for S.J.

She always said she'd beat it, and I believed her. She beat polio (remember polio?), walked with barely a limp, though her legs remained stunted and thin, after the doctors agreed she'd never walk at all. Beat polio, beat malaria, hepatitis, melanoma; beat Bull Connor's dogs, jail, Chicago cops, jail, jail, jail; she beat booze, beat smack, walked away from car crashes, motorcycle wrecks, one violent lover after another. She beat the odds. Came back from all of that, came back even from the lovers and lived a life that was a life, a dance, and no one's but her own: lived, a big woman dancing on those wizened, child-sized legs, by some graceful sleight-of foot on several edges at once. Twenty-four-hour performance art.
"I'll beat this thing," she said, and I believed her. What she said, she did.
"Here," she said. It was winter. Raining. She'd been in the hospital with pneumonia, but now she was home. "Here, and here and here," tracing a finger down the map of South America. Caracas. Quito. Lima. Cuzco. She'd bought a four-wheel-drive Toyota truck, planned to drive as far as she could and when the road ran out she'd walk. She planned to watch the sun come up in Macchu Picchu. Was I sure I didn't want to go?
I wanted to go more than I'd wanted anything in years. "My job, my family...."
She laughed until a fit of coughing siezed her. Under my hand, even through the thick wool sweater, her shoulder was bony now, all angles. "I'll send you a postcard," she said.
I'll beat this thing, she said, I'll beat it, and I believed her. I still believe her. I believe she beat it to the draw; I believe she looked at the odds as the odds were in '91 and figured her choice was between choosing her own way or leaving the choice to "it." For her, no choice at all.
From the postcard it's impossible to know if the sun is coming up or going down. Red-streaked sky, ancient temple in brooding, stark relief. Since knowing isn't possible, I can have it as I wish: she saw the sunrise. Saw the sunrise and started back down -- this much at least seems to be true -- and at a place where the path hairpins to the right, she kept on going. Perhaps she slipped. Perhaps she jumped. Me, I think she danced. On one edge, then over. And another, and another. I think she danced.

--Sara McAulay (1997)