What My Sister Taught me – Thought Change

What My Sister Taught me

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The Be­gin­ning and the End

Elaine in her Youth
Elaine in her Youth

My sis­ter died un­ex­pect­edly on June 12, 2020. We were en route to a re­sort va­ca­tion on Geor­gian Bay, snug­gled be­tween Canada’s Wasaga Beach, the world’s largest fresh­wa­ter beach, and the Blue Moun­tains. The best of both worlds.

This was in the vicin­ity of the stomp­ing grounds that both my hus­band and I grew up in. We took a few days be­fore our va­ca­tion of­fi­cially started to visit “the fam­ily” in our home­town. Since my mom passed away, we al­ways stayed with my sis­ter Shirley, out in the coun­try and halfway to the neigh­bor­ing town.

As we drove through the town I grew up in, my hus­band said, “Wave to Elaine” as we passed the street that would take us to her place. Too late, I was al­ready wav­ing. We had spent al­most 7 hours in the car, get­ting a bit stir crazy and ready to reach our des­ti­na­tion. There would be time for vis­it­ing the next day.

Lit­tle did we know…

We con­tin­ued on to Shirley’s where the plan was to catch up, en­joy din­ner to­gether and have a great night’s sleep. Shirley is a great cook, al­ways try­ing new recipes and keep­ing the best of the old ones. She puts love into her food when she cooks, a by-prod­uct of her joy and love for her fam­ily, and you can taste it.

We knocked and opened the door. Shirl was stand­ing at the kitchen sink. She said, “I have bad news” as she turned around to face us. “Elaine’s dead.”

For an in­stant, it did­n’t com­pute. I heard the words and I knew what they meant but it did­n’t seem real. I thought is this a joke? But Shirley would­n’t joke about this.

“Elaine died this morn­ing. I was in town and went to check on her. She did­n’t an­swer the door so I got out my key, went in­side and I found her. They think it was a mas­sive heart at­tack. You had al­ready left and we could­n’t reach you.”

Shirley had the kind of day that no one ever wants to have. We all did, but es­pe­cially Shirley. She had found her sis­ter on the floor, not breath­ing but still warm. Dis­com­bob­u­lated, part in shock and part fraz­zled and def­i­nitely not think­ing clearly, the only thing she could think to do was call our sis­ter Deb­bie.

“I found Elaine on the floor. I think she is dead.” 

“Call 911. I’m com­ing. I’ll be right there.”  

Deb­bie lives 5 min­utes away, maybe 10 if the traf­fic is “stu­pid.” Those few min­utes felt like an eter­nity for her.  Sur­real.  Speed­ing through the back roads to get into town, the mind goes a mil­lion miles an hour as it is flooded with emo­tions it does­n’t know how to deal with.

The 911 op­er­a­tor man­aged to guide Shirley – state of shock and all – to start chest com­pres­sions.  And once Deb­bie ar­rived, they took turns un­til the para­medics came. Cramped in a lit­tle en­suite bath­room, there was­n’t much room to ma­neu­ver.  But they did it, work­ing on adren­a­line and do­ing what needed to be done if there was to be any hope.

 

Too Late

My sis­ter Elaine loved jam, es­pe­cially home­made jam. She never made any her­self but al­ways looked for­ward to our vis­its be­cause we would bring her some of our most de­li­cious gems–el­der­berry, black cur­rant, sour cherry, gin­ger plum, you name it. On our pre­vi­ous visit, we for­got to pack jam and her dis­ap­point­ment showed. Pe­ri­od­i­cally over that visit, she re­minded us. On this trip we brought ex­tra, but it was too late.

I had shoes for her too. Our feet were close in size, my toes be­ing slightly longer. I had bought a pair of re­ally com­fort­able Reiker shoes but broke my toe since our last visit. Now my toe sits flat­ter and I need more wig­gle room. These shoes no longer fit com­fort­ably. I’d only worn them once or twice and brought them for Elaine. She’d love them. Sis­ters can do that.

When the para­medics ar­rived at Elaine’s home, my sis­ters Shirley and Deb­bie could step back and let the pro­fes­sion­als take over. The shock and the un­real re­al­ity of what was hap­pen­ing set in as the para­medics tried to re­vive her. But it was too late.

The po­lice ar­rived.  The coro­ner was called. Ques­tions were asked. Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and pre­scrip­tion drugs were col­lected. The body was col­lected. A life of­fi­cially ended.

Elaine was on her way from the en­suite bath­room to her bed, al­most fully clothed. Only her jeans ly­ing on the bed wait­ing to be put on. At home, where she spent al­most all of her time, she wore sweat­pants, or even sleep pants on lazy days. Her jeans were for go­ing out or for ex­pected com­pany. She no longer drove and there were no plans to take her any­where that day so the con­sen­sus was that the jeans were out be­cause she knew I was com­ing.

She fell back­ward and some­how man­aged to land in the nar­row open­ing be­tween the bath­room cab­i­net and the toi­let. Twisted, as if she had fallen to her knees first, a tiny bit to the right or left, and her head would have hit and prob­a­bly been cut open.

