The neighborhood is starkly splendid. Luxury homes stand cheek by jowl in proud, pretentious rows. Identical double garage doors stare down identical concrete drives. They give the street an industrial flavor. Entry doors and upstairs windows feature variations on a single great-big-fancy-house theme. Each house has its own pool in a lofty screen-room at the back. Each has a newly installed lawn in front. There are no trees. The mailboxes all match. They wait, like uniformed prison guards, for mail that never comes for families who will never occupy the MacMansions of this eerie Orlando, Florida subdivision.
Nearly all the houses are empty. Tourists like us occupy a few. One in five is for sale. Walking the neighborhood our first night I think of the Stepford Wives. Blue alien eyes with glowing white pupils watch me and my clueless canine companion, Fluffy, from behind drawn curtains. Fluffy the guard poodle leaves a personal memento of his visit on one of the identical lawns. I consider retrieving it as I would in an inhabited neighborhood. But we are in an opulent wilderness. I leave it without guilt. Nobody lives here.
I’m visiting this strange land with my family, brothers, sisters, mom and kids. We’ve gathered in rented magnificence to see my baby sister for what will probably be the last time. She is here with her family through an act of kindness by a final-wish foundation. The foundation is paying for her trip from Utah.
My sister’s three children are the perfect age to enjoy the wholesome deceptions of Disneyworld. My sister is here to indulge her children in kindly illusion. She is here to bless the family she grew up in with her courage and grace for one last Christmas. My sister has no illusions. She is dying of cancer at age 40. She has fought it for many years with determination, fortitude, courage and irrepressible good humor. The fight is in the final rounds. She is way ahead on points but the knockout is inevitable.
What better place for gentle deceptions and dreams of happy endings than the city that sprung up like a forest of magic beanstalks around Disneyworld? We are here to amuse and fool her children and ours. We are here to confirm the truths that exist in fairy tales.
When we first see her she is walking around, smiling, tending the kids. Hey, wow, she’s not sick! She’s fine. She makes cancer jokes. She’s the same bright girl we’ve always known. She cracks wise about her disease like it’s a slimy stalker, a bumbling loser who can’t get over her and won’t leave her alone. He sends twisted love letters. He peeks in between the curtains at night. God, what a creep. Where is he, Meg? Just point him out. Uncle Brian and I will have a little talk with him. We’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you.
But we can’t get rid of him. He doesn’t show his face while we’re around. Megan looks fine. But she needs a lot of hardware to keep this guy away. Special gear. Special drugs. Needles. Lots and lots of pills. Pill bottles like lures in a tackle box. She has to sit down pretty soon. Pretty soon again she’s shivering. Too soon she has to go back to her room.
We don’t talk about the creep. We wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. We’re here in fantasyland to celebrate the eternal truths, not to glorify the bad guys. But in this fairy tale brothers can’t fight for the princess. Cinderella had help. Snow White had seven tough little guys looking out for her. The hunters who got such a bad rap in Bambi were heroes for Little Red Riding Hood. With a little help, fairy tale heroines all lived happily ever after. It doesn’t seem right. The creep makes a nuisance of himself. My sister is in the hospital half the time now.
My sister’s too weak to come along when aunts and uncles take the kids to World after World. We trudge from ride to ride like serial lovers wandering between bad romances. Each time the anticipation is long and painful, the act trying and ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and unsatisfying. If Dante had visited a theme park the Inferno would have had a level known as Hell World. The kids seem to enjoy it.
On the way home the game of 20 questions is hilarious. Nobody guessed Aaron, 10-year old Eli’s first grade pen pal from Connecticut. The goat joke brings down the house. I have to pull over. I’m laughing too hard to drive.
Home again the creep has his muddy boots on the sofa. He ignores our threats. Our sister is back in the hospital. We know the creep will be leaving soon with her worn out body. We can’t scare him off. That’s all he’ll get, though. Her kids, her courage, her laughs and her love stay here with us, happily ever after.