My sister Jeri lost her battle with cancer last night.
It wasn't shocking, but it shocked me.
It wasn't scary, but I'm scared.
She wasn't alone, but now I feel lonely.
My sister, my big sister. My very first best friend; I loved her from the moment I was born, and I imagine she'd say she loved me from that second, too, even if I was 'the new baby.'
My sister, my big sister. We were very different, so very different. She was gregarious and out-going and had tons of friends and was always doing something. I was shy, almost petrifyingly so — my mom used to joke that I didn't start talking until I was eighteen — and I had just a handful of friends.
My sister, my big sister,. She could be as stubborn as a mule, and had quite the temper, while I always tried to please, and be the nice one, and not draw attention to myself. We were as different as night and day, and as thick as thieves.
I remember the day she called, with that call.
Less than a year ago, she was in the hospital with pneumonia and woke up around 4:30 AM, bored to tears. Since she lives, lived, sorry, that'll take time, in California, she knew better than to call anyone there that early, but then she remembered time differences, and how it was 7:30 in the morning at my house and the phone rang.
We talked about her being sick and how she was feeling better. She told me stories of the ghosts that people in the hospital talked about; ghosts that wandered the halls. And we laughed. My sister is kind of that hippie love child mother, and we talked about the ghosts and we talked about her kids and how her youngest had recently shaved the side of her head. We laughed.
I had recently asked if I could use a picture that I have of her in a project that might see my novel published at long last. It’s one of my favorite pictures of her, wearing a blue flowered dress Mom made for her. I want it on the cover of the book; I actually used the picture as a way to describe a character in my book that, while she looks like my sister and acts like my sister and has some of the same adventures with her younger brother that my sister had with me, she is not that sister. My sister is much nicer, and sweeter.
We talked about growing up together and the things we did together. We talked for over an hour and then I heard the nurses enter her room and she said she had to get off the phone so they could do their work. I said I loved her, and she said, as she always has, that she loves me, too.
The phone rang again at my house, about six hours later, and I saw it was her on the line, so I picked up the phone and said, 'Hey.'
'I have cancer.'
Cancer. Cancer. She asked that I call Dad and let him know because that was one phone call she couldn't make; she started to tell me more, but then she began to cry, and I tried to hold back the tears.
'Don't you start,' she said.
I said, 'Too late.'
My sister has cancer. My big sister had cancer. But now she doesn't, now she's safe and free and doesn't hurt and has her hair, and might be sitting with my mother right now, talking things over, and reminiscing some. That makes me feel a little better.
She did everything she could to beat the cancer; she studied treatments, did chemo, and even did radiation, but, as our family knows all too well, cancer creeps up and around on you. Last fall, after undergoing radiation she decided that was enough. She wanted to enjoy the time she had left and not be in hospitals and be sick; she wanted to be. Quality of life over quantity.
My sister, my big sister, and I have like minds on death: there is no fear of it, though there is also no anticipation for it. But there is a sense that it's part of our journey and, naturally, a necessary step. I learned in a college psych class that death and dying is actually harder on the living, on those left behind, than it is on the dying person, and I saw that first-hand when my mother was dying.
I'm feeling that hardship again. But I want to think of the good things about my sister tonight. I want to remember the fun and the laughs and the jokes. I shared this story once on my blog, but I 'd like to tell it again ... it's one of the lessons my sister taught me:
We are only fifteen months apart, age-wise, and were very close growing up. We went to grade school, junior high school, and high school together, and though we had some of that 'don't look at me' attitude while in high school, it was always nice to see my sister walking the halls.
This story is about a basketball game, and a pair of high school mascots. Our school team was the Cougars — not like the cougars of today, aging women who date children, but real cougars — and there were a pair of Cougars who stood on the sidelines during football and basketball season, riling up the crowds, playing with the cheerleaders and generally just having fun.
One of the girls who wore a mascot costume couldn't make the game one night and asked my sister to take her place. The other girl also begged off, and, well, my sister asked me.
I said, 'No.’ I did not draw attention to myself; as a young closeted gay boy, I stayed in the shadows as much as I could, but when my sister asks, sometimes it feels like an order.
And so I thought about it; I thought it might be interesting to step out of my comfort zone, though in those days we had no idea about comfort zones and such. I just thought it might be fun to not be me for a while. So, I relented.
