My oldest sister is dying save a miracle, which I would happily welcome. A week ago, mere days after she entered the emergency room for an infection in her leg, the doctors declared her “terminal.” Her organs are shutting down. She has no hope for recovery. At age 60 she will leave behind her husband, eight children — one still a teenager, grandchildren, her four siblings, and even our mother.
“Won’t Mom be surprised when she gets to heaven and sees that Cyndi is already there?” said Trish, my other sister.
We are both happy that our mother needn’t feel the pain of this loss while on planet Earth. Our mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has been declining — mostly mentally — in a memory care facility. She hasn’t recognized either Trish or me for many months and is barely coherent when she talks. I suspect she no longer understands what we say either. Though she is a physical presence, my mother seems dead already.
I got the text about Cyndi just over a week ago. Her husband had called Trish to let her know Cyndi was in the hospital with an infection. When Trish called the hospital and Cyndi’s son who is a nurse, she got the full story. It wasn’t pretty.
Our sister was in intensive care with the leg infection, which had blasted her organs into shutdown mode. The doctors gave her less than 50 percent chance to live three more months.
Trish had visited ICU on Friday and called to give me the horrific details. My brother and his wife visited her on Saturday and confirmed the urgency of the situation, and I decided to drive down last Sunday for what may likely have been my last visit. It was like visiting my mother in that I don’t know if Cyndi knew I was even there. But I was glad I went.
It’s a weird thing to contemplate losing a sibling. I mean, I expected I would lose my sister to death at some point, but not like this, not so suddenly, certainly not so young. My father died at 76, and he still has living siblings 10 years later. My mother-in-love at 81 still has all of hers. Maybe, I hope, I will have feared losing this sister of mine for naught. Maybe, just maybe, she will get another chance to live. Earlier this year, I feared losing one of my brothers, but he had a turn around, a second, third, fourth, I don’t know, ninth chance. If only Cyndi could have one more.
Cyndi is the eldest of five children. She is the big sister. Trish and I were “the little girls,” the two youngest of the five. We all looked up to Cyndi as we were growing up. She was fun and loving and generous and wise. We looked at her as an example on living life, how she succeeded, how she failed. Her life lessons were our life lessons. We learned from watching her.
I live far enough away from the rest of my siblings that we see each other only on special occasions — or, maybe, every time I am in town it’s a special occasion. The next “special occasion” I envision is Cyndi’s funeral, but each time I think of it, I think about seeing her, not dead, but alive. I can’t wrap my head around Cyndi’s permanent absence in my life.
When my first husband Bill died, Cyndi arrived before the funeral with a dress in hand that had been hers. It wasn’t black; it was a deep teal. Simple, beautiful, and a perfect fit. It seemed inappropriate at that time not to wear black to a funeral; I felt I should wear a widow’s garb for a year or forever. But at the same time, it wasn’t that I had no hope in my grieving; I knew I would see him again some day, and the dark teal seemed a good compromise — dark with grieving, definitely; beautiful with hope, yes. I now have a dress that is half teal, half black, and that is the dress I will wear in Cyndi’s honor to her funeral when the time comes. Grief and hope.
Even though we weren’t together often in daily life, I keep wanting to turn to Cyndi and ask her a question. She and I would often exchange texts asking if the other had Mom’s recipe for some significant dish or ask for a detail about our shared history. Or ask a health question. For me, it was always the idea that “Cyndi, you’ve gone before me, what was your experience? Or “What do I do next? Or “What do you suggest?”
When my first husband died, I remember telling my mother that “everything would be OK if I could just talk to Bill about it.” I suspect I will have those types of moments as I walk through the death of my sister.
Just before I left the hospital room that day, my niece tried one more time to awaken Cyndi and told her “Sara your sister is leaving. Say ‘bye, Sara.’” And Cyndi opened her wandering eyes and croaked haltingly, “Bye, Sara.”
At the time, I didn’t take that to heart. It may have been too painful to do so, to realize I had been at her side for an hour and said nothing of substance. I had wanted to see Cyndi to tell her I loved her and how much she meant to me — and, ultimately, to say goodbye. But actually being in the ICU room with her looking nothing like her beautiful self was weird. She was coma-like; her eyes, the few times she opened them, did not focus. She gave no indication that she, my sister, was present and aware.
I had had a crowd (well, for an ICU room, anyway): my niece and nephew, Cyndi’s husband, the nurse. Between Cyndi’s demeanor and the audience, I never felt the opportunity to tell her anything of significance, to let her know what she has meant to me. At one point, I tried to talk with her as if no one was in the room, and started with “Hi, Cyndi. How are you doing?” I immediately followed it with, “I mean, besides the obvious.”
So, yeah, that would be my lasting impact on my sister. As I drove the long road home that afternoon, my nephew sent the doctor’s verdict: “terminal.” Her decline had been swift and complete, just the waiting remained — and the hope, often buried in the surety of pending death. I still want a miracle.
My sister Trish was the lucky one. She went in on Monday morning and found Cyndi alone. And whether Cyndi could hear her or not, Trish took the opportunity to share her heart. Loving sister that she is, she mentioned me in that conversation and, finally, wrote on Cyndi’s white board that “Trish and Sara were here.” I am thankful.
During Trish’s visit, the nurse did tell her that Cyndi told her she knew she was dying. There is comfort in that. The following day, Cyndi was moved to Hospice care.
As she lay dying, I don’t dare wear makeup, because I never know when I’m going to burst into tears. I could talk with others about Cyndi — though I haven’t told many — and could do it straight-faced and without a lot of emotion at times. Other moments, I was completely weepy. The worst moments were when someone would ask me about something as mundane as spinach and I would burst into tears, seemingly for no reason at all. Grief is a weird thing. I have stopped crying every day. I guess that’s what happens when death seems imminent and then takes its time.
But as she lay dying, I can also laugh, find beauty in life, go on living, working, breathing. I can remember our good times and find joy. It is so strange, easy to compartmentalize her death in some ways but at the same time have that gnawing sensation that something is amiss, something is missing.
I miss her already.
In the photo: Trish (pregnant with her second child), Cyndi, and me in 1990.