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.