From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

I Am Mortal

I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed—she was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.

Cassandra Austen on the death
of her sister Jane

The wind whipped across the cemetery, swirling snow that had fallen a few days earlier—snow that blanketed the ground, a pristine white carpet for the Christmas wreaths dotting the landscape. I shivered with cold and ached with sadness. Today, under the cold clear winter sky, we were burying my sister.

She was my sister-in-law, actually, but after such a long time, that detail of our relationship seems unimportant.

Her death was a milestone for me. She was the first of my siblings, or siblings-in-law, to die. And her passing has made me very much aware of my own mortality.

I have been to many funerals in recent years. That happens when you join the ranks of “senior citizens,” when most of your friends and acquaintances are members of the “grandparent generation.” But although I grieved and shared the sadness of family members as the deceased were laid to rest, I really didn’t associate those deaths with the certainty of my own demise.

This time I did. Yes, I am mortal.

It seems like such a short time ago that my brother, freshly home from a stint in Germany with the U.S. Air Force, announced he had met this great girl and planned to marry her. She was truly a girl. Eighteen years old. I trailed her by only two years.

I was puffed up with pride as I filled the role of bridesmaid for the first time. I felt glamorous and important. And I was gaining a sister. I already had one sister, younger than I was, but at age sixteen, a ten-year-old sister was a nuisance—not someone to treasure. That came later. Suddenly, at age sixteen, I was acquiring a new sister. One closer to my age.

She was my sister for fifty years. And now she’s gone.

Driving to her funeral from three states away, times we spent together ran through my mind like old movies. Holidays with small children everywhere, seven between our two families, eleven when my younger sister and her family moved close by. It was bedlam. Wonderful, pure familial bedlam.

Years intervened when they lived many states distant from us. Then it was our turn to follow company transfers and become “corporate itinerants.” Eventually, she and my brother returned to our home state of Minnesota to live. We did not.

But there were visits. Adult visits. The children were now grown and long gone. We’d dine and talk, look at photos and talk, compare grandchildren stories and talk. Had I been fully aware, as she was near death, of how terribly short life is, there would have been more visits. Many more visits. More laughter, maybe more tears, as we pored over old memorable photos together. And there certainly would have been more talk.

I had the chance to say good-bye to her—a couple of times. Her life seemed so tenuous, both in the spring and summer, I was sure I wouldn’t see her again after the first time. She struggled hard, and until close to the end, remained optimistic that she would conquer this too-often-unconquerable disease. I was grateful to have the opportunity to say farewell, to thank her for being my sister for fifty years.

She and my brother observed their golden wedding anniversary in the spring. It was to have been a gala affair; the festivities had been planned a year in advance. Instead, they observed the event quietly in a hospital room. When she and my brother repeated their wedding vows, hers were the only dry eyes there. She was buried in the beautiful dress she had selected for the planned festivities.

She showed incredible courage, my sister, as she battled cancer that ravaged nearly every part of her body the last nine months of her life. Her death was good in that it gave her an escape from her suffering. We didn’t want her to leave this life—her family, her four children, her thirteen grandchildren—and most certainly, her husband of fifty years. But she had to. Every conceivable means for healing had been tried—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy. All failed, and so she died.

Because she was mortal. As am I.

Since leaving the cemetery, shivering in the cold, filled with indescribable sadness, my life has taken on new meaning. I find that things I see have heightened clarity; those around me seem more important.

Perhaps, I think, this is the last time I’ll see the sky bordered in flaming coral, streaked with gold, just before darkness settles in. Music I’ve always enjoyed suddenly fills me with such overpowering emotion, I can barely control the tears just waiting to be shed.

My husband’s touch seems warmer, my granddaughter’s smile more delightful. I am more fully aware of my surroundings—all of them. I think of all the things I meant to do on life’s journey. I think of all those things yet undone. I wonder which are really important.

During her final days, my sister realized the brevity of life and admonished others “to not hold grudges, just love each other.” I don’t know to whom she was addressing those words, but I’d like to think I was included.

These days, I find myself thinking of all the disagreements I’ve had with others over the years, and I wish I could take them all back. Some disagreements breached friendships so badly, they were destroyed. Today, I sorely miss those friendships.

I have vowed not to forget the lesson the loss of my sister has taught me. Life is short. Very, very short and far too valuable to squander on petty nothings not worth the energy they consume.

I believe I will see my sister again some day, and when I do, I will thank her for this lesson. My life, too, is short. I, too, am mortal.

Sandra I. White

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