And Now There Are Five

Sisters – well, they can be very close or they can be contentious. Mary and I were on good terms growing up and became deep friends as adults.

So today is about two years since my dear sister died.  It was only last week that I finally went to my local frame shop to get the oil painting Mama made of Mary as a child… the scene is of a beautiful blonde girl lying on her stomach, reading a book. I have no idea when Mama painted this. I can remember that antique gold rug very well so I wonder if it was when we lived in the “brick house” – the third house that Dad built on Woodland Drive in picturesque East Tennessee. In any case, I will take the painting to our family gathering in a few days. I deeply hope that Dad or one of my brothers will know more about this.  I find myself wanting to know more of my younger, wise-old-soul sister who was and still is my best friend forever.

Mary studied our mother and our family intently – as a child and then as an adult. Mary figured out she was studying how Mama guided and parented us because she herself wanted to be a mother. The gift of motherhood was not given to her although Mary became an elementary school librarian who was a nurturer of many school children.

In our family constellation, Mary was the middle child of the five of us, being the youngest of the older triad of JB, myself and Mary. Concurrently, she was the oldest in the younger set of three – the boss of the younger brothers, Chris and Nathan. Mary would always tell people she had the best of all worlds – that she loved, truly loved, growing up in our family. Her initial college studies were of child development.

The only one of us children who stayed in our growing up area was Mary. The rest of us flew far from the home nest. What was really great was that she became close friends with our parents – quite an achievement! No surprise that Mary was the memory keeper for our family and she helped me recall events that I had inadvertently erased due to traumatic stress in my young adult life.

My parents’ nest was barely empty when serious health troubles arose for Mama. We children always knew our mother would not grow really old as she was sickly when a child and had health issues into her adulthood. Thank God, Mary was in proximity after the June of 1990 vertigo event that began Mama’s health decline that could not be reversed. For years, Mary and I cried on each other’s shoulders and treasured Mama, experiencing anticipatory grief as our mother diminished due to a form of Parkinson-ism.

When Mama died in October of 2006, Mary and I both said we could only get through life now because we had each other.  This held true. I did not feel deeply sad after Mama died because I knew how my mama had suffered. She was released and healed by death. I went on with life fairly well.

Six years later, when my dear sister told me she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I had just gotten home from the Ash Wednesday service. The phone screen showed her name and number. We were waiting on some test results as she had been having some very bad abdominal pain in the past few months. Mary’s voice was strained, “Nana, the news is not good. It’s [her voice broke] cancer.” I stopped breathing. She continued on, “I want you to have hope for me.” [Mary knew I had a dear friend with ovarian who had just died.] Somehow my chaplain training kicked in and I managed to listen to her and not cry on her. We hung up and I sobbed, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! ” These words were visceral, wailing prayers. I was throbbing with angst – adrenalin pumping. My grown up son happened to be home visiting. My husband was still at work. Who could I melt down with before I told my son, her favorite nephew? I called Fergie who was still at the nearby church. Thankfully she came by and held me as I sobbed, big, huge heaves. I got myself somewhat composed so I could tell Brandon. I was glad not to be entirely alone at that moment. Brandon joined me in sobbing and ugly crying.

I took care also to make sure each family member knew the seriousness of Mary’s health. I wanted them to know it was important to take every opportunity to spend time with her. People nowadays are used to remissions and demolition of cancer in the human body – but not all cancers can be eradicated. And some are quite painful.

Mary’s devastating news came at the beginning of my second semester of seminary studies. I was able to be a caregiver for Mary as my classes were held on Mondays/Tuesdays. Jeff, Mary’s husband, was able to keep working full time as an ICU nurse. Mary’s journey followed the textbook trajectory: she lived less than five years after the diagnosis.

And now there are five of us in my family. I am the only female. It is a lonely feeling and weird not to have a closer balance: females – 3 and males – 4. Seven has always been a special number to me. Five… five is just not quite as powerful somehow.

Yet, I am thankful that we all love each other and even like each other! I am finally recuperating from full time seminary studies and caregiving. I am able to experience deep joy again. Whew – being exhausted can mess one up. I think of my sister quite often and Mama, also. Thank goodness love transcends this mortal realm.

As Mary used to say, she wished she could put Mama and Dad in her pocket and carry them with her. Mama would smilingly reply, “Ah but we wouldn’t like it in there.”

I relate well to that concept, as I carry Mama and Mary now with me – tucked in my heart. So, yes, now there are five of us materially here on earth, but our family is intact. I cannot wait to show the others the painting of Mary, finally framed. I am hoping to get some more stories of Mary and our family rebooted into my memory banks. I know we will make more memories as we gather together – to celebrate the gift of life and love that is our family.

For these precious gifts, I thank you, God.