Blessed with a family history of healthy longevity, I assumed that I and my sisters could look forward to a benign seniority with nothing more to worry about than turkey neck, errant facial hairs and being careful not to pee when we cough.
But like the wicked fairy at the christening, our family has been touched by a wand of doom. My eldest sister at 71 is in the final throes of a brawl with a rare form of ovarian cancer. "Battle" with cancer just doesn't capture the ravages to her being that she has sustained for three long years of conventional and experimental treatments, and the roller-coaster ride of alternating hopes and fears.
At 63, I'm the second youngest of six sisters scattered throughout North America. (There are two brothers, like bookends, bracketing us.) Typical of our Newfoundland tribe, we're a long-distance family and a hardy breed. In the face of challenge, not for us the comfort of cutesy teddy bears, sappy Hallmark sentiment or catchy slogans. Instead, one sister travelled thousands of kilometres to take up residence near our ill sister to provide practical and moral support for two years. The rest of us keep phone lines humming and visit as often as cost, distance and weather permit, providing laughs, reminiscences, chicken soup and fresh blueberries.
In our society, sisters aren't given the currency of mates or parents when it comes to loss. A mate is not a blood relative but someone you choose because of compatibility and affection; a parent is of another generation. They are deserving of every honour we can bestow. A sister, however, is part of our foundation, our launch pad, someone who shares our history like no other. These roots shape our identity.
My oldest sister was the lens through which I first viewed the mysteries of womanhood. A stunning redhead, she did not lack for male attention. As a chaperone on forbidden trysts, I learned to decode mystifying boy-girl exchanges.
I studied her makeup rituals - the way she worked up a paste of mascara with a tiny horizontal brush, or expertly applied foundation over her hated freckles. And how I coveted that Evening in Paris perfume in its enticing cobalt blue bottle, $1.99 at Woolworth's, that she put behind her ears. After applying lipstick, she'd pout in the mirror in Marilyn Monroe fashion. Sometimes she'd daub lipstick on my jaw-dropped mouth, warning me not to show mom. Periodically (pun intended) she sent me to the store with a well-folded note on a puzzling errand for a brown-paper wrapped square box.
Ignited by dreams of glamour and possibility, she often took me inside the dark theatre world of the Saturday matinee. For a brief time we escaped our hardscrabble life and lived vicariously through Doris Day or Grace Kelly as consorts of Cary Grant and William Holden. If we saw a musical, afterward we'd pirouette along the sidewalk, singing what we could recall of the lyrics, before going to the diner where I'd be treated to a cola.
On a visit last spring to my sister's home, she insisted on showing us the delights of her New England environs. We walked a meandering trail along the far-reaching coastline, she and my husband considerably ahead. Surprised at her stamina, I later said to him: "Isn't she amazing?" He replied: "To tell you the truth, I had a hard time keeping up with her!"
I saw my sister again at Christmastime. She was now receiving continuous oxygen and medications through a pain pump. Before visiting, I suffered the typical ambivalence in such circumstances. But we arrived to find her out of bed to welcome us enthusiastically. Before the week was out, she had wrested her vacuum cleaner out of my hands to show me how it's done.
My rational mind accepts that my sister is going to die; that we are all going to die. No doubt I'm on some continuum of the textbook stages of anticipatory grief. But what registers most profoundly with me is the way in which confronting my sister's mortality has made me confront my own. It entails a life review that, in addition to acknowledged successes, forces me into unbidden insights of a far more sombre nature. I've undergone a type of mourning for paths not taken, potential unrealized and the staying power of poor decisions.
It's the important work of putting a life into meaningful perspective in order to extend more forgiveness and tolerance to myself and others. It reveals the importance of living more consciously and with greater awareness of what's really important during this transient, swift sojourn. It's seeing a journey full circle, my sisters' and my own.
Our mother had an oft-repeated saying: "You lives till you dies." Because it seemed so self-evident, aside from the grammatical error, I never thought it was profound.
Now I understand. That evil wand of doom has been foiled. My sister broke it over her iron will. She will live till she dies with a courage and determination that has been a legacy of inspiration to all her family.
The cancer thief can only steal the flesh. The more important parts of us - our love, our history, our kinship, our humanity - continue into future generations. In order to achieve that type of immortality, "You lives till you dies."
Joan Spurrell-Hotson lives in St. Catharines, Ont.
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