What My Sister Taught me - Thought Change

What My Sister Taught me

Traversing the Terrains of Consciousness
August 7, 2021
Distortions of the Mind
October 30, 2021
Traversing the Terrains of Consciousness
August 7, 2021
Distortions of the Mind
October 30, 2021

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.



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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