The Weirdness of Death

This is one of those moments in life when you aren’t sure about things. Things feel weird and surreal, and you just need to sit in silence for a while to get to the core, wherever and whenever that is.

The first picture I have of my sister and me is when she was a baby. I’m sitting in a blue Speedo swimsuit with white stripes and platinum blond hair in a pixie cut. I must have just come home from swim practice and wanted to feed my new sibling. She was a large baby, laying on my lap, and me feeding her formula. She has a milk allergy and my parents fed her this nasty formula. I tasted it and was glad I could drink as much milk as I wanted. It was October of 1969, and I had just turned six. I have the picture packed in a box somewhere in my office. I think I will have to find it again.

This wasn’t so much a memory as reliving what I saw in my parent’s picture. My next memory is of my sister in the hospital when she was about two or three. Maybe older. She had something wrong with her bladder/kidneys when she was born, and they needed to wait to resolve whatever that issue was. She is walking down the hall towards me, in a tiny robe and pajamas, slippers slushing on the terrazzo floor. She’s dragging her catheter bag on the floor beside her. I remember thinking it was such a small girl and such a large, square bag. I don’t remember much else of what happened during that visit, except the long hours waiting in the hospital with my grandparents. My grandparents brought us presents so we would feel appreciated. I remember being resentful about that. I was in some ways a selfish child. Very selfish. Perhaps we all are when our siblings are involved.

There’s little I remember of my childhood with my sister. She was six years younger than me, after all, and in a child’s eyes, that’s a whole next generation. She was my parent’s darling, dotted on by both of them, particularly my father. He would do just about anything for her, even if she wasn’t aware of it. I was the caregiver and caretaker for the family. While they took “care” of my brother and sister, I took care of my parents. It was by default that of course, I had to take care of my siblings as well. To say I was resentful as I became an adult was an understatement. However, I am glad that my sister had someone, her father, to whom she could feel connected and loved.

In some ways, I was an awful sister. I know that. I apologized, later in life, for being that way. I didn’t know better and didn’t know where it all came from. She, of course, said “yeah, you were.” It irritated me that she couldn’t be kinder, less narcissistic. We had a rocky relationship as adults. Our lives were not similar and we didn’t understand each other. She reached, I dodged, and that was okay with me. I was tired of the dynamic and wanted something different. I feel like I spent the first 50 years of my life taking care of my family because it was expected – by all of them. She didn’t understand, and that was okay. It was sad, but inevitable, I suppose, given our differences. She loved children, loved being a daycare provider, and wanted to have some of her own. She never did. She had plenty of cats to make up for it. In many ways, she was a very young version of my mother – a need to love unconditionally and have “it” love you back the same. Cats solved this for both of them. At least they didn’t talk back.

My sister loved the color pink, coffee of all sorts, and sparkly bits. She loved the 1950s and wanted to be part of them, reborn. She dressed in wild patterns and crazy colors and enjoyed it. She loved her husband and all of her cats more deeply than anything else. When it came to others, she had a heart of gold. She was stubborn in her world view, not really interested in anything greater than her home and family, and yet was a sweet person to other families she encountered in her work. Her favorite holiday was Halloween followed closely by Christmas. She loved to watch Little House on the Prairie as she longed for a simple, uncomplicated life with her family. She wasn’t born for this decade or maybe even this century. Blood or not, she was my sister. I didn’t know her as well as many sisters might know each other nor did she know me as well, either. In a weird way, we might have not liked each other but there was a strange kind of familiar love, born out of obligation and random chance that it was me my parents adopted.

The last time we talked, she called me. She said she was going to hospice then, and said that she didn’t want to die. She couldn’t say die. She could only say she didn’t want to leave. I told her I was sorry that this was happening for her, and that while it’s inevitable, to not be scared. Easier said than done, she and I both knew. She wanted to do more in life. She said that she couldn’t keep anything down and that her liver was overwhelmed. I didn’t quite know what she meant; only later did I find out. I, of course, was out of town and not coming back until Thursday. I didn’t completely check in with myself. It was a mad dash to the town, pick up my brother, then just keep going. It’s what I do. Just go. I had sent her Erin’s monologue, from Midnight Mass. It said in words what I hoped she could understand about what I think about death. I don’t know if she read it.

Thursday night, I went to the hospice she was at. She lay in bed, slightly labored breathing, heavily sedated. The cancer in her breast has moved to her bones and liver, overtaking her liver in a matter of days. It was fast, and for her, it was a blessing. She was terrified of dying, and afraid of all the things she would miss. Her hand was near her face, and I stood beside her, stroking her head, holding her hand, and touching her arm. I told her it was okay to go, that she would be dreaming of her next life and the universe, and she would touch those places again in those dreams. I told her to remember that she was the universe becoming, and she had more to contribute. She did not recognize me or speak, nor even open her eyes. I want to believe she waited for me to get there before leaving, so we could say goodbye with cancer words and prayers. It wasn’t the way of all families. It wasn’t the way I would have hoped for, for us.

I spent yesterday, the afternoon she died, with her husband. He was pensive and sad, thoughtful and kind. Overwhelmed. It was good to talk with him. We made peace with each other, with small admissions of how we felt. Tiny nuggets of truth that swell over time, given enough water and light. I’m not sad, really. It’s the regret that I wish we could have been more in life, but neither one of us was probably capable of it this go around. I guess there must be a next time.

We’ll continue to talk, as long as my years here allow me. Perhaps, next time, we’ll get the chance to be there for each other with the reality of who we each are, who we were meant to be. Maybe next time, respect will flow, as will love and harmony and joy. Until then, she’ll be part of my conversations with others who have passed to the other side, to become one with all around me. I never really have conversations with myself, you see. The company I keep alone has grown one more today.

Karleen Baker Elhert – October 15, 1969 / July 29, 2022