Book review: ‘Sleep in Me'

"Sleep in Me" by Jon Pineda, University of Nebraska Press, 168 pages, $21.95.

When Jon Pineda was 11 years old, his 16-year-old sister, Rica, was in a car crash en route to Nags Head, N.C. After months in a coma, she woke, half her body paralyzed. She would spend the rest of her short life in a wheelchair, never able to walk or talk again.

“Sleep in Me” is Pineda’s graceful, elegiac account of that period. Part coming-of-age story, part remembrance, it chronicles his attempt to discover what pieces were left of his older sister -- her humor, her dreams, her dignity -- when she could communicate only through rudimentary sign language.

“She used it to tell us she was still here,” her brother writes. But whether Pineda was still “here,” and who he became after Rica’s accident, are at the heart of this inquiry into the nature of consciousness, silence and language.

Pineda, a poet, grew up in Chesapeake, Va., the son of a Filipino father and a mother from North Carolina. He has explored the loss of his sister in two prize-winning volumes: “Birthmark” (2004) and “The Translator’s Diary” (2008).

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Borrowing the intimate shorthand of poetry, the brief, concentrated vignettes in “Sleep in Me” -- some no more than a page long, most not more than three -- convey the before and after of a family whose lives changed irrevocably in the wake of his sister’s accident.

Beginning with memories of his 11th year, Pineda maneuvers between his then carefree existence and sketches of his sister at 16, a popular and typically insecure teenage girl who diets on cabbage broth, hates her hair, and will do anything to wear the green and gold uniform of the “local royalty” varsity cheerleading squad.

In the before shots, Pineda is a typical adolescent who thought he “would always be a boy” -- jumping off the dock into a neighborhood creek, reading well-worn "Penthouse" magazines in a van with his friends, rehearsing dirty words, learning how to throw a baseball.

With Rica’s accident, Pineda becomes the object of stares and whispers, “the boy who had a sister in a wheelchair.” Her helplessness required humiliatingly close contact for someone his age: at 13, some 60 pounds lighter than she, he struggles to lift his sister out of a wheelchair; on days his mother picks him up at school, he urges her to drive away faster so the other kids won’t stare at Rica: “Can’t we just go?”

He wishes that “there was a way to hide her for a while, as if she might wrap herself within a cocoon and emerge to our surprise fully healed and hovering.”

Rica’s inability to talk was what affected Pineda most. “The memory of her voice is an album of sound I’ve been searching through and yet slowly forgetting with each day. It is the sound, I tell myself, I must not forget. But it continues to elude me.”

His frustration wars with his tender heart, and he channels his anger and helplessness into athletics -- particularly wrestling.

In one of the book's most poignant episodes, Pineda describes a match where he seems to be pinning more than just a weaker opponent: “Thinking of Rica sitting in her wheelchair at home, I want now to only hold longer the body that resists my full grasp.”

He sees his opponent as a fish, gasping for air, a fish that was once a boy. Yet when he calls him “a boy who never had a chance to be a boy,” we know Pineda is not only talking about himself -- the way Rica’s tragedy has eclipsed his boyhood and identity --— but also his fear that she will never return.

The fickle quality of language is a recurring theme, from Pineda’s difficulties with Tagalog, his father’s language, to his Southern mother’s ease at communicating. During a casual grocery-store trip, he writes, “complete strangers would confess things to her,” telling her “where they grew up, whether or not any of their ancestors were Irish or Cherokee, how many grandchildren they had.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when he does finally escape the long shadow of Rica’s tragedy, Pineda emerges as a poet, determined to wrestle his sister’s silence into words.

I’m grateful that the challenge Pineda experienced with understanding Rica -- and his past -- is echoed in the language of his memoir, that he doesn’t unload his history in chatty, easily digestible nuggets. Instead, his muted, lyrical messages, to be savored at length, remind us of the value of listening deeply, to ourselves and others.

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