An Open Letter to My Sister Who is Dying*

THERE. I said it. That damn D word.

I will call dying out as the damnable thing it is even though I hate swear words. Even in private. There’s enough ugliness in the world.

But I hate more what’s happening to you.

I’ve been dancing around it ever since you were diagnosed as Stage Four. Not the kind of happy dance you did at the end of our driveway after Amber and Ben’s wedding reception. Instead this awful verbal two-stepping I’ve done around what you’ve never been afraid to face.

“Dying’s not so bad,” you said to me last month between coughs. “Other than the pain. This is the best way to go. Time to plan. I’ve done what I wanted to do. I have no regrets.”

Your steady voice.

So matter-of-fact.

So very Catherine.

So what that we’re not sisters in any kind of way a birth certificate can prove? You have plenty of those. I have one I treasure too.

Kindred Spirit Sister. That’s what you’ve been to me, Cath.

From the time we met on the Cape over 20 years ago, you’ve been Anne-with-an-e to my Diana.

Israel March 1996

Sitting between mom and me on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, 1996

Fearless when I was cautious.

Candid when I was guarded.

Exuberant when I was hesitant.

Long red hair aflame, you whirled into our lives reminding me of nobody never I’d ever seen.

Neighbor first. That big old Victorian you shared with Doug around the corner in our village.

Friend next. You two plopped into a pew at church and declared you’d come home.

Sister last. And always.

Because who but a sister would do what you did that time at the Cape Cod Mall?

You disdained shopping. Prized your quiet weekends on the Cape after those hectic 12 hour days as a high-producing executive in Boston.

So when you ran into the mall for a minute that summer Saturday and rounded the corner, why did you even break stride when you saw my five crazed kids darting every which way, me needing octopus arms to corral them all?

But with a clap of your hands you had them at hello.

“Rowe kids!” you exclaimed and they stilled, sensing Something Good might be about to happen.

“There is a great kid movie at the Cape Cod Cinema,” you improvised (knowing that a family of seven never afforded such things.) “And here I am feeling sorry for myself because I have no kids to go to that movie with.” (A suspicious sorrow dredged up that very instant.) “When who should appear but two beautiful girls and three boys?!

“Who wants to go with me?”

And with arms around shoulders and the fast retreat of 10 sneakered feet, you left me, pathetic with gratitude and guilty with grace, until a note arrived thanking me the following week.

Blue cardstock. Boston postmark. I have it still.

You took five active children off my hands, paid out of your own pocket for movies and popcorn and hot chocolate, and then you wiped out my mom-debt by insisting I had done you a favor?

It’s a story I’ve told many times since. But I have lots of Catherine Stories that might never get told because you beat me to the punch there too.

May 2001

When Mike & I celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary, you offered to be my bridesmaid.

“You can speak at my service,” you said, “but don’t go on too long.”

So I can’t tell about the time a blizzard blanketed the dark streets of Osterville and you greeted me and the kids at your backdoor, coat tossed on over nightgown, your face brightening when you saw the snowfall?

“Snow angels!” you cried. “Kids, let’s go!”

And nightgown and all, you flung yourself backwards into a drift, young ones tumbling next to you, laughing.

Or what about our 90’s Sister Act with Claire, all sparkles and lipstick and Big Red Hair? We got it on video 20 years later, didn’t we, this time with a tiara perched on your wavy white chemo-‘do.

From a thousand miles away I can hear you wagging your finger, perfectly manicured as always.

Don’t you go on too long,” you warned. “And don’t talk about me. Make it about God.”

With you, Catherine, it’s always been about God.

Business acclaim and designer suits, decorator homes and four master’s degrees, you’ve dismissed it all. Always a careful planner who liked to travel, you made the decision about your final destination decades ago. I’ve heard you say it a hundred times.

Jesus. Without him I have nothing. When I’m with him nothing else will matter.

“Dust to dust,” you say cheerfully. “I want my ashes scattered in the pond and garden. And at the service we’ll give away those bottles we saw in Israel – what were they called?”

“Tear flasks,” I manage to get out.

“Yes, those!” and I think I hear you clap. “They’ll be the party favors.”

“But Catherine,” and now I’ve lost it good. “I don’t want to be at that party when you’re not there.”

Silence hums along the wire. Coughing.

“I have never been happier in my life,” you say, “but now I’m tired. We need to say goodbye. But we’ll see each other again, and maybe I’ll have red hair!”

