From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Vital Chatter

Every Tuesday and Thursday, between 3:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M., I picked up the phone and called my sister, Diane, who was slowly dying from the complications of diabetes. I didn’t call on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays because those were her dialysis days, and she was always too drained and exhausted to talk. I also didn’t call her on weekends because Saturdays and Sundays were designated as immediate-family and recovery days. I didn’t mind about weekends since we had our own special time.

I was never sure if Diane’s beauty parlor appointment was on Tuesday or Thursday at 2:00 P.M. since it changed from week to week. What didn’t change is Diane never missed getting her hair done no matter how sick she was. And when she returned home, we’d have our precious time to visit with each other privately by telephone as we’d done for most of our adult lives.

The only times we didn’t keep those phone dates was when she had a doctor’s appointment or was in the ICU. We didn’t let her numerous hospitalizations stop us. It surprised other members of our family that Diane and I seldom talked about how she was feeling, about the latest lab test or surgical procedure, or about how well her heart and lungs or kidneys were functioning. Right to the end, we carried on our typical conversations—sister to sister, friend to friend.

We spent most of our time on the phone gossiping. I left home when I was eighteen years old, and Diane was my anchor to the small Southern town where we were born and the close-knit Italian family I had left behind. She filled me in on whose husband was running around, on the latest family squabble, on who was sick and who had died. She announced the new additions to the family. Told me who got engaged, married, divorced or separated. She loved describing the weddings I missed. Also the funerals, especially if we didn’t think too much of the person who had died.

Diane and I laughed a lot during those phone conversations, which often lasted an hour or so in the beginning. We consoled each other when one or the other was down.

We talked about everything from her beloved New Orleans Saints team to our favorite Danielle Steele novel to our favored “Barb” singers—she loved Mandrell while I preferred Streisand.

The last Thursday I talked with Diane she told me about a spat her husband and one of our other sisters had about her dialysis. She raved about the delicious hot tamales she’d eaten for dinner the night before. She told me about the progress yet another sister was making in her pursuit of a divorce. She asked about my kids and grandkids and told me about her daughter’s latest love interest. Her voice was stronger than it had been in a long time, and I was encouraged that she would keep beating the odds.

The next Tuesday, I didn’t get to talk with Diane because she was in the ICU. On Wednesday she was asleep when I called the hospital. Her husband said he’d have her call me from home after she was discharged later in the day. She never did. She died on Thursday, early in the morning.

And so, it’s Tuesday again as I pick up the phone to call her and write this instead. What would we talk about today? What would I want to say to her? To hear her say? I know. We’d talk about her funeral.

I’d tell her how the whole town turned out because she was so well-loved. How everyone in the family, even those who’d been feuding for years, had made peace with each other. At least for the day. I’d tell her how really sad I was, but that as I looked at my new grandson sleeping peacefully in the pew beside me, I felt everything was okay with this new phase of her being.

I’d tell her about her daughter getting up and talking about all the things she had been taught by her mother. And how her husband even donned a suit for one of the few times in his life to stand in front of her friends and relatives and profess his undying love for her. I’d tell her how I didn’t listen while her husband spoke of their special relationship because I was remembering our own special bonds. How she was a large part of my support system. My link to my past. My confidante. More than my sister. My dear friend.

I would tell Diane about the two priests who said kind things about her. And how glad I was when my two-year-old granddaughter decided to babble loudly while one priest was extolling her virtues and how that made me smile instead of cry.

I’d tell her that Mama was too heartbroken to attend her funeral, but everyone else was there. Her six siblings and our children and grandchildren. I’d say how much we all loved her and are going to miss her, and I’d try to make her laugh. I’d tell her about the strong incense that almost knocked me out as the priest sprinkled it around her coffin and my head. I’d mention the fact that all of her panic-attack-prone sisters and brothers who usually sit in the back of the church ended up right next to her in the front, and not one of us passed out.

I’d describe the beautiful flowers on the altar because toward the end of her life when she’d lost her vision, it bothered her that she could only smell the wonderful floral creations of our Lord. I would finally stop and wait for her to talk to me. What would she tell me, I wondered? And I knew.

She’d tell me she knew all that because she’d hung around to make sure everyone was okay. She’d tell me that she was there in the form of a butterfly when Mama visited her grave that afternoon. And that Mama smiled when she saw the butterfly because she knew what it meant. She’d tell me how she rang the disconnected doorbell of one of our sisters to help console her because she had a special love for this sister and wanted to reassure her of life after death. She’d tell me how when all the roses were gathered so rosaries could be made from them, she made sure one single yellow rose was left so that another sister would know by prearranged signal that she was still alive.

And then, just before we’d hang up for the last time, I’d tell her how much I love her and how much I was going to miss her presence, her bravery, her sweetness, her sense of humor. And she would say, “Yes, I’m going to miss you, too. But I need to start my journey.” She’d say she needed to find Daddy and Grandma and about twenty or so other relatives and friends and she hoped they were in heaven ’cause that’s where she was going.

And I would reluctantly say, “Okay. Bye, then. But every Tuesday and Thursday between 3:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M., I’ll be calling you up in my mind, and I will never, never forget how much you meant to me.”

Leona Lipari Lee

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