(This post is part of a larger project. Read about its beginning here.)
When my mother told me my sister Louise wasn’t well enough to come to Virginia for Thanksgiving, I vowed to find a way to be with her instead. I was a college student and didn't have a car, so I stood up at church during the service and asked if anyone could give me a ride to New Jersey. After the service, two or three people offered to help me.
I’m ashamed I don’t remember the name of the family that turned out to be the answer to my prayers, but I have never forgotten their kindness. They packed me and my suitcase into their overcrowded car for the trip north, wedged in the back with their two children. They were warm and welcoming but blessed me by not asking too many questions about my sister's cancer. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
When I finally made it to Sis's home, I was utterly shocked. Nothing had prepared me for her appearance and condition. She looked like she’d stepped out of a concentration camp, her skin ashen, her face skeletal and misshapen, her head covered with tufts of fine hair that she usually hid under a wig, her remaining eye unfocused and unsettled in her eye socket.
She could still walk and get around a bit, but she could never stay comfortable for long. The cancer was in her spine and the pain was always with her.
I didn’t know what to do or what to say. At 19, I was too young to know the rituals of the sick and dying; I felt ill equipped to face the magnitude of her suffering and loss. Mercifully the years have erased some of the most painful memories, though the ones that remain haunt me.
While I was in New Jersey, my mother celebrated Thanksgiving with the family on the farm in Virginia. December must have been a blur for her, as she didn't write me any letters.
Then it was Christmas. I know my brother Steve went up to New Jersey--did she and my father go too? I have no memory of where I was or what I did. Did I go to Oklahoma to be with Eric? Or did we spend Christmas with his family in Florida? Or did I spend Christmas in Virginia with my family? I don't know.
My next letter from my mother is dated January 20th. I must have thanked her again for my Christmas gifts:
I'm glad you liked all your gifts Veronica--I tried to do my best--my heart just wasn't in the holidays at all. I hope you like your birthday gift--it's not very practical but I thought it was so feminine...We've had absolutely miserable weather--extremely cold again--yesterday freezing rain all day--the sun is out today but more freezing rain tonight and tomorrow. Can't believe it--just hope it clears u for the weekend--We must get up to see Sis---
Must close--take care of yourself Veronica--be careful running that you don't slip and fall--also wearing those boots [my cowboy boots]--be careful--Our love to Vicky--We love you too Veronica--
Mom + Dad
Then on January 26:
I tried calling you Sun. night after 11:00 but the line was busy so I gave up and went to bed--dad and I were so tired after that week-end trip. the weather was just awful. When we left Friday afternoon it was snowing and all the way up on and off it snowed. Tom [my oldest brother] did all the driving. . We arrived at Sis's at 2:15 a.m [Saturday morning] + got home here around 5:00 Sun. Our driveway was a sheet of ice. Tom put the chains on his van and drove me to the door--it was awful--at least the suns out today and I hope it melts a little--had more snow on it yesterday.
Sis is really slipping fast--it was just so sad Veronica--She mentioned your name several times and I told her you were back in school and told her about your grades. We sat with her as much as we could--Her sight is completely gone and she is very weak. All we can do is pray for her. It is a devastating disease.
Even in the aftermath of what was a heart-rending visit to my sister, she cares enough about me to once again warn me about not slipping on all the ice. She closed her letter, which was tucked in a card, with a birthday wish:
Have a nice birthday Veronica. I'll try and call you this weekend again. God bless you--dad and I love you--
My birthday was four days later, falling on a Saturday, and I managed to get a ride home from college for the weekend.
Saturday morning. I remember going running. My parents waving to me as they passed me in the car. Later, I was back at the house when the phone rang. I answered it. It was Sis's husband, Jim, calling to tell us she had died.
I don't remember my own reaction as vividly as I remember my mother's. She screamed like a banshee, like her heart had been ripped out of her chest, like she'd received a tremendous shock. Now that I'm a mother, I know her heart had indeed been torn from her chest and that up until the moment Sis died, my mother was still clinging to hope for a miracle. I remember my father taking her in his arms while she wailed in the kitchen. I also remember the men in the family sitting around the kitchen table drinking whiskey in the late afternoon, and later that night, we ate my birthday cake.
To this day, I'm stunned by the cruelty of this twist of fate: my parents lost their oldest daughter on their youngest daughter's birthday.