The Third Third

My sister is a widow

My brother-in-law died last month, at age 69.  He spent 10 days on life support.  His kidneys failed, and his liver.  And then life support was removed. My younger sister is a widow. I can write the words.  I can say them.  Occasionally they spill out of me when someone asks, “How are you doing?”  Or “What have you been up to?” even when I know all they want to hear, all they need to hear is “Fine” or “Nothing much,” and that’s what I mean to say.  

My feelings, however, haven’t surfaced yet, which makes the words particularly stark, almost hollow, like the void they represent.  Sometimes, though, the feelings are like hidden snipers scoring emotional bulls-eyes at the dumbest times, causing me to weep over the brand new driveway at J’s and my sister’s house, for example, because it was paved to accommodate J’s walker, or wheelchair or prosthetic, and he doesn’t need it anymore.  Other times, instead of grief that I might recognize, I find dread -- a kind that makes me recoil from the fact that J died and, at the same time, plunges me into despair because if it happened to J, it could indeed happen to any of us, to me, to my love.  My sister confirms this; she was prepared somehow (or as prepared as anyone can be) for J’s death because he had been through so many medical crises this past year (an amputation, a small stroke, the diagnosis of liver cancer, liver cancer surgery, and repeated, nagging infections) and they had talked about it, thought about it, processed it repeatedly.  But she was not prepared at all for the corollaries -- that Dad will also die,  and that she will, too, and she thought, at first, that it would be immediate, which made her far more distraught than she wanted to be.


My dread/grief is intimate and selfish.  Then it goes global:  we’re all getting old and this phase of life when friends and brothers-in-law and friends’ husbands, and classmates will die is upon us, ready or not.  And I’m not ready.  I have spent 10 years easing into the fact that our parents are almost all gone -- How could that be?!! -- but I cannot abide the suggestion that we are next.  Death, which was once a seemingly safe generation away is now beginning to threaten the very life I prefer to think we are still creating, building, growing, developing, and savoring.  I don’t like to think we are at risk purely by virtue of being born decades ago. I prefer denial; I prefer to think strong genes, healthy eating, exercise, and the fact that we are a demographic bubble (Yes, even that enters into the equation) will save us from succumbing.  J’s death says I am wrong.


This distraction by the abstract keeps me from weighing, fully, the real cost of J’s death -- to me, to my sister and my niece and nephew, to our family.  It keeps me, I fear, from “being there” for my sister in ways she might need, from being sufficiently vulnerable, emotionally, to be truly empathetic as well as sympathetic.  She’s my sister; I can’t just write a note and make a casserole (besides, she hates casseroles!) and think I’ve done my bit -- which is, at least in part, what I have done for others as a kind of peace offering to the gods (as in, “If I do what a good person should do for a grieving friend or neighbor, will that stave off, keep me safe from, said same tragedy?”)  I don’t know what to do for her -- the loss of control that Death imposes has paralyzed me -- and I’m ashamed that she is coping so much better than I imagine I would or than, indeed, I am, when I am not the one who has to go home to an empty house and empty bed every night.  She says she’s going slow,  taking the proverbial day at a time, working on establishing a “new normal,” and making affirmative choices (often saying “No”) in the face of myriad offers from friends and even acquaintances who think she has nothing better to do than dine or play with them.  She is finding solace in her garden, satisfaction in her job, and new ways of relating to her two grown children.  She misses what was happy and not, she says, what was not.  And she allows herself to feel excitement for her future which is what she says she wants for all of us, for all women our age -- married, single, divorced, widowed, whatever.  I’m the older sister; she’s the wise one.  She reminds me of our paternal grandmother -- not coincidentally widowed in her mid-to-late 30’s -- whose generous love knew no bounds, who, as a kindergarten teacher 90 years ago, wrote the book on all you ever need to know about life.


I am, in the end,  alone with my grief that J will not sit at our Thanksgiving table again this year delighting in the feast and, especially, my pecan pies; that the part of our lives defined by young families coming together to celebrate holidays is over; that the individual, adult relationships J forged, separately, with our kids have been aborted; that I never got to know J very well and now I never will;  that I neglected to let him know how much I admired his instinct to foster and then adopt and so intensely love his daughter and his enormous pride in his son; that J worked so hard to come back from all that befell him this year only to die from an infection; that he died just as he was beginning to enjoy life as a retiree; and that my sister, strong as she is, is alone.  The tears will come; the feelings will shift; and in time I will learn, I hope, to let go of the dread and embrace instead, hope and my sister’s excitement for the future.



Widows, sisters of widows, friends of widows -- please share your stories in the Comments section below.

comments powered by Disqus