The costumes came, big, furry, heavy, hot, and off we went to the game. I kept my cougar head on all night so no one knew it was me, but it gave me the chance to act in public like I wanted to act, and not like I thought I should. I learned that it was okay to be different, to march to a different drummer, to act the fool, to have fun for fun’s sake. To not care what people thought about you.
Again, it was a lesson that took a while to stick; there were other lessons that needed to be learned first, like accepting myself, coming out, and allowing others to accept me, too, but for those couple of hours on a Friday night in November, 19fumphity-fumphy, I was my one true self. Under a fur covered head, yes, but my one true self. And I learned, from my sister, that it was okay to be yourself, because she knew who that fool in the cougar costume was, but she still loved him, no matter how he acted.
My sister, my big sister. My hero.
I've been thinking about more of those times since my Dad called with the news; thinking about the lessons my sister taught me ... and this is another one of them .....
My sister joined the Air Force many moons ago and began moving everywhere. Spain and Germany; Delaware. I think New Mexico was in there, too. But soon enough she came back to California where the family lived and we got to see one another more often.
Still, she was a mountain girl, living in a small town in the foothills outside Sacramento, while I lived smack dab in the middle of our Capitol City. We were quite different; she enjoyed gardening, I enjoyed nice dinners with good wine; she was garage sale, I was Macy's. She was married, I was gay. Different.
But this story isn't about that. This story is about the day she taught me how to say I love you. See, I was good at writing those words on a card, or signing them at the bottom of a letter, but I wasn't too keen on saying them out loud for whatever reason.
But, one day, many years ago, she called to chat — my sister loves to chat on the phone and I loathe it ... yet another difference between us — and we talked about all kinds of things, from what we were doing to what the world was doing. At the end of the chat, as we were saying our goodbyes, she said, All right then, I love you.
I said, Thanks.
Thanks? That was my response to my sister saying I love you? I mean, I guess I meant Thank you for loving me but that isn't really the correct response either, is it?
So, as I tend to do, I sat there after that phone call and wondered why it was so hard for me to say those words, and I realized that I come, came, from a family that didn't really ever 'say' the words. We showed our love; we knew we were loved; I guess we all felt we just didn't have to 'say' it.
Add to that the idea that I also thought, subconsciously, I didn't deserve to be loved because I was the 'different' one; the gay son. I mean, my parents knew I was gay, and they were fine with it; they loved me. But I’ve always wondered if they ever hoped that I wasn't; what parent wants a gay kid? No matter how much you love them, as a parent, you realize their lives would be easier if they weren't gay. So, I felt loved, but at the same time, unworthy of being loved because I wasn't the 'son' that had been expected.
My sister, however, thankfully, thought differently. Just saying I love you so easily and simply, without force, made me realize that I was worth it. And I thank her for that. See, after that conversation, and after my introspection, I listened to what she was saying: we all knew we were loved but she wanted us to hear it. And that made a huge difference.
Now, I didn’t change overnight and turn into one of those people that say I love you at the drop of a hat; it took time. And, I think the first time I said it back to her I probably choked on the words a little bit, as though they were somehow foreign to me. But it got easier and more natural.
And, I think it helped push away some of the Old Bob who might have been fearful of love and being loved. I think, having my sister teach me that lesson made it all the easier for me to tell Carlos I loved him, and to hear him say it back to me, and to keep telling him and telling him and telling him.
It wasn't that my sister loved me, I always knew that, and I always will know that, it's that she made me realize I was worth it, and I could say it, and hear it and mean it and be it. That's just one of the lessons my sister taught me.
My sister, my big sister. My hero.
So while today hurts, for so many reasons, I want to think back on the laughs. The time we had a party at the house while my mother and father took our baby brother to a baseball game and how my parents never caught on; at least until we told them, years later, after the statute of limitations was up.
I want to think of my sister who was a wonderful mother, to four wonderful girls; she instilled in each of them her independence, her sense of self, her sense of worth, her joy, her love.
I want to think of my sister with her husband, Tom. It took her a while to find him, but when she did it was the best thing she ever did. No one made my sister as happy and loved and comfortable and peaceful and filled with life, as Tom.
So, I'm gonna sit for a while and think about the last time we were all together and stood still long enough for a picture. I'm going to laugh and smile, and feel loved, and feel love ...
For my sister.