Thursday, December 28, 2023

A Peaceful Journey

It always begins with a phone call, those things that rock your world. My niece, brave soul, had taken on the task of passing on the news of my sister’s death, still in disbelief as we both absorbed this unimaginable event.

It was indeed hard to believe. My sister, Andee, was so alive, such a vibrant person. I last saw her at Thanksgiving, the one time of year we gathered in person. We had a good talk. I recall the solidness of her hug. I never expected it was the last time. 

I had forgotten the ability of death to strike suddenly, lulled by the lengthy life and gradual demise of my parents, well into their 80s. I wasn't prepared for the unexpected disruption of our trusting assumption of day following day. Neither was she. Her menorah still sat out, candles beside it, waiting to be lit for the sixth night of Hanukkah. 

I have written about my parents and brother upon their deaths and often over time as they bubbled up in my memory. A sister is harder and this is the last and most difficult to write. I try to unpack it to capture the magnitude of the loss it signifies to me, and it feels like a matryoshka doll. I remove one layer only to find another. Matryoshka dolls, those dolls inside dolls, represent a chain of mothers carrying on the family legacy through the child in their womb. There is something about that image that is particularly apt. My sister embodied my mother, carrying her love and wisdom forward to her own daughters. As the only sibling who had children, she represents that carrying forward of family legacy, but an improved legacy as she took the best of each of our parents in a thoughtful act of parenting. She embraced that part of her life and did it with love and a full heart. 


My sister was the last direct tie to my family of birth. We could speak in unfinished sentences when we talked about our parents, we knew the subtext because we lived it. We often carried them into the future with us, imagining their reaction to new events in the world and in our family. When we found a new cousin through DNA we talked of how our dad would have responded to this new family member with delight. In each new accomplishment we heard our mother’s voice cheering us on.


I contemplate how birth order affects the parent with whom we most identify and who we in turn become. My brother, the oldest and the son, identified with my father. As the middle, I am an odd combination of the often-contradictory parts of both parents. My sister, the youngest and the one with the most solo time with our mother as a child, identified most closely with her. And for me Andee’s loss represents a loss of my mom-proxy. When I had something that I wanted to tell our mother after her death, I used to call my sister. She understood the significance through our mother’s eyes.


My sister was three years younger than me, not a long time in adult years, but just enough in child years that we lived different lives. We shared a room growing up. I recall the argument at bedtime about the radio, on or off. I liked silence. She, music, perhaps reflective of her more gregarious nature. As the youngest child claiming her space, Andee honed her wit, a talent she carried throughout her life. It was a quality that drew people to her. She developed and nurtured deep relationships with friends and strong bonds with family. 


For much of our lives, our lived experience wasn’t in sync. When I was married, she was single. When I was single, she was married and raising a family, a foreign world to me at the time. We came together in times of crisis and could talk easily, but mostly we were busy living our own very different lives.


Ultimately, what brought us together and deepened our relationship, was our mother, an extraordinary person for whom we both felt a deep love. We had different relationships with her. I often would say “my mother” and Andee would correct me with “our mother” and I would advise her that we connected with different parts of our mother, hence my phrasing. I shared travel and art. Andee enlarged her life with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


As we came together to assist her in her final years, we discovered a new relationship with each other in the process. I trusted Andee completely to do the right thing. I trusted her to act out of love. And I trusted her to be incredibly capable in whatever she took on. It was a mutual trust and it made us great partners. When our mother passed away, I didn’t want what we had built to end. We had been talking every day, working together with a common goal of supporting our mother. We did dial it back a bit after that, we weren’t talking every day, but when we talked it was a three-hour conversation. It changed how we understood each other, and it allowed for a deeper relationship than we had had up until then. And I wasn’t ready for it to end.


On her deathbed our mother told us she saw her late mother. It felt comforting as we faced that impending loss.I liked to think of her going from our love to her mother's love.


At the time, Andee and I had looked at each other, both recalibrating what we thought came next. We liked this version. They say it is a common experience as our brains assist us in a soft landing through our transition from life. In a world of so many marvels, I’d like to believe there is more to it. I have been thinking of that moment in recent days, picturing Andee with our mother in whatever form energy survives in the universe. 


When I lit my menorah that night, I said the Hanukkah prayer. Then I said another, wishing Andee a peaceful journey.


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