I believe sisters share a special bond. I am blessed to have two. We know our soil and we have common roots. For better or worse, through sunshine and rain, we understand each other.
My oldest sister Connie was sixteen when I was born. She was reportedly embarrassed that my mother was pregnant, and wasn’t altogether sure she wanted to share anything with me. But being the person she is she not only accepted me, she loved me like no other, with the love only a Big Sister can give.
She and her husband moved 2000 miles away before I was twelve. But even with the mountains and prairies between us we’ve tried to visit every year. I have turned to her again and again with my troubles, my thoughts, all the joys in my life. As a teenager I told her about the man I was falling in love with, the man I would later marry. I’ve shared with her the struggles of my sons. She understood how hard it was when I moved our parents to a nursing home. Our yearly visits have been spent talking until the wee hours, eating fried clams and blueberry pie. We’ve whispered about family secrets and finished each other’s sentences without even realizing it. Our laughter has, at times, mystified our husbands. Hours have been spent sitting in lawn chairs, drinking iced coffee, wishing we could do so every day.
We share a love of nature, the strong stomach for politics, and our mother’s recipe for apple crisp. Our mother died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. My sister and I have had long conversations about Alzheimer’s, the cruelty of it and the finality of it. We promised that no matter what, we would take care of each other when we were stricken, as we were sure we would be.
Connie has been a pretty good best friend as well as a sister. She has taught me so many things – how to swim, how to eat an artichoke, how to forgive. She always stood up for what she believed in, and has done so with style and grace and courage. She has moved through life with gusto, tasting everything.
And she is dying of lung cancer that has spread with a vengeance to her bones and to her brain.
She called in January to tell me she was refusing further chemotherapy and didn’t have long. She laughed and said that she had always thought it would be Alzheimer’s that would get her. Instead, a non-smoker, she is left wondering what the hell happened.
We, my brothers and sister and I, have made trips to Colorado to see her, and to see her family. Of all the wonderful things she accomplished in her life she was most proud of her children. We held her hand and read to her. We fed her ice cream and watched her sleep. We laughed and cried at stories remembered. We were amazed at the strength she showed, even as her body weakened. She is Big Sister. She has held us together, this mishmash, hodgepodge family of ours. She has watched all of us grow, and she continues, even in this cruel journey, to show us the way. The rest of us have always known we’d be all right as soon as she walked into a room. She is Big Sister. And we cannot imagine life without her.
The future will be what it will be. Modern medicine has produced miracles. We are told that with proper nutrition and exercise we can live longer, healthier lives. But Connie is proof that we have little control over our destiny. After years of sensible eating and jogging and yoga, she is dying. And even with the daily crossword puzzle, I will almost certainly, at some point, have Alzheimer’s hit me square in the face. I fear that constant state of bewilderment that my mother occupied for so long. I know I will stumble from time to time, and may not remember my neighbor’s name or where the tea is kept.
But I believe in families, in those common roots where there are bad genes but there is also apple crisp. My sister is dying, but her spirit, the essence of her, will live on. And I may forget many things but I will not forget that. I will not forget a Big Sister’s love.
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