My sister died last night, she was my eldest sister and I really didn’t know her all that well. A separation of eleven years is a devastating distance, as is three thousand miles. As it turns out, I’ve spent most of my life on the east coast while she moved to the west coast about 30 years ago. I can count the times I’ve seen her during that time on the fingers of one and a half hands.
I did like her though, she was possibly the smartest and hardest working of the three of us (although, that’s hard call to make between my two sisters), not to mention the hands down parental favorite. A title she no doubt earned, damn it! Worse, she was always ready to laugh and dispense a generous amount of kind words at a moment’s notice. If she hadn’t been such a nice person, I might have found the whole situation quite offensive.
But, as exceptional as she was, cancer plays no favorites and it nailed her with 16 months of suffering and finally killed her last night. She’d made the decision not to have any further treatment a couple of weeks ago, and so we’ve all been waiting for the end. I’d like to be that brave someday. She never smoked, always ate in the healthiest way, got plenty of exercise, and generally lived a bold and wonderful life.
There will be no funeral, I guess that was something we agreed upon. Funerals tend to be gloomy, morose affairs and can take a nasty turn especially when there’s an open coffin. Nothing like having a stuffed human in the room to let the air out of a celebration. There is no object so empty as a dead body, no matter how nicely it’s dressed. My sister will be ashes soon and then sprinkled (illegally) on the Snake river near her second home in Wyoming, with only her husband of 23 years in attendance. That sounds pretty good to me.
I myself have always fancied a “Viking funeral.” Majestic sails heading off into the sunset, mighty and mournful Viking songs booming from the rocky shore and my wife and all my earthly treasures burning on the deck. Or at least I did until my youngest son suggested that the same sense of glory could easily be accomplished with a paper sail on a No.10 can full of my ashes and a handy iPod playing “vulgar boatman.” Someone please remember to tell him it’s “Volga Boatman,” and that’s not my idea of a mighty Viking tune.
Of course, I’m being quite typical and thinking of all the things I might have done with someone right after they are gone. She worked at CBS news with Walter Cronkite for a while, it would have been nice to hear more about that. Of course she spent the last 30(?) years as an estate and tax attorney, which frankly, doesn’t interest me all that much. I wonder if that means there’s some benefit to dying the day before taxes are due? Still, I won’t get the chance to ask her now, but I do hope to connect with my brother in law a little more than I have in the past. It’s the people who are still breathing that count.
That’s the real rub, the people who get left behind have all the work to do. Picking up their lives, getting on with the business of living. As the last of three children I know if I’m “lucky,” I’ll get to live through the death of my whole family. I’ll be an absolute professional at “moving on” by the end of that. That No.10 can is sounding better all the time.
I guess it’s part of the strangeness of only existing for a finite amount of time. A blink in the eye of the universe or a billion years to a civilization of ants. It’s odd to catch yourself thinking about how much time is left, like a clock that’s running down, waiting for the hands to fall off or a spring to suddenly pop out of the top. But we all have to go. Which always reminds me of my friend Mark, who likes to comment that “We all want to go to heaven, but no one want’s to be first.”
I think my sister and I agreed that there is no “after.” Just now. This is the time you have, make the most of it or not. I’ve have never been able to conceive of a reason or a possible circumstance for “after.” Billions of disembodied personalities wafting their way through time, and doing what exactly? Maybe it’s because I’m on my second wife and I don’t relish the prospect of explaining why I wasn’t the one burning on the deck when my first wife’s ashes went into the pond. I don’t worry about it though, I pretty much have always had my hands full with “now.” My sister certainly lived well, and happily with only “now.” Maybe, I can do as well.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011