Three years later, it’s still sinking in…
Last week I suddenly remembered that on that very day three years before, I’d been holding my sister’s hand for the last time.
Most of the time, I don’t think about my sister being dead. The truth is, I didn’t think about her that much when she was alive – at least, until she got sick. We weren’t close, exactly; we lived in different parts of the country and rarely saw each other, or even spoke. Still, she was my sister. Our shared memories were part of me, part of my history, part of what made me who I am. I didn’t have to think about her to love her.
You don’t expect your sister to die when you’re both still young. You imagine she’ll be there with you at your parents’ funerals, that you’ll sing something together like you used to at church growing up, and you’ll make faces at each other when all those powdery-smelling old people hug you and call you the wrong name and tell you stories you’ve heard a hundred times before.
Life is full of surprises; if you saw them coming, they wouldn’t be surprises. That’s one thing I guess I learned when my sister died. Here are a few more that are still sinking in…
1. Nothing happens the way you think it will
Sitting in church on Ash Wednesday, the day in the Christian calendar that marks the beginning of Lent and leads up to Easter, I remember thinking that my sister would be dead by the time Lent was over. She’d been put on hospice – when? Days before? Weeks before? – and we all knew what was coming. But we didn’t, not really. Forty days later, my sister was still alive. After our church’s Easter vigil, I would walk home alone a few hours before dawn and look up at the bright moon, wondering what was going to happen, now that nothing had gone the way I’d expected it to.
2. Friends are the most important thing
When my mother called to tell me I needed to pack a bag and get on the train to Indiana right away, that my visit couldn’t wait until the kids’ school vacation after all, friends swooped in to care for my children, taking turns feeding them dinner and walking them to school. People stopped by with food, cookies, beer, flowers, cards, and hugs. An invisible net pulled tight beneath us, lifting and holding us, keeping us safe and wrapping us in love I’d done nothing to earn and could never repay.
3. Your worst day can also be your best day
It’s not something you ever want to do, lying in bed next to your dying sister. It’s not a good day. And yet, I’d relive it in a heartbeat, if I could. Holding her hand, reading Little House on the Prairie out loud to her, helping her to the bathroom, rubbing her feet – it was the most sacred experience of my life. I was lucky to be there, privileged to be there, happy to be there. I never wanted to leave.
4. Showing up is enough
No one knows exactly what to do when someone is dying. It’s surreal and awkward, and even if you’ve experienced it before, you haven’t ever experienced it with this particular person before. On the 16-hour train ride to be with my family, I wondered what I was supposed to do when I got there; what I was supposed to say. It turned out not to matter. Being there was all that mattered.
5. There will always be laughter
I was getting over a bad cold and still had a nasty-sounding cough when I showed up at my sister’s house. That first afternoon, as she dozed in her recliner, doped up on pain medication and sporting giant Tweety Bird slippers, and I read through the information packet left by the hospice team, I had a coughing fit. She opened her eyes suddenly and said, “well, that’s lovely,” in the same sarcastic way she always had. Remembering still makes me laugh.
6. You’ll surprise yourself
You think to yourself, my sister is going to die, but you don’t really believe it will happen. You think, I’ve known this day was coming for a long time, and you tell yourself you’ll be very brave, and you’ll kiss her and tell her it’s okay to let go, just like they do in the movies. You’ll tell her you love her very much and you don’t want her to hurt anymore. But you won’t be able to. You kiss her until she tells you to stop (“that’s enough,” she says in a voice thick with pain but still big-sisterly as ever), and when you try to speak, you cry and cry and all your words stick in your throat.
7. We don’t know anything
The jerk who wasn’t looking and cut you off in traffic might be rushing to his dying brother’s bedside. The woman sitting next to you on the train might have just been told she has cancer. The person who has something so terrible and tragic happen to them that you don’t understand how they can possibly survive might be you someday. None of us understand why things happen the way they do. None of us know what’s coming. We just don’t know.
8. Endings won’t make sense
I used to think lives were like stories; that they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. A plot you could make sense of; maybe even a moral. I don’t know. Maybe I never really thought about endings. I’m terrible at them, anyway.
I definitely didn’t think I’d be in the bathroom – actually sitting on the toilet, if you want to know the ridiculous, undignified truth – when my mother texted me that my sister was gone. Shouldn’t she have died while I was there, holding her hand? Shouldn’t my mother have called me instead of texting, preferably when my jeans weren’t around my ankles?
It was very cold that day in April, I remember that. My daughter had a friend over. I didn’t tell them what had happened. I cried in the bathroom and filled the wastebasket with snotty tissues, then dried my eyes and took us all out for pie and hot chocolate. Nothing made sense. It was just another day.
Comment: Have you lost anyone close to you? What did you learn from the experience?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.