Upon my return from Thanksgiving break I saw that my friend Emily over at The Waiting had added a new writing challenge to her series “Remember the Time Blog Hop” which I had missed due to my trip home. The theme was ‘last days’. It was a little uncanny because I had just finished spending the last days I will have with my sister (at least, in this dimension). Emily’s blog about her father’s death is heart-wrenching, hitting me even harder because of the week I had just had. I commented on her blog that I was not yet ready to write about my last days, but while reading through the comments I ran into this quote:
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Shakespeare’s words convinced me that I had to at least try to write about last week while it was fresh. I spent that night writing the following, and even though I am too late to make it into the blog hop, I am very thankful to Emily for pushing me to write. It has been a small way to help me process my grief, confusion, and pain. I hope my dear friend Sunny will not mind me stealing her amazing perspective on my words which belongs at the front of what comes next.
Even in such times that you noted below, those memories of times past that are filled with such wonder, laughter and love, I find myself thinking that even they are part of our “..seeing in the mirror dimly..”; just a mere spark of the future sight, when what we now see seems more like we’re viewing through waxed paper and then face to face, we will have the gift of clarity and then see clearly (paraphrase). What a blessing to have hope of the fullness when skin is no longer needed and clay makes no claims. What clarity will be present in the Presence, even in the shadows with He Who Knows No Limits, yet chose to take on skin. On our behalf.
Amen, Sunny. Thank you for this hope that passes understanding. May God bless you all as you share with me my last days. Note: The following is an account of MY last days with my sister, not her last days on earth. She remains with us, although it is our hope that she will find herself enfolded in His arms very soon, free from the pain and suffering of this life, experiencing what we can only imagine: the face-to-face encounter with the God Who IS Grace.
~ ~ ~
November 25, 2013, Day 1
I had expected the smell. You know it: the familiar musty smell that always accompanies medical care facilities. But an unexpected sight met my eyes as my Mom and I walked through the door of the room. My sister slouched in a lounge chair, head cocked to one side as if permanently askew while her arms and legs twitched or shook uncontrollably. I tentatively came closer speaking her name. Looking up sideways, I thought I detected a moment of recognition in her eyes which quickly gave way to tears, then sobs, as she sat there helpless to communicate with or possibly even understand the visitors in her room.
As the tears subsided, we spoke to her, words of love and encouragement. I knew that even if she understood, she would likely be unable to respond. My Mom and I sat to either side, aching for some way to meet her heart with our love, even if her mind was out of reach. The occasional twitch of an arm or grimace (of pain? sadness?) crossing her features unsettled me as did the unintelligible words which escaped her lips at odd moments.
Lunch arrived. Reticent to be the one holding the fork, I realized how unprepared I had been for this. I knew it was bad … I didn’t know it was this bad. Less than 5 months ago we had visited in her home. Wordlessly she had shown me the framed botanicals she had been working on. The tears slipping down my Mother’s cheeks echoed the ones staining my heart.
November 26, 2013, Day 2
Tuesday the whole family went out for a visit. Her tears came again, ending as abruptly as they had begun. It began to dawn on me that seeing my once-vibrant sister in this condition was more than heartbreaking. It didn’t make any sense! She looked like a person who had been in a debilitating car accident involving a head injury.
How had early Alzheimer’s and lung cancer decimated her 57-yr. young mind & body so completely?
As we all sat and talked to one another, seeking for ways to include her in the conversation, my mind drifted back to the past 5 years of decline. I wondered how much responsibility 18 months to 2 years of cancer treatments had in pushing my sister’s mind farther and faster from us? Leaving that day was harder than it had been the day before. When planning this trip, I had secretly hoped that His mercy would find her in God’s arms last week, free from the suffering of her physical body. Looking at her on Tuesday, I knew the prospect was more like weeks – perhaps months – rather than days until her release.
