Ten Years Have Slipped By

My Sister Liz

Yesterday I found out my sister is dying. I know, thousands of people die every day—but they’re not my sister. She’s had this constant wracking cough for three months and we finally got her to go to a doctor. The first one said it was allergies and sent her home with nasal spray. When the cough persisted, she got a second opinion: pneumonia and antibiotics, then a third diagnosis: tuberculosis, then a fourth: Valley Fever. Finally she saw her husband’s cancer specialist. The tests came in yesterday.

The picture of her right lung shows it filled with snowballs of thousands of tiny white threads, the biopsy confirming Adeno Sarcoma, cancer of the soft tissue. Last week our hope was that it hadn’t spread beyond her one lung. But it has: it’s in the lung’s outer lining and in the back of her ribs; it may be in her brain, the part of her body she most values. How ironic. My sister is smarter than anybody I know except maybe her husband. She and Tony argue and compete for who knows more—which date, who’s right, what’s fact—and there isn’t anything they don’t know something about. They collect trivia and knowledge like others collect tea sets and clocks. I told her no need to worry, even if half her brain cells disappeared, she’d still be smarter than the rest of us.

How does my sister feel about dying? During the day she’s matter-of-fact about it. As she walked up her long wide driveway lined with lemon trees and date palms to get her newspaper this morning, she passed her neighbor.

“How’s it going?”

“Aingh,” she replied, then added in afterthought, “I have lung cancer.”

“They have cures for that today,” he said.

“Not for what I have,” she tossed over her shoulder, scooping up her paper and turning back down her shaded path.

How do I feel about her dying? Sometimes, I too am matter-of-fact. I believe when we die, when we leave our body, our soul survives. I don’t know where it goes or what happens; maybe we come back and get to do this all over again. Other times, when I’m not so matter-of-fact, when I think about her death and try to imagine her not here, my heart rends. Liz doesn’t cry, so I cry for us both.

My sister believes that when we die, that’s it. She wants this huge headstone with two carved angels and three pictures of herself at different ages on it so people won’t forget her. I told her I didn’t think all that many will be lined up to visit it, especially if she didn’t start being a little nicer. My sister has a bite, which is partly what I love about her. She’s the only person I know who tells the truth about everything, to everyone, at anytime. Well, she thinks it’s the truth anyway and usually she’s right, but it does get some riled.

Julie, Catherine, Liz 1988, Sonoma

Julie, Catherine, Liz
1988, Sonoma

I’m one of the few who escapes Liz’s tongue, partly because I fold so easily around her. She loves me, so she’s tender with my feelings. It’s impossible not to love someone who loves you that much. I can’t imagine what it will be like without her. Who will call me every week just to talk? Who will I phone three times a day to help me with my family memoir writings, to tell me I made this part up, that I better not put that part in because it will hurt our brother’s feelings, then give me a lesson on homesteading or weirs or the Civil War? Who will I dial when I just want someone to agree with me, or I want to be heard, or I want someone to tell me the truth? Oh it’s not like I don’t have others like her in my life—but they’re not her. I’ll miss her wicked laugh, scathing wit, and opinionated righteous stubbornness. And I’ll miss her love for me. I’m trying not to make her dying about me, about what I won’t have, about my loss. I’m doing my best to stay out of that space; I know it doesn’t help her.

We don’t know how long she has—perhaps just months. But sometimes miracles happen, so I told her not to start giving her stuff away just yet. She’s planning a big going away celebration; she wants to be there when everyone comes to pay their last respects. Some won’t be invited: she hasn’t spoken to her oldest daughter in five years, can’t abide her brother-in-law, and isn’t talking to our sister Claudia. They’ve all crossed her line and she refuses to forgive them. She demands that none of us tell them she’s dying. “I don’t want them applauding my demise, singing and cheering and dancing a jig on my grave.” (I keep my mouth shut about how she danced on Mom’s.) She doesn’t give a whit if things don’t get worked out with them before she goes. I’m trying to mind my own business about that one too.

Elizabeth Ann (Clemens) Duchi 1939 - 2004

Elizabeth Ann (Clemens) Duchi
1939 – 2004

I told her I’d help pick out her headstone; I don’t trust her not to get something too gaudy. But it’s her funeral—so if she wants to pick out the biggest, most elaborate marble headstone we can find—she can. Maybe we’ll get three angels and have the whole thing special ordered from Italy, like the stunning tile in her new kitchen. She’d like that. I’ll phone her about it tomorrow.

Liz Duchi: Find A Grave

Catherine Sevenau, 2004
Note: the angels and more pictures are on the reverse of her stone

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  1. Tender piece, Catherine. Those ten-year chunks of time are a bit stunning, yes?!

  2. Mary Szykowny says:

    Couldn’t get back to sleep after observing the blood moon, and read your lovely post! I think Liz would love it, too!

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