Here I sit. 31 weeks pregnant, wearing my red muumuu, smudged glasses, hair in a pony tail and straining to see through my puffy, red eyes at 12pm in the afternoon. Did I wash my face this morning? Can’t remember. Did I eat breakfast? Most likely, as I have really bad heartburn right now. Am I working today? Probably not. Does any of that matter? Not really, because right now I’m browsing through pictures of my beautifully photogenic little sister Michelle and wishing I was by her side to say goodbye in person.
My phone vibrates and I jump. It’s a text from mom. They’re getting ready to let Michelle go. Unplugging the machine that is keeping what little life she has left going. She’s ready to go. She’s always been ready. But I’m not.
Just two months ago, I said goodbye to my dad. I had two years to say goodbye to him. I thought I was ready for it, but turns out nothing prepares you for the loss of a father. Michelle’s complications started just last fall and only a few weeks ago was she diagnosed with brain cancer. I never thought it would end this soon. I’m not ready to let go. But life doesn’t wait for you to be ready, because the truth is, you’re never ready.
Instead of trying to make sense of everything, I’ve decided to embrace this moment. Embrace my unwashed face, my muumuu, my heartburn, my puffy eyes and smudged glasses. In this moment, my heart is broken. In this moment, I’m going to hold on to what I have left of her in my broken heart. Forget letting go. I’m determined to remember. To hold on. To hold tight.
My mind is a wash of colors, faces and memories. Just last fall I was with Michelle for a week in October while she recovered from surgery. I look back and see it as precious, sacred time together. We watched Jane Austen movies, shopped for scarves to cover her shaved head, did a photo shoot and joked about her short term memory loss. My favorite quote from her during that time was, “I can get on Facebook and enjoy everyone’s posts over and over again, because I forget that I already read them.”
I flash back to our Bird Girl Blog meetings that we held on google chat every two weeks. Her, my sister Natalie, my mom and I used it as a way to check in with each other every so often. We read books together and discussed them, but mostly we just talked and talked about our lives. What went well that week. What didn’t go so well. Before her brain surgery, Michelle and her husband Scot had recently graduated, purchased a condo, started a new job and she was searching for work in a lab. She was looking forward to putting her genetics degree to use and had several good job prospects pending. So much ahead of her at only 22 years old.
Michelle was young, but you wouldn't really know that if you just met her. She was wise and mature beyond her years. She was always the youngest in everything she did, but she excelled anyway. She was the youngest of eight children and despite her seven extra parents bossing her around her whole life, she turned out splendidly. She was young for her grade in school, but quietly and diligently excelled in all her classes. I would say she’s the most humble and unpretentious valedictorian I’ve ever known. It would be the last thing she told people about herself. She also wouldn’t tell people about how incredibly talented she was at playing the piano or singing. You’d have to visit her home and notice the advanced pieces on her piano stand and then ask her if she played. To which she would respond, “Ya, a little.”
What Michelle couldn’t hide, even though if given the chance she probably would, was how incredibly photogenic she was. Michelle always looked good. Every family photo or candid shot taken in a hurry made her look like a model. I attribute this to her soul shining through in a physical way. Her long, gorgeous hair and perfect complexion didn’t hurt too much either. But even when her hair was shaved, that graceful glow still came shining through.
My phone vibrates again. I don’t jump this time. It’s mom. Michelle has passed and it’s all over. Except for all of us left behind, it’s only the beginning. The beginning of grief. The beginning of pain. The beginning of healing. The beginning of remembering.
The last book my sisters, mom and I read together was Little Women. It was our childhood favorite that my mom read to us girls at night, so we thought we’d reread it together as adults and glean from it with more mature eyes and hearts. This afternoon, as I sit here in my muumuu, my mind keeps fleeting to those pages. I think of the poem that Jo wrote for Beth before she passed away and I can’t help but feel like her words match my sentiments completely. In so many ways, Michelle was my Beth in life. My inspiring example of meekness, humility and kindness in their purest, truest sense. It was never about her and she never made a big deal about anything she did or went through. She’d probably be embarrassed by this post about her. So with Jo as my mouthpiece for grief, I post the following poem in honor of Michelle, my Beth.
Sitting patient in the shadow
Till the blessed light shall come,
A serene and saintly presence
Sanctifies our troubled home.
Earthly joys and hopes and sorrows
Break like ripples on the strand
Of the deep and solemn river
Where her willing feet now stand.
O my sister, passing from me,
Out of human care and strife,
Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
Which have beautified your life.
Dear, bequeath me that great patience
Which has power to sustain
A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit
In its prison-house of pain.
Give me, for I need it sorely,
Of that courage, wise and sweet,
Which has made the path of duty
Green beneath your willing feet.
Give me that unselfish nature,
That with charity devine
Can pardon wrong for love's dear sake--
Meek heart, forgive me mine!
Thus our parting daily loseth
Something of its bitter pain,
And while learning this hard lesson,
My great loss becomes my gain.
For the touch of grief will render
My wild nature more serene,
Give to life new aspirations,
A new trust in the unseen.
Henceforth, safe across the river,
I shall see forever more
A beloved, household spirit
Waiting for me on the shore.
Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,
Guardian angels shall become,
And the sister gone before me
By their hands shall lead me home.
When my mom visited Michelle in the hospital a few weeks ago, she had reverted back to similar patterns of short term memory loss as she had experienced last fall. One of the phrases that she repeated over and over was, “You know, we’re so blessed.” She’d forget she already said it and a few moments later would say it again to my mom with the same amount of sincerity and authenticity. It was funny, but it was also telling that that was what kept coming to her mind to say. I can’t help but feel she must have truly meant it. Everything about her last weeks of life is so Michelle. For her to quietly slip away, content and peaceful with gratitude on her lips over and over again is nothing short of her true character.