We’ll always be sisters


My sister died last night. She went so fast, too fast. Just 48 hours earlier, Tim and I had settled her into the inpatient hospice unit. She seemed to like it there.

Gee this is a really nice room. The colors are nice. It’s so quiet and peaceful. 

Her voice was weak, but her dark brown eyes were open, alert and intense. The effect was magnified by the fact she had become emaciated over the past several weeks, fine wrinkles had formed on her cheeks, around her mouth and on her neck that were for a much older woman. Though she had refused chemotherapy, her hair looked surprisingly wispy, black waves accentuated the darkness of her staring eyes.

She was able to sign her own paperwork, Tim and I were on hand for support in case she was too fatigued. It took effort, but she did it. Then we talked again about how nice the room was, how very quiet it is, compared to the past week and a half she had just spent in the hospital.

I’ll bring the kids this weekend, we’ll spend some time, and the boys are talking about how they will cook you a Thanksgiving meal. She looked pleased.

When they come, make sure you put these bed rails down, she said. They make me look like a baby in a crib. 

We talked a bit, the only significant belongings we had for her were the faux fur collar of mother’s I had brought to the hospital to keep her warm, and a sketchbook so that she could write down anything or sketch if she wished. I wanted her to draw like she used to. I thought it might make her feel better.  She never got to use it. I was planning to bring photo albums and maybe a stuffed animal or a blanket from home to make things homey for her. I thought I had time. I thought I had at least another day, at least one more conversation.

Debbie indicated she was getting tired, and seemed impatient, so we said our goodbyes, I kissed her cheek.

She weakly reached out her hand to Tim, Come here. You got a cigarette? 

Stubborn to the end. You had to kind of admire her. She was like the die hards who refuse to evacuate in the face of the hurricane of the century. Her life as she had fashioned it was important to her. She didn’t care what others thought of it. She didn’t want to give it up. The nurse’s aides were waiting to give her a nice bath and shampoo and make her comfortable for the night. You will sleep like a baby they told her. We blew each other a few more kisses from across the room before I exited. And that was it.

We received a phone call that there had been changes. Yesterday afternoon, I gathered all the children to see her. My cousin came too. I was shocked at how altered Debbie had become. She was doing that gaping mouth, tugging for air thing that Mom had done just before she died of pneumonia, only Debbie’s gurgling was far more impressive. She had a massive tumor sitting in her lung, she had been breathing with effort for weeks, I suppose this was the next step. The next to last step.

I sat next to her and held her hand. Began talking to her and then stopped. I remembered what my friend Elaine told me. You don’t have to say the words out loud for them to be understood. I get that. I got that. So that is what I did. I held her hand and if I tell you it felt as if our hearts communicated through the heat in our united palms, would you believe me? It happened. I felt that she knew I was there. She knew I loved her even in spite of all the times I shut her out, rejected her invitations to tea in her smoke filled apartment, angrily scolded her for hounding Dad for rent money so she wouldn’t get evicted, after she spent it all on cigarettes and lottery tickets and food for the neighbors who were worse off than herself so that there was nothing left to get her through the end of the month.

She wasn’t always like that. And as I sat there, the thought came to me: She was never truly like that. It was her illness. I wasted so much time being pissed at her because of her fucking illness.

What if she had an illness that made her lose all her hair? Would she embarrass me then? Or one that made her stink to high heaven? Would I find her so repulsive that I would refuse to be seen with her? Or any other number of things. Those behaviors that so vexed me as the little sister, that made me want to distance myself from her as the years drew on, and I became weary of what I perceived as bullshit, it was the disease, wasn’t it? And even so, who am I to judge her as I did? Aren’t we all weird, annoying, bothersome, imperfect and even just plain wrong in some way or another? What’s the difference?

I couldn’t love her the way she wanted me to.  I heard the metallic chink of a single coin hitting the flimsy tin bottom of my heart. A beggar’s heart. I fell short, I fell short, self righteous ass that I am. Human that I am. I needed a superhuman love.

At that point I suspect that my Christian friends might say, pray to God for strength, ask him to open your heart and give you a greater love. Maybe my Buddhist friends would say, attachment brings suffering, life is an illusion, smoke and mirrors, let it go and see beyond to what is truth. The ground of luminosity. Is that what it is called in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying? What is the cure for a tiny, meagre heart?