January 2014

With the hats you got us on PEI so I could be a redhead too

The connection is broken. I stand there a long time.

Struggling. Finally conceding.

You’ve always been good at living – throwing yourself headlong into whatever needed doing. Now you’re showing us what it means to be good at dying too. And even though you’re younger than I am, it looks like you’re gonna get Home first. You always were a little competitive that way.

But you know what, sister? When my time comes I’m gonna know you whatever color ‘do you’re sporting in heaven.

And I promise not to talk about you at your service. Not too long anyway.

I always was a little bad that way.

Till I see you again, your kindred spirit sister,

                                                                                                                                               Maggie

January 2014

With your post-chemo lamb ‘do

*Catherine passed away on Saturday, September 20, 2014.

“Than smoke and mist who better could appraise

The kindred spirit of an inner haze?” Robert Frost

Restless No More

I have never written a blogpost like this one. But then I’ve never been witness to a medical miracle like this one either.

A member of my immediate family who has suffered silently with a syndrome that has robbed her of consistent rest and the ability to travel without extreme discomfort for– ready for this? – nearly 65 years has found incredible relief, and we are rejoicing! The miracle? Her primary care physician prescribed a pain medication that interacted with another medication to produce near total cessation of her symptoms for the first time since they began during her first pregnancy in 1951.

The problem? Restless Leg Syndrome, which Mayo Clinic describes this way: Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which your legs feel extremely uncomfortable, typically in the evenings while you’re sitting or lying down. It makes you feel like getting up and moving around. When you do so, the unpleasant feeling of restless legs syndrome temporarily goes away.

“Restless legs syndrome can begin at any age and generally worsens as you age. Restless legs syndrome can disrupt sleep — leading to daytime drowsiness — and make traveling difficult.”

Anyone who suffers from RLS will tell you that this is putting it mildly.

My loved one has taken 1 mg of Mirapex (generic Pramipexole) for a number of years with only limited relief. But five months ago, her doctor prescribed a pain medication called Tramadol, and to her astonishment 50 mg of Tramadol combined with the 1 mg of Pramipexole brought instant relief that seems to be permanent. At nearly 90, can you imagine her joy?

After knowing she has agonized my entire life only to finally find relief, I want to tell the world but only know how to do so through this blogpost in hopes that someone else who suffers from RLS will find it on the ‘net. (And in case this sounds too much like an advertisement: I work in book publishing, NOT for the drug companies!) Message me if you don’t know me personally and want to make sure this is legit, and then check with your physician.

How to Live a Sacred Romance

FOUND IT.

Tiny things can brighten dark days. A shiny piece of red foil buried in an office drawer she rarely opens.

It wasn’t the dark chocolate that did it, though she’d gone looking for it. Flipping open file folders, skimming shelves, picking up piles of printouts.

It was the memory of how the candy came to be there, hidden by her husband every Valentine’s Day since she took the job nearly eight years back. How he beat her into the office before the sun rose and hid candy so well she was still finding it into the fall.

Dove on files

She had gone seeking sweet consolation after a microwave lunch that stayed frozen in her belly. She found a message instead. Strange, a whole bag of chocolates had been consumed but she’d never seen those particular six words before.

Ever since calls came cradling a profound loss three days ago, she has struggled to find words.

How to capture the life of a sister from another mother, now gone to the Father.

Catherine in 2001

A kindred spirit who heard a call years back to follow Jesus and dropped her nets right where they lay. Left the corporate life to serve those on the margins who didn’t make it onto the pages of Executive Daytimers. Knitted scarves for the homeless when her body was so wracked with cancer she could barely stand.

Business acumen, keen intelligence, a 35-year marriage to her best friend, Doug – Catherine had all that. But her kinship with God ran swifter and deeper still – the spiritual current bubbling beneath the surface of a blessed life.

And then grim winter words from her Boston physicians – the disease was advancing, aggressive, bullying.

In response to grief at the news, an unusually long text message came of reassurance.

     “I am doing great. Right now I’m in living room with fireplace roaring reading the book of John. Doug will be back tonight and will work from home for the foreseeable future.

     “I take joy in getting things organized for Doug, visiting, praying, reading my Bible and yes Regency era romances. They always have a happy ending.

     “I am enjoying having no stress and being able to nap a lot, watch the water, wildlife and weather.

     “I find joy just being in God’s House and presence. I have such peace. It’s amazing.”

