My mother used to tell us this story. My sister and I were both too young to remember it for ourselves. This story, according to our mom, illustrated the fundamental differences between my sister and me: my sister is empathic and sensitive. I am decisive and unsentimental.
My mother used to take my sister and me to Santa Monica when we were young. We would wear our little sandals and carry our sand pails and shovels to the shore for shell collecting and playing in the surf. Mom would work on her tan. This was in the early 70s when deep cocoa butter tans were chic. One warm summer Saturday afternoon, the three of us were walking on the crowded Santa Monica Pier. As my mother described the scene, the pier was crowded with fishermen and families. The music from the merry-go-round was playing and the atmosphere was carnival-like, typical for weekends on the pier. All of a sudden, my sister stopped in her tracks. There was a butterfly flailing on the wooden planks in front of her. It was a Monarch and it was dying. My sister, about 4 years old at the time, started crying. My mother, in her usual fashion, was telling us that everything dies and this butterfly was no different. At this moment, I extended my leg and with my little sandal crushed the butterfly. My sister wailed. The butterfly was dead.
30 years later…
My mother suffered a stroke in 1999. It was a slow stroke, the kind that creeps up and changes everything. She was a vibrant, intelligent woman who prided herself on her career and ability to manage a crisis. She recovered her ability to walk and talk, but her mind was never the same. After the stroke, she couldn’t drive, eat alone, clean her house, or clean herself. She walked around with the tags still hanging from her clothes. She bought things indiscriminately. She would forget to feed herself. Three years later, when she began complaining of pain in her legs and groin, her doctors told her she was imagining things. Eventually, they discovered the beginning stage of cervical cancer. Cancer doesn’t hurt in this early stage, but they decided this must be the cause of her pain so scheduled her for a hysterectomy. My sister and I checked her in for surgery. My sister stayed with her. I went to class.
When my class was over, I checked my messages to discover a series of missed calls from my sister. Mom was in intensive care. She’d gone into cardiac arrest on the operating table. I rushed to the hospital. My sister and I sat in the ICU waiting room for hours that night. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we were allowed to see our mother. She was awake. Her eyes were searching the room. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Her doctor told us she had a 50/50 chance of survival. She was on life support. Mom died and was resuscitated several times that night. The doctor changed his prognosis and told us that for someone with her level of heart failure, the chance of survival was about 10%. My sister wailed. I decided it was time to let her go. We went back to the waiting room to talk about it. I signed the DNR—the order to stop resuscitation efforts.
My sister and I went back to the ICU for the final time. Together, we told our mother that it was okay to die if she was ready.
And she went. Just like that.
Rest in peace, mom.