My motto of the year for myself was to be kind to myself and to be kind to others. It’s been a hell of a year. Mom died in April, Dad in July, Sister in November. My family of origin wiped out in seven months, with me, the baby, the sole survivor. I’m supposed to be the strong one. But my sister saw me truly: You always were a crier, she said to me, with some affection, after our parents died. After their deaths, our relationship softened and opened up a bit. All conditions, mostly laid down by me, were set aside. At least I have that. As youngsters, before her illness and the roughness of life changed her, changed us, we saw each other truly. I have that. We played together. I have that.

I did not want her to die alone, so I sent the others home to have dinner. I ordered Chinese food, and ate my chicken and cashews while she gurgled alongside me. I turned on the tv and watched part of a Twilight movie, giving my sister commentary, telling her, Don’t you worry about the vampires, it’s a love story, you know, it all works out in the end. I was careful to turn off the volume during the commercials. I didn’t want her final auditory memories to be of an advertising jingle.

I suddenly felt really stupid for eating takeout and watching a movie while she lay dying. I had been pretending this was a slumber party. Couldn’t I be a little more sacred? Craving silence, I turned off the tv, and held my sister’s hand again.

Just be here, I told myself.

You are not going to go through this alone, I told her.

Then I decided to be straight with her:

You forgive me for shutting you out sometimes, okay? And I’ll forgive you for abandoning me for the drugs and for pulling that mental illness thing. Deal? 

Finally, I needed to sleep. The aide had made up the pull out bed next to my sister and I dozed restlessly.  Something woke me suddenly. It was the silence. The gurgling had stopped. I leaned over to touch her. Her skin was still warm. The nurse came in and told me that her heart was still beating, very faintly. And then it stopped. True to form, I felt suddenly nauseous.

The nurse picked up the family photos I had scattered on the bedside table and asked me about them. As I gave a story for each one, the tears ran down, the nausea subsided, and clarity set in.

I feel sad but strangely light. She is not suffering anymore.

Before I left the room, I softly put my hand on my sister’s chest and whispered a prayer to God, Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Kwon Yin, Confucius and all Enlightened Beings, please enfold my sister’s soul in the light of lovingkindness. May she see her life illuminated in love and truth and wisdom.

Rest in peace, Deborah Annette.

We’ll always be sisters. 

Image: family photo Debbie and me.

Tags: , , , ,

About reneetamara

Writing about death, mental illness, spirituality, art and perfume. Because beauty feeds the soul, and love is beyond what we think.

25 responses to “We’ll always be sisters”

  1. Elaine says :

    Thank you so much for sharing this my dear friend. It was beautiful
    to read and I am so glad that you wrote it. You went straight to the
    heart with your words, you are truly gifted. I am honored to be your friend

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you, Elaine. I got home about 3:30 this morning and slept a sort of shallow sleep. When the sun came up I needed to write. In a way, it feels a little too intimate to write on a blog, in another way it is the human condition and I needed to write it, and very much needed to stay in the feelings I experienced, without letting them slip away. I want to remember those moments with her and things I felt.

  2. Maureen Sheridan says :

    Renee, You did real good for Debbie…you were natural with her, and somehow let her know it was OK for her to check out when she was ready.not distracted by you, and.yet tender, honest, forgiving & present. I learned so much from this reading… incredibly moving. Be at peace.

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you Maureen. This means a great deal to me, you have given me such solid comfort during these past months, and have been through your own valley of loss you shared your strength with me.

  3. nivadorellsmith says :

    Just stumbled upon your blog. I’m so sorry for your loss. Brings back memories of witnessing my husband’s last breath. Strength to you.

  4. Teri Lester says :

    Renee, I’m so sorry for the loss of your family. I can’t imagine. Annus horribilis. I am so glad for you that you were there when she passed. My mother had the gaping mouth/gasping thing for a few days. My brother and sister and I were all there the last day. We had a hospice angel with us; when we decided to turn off the oxygen support, the nurses brought in a huge cart with sandwiches, cheese and veggies, bags of chips, cookies. I jokingly said “So you cater the death watch?” The nurse was kind, she didn’t roll her eyes, but it made my brother and sister laugh. I realized, yes, this is good. We need this.

    We sat for a few hours as she wound down, talking quietly, holding her hand, telling her we love her. And then, like you said, the noise stopped. An actual death rattle. Life, love, loss.

    God bless you and keep you and my deepest love and sympathy for the children and Tim.

