  She turned to her new boyfriend.  “Make us tea, huh?”

Irene and I took Carolyn most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  Her straight blond hair and fierce smile reminded me of Ashley when she was a toddler.  Carolyn had barely turned three when our daughter, Katie, was born, and Carolyn threw herself into the older cousin role with gusto, reading picture books, making up stories, dressing Katie in outlandish clothes, showing her how to hold a toy stethoscope.

In first grade, the drama teacher cast Carolyn as Max in the school play.  Stroke of fucking genius, I thought.  Ashley sewed a white one-piece with whiskers and a bushy wolf tail.  Carolyn stomped around the stage, fifth- and sixth-graders cowering away.  “And now,” she cried, “let the wild rumpus begin!”

It was a wild rumpus.  Ashley pieced together shitty part-time work, and stayed with friends-then-enemies for a couple of months at a time.  Her boyfriends were all older, grayer, between jobs, professional drinkers.  She met guys at the Laurelthirst who fell hard for her beauty, her sparkle, her grand ideas and loud, captivating energy.  Dad bought Ashley a funky condo ten blocks from us, and she threw herself into remodeling, making curtains, and painting the basement black.

One soggy Portland winter evening, when Carolyn was in second grade, I got a phone call from Ashley.  “Come and get Carolyn.  Now.”

“Okay,” I said,  “what’s –” but she’d hung up.

I knocked at the condo door, and Carolyn answered.  She wore her coat and hat, clutched the handle of a pink kids’ Miss Kitty rolling suitcase, and held a sleeping bag under her other arm.  The living room was a mess of toppled bookshelves, overturned chairs, and drifts of torn paintings and paper.  In the kitchen, Dad tried to calm Ashley down while she methodically smashed every plate and glass in her cupboards.

“I’m supposed to go with you,” Carolyn whispered.

She stayed with us for two months that time.  On a class trip to the Portland Art Museum, the kids played hide-and-seek and Carolyn hid so well everyone left without her.  When the class took an all-day excursion to the Newport Aquarium, her teacher said she couldn’t come, so I played hooky from work and drove Carolyn myself.  She held my hand while we walked through the underwater tunnel, sharks gliding silently by like deadly submarines.

 On the way out, Carolyn’s class begged the teacher for ice cream, but he refused, and tried to wrangle the kids into two straight lines for the bus.  I bought double scoops for Carolyn, and she licked her rocky road with relish, staring daggers at the teacher.

The summer before high school, as part of a full-life makeover, Ashley moved in with a guy in Vancouver.  He had a ramshackle two-bedroom place on a main road across from Fred Meyer.  That lasted a year, and when she broke up with him, the condo was still leased to someone else, so she couch-surfed with friends.  Irene and I vacated our bedroom and slept on the landing, surrounded by sheets pinned to the ceiling, so Carolyn could have her own room.  We enrolled her in an alternative private school, walking distance from our house.

Carolyn was deeply wary of me and other grownups, men, especially.  She’d hunch her shoulders and answer questions with a monotone “Yes,” or “No,” or “Maybe.”  I couldn’t do anything right, from not cooking pasta long enough, to liking the wrong bands for the wrong reasons. The contempt in Carolyn’s demeanor was palpable.  She was stick-thin, and Ashley worried that Carolyn was anorexic. That Irene and I didn’t feed her right.  At a family vacation at Cannon Beach on spring break, Ashley screamed at Carolyn.  “Eat your goddamn meat!  You need protein!”

But that year, when Carolyn was around Irene and Katie, her sparkle shone with big, bright energy.  They laughed and cooked cupcakes together.  Katie and Carolyn talked for hours, and read the graphic novel series, Bone, out loud.  The school was a perfect fit, and when Ashley and Carolyn moved back into the condo, I was deeply relieved my sister kept Carolyn enrolled.

Carolyn took classes at the School of Rock in the evenings, and we attended the end-of-term show in an old warehouse in the industrial district.  Parents and friends milled around the stark space, but when Carolyn got on stage and belted out the blues, the crowd was entranced.

It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day

It’s a new life / For me

And I’m feeling good / I’m feeling good

We took road trips during her high-school summers, bombing down to Arcata to visit our nephew and his partner.  Irene and I in the front seats of a rented SUV, the kids in the back.  We blasted The Killers, Lady Gaga, Pink and, in deference to the oldsters, Natalie Merchant and Paul Simon.  Buckets of freshly picked blackberries from Humbug State Park stained our mouths purple, and we threw a graffiti party with spray paint at an abandoned bridge over the Madd River.


The hospital was a crazy maze of winding streets and skyscrapers on steep hills looking over the Willamette River towards Mt. Hood.  Ashley told us which parking garage was closest, and we started doing shifts, sleeping in chairs or on the padded benches in the lounge when we weren’t needed in Carolyn’s room.  Other hollow-eyed families drifted in and out, voices hushed, hair disheveled.  Irene’s brother was visiting from his monastery in England, and his orange-robed presence and careful calmness comforted us.

My brother, Ben, threw himself into errands and fix-it mode, bringing take-out food, gathering clothes for laundry, and watching Game of Thrones with Carolyn in her room.  Our couples therapist recommended “Grief”, by Matthew Dickman, which starts:

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla

you must count yourself lucky

We didn’t feel lucky.  

A cancer specialist wanted to meet, and Ashley asked me to come with her.  A dozen doctors squeezed around the table.  Ashley stared down at her clasped hands.  The specialist cleared his throat.  “This cancer is unusual.  Quite aggressive.”  He was short and balding and sweating and his leg jiggled.  “We’d like permission for samples.”  I didn’t like him.  He seemed too eager.  Excited, even.  Like he cared more about publishing a paper than about Carolyn’s life.  But Ashley nodded, a short, quick jerk of her head, and we all filed out. 

Katie drew pictures of My Little Pony, a kids’ cartoon, which Carolyn was totally into.  I never got why.  I mean, what the fuck, right?  She was eighteen years old, not a kid.  The doctors scheduled the first chemotherapy for early the next week.  Katie and I made a postcard-sized layout of Carolyn baking, flipping the camera off, and labeled it “Fuck Cancer.”

The appointment was all the way down the hill by the river in a satellite building accessible from an aerial tram.  Ashley, Ben, and I helped Carolyn into a wheelchair.  She hated rolling down the halls, worried she’d draw people’s attention, or that she’d have to pee, which happened with great frequency because – well, cancer.  “Excuse me, excuse me,” I said, while the tram operator encouraged everyone to “pack on in.”  Sunlight blazed out of a clear blue sky as the mechanism unlatched with a loud clang and we were off, swooping over roads and trees and houses towards the Willamette.

The doctor, a lovely woman with flowing brown hair, told us, “Chemotherapy is actually contraindicated.”  She was clearly trying not to cry.  “It wouldn’t do any good, and might even make Carolyn feel worse.”

“So I just die?”  Carolyn stared at the doctor.  “That’s it?”


It’ll be ten years ago this October.  Carolyn’s ashes are at Lone Fir Cemetery, a few blocks north of our house. Ashley still lives in the condo with her new husband.  I don’t like him, but he’s head and shoulders above her other boyfriends. Ashley hasn’t spoken with me or Ben in years. She’s angry.  I text her on her birthday, wondering if maybe this time she’d like to grab a coffee, reconnect, but she’s certain. “No, not interested.  You never– You always–”

– END –

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One Response to “Where the Wild Things Were”

  1. Amy P Says:

    poignant memory of a beautiful person, Garth. Thank you for sharing!

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