It was quick. A mas­sive heart at­tack we were told.

She had a stroke 7 years ear­lier that af­fected her speech. Those of us close to her would say it af­fected so much more than that – emo­tional state, per­son­al­ity, sta­mina, and be­hav­ior. But we still loved her… even through the frus­tra­tion, the stub­born­ness, the fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion for things that did­n’t mat­ter, and the to­tal dis­re­gard for things that did (like tak­ing bet­ter care of her­self).

If you would have told her what the last 7 years of her life would be like, she would never have be­lieved you. None of us would. Al­ways pic­ture per­fect, an im­mac­u­late house, po­lite, hard­work­ing, suc­cess­ful – an im­age that took con­sis­tent ef­fort to live up to, un­til the day she had that stroke.

 

His­tory

I loved my sis­ter. But we were very dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I re­mem­ber go­ing shop­ping with her once and end­ing up in the lin­gerie de­part­ment; she was look­ing at an­other white bra. I half-jok­ingly said I don’t own a white bra. She half-jok­ingly said she only owned white bras. Per­haps that mo­ment is a good sum­ma­tion of our re­la­tion­ship.

Out of seven kids, she was sec­ond from the top and I was sec­ond from the bot­tom in the sib­ling totem pole. I have no mem­ory of her child­hood, of her be­ing young and care­free. She was a young bride and even in my ear­li­est mem­ory, I can’t re­call much of her prior to be­ing out on her own, mar­ried, liv­ing in the city, work­ing and mind­ing her fam­ily. Adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and not much time for play.

When I was younger, I re­mem­ber al­ways think­ing how old she was. “God, 30 was an­cient…” Some­how time sneaks up on you. Now I think 70 is young, and that is how old she was when she passed. How your per­spec­tive changes through life! Age is not as straight­for­ward as just the num­ber. You can be a young se­nior or an old teenager – de­pend­ing on your state of mind, your per­son­al­ity, be­hav­ior pat­terns, and pres­ence.

She was the only sis­ter to leave the home­stead area (be­sides me), step­ping out into a big­ger world and in do­ing so, ex­pand­ing her hori­zons. I was al­ways proud of her for go­ing back to school as an adult so she could make a bet­ter, more se­cure life.

I can re­mem­ber stay­ing with her fam­ily on oc­ca­sion dur­ing sum­mer break and when I was in my teens, rid­ing the Grey­hound bus to visit her for week­ends now and again. Some­times I’d take shop­ping trips with my other sis­ters and we’d all get to play to­gether.

I al­ways thought I would end up go­ing to col­lege or uni­ver­sity in her city; af­ter all, she was there as a life­line and it was only an hour away from the rest of the fam­ily.  But when I fin­ished high school, I moved to Toronto – a big­ger city, in a big­ger world, with big­ger hori­zons, and my boyfriend, soon to be my fu­ture hus­band.

When­ever I was with my big sis­ter, she tried to take me un­der her wing and teach me her per­spec­tives on life, things like how to make a bed prop­erly, how to keep your home im­mac­u­late, how to prac­tice self-con­trol, how to pre­sent an im­pec­ca­ble im­age… and how to stay de­ter­mined to fit a square peg in a round hole. But none of those things mat­tered to me.

In­stead, my sis­ter taught me so much more.

 

Your Life Can Change in an In­stant

My sis­ter’s life changed the day her part­ner walked out. She thought he’d come back. But he did­n’t. Her dreams near­ing re­tire­ment were shat­tered. She was alone. No more grow­ing old to­gether, no trav­el­ing the world to­gether, liv­ing the “good life.”

Hid­ing her emo­tional pain was one of her strengths. But hold­ing onto the anger (how could he do this to me?), the sad­ness (mourn­ing the end of the re­la­tion­ship), the fear (will I be alone the rest of my life? What will hap­pen now?) and the guilt (is it my fault?) never brought peace.  Per­haps even a lit­tle shame (every­one knows).

Try­ing to keep your head above wa­ter, my sis­ter thought the way to cope is to throw your­self into your job, work late every night. No time, no de­sire, or hunger to eat prop­erly. Live on cig­a­rettes, cof­fee, and yo­gurt. Dis­tract your­self with clean­ing or watch­ing TV to es­cape when you had to be at home. Don’t feel how you feel, let alone talk about it. Don’t let any­one know you are strug­gling.  We all wor­ried about her. How long can you go on like that?

My sis­ter’s life changed again the mo­ment she had a stroke. She did­n’t an­swer the phone for her morn­ing call from her daugh­ter. And she did­n’t call back. Some­thing was wrong.

The stroke that hap­pened some­time through the night hit her speech cen­ter. She could­n’t speak a sin­gle word when her daugh­ter found her. She was still in bed, un­able to func­tion nor­mally. A greater chance of re­cov­ery if treat­ment is given within a 3-hour win­dow af­ter the stroke, we were told. But it was un­clear when it hap­pened. She was given the treat­ment and we hoped for the best. Time would tell.

