My sister, ill with cancer, celebrates life

Posted April 15, 2011, at 6:23 p.m.

My mother’s house was filled with laughter last Saturday.

Cameras flashed in every direction.

People were introduced to one another and many reminisced.

Everyone ate a lot.

Occasionally, just occasionally, someone ducked outside or wandered into an empty room to swallow hard or blink back a tear or two.

There were moments like that.

But the party continued until the best stories had been told, the best pictures had been taken and the food was nearly gone.

In the end it was truly a day filled with celebration and joy that honored new and old friendships and family.

My sister, who planned the event, called it an open house.

As friends arrived they found a small candy bar in a dish with their name on the front.

On the back my sister had attached a couple of words describing the personal characteristics of each friend. Characteristics she felt she had benefited from and admired throughout her life.

Some came with words like “fearless” and “joyful,” “compassion” and “acceptance,” “strength” and “wisdom,” “calmness” and “dignity.”

“This is what I have learned from you,” she told them, “This is what I’m thankful to you for sharing with me.”

Her invitation to her guests read:

“To all of the women who have impacted my life: Having your female influence on my life has enhanced my strength as a woman, strength upon which I now must rely. I would like to have the opportunity to thank you in person for your contribution.”

My sister is sick.

She is also the oldest of three girls and could be a poster child for the countless psychologists who research birth order.

She’s the smartest, the most organized, the most creative and the bossiest.

She put me in charge of the food, but in reality I had no say.

My other sister, the middle one, was in charge of music, but she had an exact list of what to bring.

There was a small, empty photo album at the party and one by one the guests wrote a message to her on each page.

The photographs from the gathering will soon fill those pages.

They were messages of love and memories of wonderful times.

I’m the youngest sister and I, too, fall into the expected birth order characteristics.

I’m the carefree one, the forgetful one who has just enough charm to convince the others that I deserve their forgiveness when I goof.

On my page I wrote, “OK. OK. You win. You really are the boss of me. Thank God someone is.”

In less than two weeks she will have her left breast removed. Somewhere there is a picture of me squeezing that breast and declaring to the room how I will miss it.

She laughed and I laughed and the room laughed, some nervously.

“Heck,” I said. “Actually, we are quite thankful they can take it off.”

Because they can’t remove her pancreas. There is cancer there, too, and we are unsure whether the cancer in her bile duct can be removed.

My sister was the first to teach me that peas didn’t taste that bad if you gave them a chance. She helped me learn to ride a little red bicycle that she, too, had learned to ride. She taught me how to ski when it appeared hopeless. She comforted me and didn’t judge when I had my heart broken. She taught me how to play Scat.

We love the same foods. When we go out to eat we will almost always order the exact same thing.

When she got married she designed and sewed her own wedding dress and all of her bridesmaids’ dresses. She never could teach me how to do that.

She was always the best colorer. I can remember sitting at our dining room table and trying to learn how she colored so well. She tried to teach me. It didn’t work.

As she grew into a teenager I learned exactly where my mother’s last nerve was located and did a pretty good job at coming in just under it as I went through adolescence.

In many ways my path was made easier because of her.

I have always learned from her. Good and bad.

We don’t know exactly what her future holds. No doctor has said weeks or months or years.

But last weekend she did things her way. The right people were there. Some high school friends, some college friends, some family and some long-ago co-workers.

The people who counted in her life were there and they ate what she thought appropriate and they listened to the music she thought appropriate, and they filled my mother’s house with laughter.

And the cameras flashed and memories were shared and memories were made.

And she had fun and we had fun and she taught me something new.

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