Today, I found her small, black leather purse among a collection of handbags on my shelf. I hadn't looked at it in a long time and opening it felt like opening up an old wound. Inside was a discarded pen, a pair of reading glasses, several old tissues and the hair clips my sister wore when the heat outside was too much.
I placed her wireframe reading glasses on the bridge of my nose. Immediately, my world was warped and blurry, just the way I imagine she viewed life those last few months before she died.
My sister's death certificate states that her passing was due to complications from acute bronchopneumonia and pulmonary damage from obesity, but I know it was so much more than that. Cherie simply gave up. Two divorces, her desperate loneliness and a job she came to despise—all of which culminated in an eating disorder that left her severely depressed and obese.
One afternoon, as we stood side by side washing dishes in her kitchen sink, she told me she was tired of living. I shook off the comment, believing it was rooted in the fatigue of a long day. She was only 56, with a son and a beautiful granddaughter who needed her. To willingly leave them seemed senseless and selfish—personality traits that no one would ever associate with her.
Cherie was a gentle soul, generous and kind to others, but unfortunately, not to herself. I'd asked her numerous times to seek help for her eating disorder and the specter of depression that plagued her but she never did. Was it the fear of living that held her back or was her world as distorted as the reading glasses I tried on?
I'll never know, nor will I ever understand why she waited so many months before seeing a doctor for the dangerous symptoms of pneumonia. How could she have let go of life with such ease? She allowed it, probably even wanted it, and I've been angry as hell ever since.
Cherie has missed so much with her family: holiday celebrations, new marriages and the birth of another granddaughter. I've replayed our last telephone conversation so many times in my head that the recording is nothing but a distorted version of what she'd promised—to admit that she was ill and to seek immediate help.
Twenty-four hours later, she died in a narrow hospital bed under a stained glass window that depicted celestial angels with their wings open to the light. I stood over her, my breath shallow under the weight of sadness that threatened to suffocate me. While everyone wept beside her, my heart was a fresh wound bleeding anger over the white sheet that covered her.
After she passed away, I expected to experience the normal cycle of grief and push through to the end. But my grief was a palpable thing, its talons wrapped tightly around my heart. Although acceptance finally came, a residue of anger remained like the dusty print of a bird after hitting a windowpane, its wings frozen in flight.
Cherie found the peace she was looking for and I cannot fault her for wanting the serenity she believed waited on the other side. But I've been tethered to this anger for too long, using my grief as a way to hold onto her.
Which is not the part of my sister that I want to remember. Her death reminds me of all the reasons I want to live. I want to enjoy my retirement years with my husband, watch our children get married, have children of their own and raise their families. I want to be an elemental part of their lives, not just a name whispered in a prayer each night.
I want this endless loop of love to circle around me for as long as time allows—not through the skewed lens of grief, but from a heart that has finally healed.