Some words came back over time but there were few com­plete sen­tences that she could com­mu­ni­cate. “No”, “I don’t know” or “What the hell” seemed to be the most she could muster. And writ­ing was hard for her. She had 6 months of speech ther­apy and was told it was un­likely things would im­prove. She lived by her­self, no one to talk to – or try to talk to – and no longer able to ful­fill her po­si­tion at work. There was no place left to hide.

None of us lived close but we would visit oc­ca­sion­ally and call reg­u­larly. It was very hard for her, and very frus­trat­ing for every­one to hold a con­ver­sa­tion by phone. It was a bit like play­ing cha­rades, guess­ing at what she was try­ing to say.  Even­tu­ally, she just gave up an­swer­ing the phone.

My sis­ter did­n’t have any kind of paral­y­sis or vis­i­ble signs there was any­thing wrong.  I found it ironic that she al­ways kept her per­sonal thoughts and feel­ings to her­self and now she could­n’t com­mu­ni­cate them. And how she was al­ways con­cerned about ap­pear­ances. She was pic­ture per­fect, both her­self and her home. Even now, no one could tell there was any­thing wrong. The stroke some­how backed both of these traits.

Even­tu­ally, the de­ci­sion was made to sell the house and move back to her roots. There would be more in­ter­ac­tion and more peo­ple to sup­port her.

 

Life Lessons

We go through life with our hopes, our dreams, our imag­in­ings, tak­ing each day as it is, rou­tinely do­ing what we have to, but al­ways with those as­pi­ra­tions of how things will be some­day. Work­ing to­wards a goal or per­haps con­sciously en­gag­ing the Law of At­trac­tion, we want to ful­fill our dreams and love our life.

But some­times some­thing hap­pens. Some­thing un­ex­pected. Some­thing not in the story we’re dream­ing for our­selves. Some­thing that rocks our world and changes every­thing.

Maybe our part­ner walks out or some­one we love leaves this earth. Maybe we lose our job or our busi­ness.  Maybe we have a se­ri­ous health chal­lenge or re­ceive a life-al­ter­ing di­ag­no­sis that changes every­thing. At any mo­ment, any one of us could be in an ac­ci­dent, get hit by a bus, or have the rug pulled out from un­der our feet.

Some things might feel like “be­ing at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Some things feel like life’s slap­ping you. But when we travel through these cross­roads, of­ten what is im­por­tant to us changes and we need to rewrite the story we tell our­selves and what dreams may come.

Peo­ple like safe, se­cure, and ex­pected re­sults but life is­n’t al­ways like that… maybe most of the time it is­n’t… but we are not will­ing to em­brace its un­cer­tainty.

Maybe fears in the back of our minds cre­ate these un­wel­come sur­prises. Maybe it’s our own care­less­ness, solely fo­cused on a spe­cific de­sired re­sult and obliv­i­ous to what­ever else is around us.  Maybe it’s fate, bad luck, or soul-level growth. The “why” does­n’t re­ally mat­ter, it’s how we re­spond that does.

No one re­ally knows when these things will hap­pen in life so how do you live with the pos­si­bil­ity?  We still have to live one day at a time. My sis­ter taught me to love my life. Yes, have your dreams and de­sires but don’t live solely for the fu­ture. It’s too un­cer­tain. Let your life be an ex­pres­sion of your love every day and share it will­ingly.

She taught me that it is im­por­tant to be your­self. Don’t waste your life try­ing to be per­fect. No one re­ally cares. And it re­ally does­n’t mat­ter what oth­ers think about you – it only mat­ters what you think about your­self.

I am proud of my sis­ter and her ac­com­plish­ments. She had a cor­po­rate job and a beau­ti­ful home. She taught me that money was great; it takes a lot of pres­sure off, and a woman can be suc­cess­ful.  But money does­n’t guar­an­tee hap­pi­ness.

So many things my sis­ter taught me…

No mat­ter how long you are here, it goes by too quickly. Love what you do.  Love your en­vi­ron­ment.  Love who you are. Find res­o­nance with all the things you con­sciously al­low into your life. If you can’t, they should­n’t be there.

Don’t take any­thing for granted. Show your grat­i­tude. Meet oth­ers with a smile. Open your heart and let love in; it’s okay to be vul­ner­a­ble. Life is about the ex­pe­ri­ence and who you be­come through your ex­pe­ri­ences.

Don’t be afraid of your feel­ings; they are part of liv­ing life fully. When a chal­lenge comes your way, lift your head high and meet it with all your re­silience. You are stronger than you think. Reach out for help when you need it, and don’t be ashamed if you do, af­ter all, you’re only hu­man… un­til your hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence is but a dis­tant mem­ory and you see through the eyes of your soul.

 

I send my grat­i­tude to my sis­ter for shar­ing her life with me. Even through all the times, she de­cided I was “dif­fer­ent,” she would al­ways lis­ten to my thoughts and ideas. Of­ten re­spond­ing, “You think so?” and telling the rest of the fam­ily, “I don’t know about that girl.”  I ho­n­our you and I thank you.

 

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