From one whose life was lived for others, the message was rare in its inclusion of personal pronouns. Catherine’s life was never about herself but others. Never here-I-am but there-you-are.

She had the extraordinary generosity of spirit to share in the happiness of others.

Sisters who had the children she had not been able to bear.

Members of her church family having weddings she could help host, job prospects to applaud or parties to plan.

So the message in that Dove chocolate her grieving sister in Christ unwrapped at lunch today? It was so Catherine.

Dove chocolate

A winged wink from glory maybe.

Thanks sis. And that sacred romance you lived?

It always has a happy ending.

Hunger Pains

It took me three years to figure it out. 

The answer, that is, to the two most frequent questions friends at church have asked me since I started a master’s program in biblical studies in August of 2011.

“So why are you doing this exactly? What do you plan to do with your grad degree?”

These are legitimate questions to pose to a woman in the autumn of her life–a season when one traditionally begins hunkering down to prepare for retirement, reduce the velocity of life, and enjoy extended rest. Why begin studying Scripture so intensively now in what is unarguably my third trimester of living?

The answer is so simple I missed it until after I turned in my final paper two weeks ago.

When you’re hungry, you eat.

     When your soul is growing lean, you seek sustenance.

             When good food is within reach, you don’t pass it up.

My commencement ceremony is now in the rearview mirror, but here’s the prodigious thing every student learns. Commencement is just the beginning.

 You’re not finished; you’re just getting started.                           

        With privilege–to learn, to stretch, and to grow–comes responsibility.                                     

            When you’ve been well-fed, you want to be sure no one else goes hungry.

With mind-numbing exams, multiple evenings of research in the library, countless academic papers, and 42 intensive credit hours behind me, I’m no longer carrying the heavy backpack of time demands I have for the past 36 months.

But to grasp the diploma in one hand and reach for the remote control with the other? To drink deeply of the fountain of knowledge, wipe my mouth and walk away?

 To whom much is given, said the Master, much is also required.

Starting this month, First Baptist of Wheaton is offering each member the opportunity to engage Scripture in a fresh way through the Community Bible Experience (www.CommunityBibleExperience.com), an eight-week Bible reading program that allows readers to approach the books of the Bible as a complete narrative sans chapter and verse breaks and study notes.

I’ve offered to serve as a host or leader if needed. Because I have nothing else to fill my time? 

Not quite that. Full-time work sometimes overflows its 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. banks, and our Sunday Night Sisters mentoring program for college women starts up soon. I’m also eagerly looking forward to hosting a Tuesday evening neighborhood Bible study taught by my awesome neighbor and OT scholar, Sandy.

But despite just having finished three years of intensive Bible study, I want to be part of CBE whether or not a small-group leader is needed. I can’t wait to plunge back into the New Testament with fresh eyes and open hands this fall.

No need to ask to ask why. I already know.

Hunger pains.

The Fawn, Reprised

fawnAfter I related the story of Libby and the fawn, the small moment shared in last week’s post, my coworker Katie brought me a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Oliver that describes a similar incident. As Oliver notes, Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated.

Libby’s maternal grandparents live in a house near the corner that, like Oliver’s, bears a name.

Perhaps we will rename it Gratitude.

The Place I Want To Get Back To

Is where

In the pinewoods

In the moments between

The darkness

 

And first light

Two deer

Came walking down the hill

And when they saw me

They said to each other, okay,

This one is okay,

Let’s see who she is

And why she is sitting

On the ground, like that,

So quiet, as if

Asleep, or in a dream,

But anyway, harmless;

And so they came

On their slender legs

And gazed upon me

Not unlike the way

I go to the dunes and look

And look and look

Into the faces of the flowers

And then one of them leaned forward

And nuzzled my hand, and what can my life

Bring to me that could exceed

That brief moment?

For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,

Not waiting, exactly, just lingering.

Such gifts bestowed, can’t be repeated.

If you want to talk about this

                Come to visit. I live in the house

                                Near the corner, which I have named

                                                  Gratitude.

- from Thirst, poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2006)

The Fawn

It happened so fast there was no time to capture the moment on film.

Every July we make our annual trek to the hills of West Virginia, where four generations of Mike’s family have gathered annually for nearly 35 years. We start gathering supplies weeks in advance: ingredients for the evening meal when we’ll take our turn cooking for 50-75 + of our kin. Books and gifts for those we seldom see. Sports equipment and beach towels, games and photo albums.

