Friday, October 28, 2016
The Season Of Mourning
Cherie was the oldest of the four children in our family, and I was the youngest, but the six year gap in our ages never bothered her. My sister carted me around on her hip, let me play with her pet parakeets and snuck food into my room whenever I was banned from the dinner table for talking back to my parents. Those tiny care packages wrapped in paper napkins were offerings of love and sympathy from a sister who knew all too well the wrath of parental punishment.
So much of my childhood was spent in my sister's room. We shared hours together cutting out patterns for Betsy McCall Paper Dolls, drawing Arabian horses on her giant sketch pad, and singing along to her Herman's Hermits albums. She taught me how to play Crazy Eights and War, and sometimes our marathon card games lasted long past my bedtime. Her room was my sanctuary; a peaceful place that smelled of sandalwood incense, leather, and fresh paint from her art set. Every inch of wall was covered with posters of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, peace signs and slogans protesting the Vietnam War. At night, she'd turn on a black light that made the patterns on her psychedelic posters come alive in the eerie blue glow from the lamp. We told stories in the dark and dreamed of faraway places where mythical creatures lived. And in that dim blue light, we made promises to be there for one anther no matter what happened in the future.
Our relationship evolved the way long term friendships do----with immeasurable trust and a strong sense of loyalty toward one another. We fought occasionally as all siblings do, but neither one of us carried a grudge. All it took was a joke or a funny face, and within minutes we'd be laughing over the absurdity of the argument. She understood me better than most, and never judged me for my failings. She always had my back and defended me at every turn. We often joked that we were the black sheep of the family----so different from our siblings and parents, but in truth, it's what bonded us from the beginning.
Once we grew older, got married and had families, I didn't see Cherie as much. We were both caught up in work and raising our families with little time to visit one another. Her life was not an easy one; she went through two difficult divorces and ended up raising a son mostly by herself. Over the years she developed an eating disorder, along with several other health issues that appeared as a result of her obesity. I knew she was broken, but I didn't know how to fix her. I was battling my own eating disorder demons, and the painful reality of seeing myself in my sister's struggles was more than I could handle. I stood by helplessly as she spiraled downward into a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting and emotional binge eating. It frustrated and frightened me to the point that I avoided her invitations to get together, especially if the outing involved food.
Now I'm left with guilt and a deep sense of regret for turning away from the woman who was once my best friend. We knew each other so well, yet I ignored all the warning signs. It was too painful to acknowledge that my sister was slowly killing herself. She was lonely and unhappy, but I pretended not to see it because it was easier to live in denial. I blindly convinced myself that she would realize how much she had to live for, and that she'd seek professional help before spinning completely out of control.
In 2009, Cherie succumbed to pneumonia during the early hours of Halloween. I hovered over her hospital bed when she was in a coma and prayed that she would open her eyes. Even during her final moments, I refused to believe that she would never wake up. I thought of all the things we needed to do together, and promised her that once she was well enough to leave the hospital, that I would take her up on her invitations to feed the hummingbirds at Butterfly World, sip margaritas at our favorite Mexican restaurant, bake cinnamon rolls together in her kitchen and do "movie nights" once a month to watch all the classics from her extensive video collection.
Her heart gave out as I stood by her bed, and the shrill buzz from the hospital monitor after she passed away still haunts me to this day. The tears I shed were not from sorrow, but anger. Anger at her for giving up too soon, and anger at myself for not keeping my childhood promise to be there for her whenever she needed me.
Although it has been seven years, the grief still lingers. Cherie was so many parts of me, and now that she's gone, it feels as if I've undergone a partial amputation of my heart. The wound will heal in time, but the scar it leaves behind will be a reminder of the gentle spirit that once graced my life with a love that only a sister can understand.
This fall as I watch the leaves turn to golden hues and scatter across the sky, I think of Cherie. And I will never, ever stop missing her.