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.
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.
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.
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.