Every year we wonder whether Gramma and Poppa, the two solely responsible for the familial mayhem, will retain their unbroken attendance record.

Every year they do.

Nearly 91, Mike’s mom no longer careens around the go-cart track as she used to do in her 70s with the grandkids. Newly 90, his dad no longer flies down the water slide at Wheeling Park with the great-grands. New memories alight in Mom’s hands like butterflies that linger a moment and are gone. Old friends whom Dad looked forward to greeting when they moved back to New York this summer are gone.

Yet they make their way back to Family Camp each summer, smiling quietly in the midst of the riotous talk and laughter of seven children, 23 grandchildren and 30 great-grands plus assorted spouses and pets.

From the Bluebird cabin in the holler where we lodge with our own adult children, Mike and I awaken early this year, aroused by the stirrings of our year-old granddaughter in the room next door. We pace outside the door until a sleepy-eyed parent surrenders Libby to our eager arms.

Cheerios and sippy-cup in hand, Libby settles happily into her umbrella stroller for a morning walk up the hill to the cabin where for sure two Special Someones will be awake in the wee hours.

And sure enough, they are. Gramma and Poppa are already sitting at the kitchen table with a daughter or two. There is no time to waste when the years are slipping away like water between the fingers.

We push open the door, plop Libby on the polished wooden surface.

“What a beautiful child!” Mom exclaims each morning. “Look at those blue eyes. Whose is she?”

Libby Blue Eyes

“This is Elizabeth Marjorie Susek,” we say proudly. “Libby. Amber and Ben’s first child.”

And every day we have the extreme joy of introducing Mom to her newest great-grandchild.

But one day we linger too long. Libby starts to fuss and a call from her own mama beckons us back down the asphalt road.

And then we see her. A fawn, big-eyed and wobbly-legged like Libby, sprinting across the road before us minus her own mama.

She stops, turns, stares at the small one in the stroller. Considers for a moment, wariness warring with curiosity.

We wait, breath tucked into ribs, nothing stirring but the West Virginia wind.

It only takes a bound or two and the fawn is in front of us, staring at the baby who struggles to pull a greeting from her small stock of words.

“Doh!” Libby says delightedly. (“Dog”).

Fawns don’t smile, not really.

But we did. All the way home to the holler.

To My Granddaughter on Her First Birthday

Dearest Libby,

Twelve months ago today the world – our world – tilted a little. Spun crazy with joy. Panted, breathless, with the news.

She’s here!”

And your grandpa and I dropped like stones into chairs on the patio as I squeezed the phone tight, jabbing at the speaker button. Not allowing the smallest of words to escape into the humid summer morning. Not letting the thousands of miles keep us from such joy.

I’ve told you before how it was when you slid into the world with a whoop and a holler and amazed us all.You can’t hold those memories yet like we held you later, lying on your grandpa’s strong arms like an offering, swaddled with your daddy’s warmth and fragrant with your mama’s milk.

You didn’t do anything to make us adore you. You were only blueberry-big when the loving began. Maybe before that even.

And when the summer slept and you woke, smiling, your eyes fixed on my face, I started you on the stories. About your mama, how she was like that too when she was wee. And your daddy, how he sidled into our family some years back with his shy smile so that everybody loved him from the start, not just your mama.

Snow was coming down around the time you first sat up, reaching for anything you could pilot to your mouth. It wasn’t but a minute before you started to wave when our faces came on that computer screen, your fingers closing and opening, grabbing a little more of my heart each time.

Spring’s green ovation brought the clapping, your chubby hands meeting each other in the air as we looked on, goofy with gratitude. When was the last time your mama’s parents received such applause, and when did it ever matter before now?

You knew that your grandparents will do all manner of Silly to earn that smile. You still do.

And now the gladness is here that’s summer again and a year’s come round full circle. Your  very first birthday, babygirl!

So how could it be that this very morning it was your grandparents who got the gift?  Your mormor and your grandpa’s eyes blessed with the sight of you crawling towards us from a thousand miles away.

Reaching up to stroke our faces on the screen.

Pulled back into your mama’s arms as she smoothed your curls.

Grinning your daddy’s shy grin as you brought your fist for the first time just below those wide blue eyes, kissed it, and blew.

We felt that love all the way to Chicago.

Then, gift bestowed, you crawled away, off camera and out of sight.

It was the best birthday gift we ever did receive.

We love you Infinity, Libby.

Your mama will tell you just what that means.

 

Libby at one

Libby at one

 

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