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  • Winona took this picture. It's of Willapa Bay in Washington state taken in early Spring of 2010. This is where I live but I'm not sure of the pictures exact location and my sister is no longer around to ask. You see Winona came to live with me in November of 2009. She was torn and tattered as a result of a painful separation from her husband that led to an even more painful divorce. So with all her worldly possessions packed in her very small VW she left Denver and headed West for something new, different, less painful.

    By 2009 I had already lived on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula for 4 years. My partner and I had moved from Portland. He cut hair in Astoria for awhile, worked at a coffee shop and worked for his fathers landscaping business. I opened a design business and also worked for his family's business. You see the Peninsula is a rural community, living-wage jobs are few and far between, folks come here to live out their golden years. The lucky ones have the pensions to do so or are independently wealthy the rest of us need to wear several hats to make it in this beautiful but economically depressed area. I tell you this so you'll see how fool hardy the decision was to come here in the first place not to mention launching a design business where clients would not likely be. Despite all this, this was the place I would work toward my dream, to have a little piece of this breath-taking beauty, a place for family to gather or come to in-need, a place where I could hone my natural talent for design into a successful business.

    I also need to tell you that part of the lure of the Peninsula is my families connection to the it. This place is the ancestral land of the Chinook Tribe. At the time I only had a shadow of understanding of my connection to the Chinook people. Later, and just recently, I would trace our lineage to an ancestor named, simply, "Chinook Woman".

    So armed with my skeleton of a dream, some initial success with my design business, a vague sense of family connection and not much else. I felt confident I could shore up my sisters weary soul with my grand design of establishing a family home. I also looked forward to having Winona's considerable talents to help flesh out the skeleton and implement the thousand different marketing ideas I had been wading through without much success. I thought I could lend my dream to her in a time where hope for herself was too painful and raw to imagine and the question of "what to do?" had no answer. In retrospect, I'm embarrassed by my naivety.

    Christmas brought two of Winona's three children to the Peninsula. Also celebrating the holiday with us was our younger sister and her wife. It wasn't the entire family but still a time full of laughter and now cherished memories. The laughter turned to sadness with the return of our family to their own lives. I could feel Winona's fear as the car left the drive. We hugged each other and cried. This was the beginning of a new chapter for her, for us.

    The months that followed saw Winona putting structure back into her life. In addition to the help she gave me with creating forms, culling marketing ideas and taking the image that would eventually be our businesses' calling cards. She also joined a divorce recovery group at a local church. She took weekly lessons with a voice coach. She loved to sing and I thought a creative outlet could soothe or even distract her from her still fresh wound. Winona also had a short stint at one of the few living-wage jobs on the Peninsula. She worked for two weeks at a medical clinic less than a mile from our home. She was hired but still had a final interview to get through but the clinics home office was two hours away and the interviewers schedule was booked for the next two weeks. They decided to let her start immediately. I'm biased, but I do believe Winona bowled them over with her impressive resume and her full-faced smile. During those two weeks I saw glimpses of a confident women taking back her life, moving through her sadness, curious again to see what could be.

    It was the night before her interview. I remember laying in bed and seeing headlights turn on in the driveway. I thought Winona was maybe running to the store or taking a drive to calm the nerves. I feel asleep but woke just before dawn. I walked down the hall to find her empty room, her car was gone, she hadn't come back. I frantically call her cell, no answer, I descend to a place of abject fear (I can feel that again as I write this) , my phone rings, it's my father. He say's "Winona is here but she doesn't remember how she got here and it looks like she got into an accident". My father lives in Portland, two and half hours away. I would later find out that my sister had been had been prescribed eleven different medications ranging from powerful anti-psychotics to sleep medications. Her missing time episode was the result of an Ambien over dose. None of these prescriptions were being monitored by a physician.

    Winona was with us for seven months total. The last months are difficult to share, I'll just say my fear for her safety turned to resentment and her pain burrowed deeper. The dream of us creating a family home in this place our ancestors once lived was dead. I knew she would leave, in fact she had already made plans.

    The following year found me busy with a new real estate career, re-imagining my design business as more purveyor of goods than interior design and my partner taking over his fathers landscaping business. I had talked with Winona only a couple of times since her move back to Denver. I would hear how she was doing from my younger sister and my father. I knew she had joined the choir at her church and was excited to be a grandmother for the second time. I would imagine the time when I'd see her again, telling each other of our adventures and mending the rift we had between us. I was convinced we would have that time.

    March of 2011 saw the horrific human tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. I remember watching countless hours of television coverage, being horrified and moved to tears by the scale of suffering. I remember wondering how would the ones left behind endure such loss, such misery. I would soon find out.

    In the garage of a home she was house-sitting. Winona decorated the walls, covered the windows of her very small VW, turned on the engine and ended her pain.

    It's nearly a year later, March 15th will mark the first anniversary of my sisters suicide. I now live in a home with a view that's identical to the picture she took two years earlier. The clam beds that stretch out in front my home are the same ones our ancestors harvested. The place were family could gather is now my place. My struggle is not with what I could have done but rather with what I did. I thought I understood my sisters pain, how could I? I thought I knew what she needed, I didn't. I thought we had more time, I was wrong. I thought I could simply lend her my dream, wrong again.
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