Losing my first sister shook the foundations of my beliefs. My parents lived with great faith in God and organic food. I was lulled by the myth that we could pray, eat right, exercise, etc. and no one would die. Oh, maybe my parents would die sometime… (In fact our five parents were in their 70’s and 80’s, but death did not seem imminent.)
Then she got sick. It was cancer and had spread to her liver.
I drove in my car and screamed at the universe. I watched Shadowlands and cried buckets. I spent as much time with her as I could spare from my family and job.
She got better. We went together to Greece. She showed me the places she had lived with her family. We wandered, she shopped as if she had a million tomorrows, we ate picnics on the hood of the car. Our wine glasses were plastic water bottles cut in half. Our bread dripped with the olive oil from marinated eggplant. The cheese was stinky and satisfying. The sun shone on our time together.
The good times did not last. Her chemo stopped working.
The next May she was admitted to the hospital. They wanted to stop feeding her. Her husband and we sisters battled against that decision and she was sent home.
I would fly to her to keep her alive. The cancer was in her stomach and she had great pain if she ate much. We talked to a nutritionist. We talked to a naturopath. Her husband, her sisters, her sons, my daughter: we would each stand in the kitchen decorating trays with small bites of healthy food. I decorated her trays with Coreopsis, one of her favorite flowers. As I prepared the food I would listen with my whole body. Was she calling me? Should I be at her side?
We did not speak of death. She admitted pain, but death was not on her horizon. If visitors came to pay a sick call, she refused them entrance. Her sons suffered from the silence and acknowledged that she had a right to die in her own way.
On my last trip I arrived as the home care nurse was leaving. I glanced at a sheet of paper on the table in the hall, showing “The signs of dying”. As I approached her bed she whispered, “They told me I’m dying. I didn’t think it would be now.”
And so she wrote her plan for her funeral. She stayed in character for the final act. She summoned her husband and the son who lived nearby; shooed me from the room and issued orders to them. They wrote pages and pages. Then they called her other son to come.
That last evening I shared her denial. I ran to the store for a natural diuretic because my wristwatch had left an imprint when I held her hand. My daughter arrived to take me to the airport. I took my suitcase out to the car. As I hugged my sister “goodbye”, I said, “If something happens to you or if my airplane goes down…”
She shot me a wicked look.
“But neither of those will happen. I love you.” I went out to the car, ran over my suitcase, and we drove away.
We never had a heart-to-heart.
Before her younger son arrived she went into a coma. He sat by her side until she died the next day.
When I remember the phone call I also remember how my head and chest constricted, pushing tears to my eyes.
Where is my sister? I asked this question for many years and still wonder sometimes. But then, I really know.
Edited from post on June 28, 2009. Original from archival writings.
It is 20 years since my sister died. I wrote this shortly after she died. Now the pain is not fresh. The loss is not new. The memories of her life have superimposed themselves on the memories of her death. She lives in my memories, the photographs, and in my heart. I am thankful for that. (September 10, 2015)