November 27, 2013, Day 3
More comfortable with the situation and encouraged by the lack of tears, Wednesday I tried to lighten the mood. Her husband and I joked a bit and coaxed a familiar “Shu-up” from my sister’s chapped lips. How much of what we said could she understand? I doubted she remembered either of my previous visits. Head still cocked, she looked at me with a side-wise glance, and pronounced my name clearly. My breath caught in my throat. Yes, it’s me. How can I help you? How can I reach you?? “That’s right, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” But, of course, I was going. Somewhere. Again I was reticent to be the one to feed her. I left, promising myself that I would find a way to sing for her before we went home.
November 28, 2013, Day 4
Thanksgiving Day she was sleeping when we arrived. She had difficult afternoons the previous 2 days so we didn’t wish to wake her. Let her rest, God, please, let her rest!
November 29, 2013, Day 5
Things never seem to go as planned. And yet… Even though I arrived a few minutes past what I was shooting for, I was greeted with one of my sister’s beautiful smiles. Alone with her for the first time all week, I held her hand for a time, whispering prayers against the pain and a peaceful end to suffering. Then I decided, it was now or never. Turning off the television, I pulled my guitar from its case and began tuning the strings. I didn’t hurry. There was no need, no room for impatience in the one before me, oblivious of time itself. She smiled contentedly, murmuring, “Yeah, yeah”.
For the next hour I sang songs I love (though unfamiliar to her), watching her eyes shine with delight at the sound. My eyes fixed on hers, hardly looking at the lead sheets I so depend upon; I didn’t want to miss a second of this time with her. I knew it would be gone in a blink and would never come again.
My memory kept drifting back to days long gone … Christmas 4 years ago, surrounded by family, singing carols while her grandchildren toddled to the music. Then during a lively worship tune, djembe and all, the adults began to dance and I watched with delight as my 81-yr. old Father took my sister’s hand and they danced until they were breathless to songs neither of them even knew.
Rewind a few more years, I see my sister giving out intricate hand-made Christmas tree ornaments … a few more and there she is making perfect spoon bread to feed us with her love … a late-night excursion to a bar where she, brandishing her custom-made pool stick, proceeded to trounce us all … still further back, my daughters prancing about in ballet costumes she had designed and made specifically for them … and further still, I remember watching her at what looked like a drafting table, creating one of the most interesting pen and ink landscapes I’d ever seen, using a tedious technique called stippling. The breadth of her artistic talents astounded me!
As my mind snapped back to the present, it was difficult to comprehend how this person was the same one living in my memories. My sister, once so full of life, now unable to walk, talk, eat, control her own limbs – completely dependent on others for every aspect of her existence.
Friday I wielded the fork, the spoon, and the napkin.
And in that one small gesture of love for my sister I felt connected with her in a fundamental way that went beyond our old familiar banter. The verse I kept hearing in my mind was from a conversation Jesus had with Peter in John chapter 21:
Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.
This verse sums up my sister’s current experience, eerily so. And yet, she is not old, but broken. Her youthful brokenness has shattered my heart. I don’t understand it. But I know it enough to hate it. I hate that my Matron of Honor will not see either of my girls walk the aisle, nor will I have the joy of seeing what she would have come up with for the reception table decorations; I hate that she will never hold her great-nieces & nephews the way I held her infant sons; I hate that the spark in her that she fanned to a creative blaze has gone out. I used to come to visit excited to see what new turn her creativity had taken. I ache to show her the turn my own talent has taken and would love to give her a bird feeder made with only her in mind.
But Friday was our last day.
Since I cannot reach you now and I won’t be able to see you when you go, I am making you a promise: One day soon I will stop talking and even thinking about our last days together. I promise not to remember you this way. Instead I will choose to remember the vibrant, loving person, the brilliant artist, and the caring and wise older sister you are.
You have always been my inspiration and I promise never to forget that.
X X X O (kisses, kisses, kisses, HUG!)
I love you bunches and bunches and tons and tons!
Your Little Sister,
6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.
- 2 Corinthians 4:6-10