    • reneetamara says :

      Teri, thank you so very much for sharing about your bedside experience and how you intermingled life and laughter with the death of your mother. It’s so hard to let go, though I deeply believe death is a transition to another level of existence, there is so much mystery and much we don’t and simply cannot know until we ourselves make the journey.

      Thank you again for your kind words. I will pass along your love and care to Tim and the kids.

  5. Tamara says :

    Dear Renee, I am so sorry about your losses, I didn’t know your sister was sick. Your writing is so honest. I hope you are getting a lot of support; this is when you need it the most. Please let me know if you want to meet, I am available.

    • reneetamara says :

      Tamara, Debbie did not share the details about her health until after mom and dad passed and by then it was too late for any curative treatment. Even then, she passed much more quickly than anyone expected. I think she was trying to protect me, her way of being the big sister. I feel a lot of support from friends and family both online and in presence. Would love to meet when we can both manage it. Love. R

  6. Rose Chimera says :

    I am so incredibly sorry for the loss of your sister. You wrote with such honesty and compassion it brought me to tears. Thanking you for sharing your last moments with Deborah Annette; indeed may she rest in peace.

    • reneetamara says :

      Rose Chimera, thank you for your kind words and wishes for my sister and me. Warm regards.

      • Rose Chimera says :

        If I may be so bold as to offer one tiny bit of wisdom I’ve learned?

        Please try not to do the woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s to yourself. If you ever start to do that…don’t. We live the life we choose and sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we want, we do the best we can with it, with what we know.

      • reneetamara says :

        Great advice, and now that I have taken a peek at your blog, I will be visiting because I have a feeling you have much more wisdom to share.

      • Rose Chimera says :

        No, hun…that was it. The whole thing…I don’t know anything else. At least that’s what my cats tell me.

  7. Daria says :

    *wiping tears*
    Rene, your friend Rose Chimera is right about the “shoulda woulda couldas” DO NOT go there– it’s poison. Your sister made peace with you and you made peace with her. Now. Before she moved on. That is a rare pearl. Treasure it. Don’t worry about what wasn’t — cherish what was.

  8. Angel Hasegawa says :

    Dear Renee, I am still stunned to hear the news. I found out this morning about your Mom, Dad and Debbie. I am humbled by your words … I am thankful that You were with your sister … an honor to help her die well. I am blessed to know you both as young children. I remember you and Debbie had a close relationship … The two of you could look at each other and communicate non verbally…I could see the love between you both. My love and prayers are with you. Please contact me when you are ready. Love your cousin, Angel Hasegawa (Theresa)

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you Theresa, funny that after I read your comment, I had to go through some of Debbie’s things and came across an old photograph of me looking up into her eyes as a little girl. Made me feel good that you have this memory. Hope we can connect up soon. Love, your cousin.

      • Angel Hasegawa says :

        Renee, I would love to connect with you. Do you remember when all the cousins were in the back of the 56 Chevy (without seatbelts) driving slowly on the way to your house? You may have been too little to recall. I remember it well because we were squished in tight, squirming around and car door was not shut properly. I fell out on the street with only a couple scratches and a big scare! I am glad you found that picture. I would like (if you would like to) see that picture. Sending you love and hugs. Angel

  9. Undina says :

    Renee, it was a horrible year, I can’t even imagine how you’re holding up. But I want to hope that you’ll get a break with no more losses for a very long time.

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you, Undina, from your mouth to God’s ears as they say. It has been a year of losses, but I have also felt very fortunate in newfound friends and connections and in appreciating the longstanding ones. I think I am holding up through family, friends, writing and perfume, though feeling a bit dazed, frankly.

      Maybe even more to the point: I could swear that I feel my father near me, his presence and words of wisdom. I am still experiencing a very immediate relationship with him, just in a different way. A good friend told me this would happen, that you internalize your parents after they pass. I am beginning to experience this and I know without a doubt that they are helping me through the loss of my sister.

  10. Chris Klein says :

    Renee: What a poignant tribute to your sister. And the photo is so so sweet. Your gift as a writer is evident here, as is your love for your sister. I am sorry for the painful year you’ve had and pray for peace in your heart.

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you, Chris. And yes, those old photos are so precious, I have been finding so many, my sister had so many I had forgotten about…Tim made a huge difference for Debbie in that he enabled my mom to visit my sister when I could not, and helped her in so many practical ways, accepting her unconditionally for who she was and where she was in life in these later years. Thanks for the prayers, much appreciated!

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. What’s a Poem Good For? | Dad's American Beauty - November 15, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: