Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Eulogy for My Sister

The thought of writing a eulogy for my younger sister, Pat, was a daunting one for me. So a couple weeks ago I decided to flee Portland and go to our family beach house where there would be fewer distractions. I had no idea how I could condense into a few minutes a lifetime of memories and include with those words some measure of comfort and closure. At the least I had narrowed my thoughts down to one thing – my perspective as her one and only sister.

I began by searching for all the quotes I could find on sisters. So today I offer a few of the ones that helped me decide what stories to tell and thoughts to share. It seems appropriate to borrow words from authors since Pat was such an avid reader.

Here is my first quote from Charlotte M. Yonge, which is also my disclaimer:

“Elder sisters never can do younger ones justice!”

But for Pat, I will try.

It is so true what Susan Merrell says: “Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk.”

In our particular dawn to dusk life as sisters, however, there was a long period in the middle when we were not very sisterly. It started in high school where our personal tastes in activities, friends and values went in separate directions. It continued through college years, weddings, births and the raising of our children with occasional intersections reminding us that we did share the same family. Communication was minimal.

All this to say I didn’t know my sister very well during those years.

Cali Rae Turner said this about her own sister: “The best thing about having a sister was that I always had a friend.” Unfortunately I didn’t realize Pat could be my friend for much of my life. But that changed when our father passed away in 1993 not long after he retired to Florida. Pat and I became responsible for our mother’s care.

So my sister-stories are broken into two parts: our growing up years on Okinawa and then our grown up years as Mom’s caregivers.

I was 2 years old when Pat entered my world on September 23, 1958. Most of my memories come from the black and white photos now fading in our albums. Some are imbedded in my brain. But others were refreshed as Pat and I reminisced about life on Okinawa in more recent years.

I laughed when I read this quote by Barbara Alpert: “Sister. She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway...Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child.”

I have no memory of this at all but Pat told me she used to push my buttons so badly that Dad gave me permission to slap her if she didn’t stop. Apparently the slapping got out of control and he had to withdraw his permission. I don’t know if that reveals I was a potential sister abuser or that Pat was a real pain in the ass as a kid.

I really don’t remember the slaps or even how annoying she was but I do remember the fun we had.

We both loved the hill behind our house where we climbed aboard our cardboard boxes to race over the bumps and knife-sharp blades of waist-high grass.

We both loved the annual carnival organized on the military base. We might watch a snake and mongoose fight or jump out of the parachute tower but Pat and I spent most of our time racing go-carts. Still in grade school, our favorite thing to do was to challenge the macho servicemen to a race. If we won, they had to pay for our next ride. We hardly spent any money those summers. Of course we didn’t tell the guys that we were such regular patrons at the go-carts the operators would secretly tune our carts for greater speed.

Pat and I also loved roller skating. We spent many weekends on the outdoor rink. You guessed it. We were always up for the races and often won in our separate age divisions. But we also had some differing skills. While I gravitated toward figure skating, Pat was incredibly good at limbo. I could never match her balance and strength.

During middle and high school our interests diverged even more.  She became the athlete and I became the nerd. I’m not sure which was more profitable. I may have earned more money for my grades but Pat avoided more punishment. While I found myself grounded for a month at a time every other month during my teenage rebellion, Pat used her athletic skills to her advantage during hers. Whenever she got grounded, she would plan a father-daughter time of shooting hoops and then casually challenge Dad to a game in which every shot she made would be one day deducted from her restriction period and every shot he made would be one day added. Pat ended up never staying grounded.

Even so she turned out all right.

When I left home to attend college in the U.S., I would say Pat and I were not really friends.  Mainly we just didn’t understand each other very well. But we slowly made up for those lost years after our mom moved to Oregon 17 years ago to live with my family.

In fact in our later years, our divergent tastes and values began to converge again, sometimes to the point of weirdness. Like the time we picked the same pattern and color of material to recover furniture unbeknownst to the other. Or the time Pat came to Portland wearing the identical sandals I had also purchased from Macys.

Margaret Mead said, “Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but when the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship.”  Her observation was true for us.

As much as I love our mother, it hasn’t been easy to know how to care for someone when communication is very limited and challenging. My appreciation for Pat grew tremendously as she became my sounding board and support whenever I needed her.

Carol Saline nails what Pat was really good at doing. She wrote, “Sisters function as safety nets in a chaotic world simply by being there for each other.”

