‘The death of my sister: Trying to make sense of it all’

Apr 08, 2020
Mary was there with her sister until the very end. Source: Getty Images

The hospital bed lies still. Inside, my older sister Lynn is dying, braced between the metal armrests that keep her from rolling onto the floor.

Thin clear tubes look like tiny snakes as they weave their way into various parts of her body. These medical advancements are keeping her alive although she’s told us for months that she no longer wants to be here.

Her husband of 45 years passed away five years ago. Another casualty of cancer; another wife left to sweep up the remains. She never quite recovered.

The rhythmic pace of her breathing reminds me of the tired humidifier that we have in our own bedroom; the oxygen is marking time with my sister whose attempts to breathe make her look like a fish out of water. The slow pace of her gasping shows her still perfect teeth, a contrast against her bile-coloured face and her thick legs, yellow like large loaves of bread.

She has been retaining fluids for several months now, thanks to her cancer of the gall bladder, and when I press my fingertips into her thigh, it doesn’t spring back like normal skin. The depressions remain, evidence of legs that no longer function properly.

I recall the past year, punctuated with several frantic phone calls, numerous trips to the hospital, as she attempted to fight with chemo, expensive operations and a medley of drugs. She finally lost faith, but I think it was more than that. She was just tired — tired of living alone, tired without her dog that died while she was stuck in the hospital, and tired of the fight. I can’t blame her.

Helplessly, she lies there. Looking at her, I’m flooded with mixed emotions. You see, my sister was always a little selfish, preferring to put her own needs above others.

When my mother’s leg was crushed in a car wreck, my sister was called upon to help with the family chores. She opted to get married instead, leaving my twin sister and me to shoulder my mother’s nine-month ordeal with a body cast. We were only 12 at the time.

In 1999, my mum had lung cancer. My sister, who only lived 20 minutes away, rarely found the time to go and visit, claiming that Mum was such a ‘chatterbox’. Rather than helping my mum around the house, she preferred to give her a manicure. My mother hated manicures.

I look at her lying on the bed and I remember these things. It’s a strange breed of karma, seeing her there, tubes attached and going nowhere, with her siblings living hours away, and not willing to help her in the ways she expects.

In recent months, did she ever reflect on her actions over the years? If she had had the opportunity to do it over again, would she have made different choices?

The laboured pace of her breathing continues. They say that hearing is the last to go, and so I continue talking to her, even though she doesn’t respond.

I pull back her eyelids to see if there is anything there, but her pupils are vacant like small brown saucers. She looks at nothing.

Outside, the gardener tells us that a small young sparrow has fallen from a nearby Joshua tree. My twin sister Teresa goes out to check on it.

Frightened, it flounders in the 93F (33C) shade for a while, looking for some relief. My twin returns to the house to check up on Lynn, whose condition remains unchanged. Returning to the bird, Teresa finds that it has flown away.

Lynn continues her laboured breathing, but she is somewhere else. She is making her transition, her body going through the motions of being alive, yet her withered mustard-coloured carcass tells me otherwise.

After her last dose of morphine, her breathing begins to change. Before, she was panting like a dog caught in a hot car, but with the drugs circulating throughout her body, her breathing begins to slow, like someone finally enjoying a deep sleep.

The family gathers around her to sing some of her favourite songs. If she can hear us, she gives no indication, although I know that she is aware that we are here.

My sister loved Elvis Presley, so the caregiver suggests that we play ‘Love Me Tender’. We find the song on an iPhone and press play.

Lynn is breathing more and more slowly, like a 78 record that is winding down. We replay the song and halfway through, her breathing halts. My twin sister wails. We look at the caregiver who nods, comes over and takes her pulse. There is nothing there.

Lynn exhales one more time and we are given momentary hope, but her breath is a reflex action from what we are told. The caregiver exits the room and marks the time of death: 4:55pm

Protocol dictates that the caregiver calls the VNA (visiting nurse association) nurse who arrives shortly thereafter. They converse in the dining room with their medical jargon, punching facts and figures into the laptop before the coroners are called. Lynn is dead. It’s confirmed. It’s a fact. Her struggle is over.

We are all crying in the bedroom, looking at the withered form of my sister, who was once beautiful, vibrant, and colourful beyond what any rainbow has to offer.

The coroners finally come, wearing their rehearsed sorrow. This is just another job for them, another client who has to be disposed of. The caregiver asks me if I want to watch them wrap her body, but I decline. Apparently the limbs flap around like fins on a fish out of water, and I cannot bear to watch my sister being handled in this way.

My family and friends swirl around my sister one more time, swarming around her like worker bees attending to the queen. But it’s too late. The queen is dead.

The local news is playing on the television in the corner of the room. The flames of the Lake Fire in San Bernardino have destroyed acres a minute. I think of my sister and the cruel disease inside of her.

Cancer shows no mercy. No matter how many procedures my sister has endured in the past 18 months, cancer often has a sly way of winning. It is extinguished for a moment until it crops up somewhere else and bares its hungry yellow teeth.

I take comfort in the fact that I will see her in another form some day. Perhaps she will change the radio station when I am driving in the car. Maybe she will make a light flicker when I am trying to read. I hope she will guide me when I have an important decision to make or protect me when I am in danger.

It is Father’s Day here and today my sister joined my dad, my mum, her husband, pets and friends. Her body is no longer needed in this lifetime.

We will be left sifting through the ashes, trying to make some sense of it all.

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