My sister died at 5:35 the morning after Labor Day, a week ago as I write. I saw both my parents die, and this was infinitely worse. I sat with her almost all day Monday, spelled by a few last visitors and my wife, and then through the evening and night after she’d gone to the hospice house — saying the Rosary, singing to her, pacing — till her breathing became shallower and raspier and a few minutes later she opened her eyes wide, closed them, and died.
She looked so tiny in that bed, one arm skeletal, the other swollen from a blood clot. The last day had so ravaged her face she didn’t look anything like herself. I have not cried so much since I was three, if then.
The last visit
My wife Hope and I had been with her through the first half of August and when we left she was doing better than she had in months, and looking forward to beginning chemotherapy. Just two weeks later, the day she was to begin chemo, her oncologist’s assistant called me to say she was very sick and back in the hospital and that we should come up.
I must not have understood what she said, because I packed a couple boxes of books and papers, thinking I’d be there for a month or two. On the drive up we worked out the arrangements to have a family Thanksgiving with her. I had no idea the cancer had come back so fast, so hard.
We walked into the hospital early Sunday afternoon to find three doctors and two nurses urging her to go into the hospice. She angrily waved her hand at them and said “I want to go home.” She agreed to stay the night when I promised we’d get her first thing the next morning. At 5:00 the next morning she jolted me awake with a text message reading “R U in my room?”
We drove to the hospital while it was still dark. The senior nurse, who’d taken care of her on her five previous times on the cancer floor, started crying (but caught herself) when she gave us the discharge instructions. “No one like that’s ever left,” she said. “They always stay.”
Many of the nurses came to care for my sister far beyond their professional concern. After she put Karen into our car, the senior nurse turned around and gave me a long, hard hug, and spun around to walk back into the hospital, but not before I saw the tears in her eyes.
Karen (two years younger and my only sibling) had been in her new home a month when in mid-March the doctor in the emergency room told her she was dying of late stage four cancer. It had already spread to her lymph nodes and the bone of her skull and spine. At first the oncologist thought she might live for a year or two or even longer, especially when the first treatment worked surprisingly, amazingly, well. She died less than six months later.
No lessons, or maybe one
I don’t have a lesson to offer. Those I had I’ve already written about. Except maybe this: That sometimes words don’t comfort or heal, but love helps. I was not in the mood for theology or piety but eager for signs that God stays with us.
I got one. After watching Karen all day on Monday I had to get out, so after everyone left about 4:00 I went to get groceries while Hope sat with her. They’d been friends about 35 years. I got back from the store and as I took something to the back of the house looked into Karen’s room.
She was sitting on the side of the bed, leaning forward, resting her left elbow on the bedside table and her right hand on her lap. She was looking at Hope. Hope was sitting in a straight-backed chair facing her, her hands in her lap, their knees maybe an inch apart. She was leaning forward and looking at Karen. Neither spoke. They just sat there, their heads maybe two feet apart, just looking at each other. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Probably I should say that words of a certain kind help, words that prayer has made valid. After the hospice nurses left us, I said to and for my sister, who had slipped into unconsciousness while she was still at home and would never hear me again, the prayer from the funeral Mass, the In Paradisum. After she died, before we called the nurse, I said it to her again.
Karen, may the angels lead you into paradise,
may the martyrs welcome you in your coming,
and may they guide you into the holy city Jerusalem.
May the chorus of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once a poor man,
may you have eternal rest.