“I’m in trouble!” My sister’s voice was weak but charged with panic. “Help me!”
“What have you done?”
She’d locked us all out of her apartment that weekend; said she was tired of being sick, tired of people hovering over her. She wanted to be independent.
Reluctantly, we gave her space. I’d held my breath the whole time, anticipating this call.
“I stopped taking the meds,” she began, and before I could express my disbelief, she continued: “I just wanted to go dancing one more time. I thought it was the morphine that was making me so sick. I thought if I stopped…..oh, V.J., I can’t bear the pain.”
“Call 9-1-1,” I told her. “I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
She didn’t want to go to the hospital. People die in the hospital, she’d said. I reminded her that they would also be able to get her pain under control.
She did die in the hospital, two days later. Her white blood count was off the charts, and she’d spiked a high temperature before slipping into a coma. I was by her side.
“Did you get some of my birthday cake? They’re serving it in the hall.”
Those were the last words she spoke to me. It was the night before Valentine’s; we’d celebrated her forty-third birthday in November.
I stayed and watched as death crept in, enveloped her and carried her off. Her eyes flew open in that last moment and met mine, her mouth made a large ‘O’, as if she wanted to exclaim, but no words came out, just one final exhalation of air.
We’d known her death was imminent; she’d been at war with cancer for fourteen years, and the last year had been a continual decline.
She was feisty, my sister. Loved a good argument, never content with the way things were, always wanting more. And she loved to dance.
“There wasn’t a table that Jo didn’t dance on,” a cousin said of her at the funeral. “She was a live wire.”
I’d had a love/hate relationship with my sister; we didn’t see eye to eye on many things. She was the consummate center of attention, thriving on drama. I was the pragmatic younger sister, trying to keep a level head. I found her ideas off the wall and, well often infuriating.
“It’s as easy to love a rich man as it is a poor one,” she advised me once.
Infuriated, I retaliated: “That has nothing to do with love!”
Thing is, she never had luck with relationships. She’d thrust herself with passion into any man’s arms, and with equal violence, leave him. Trust was not her strong suit, nor was patience.
“She’s like an eight-year-old in a woman’s body,” one beau once described her to me. I believed him.
Despite our differences, it was me she turned to when the diagnosis came.
“Promise you’ll be there with me till the end,” she pleaded.
Of course, I said yes.
In the end, it was mostly Mom and I who cared for her. Stubborn as she was, she wouldn’t let the home care nurse bathe her, or change her bedding, and Mom had a bad back, so I landed the honour. Joanne had withered away to nothing, her velvet brown eyes now hidden between drooping lids, her lips constantly cracked, her long limbs sharp. Although she was fifteen years my senior, I felt as if I was caring for a fragile child.
We fought in those last months, and we laughed, and we cried. Some days, so exhausted from my responsibilities outside of her care, I would just lie on the bed beside her and hold her hand, both of us dozing off.
When she died, I quite honestly felt relief. At the time of her diagnosis, the doctor said she had only months to live. She had survived for thirteen more years. Some good, some bad, but she’d kept on going.
“We don’t know what’s keeping her alive,” one of the oncologists told me. “Whatever she’s doing, it obviously works.”
“I can’t explain how I feel,” my mother said while we were arranging the funeral. “She consumed so much of our lives for so long, and now she is gone. It feels like there is a huge whole, and no closure.”
The night before the funeral, I had a dream. Joanne was on a stage, dancing with a chorus line before a large audience. She looked radiantly happy.
During the reception following the burial, four others shared that they’d had the same dream.
Joanne had found her paradise, dancing in Heaven.
(Today’s post is in response to The Daily Post prompt: dancing. Image: www.shutterstock.com)
Writer, avid reader, former educator, and proud grandmother, currently experiencing life through the lens of ME/CFS. Words are, and always have been, a lifeline. Some of the best adventures, I'm discovering, take place in the imagination.