My older sister Lynn is dying, braced between the metal armrests of the hospital bed that keep her from rolling onto the floor. Thin, clear tubes look like tiny snakes as they weave their way into various parts of her body. These medical advancements are keeping her alive although she's told us for months that she no longer wants to be here.
Her husband of 45 years passed away five years ago, another casualty of cancer; a wife is left to sweep up the remains. My sister never recovered.
The rhythmic pace of her breathing reminds me of the tired humidifier that we have in our bedroom; the oxygen is marking time with my sister whose attempts to breathe make her look like a fish out of water.
The slow pace of her gasping shows her still perfect teeth, a contrast against her bile-colored face and her thick legs, yellow like large loaves of bread.
She has been retaining fluids for several months now, thanks to her cancer of the gallbladder, and when I press my fingertips into her thigh, it doesn't spring back like normal skin. The depressions remain, evidence of legs that no longer function properly.
I recall the past year, punctuated with several frantic phone calls, numerous trips to the hospital, as she attempted to fight with chemo, expensive operations and a medley of drugs. She finally lost faith, but I think it was more than that. She was just tired—tired of living alone, missing her Labrador that died during one of her hospital stays and just plain tired of the fight. I can't blame her.
Helplessly, she lies there. Looking at her, I'm flooded with mixed emotions. You see, my sister was always a little selfish, preferring to put her own needs above others.
When my mother's leg was crushed in a car wreck, my sister was called upon to help with the family chores. She opted to get married instead, leaving my twin sister and me to shoulder my mother's 9-month ordeal with a body cast. We were only 12 at the time.
In 1999, my mom had lung cancer. My sister, who only lived 20 minutes away, rarely found the time to go and visit, claiming that mom was such a "chatterbox." Rather than helping my mom around the house, she preferred to give her a manicure. My mother hated manicures.
I look at her lying on the bed and I remember these things. It's a strange breed of karma, seeing her there, tubes attached and going nowhere, with her siblings living hours away, and not willing to help her in the ways she expects.
In recent months, did she ever reflect on her actions over the years? If she had had the opportunity to do it over again, would she have made different choices?
The labored pace of her breathing continues. They say that hearing is the last to go, and so I continue talking to her, even though she doesn't respond.
I pull back her eyelids to see if there's anything there, but her pupils are vacant like small brown saucers. She looks at nothing.
Outside, the gardener tells us that a small young sparrow has fallen from a nearby tree. My twin sister Teresa goes out to check on it. Frightened, it flounders in the 93-degree shade for a while, looking for some relief. My twin returns to the house to check up on Lynn, whose condition remains unchanged. Returning to the bird, Teresa finds that it has flown away.
Lynn continues her labored breathing, but she's somewhere else. She's making her transition, her body going through the motions of being alive, yet her withered mustard-colored carcass tells me otherwise.
After her last dose of morphine, her breathing begins to change. Before, she was panting like a dog caught in a hot car, but with the drugs circulating throughout her body, her breathing begins to slow, like someone finally enjoying a deep sleep.
The family gathers around her to sing some of her favorite songs. If she can hear us, she gives no indication, although I know that she's aware that we're here. My sister loved Elvis Presley, so the caregiver suggests that we play "Love Me Tender." We find the song on an iPhone and press play.
Lynn is breathing more and more slowly. We replay the song and halfway through, her breathing stops. My twin sister wails. We look at the caregiver who nods, comes over and takes her pulse.
Lynn exhales one more time, and we're given momentary hope, but her breath is just a reflex. The caregiver exits the room and marks the time of death: 4:55 p.m.
Protocol dictates that the caregiver calls the nurse who arrives shortly thereafter. They converse in the dining room with their medical jargon, punching facts and figures into the laptop before the coroners are called. Lynn is dead. It's confirmed. Her struggle is over.
We're all crying in the bedroom, looking at the withered form of my sister, who was once beautiful, vibrant and colorful beyond what any rainbow has to offer.
The coroners finally arrive, wearing their rehearsed sorrow. This is just another job for them. The caregiver asks me if I want to watch them wrap her body, but I decline. Apparently, the limbs flap around like fins on a fish out of water, and I cannot bear to watch my sister being handled this way.
My family and friends swarm around her like worker bees attending to the queen. But it's too late. The queen is dead.
I take comfort in the fact that I'll see her in another form some day. Perhaps she'll change the radio station when I'm driving in the car. Maybe she'll make a light flicker when I'm trying to read. I hope she'll guide me when I have an important decision to make or protect me when I'm in danger.
I know she'll be there. Always.