The sister-friends, left to right, me, Terry, and Cindy
The room was dim. A little light filtered in from the hall, mixed with the noise of activity that suggested there was still a world out there, but it all seemed a million miles away. The room itself was quiet. Deafeningly quiet. I just kept my eyes focused on my sister. She kept her eyes focused straight ahead…somewhere else. Somewhere seemingly far away.
I had volunteered to stay the night with Cindy. Not so much out of strength or some sense of duty, but more because if I left, I would have no idea what to do with myself. Everything would just seem out of place, out of sync. At this moment, in this situation, everything that mattered to me was lying in the hospital bed next to my chair. She was right there, and yet I still couldn’t reach her.
The doctor’s words from earlier in the day were still bouncing around inside my head. I couldn’t remember the whole one-sided conversation, only specific points.
“It has spread.”
“Happened very fast.”
“No, there’s nothing.”
“I’m so very sorry.”
“Maybe two days, maybe two weeks, it’s hard to say.”
“We’ll keep her comfortable.”
Though I remained silent, in my mind I was begging the doctor to do something. There had to be something. But no. There was nothing. Nothing but this exact moment when the world seemed to simply stop revolving, all of the color drained away, and everything turned to shades of gray.
Then the voice inside my head started screaming. How can this be? How can this happen? Didn’t we say she was winning this battle? Wasn’t that just a month ago? My sister was going to be a breast cancer survivor. We were so sure of it. She was fine one minute and then…then there was this. My mind just couldn’t make sense of any of it.
After the doctor left, I remember seeing my sister’s boyfriend, Mickey, sitting by her on the bed, talking to her so very gently, so calmly. He knew exactly what to say. Though disease had robbed my sister of the ability to talk easily, she was fully aware of everything the doctor had said. Mickey knew exactly what her eyes were saying and he knew how to answer her unspoken questions. His connection with her was profound.
My sister Terry and I slipped away from the room and hid in separate corners of the hospital to make phone calls. Phone calls we desperately did not want to make. Trying to find the right words, knowing there were no right words. Then we went together to my parent’s house to deliver the news, in person, that no parent should ever have to hear; to inflict pain no parent should ever have to know.
Looking back, I remember all of these moments not as a participant, but rather as a third party looking in. I was hovering in the cloud of confusion that swirled above my dear, struggling family. I was detached, yet desperate to engage. Desperate for a moment of connection and understanding. Any moment.
And so when everyone gathered in the hall of the hospital, caught in the ultimate “what now” moment, I found myself immediately volunteering to stay the night with Cindy. I would stay to keep an eye on things. I would make sure Cindy was as comfortable as possible. I would be there to call the others if there was any urgent need. There was an unspoken agreement between us that Cindy would not spend one moment alone.
So I sat. I watched. I listened. The cold, dim room offered little in the form of physical comfort for me, but that somehow seemed appropriate. I desperately wanted to hold my sister’s hand. To stroke her arm. But her hands and arms were swollen…edema caused by the liver that was betraying her…by the demon known as cancer. Physical contact seemed very uncomfortable for her.
So, in the quiet of the room, I sat while my mind raced. They say that when someone is dying the movie of their life plays in their mind…flashes before their eyes. Cindy’s life—the parts I had shared—was playing out in my mind. The oldest of three girls, Cindy was our trailblazer. The one who taught our parents to be parents. The one who left the nest first. The one who had figured out so much on her own, and then thankfully shared her knowledge with Terry and me.
She was my shoulder, when I needed one. She was my sounding board when I was unsure. She was ready to celebrate every little triumph with me. And now she needed me. She needed me and I had no idea what to do.
My frantic mind searched for some grand gesture. Some way to make this whole mess right. Where were my super-human powers? Why couldn’t I do something to make this go away; to rewind the clock and give her much earlier warning of the storm to come? Irrationality…you did me no favors that night.
So, doing the only thing I knew to do, I watched her very carefully. If she moaned or seemed restless, if her heart rate escalated, I ran to have the nurse come check on her, to administer more pain medicine. I smoothed her sheets, careful not to touch her sensitive limbs. I talked to her softy. I shared stories of times when we had laughed, of times when we had been silly young girls. I prayed. I prayed a lot.
Then, as I studied her, I noticed that she kept trying to wet her lips…running her tongue over them and rubbing them together. Over and over.
That’s when it hit me. You know the feeling when you’re sick? You’re a little dehydrated, you’re breathing through your mouth. Your lips become so dry, so uncomfortable.
And in that instant I finally knew the one meaningful thing I could actually do for my Cindy. The one little thing that I could provide to give her comfort, to let her know that I was with her. I dug in the side pocket of my purse and found my tube of ChapStick.
“Cindy,” I said softly so as not to startle her, “I’m going to put some ChapStick on your lips. It’s going to feel good.”
I gently rubbed the balm on her tender, chapped lips. Slowly, as she rubbed them together, her eyes shifted to look directly into mine and we had our moment of beautiful clarity, of connection.
With great determination, her voice reached through the fog to whisper, “I love you.”
“I love you too, Cindy.”
Nothing more needed to be said. Everything had poured out in a simple eight word exchange.
As she drifted back to that place inside herself, I spoke quiet promises to her. I promised her that Terry and I would take care of our aging parents. I promised her that we would always be there for her two children, young adults now, but still not quite ready to be without their mother. Never ready. I promised her that I would remember her with smiles, laughter, and that I would perform her patented silly dance for future generations to enjoy. I promised her that we would still talk every single day. I promised her.
Night finally surrendered to a gray dawn. We moved Cindy away from the institutional setting of the hospital and into the warm embrace of an in-patient hospice called Clarehouse. Clarehouse was our safe haven, the place that allowed beautiful colors to return to our world. It was a blessing that deserves, and will get, a story of its own someday.
In this warm, safe, beautiful place, surrounded by her family, my Cindy left this life quietly and peacefully. The ultimate educator, she gave me one more lesson that day—that there is beauty in everything; in new life, in life well lived, and even in life’s end.
After the nurses had taken care of Cindy’s body, I slipped back into the room alone, needing just a moment more. I looked at her face, carefully positioned by the nurses into an expression that was pleasant, but not one of her expressions. This body was no longer my Cindy. She was gone. She was really gone.
Then I saw the tube of ChapStick, still sitting on the bedside table. Upon seeing that reminder of our final shared moment, my heart filled with all of the memories and love this woman, my dear sister-friend, had ever given me. My Cindy came rushing back.
And so, with tears that were a mixture of grief and gratitude tracing paths down my cheeks, I slid the ChapStick into my pocket as I also tucked my sister’s spirit safely inside my heart.
My amazing sister Cindy passed away nine years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was the age I am now. I do not remember my sister with feelings of sorrow. She would hate that. Cindy was a positive, spirited, fun-loving woman. Any tears that come are just reminders of how much I miss her, but do not define my memories of her. I celebrate Cindy with pure, unabashedly silly joy. I still have the tube of lip balm that gave us our final connection. Thank you Cindy, for giving me that last great lesson: Sometimes the most meaningful moments in life, in relationships, don’t come in the form of save-the-day acts of heroism or over-the-top grand gestures. Sometimes the most meaningful, beautiful moments are brought about by something as simple as a tube of Chapstick.