In a scene in the book The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern where a woman has lost her younger sister in a tragic accident, the character confesses this in her eulogy: “I do not mourn the loss of my sister because she will always be with me, in my heart. I am, however, rather annoyed that my Tara has left me to suffer you lot alone.”

I confess as well I am annoyed that my sister has left me to care for Mom alone, but then I trust that she has helped me build enough courage to handle the rest without her. For those of you who experienced Pat as a safety net, I hope you also believe that you have enough courage to live life without her.

When Pat called and asked me to come after her diagnosis was made, there was no question in my mind I would be there for her as well. Louisa May Alcott said, “Help one another, is part of the religion of sisterhood.” I’ve learned that to be true as our hearts were knit together in a strengthening sisterhood and friendship.

I don’t want to spend time right now recalling everything from the last 9 months as she battled this horrible monster called cancer. Many of you have followed her journey through the Caring Bridge site. Obviously the last few weeks were the most difficult as death came sooner than any of us expected or wanted.

But I want to summarize those weeks by borrowing the words from Charlotte Bronte who describes the last days of her dying sister, Emily. They seem appropriate for Pat.

“My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally, she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”

Before I close I have a couple more stories to tell you, one that I only learned about soon after Pat was diagnosed with lymphoma. These are especially for those of you who surrounded her with your faith and prayers.

Her journey with cancer included a path of embracing a faith in Jesus Christ. She began to ask me questions about God, Jesus and the Bible maybe because I have been a friend of Jesus since high school and have my master’s degree in theology. Despite the lack of religious discussion in our home, I realized , like me, Pat possessed a natural inclination toward God and spiritual things for a long time. In these past 9 months her inclination developed into a confident faith.

I also believe God had his loving hand on Pat for a long time. She told me the story of one particular night many years ago when the children were very small.

She woke up to find a young, well-dressed man in her bedroom. It startled her but for some reason she felt no fear. Silently the man left her room. She decided to get out of bed and follow after him. She never once thought she needed to wake Chuck up. After a brief pause in the living room and a long gaze at Pat, the man exited out the front door. Still without any sense of alarm, Pat turned to go back to her bedroom, but as she passed through the kitchen she smelled gas and saw that one of the burners on the stove had been left on. She quickly turned it off and realized if she hadn’t gotten up the family would have been in danger.

Pat asked me what that experience meant. Was he an angel? I could tell she had wanted to ask that question for a long time.

I answered her that I did believe in angels and perhaps what she saw was indeed an angel. I then told her this experience revealed to me one thing – God had his eye on her and her family. However I also explained this experience could not be taken as a guarantee of continued protection. God would not always provide escape from suffering or death. But no matter what she faced in the months ahead, she could lean into his promise that he would always be present with her.

A few weeks later Pat decided she wanted to watch one of the Katie Couric shows that had been recorded on her DVR.  She randomly picked one. The show’s topic happened to be “Heaven.” Katie interviewed several guests who had died but then after a short period of time came back to life. All of them testified they experienced some form of what they believed to be heaven during that period. After the show Pat and I talked about heaven.

From that point on she never waivered in her belief that God was with her and that heaven was her destiny.

One day while we were waiting for test results in Tampa to find out why Pat was declining after the transplant, she called me into her bedroom. She wanted to tell me her last goodbyes, tell me how much she loved me. I was not ready for this. I refused to give up on her treatment. I wouldn’t let her say her goodbyes.

Exasperated she gave me that look she gives when people don’t take her seriously. Then she cupped her hands around my face, drew me close and declared, “Harriet, I’m going to be alright!” I knew what she meant. After gazing into her eyes for a few seconds, I conceded and said, “Yes, Pat, no matter how this turns out, you are going to be alright!”

In the moment of her passing, Pat’s face showed no pain and no fear. It was a moment of sacred peace. And I imagined when God welcomed her into heaven, he took her face into his hands and said, “You have done well, my brave daughter!”

I miss my sister terribly.

These words from Louise Bernikow express my moments of deep grief:
“Between sisters, often, the child’s cry never dies down. “Never leave me,” it says, “do not abandon me.”

But then I choose to say these words from Katherine Mansfield:
 “Bless you, my darling, and remember you are always in the heart – oh tucked so close there is no chance of escape – of your sister.”

I hold Pat in my heart now but some day I will see her face to face. Pat, you cannot escape your sister.