Wednesday, November 17, 2010


It was raining hard this morning (the wind and rain actually woke me), but it seems to have slowed considerably, so I may or may not be able to get my planned morning run in. In any case, the rain seems to have put me in some sort of mood.
When I came into work this past Monday afternoon just before 1:00 p.m., I was informed that the director's elder sister, Tera, had died. She was 54.

Tera used to work at the library, in administration, until she was forced to retire for health reasons — the same ones that eventually killed her: an infection (fungal, I believe) of her lungs that caused one of them to shut down completely before its progress could be temporarily halted. Tera had a low, raspy voice, which was not her natural voice. It sounded like that because of a procedure that had had to be performed on her that had damaged her throat.

A few years ago, the infection recurred and Tera had to quit working entirely because half of her good lung was compromised.

This past Sunday, yet another bout with this infection finally killed her.
Tera was well-liked at the library and she would occasionally stop by for a visit after she was forced to retire in 2007. Her voice kind of haunted me by that point, because it was obvious she was struggling for just about every breath and her voice reminded me of my sister Virginia's voice.

That raspy-sounding voice was no more Virginia's natural voice than it was Tera's, but it is how I remember Virginia's voice because it was how she sounded in the last few months of her life as she struggled through an illness that was at first misdiagnosed as bronchitis, and later determined to be terminal-stage lung cancer; by which point it had also reached her brain. Which I guess didn't really matter because the lung cancer was what quickly killed her. For Virginia, it was roughly two months' time from correct diagnosis to death.

That was in the summer of 2006. Virginia lived to see her 49th birthday. She died less than three weeks later.

I have mentioned a few times that I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family of seven children. Of the nine of us (I'm including my parents), seven smoked, to more or less of an extent. (Teh 'Bro, though, smoked only as a young man and only when he drank; probably a grand total of fewer than 200 cigarettes, all told). Virginia was one of two who never smoked at all.

I debated whether or not to include that fact in this post because it drives Teh 'Bride nuts that, when someone dies of lung cancer, people always ask whether or not the victim smoked. To Teh 'Bride's ear, there's perhaps a bit of accusation in the question — as though it were the victim's own fault in some small way; or perhaps in Teh 'Bride's view, people just like to fool themselves into thinking they are safe from this particular disease because they don't smoke, whereas the truth is, they're not. I'm not sure it's indicative of anything other than what people have been unthinkingly taught to ask when they hear of a lung cancer death. It may or may not be a slightly insensitive thing to ask, but there's probably no malice in it. In its own weird way, it is probably an attempt to sympathize, reach out, give you a chance to respond, to talk about your loss, to mourn. It's clumsy and open to misinterpretation but that is always the risk in such situations and, all-in-all, I'm glad people take that risk.

Virginia did not have a whole lot of time to prepare for what, by the time her disease was diagnosed, was the inevitable. My family faced its share of tragedies, but if I could take back but one thing I myself did throughout it all, it would be this:

We were all there in Virgina's hospital room when the doctor came in and laid out the treatment options. He talked about chemo, surgery to remove the brain tumor, radiation ... it was all kind of weird and dream-like and just sort of hard to believe was actually happening. And at some point he said something along the lines of, "And the best case prognosis is about one year."

And I guess I was more in denial than anyone else at that point, because I couldn't help but ask, in a clearly shocked voice, "You mean if we do nothing, if she has none of these procedures?"

And he, obviously feeling a bit awkward, answered: "No. I mean if she does."

I seemed to be the only one who hadn't realized this. Before I spoke, Virginia had been sitting on the edge of her bed, listening, occasionally nodding her head — which was so incongruous and surreal to me that it was a large part of the reason that I couldn't believe Virginia  could actually be hearing someone pronounce a death sentence on her; after my exchange with the doctor, Virginia lowered her head and quietly wept into a tissue.

It is perhaps self-indulgent to think that that — my question — was somehow significant in all of this for anyone else but me. It is probably closer to the truth that no one other than I so much as remembers it. That's not a whole lot of comfort, though, when you're dealing with regrets. I think about Virginia every day and when I do, I invariably come back to this moment when I stupidly forced the doctor to abandon his circumlocutions and essentially come right out and say that Virginia was going to die within a year no matter what anybody did. It doesn't matter — to me — that she (and everyone else) already knew what the doctor meant; what matters to me is that I made him repeat it in blunt terms, something I consider to have been cruel on my part, albeit unintentional.
But maybe that, too, is just self-indulgent — a way of making this thing that wasn't happening to me somehow about me. If that is so, I still have not learned how not to do that. When I learned of Tera's death, I wrote the director and her sister (a second sister who also works at the library) telling them how shocked I was to learn of Tera's passing and mentioning how much I had liked Tera and how her voice had always reminded me of Virginia's at the end and how heart-rending it was to hear it, to know what a struggle it must have been for Tera at times just to draw a simple breath. But I also attempted to include what words of comfort I could. And if any of them were of genuine comfort, no matter how small, it was because I could, to some extent, imagine how these sisters were suffering because I had suffered an analogous pain in my own life.

And maybe it is only by indulging — to some extent, at least — our own self-involved experiences of the phenomena of life that we are truly able, if just for a moment, to break out of the borderline solipsism of existence and share a genuine feeling of community, even if that be a community of mutual suffering and pain. And maybe that helps make it more bearable.

If it is not, then I confess I don't know how it can be done.


  1. But it is about you. These tragedies happened to you. You can only deal as you can, and do, the way you need to. The question was valid. You needed to understand, so you asked. Maybe everyone else didn't understand either, but had no way of comprehending. She needed to know exactly what was going on, at that moment. There is no way of skirting that one.

    You are a good guy. Don't regret anything G, it' not worth the energy. Would anything have been different without the question?

  2. Re: your comment. No apologies allowed. I wasn't posting. Actually, I wasn't doing anything.

    Now I feel like maybe I will. Thank you.

  3. Crap. You just aren't going to let me make a smart-ass comment, are you? It's a little hard for me to not sound self-involved, no matter what I say, as the past year for me has been: swine flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, pertussis... just one long hacking cough. It had me thinking back to when I shared a bedroom with my brother, who irritated me by waking me in the middle of the night with his asthmatic wheezing; it was all about me then and it's all about me now. Except it isn't, really.

  4. According to the buddhists there's no "you" for it to be all about. It's all about all of us, together in the human predicament. Knowing you, I know you think about your sister every day, and your brother, and your mom.