Life Lessons From My Sister

Me and my big sister (circa 1964).
Me and my big sister (circa 1964).

October 17, 2013

As I stepped into the shower this morning I wondered. Will today be the last day of my sister’s life? Icy fingers of fear crept down my spine despite the hot water pelting my body, weary from lack of sleep.

The call came yesterday, as I was driving home from work.

“Debbie’s back in the hospital. Again,” Pamela  said.  “The doctors told her that her paralysis is higher up than they originally thought and that she has no chance of recovery. She will never get off the ventilator and she’ll be in and out of the hospital for the rest of her life. She said she wants to let go. She doesn’t want to live like this anymore.”

On July 11th, 2013, Debbie sustained a catastrophic injury either during or after spinal surgery and was left permanently paralyzed. The location of her paralysis affected her heart rate (which is now controlled by a pacemaker), and her diaphragm (hence the need for the ventilator).

In three and a half months, she has not seen her home, kissed her now 8-month old granddaughter, or pet her dog.

As I finished packing my toiletries, Pamela’s final words from the night before echoed in my head. “Once they do this, once they disconnect the ventilator, she’ll go fast. Suz, we need to go to Chicago tomorrow.”

As my husband sped toward the airport, I prayed I would get there in time.

When Pamela and I finally arrived at the hospital, along with our sister Nancy who got her breast implants in Baltimore last season, we pressed the button to the second floor ICU and steeled ourselves for what we might find. Our sister Patricia had warned us that Debbie looked different. Emaciated, disfigured from all she’d been through. And we had prepared ourselves, at least as much as one can in a situation like this.

And still we were unprepared for what awaited us.

Debbie was propped up in bed wearing a Paul McCartney t-Shirt, her fine blond hair in pig tails, and lip gloss adorning a smile that literally filled the room. Her blue eyes were smiling as well. And my heart melted in a gooey mess all over the floor.

I saw none of what Patricia had prepared me for, though it was there. I saw only my big sister. The one who took me out with her friends when I was little. The one I’d always looked up to. The one who always put everyone else before herself.

And in true Debbie fashion, before I had the chance to say anything (though I did sneak in a few kisses), she mouthed the words, “How are you? I know you had breast cancer. Are you okay?” “Yes,” I told her, “I’m fine.”

And in that moment, I knew my sister was FULLY ALIVE inside the frail form, and that we would not be saying goodbye to her any time soon.

Over the next three days, I witnessed close-up the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. And the power of love to heal and strengthen us, even in our darkest hours. My sister is living the worst fate imaginable, and still there is love and hope and laughter inside her. And life. So much life.

Since witnessing my sister’s heroic struggle for life, several lessons have emerged. Here are just a few:

Bad Things Happen to Good People
It’s hard sometimes to understand why bad things happen to good people. Or why some people’s lives seems so charmed and others’ are filled with suffering. Perhaps it’s based on an agreement we made before we came into this life (ie fate), perhaps it’s just chance (ie bad luck). But if we pay attention, the suffering we endure (or watch those we love endure), can teach us things about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way. Every situation in life is an opportunity for personal growth.

We’re either survivors or we’re victims. The choice is ours.

Fear and Courage Can Coexist
In a previous post, I’m a Noble Warrior, I’ve Got This, I said, “you can be brave or you can be scared, but you can’t be both.” I was wrong. My sister’s days and (mostly) nights are filled with fear. Fear that her ventilator tubing will become disconnected (again—seriously, this happened), fear that she will never breathe on her own again, fear that she’ll never see her home or her granddaughter or her dog again, or be able to eat by herself. And yet, every day she summons the courage to continue to fight for all of those things. All of the things that we take for granted.

Yes, fear and courage can most certainly coexist.

You’re Stronger and Braver than You Give Yourself Credit For
I told my sister that she is the bravest person I know. She shook her head and said, “No, I’m not.”

Um, yes dear sister, you are. You are a Noble Warrior, you’ve got this.

Life is NOW. Don’t Waste It
Enough said.

What about you? Have hard times in your life taught you lessons you might never have learned?

Update: Sadly, I’m sorry to say that my sister passed away on March 30, 2014, but her strength in the face of the unimaginable will inspire me forever.

16 comments on… “Life Lessons From My Sister”

  1. What a terrific tribute, Suzanne! Yesterday I had a discussion with a friend about drama queens. You know the type – there’s always a big ‘something negative’ going on in their lives, even if it really isn’t a big thing. They seek out the negative. Yet when examined in light of things like what Debbie’s going through, and what you’ve gone through this summer, the drama queen’s event would be about as important as breaking a nail – and that’s overstating it. The tough times I’ve experienced and the ones happening to people I care about have taught me that being a drama queen is an extreme form of selfishness and lack of self-awareness. Loving others and bringing a smile to their lives is what a good life is all about. Hugs – Yvonne

    • Yvonne — As a former drama queen, I can say you are absolutely right. It wasn’t until I began to focus my thoughts and energy in a positive manner that I finally found peace in my heart and in my life.

  2. Deb is such a strong woman. When I heard about what happened, I was floored. I used to work with Deb and it broke my heart. I continue to pray for her daily.

  3. Hang in there Suzanne. You’ve been handed a really full plate this year, but I know you’ll be able to handle it all. You’re a noble warrior after all.

    I’ll keep your sister in my prayers. Here’s hoping you can all see each other again and laugh at these memories.

    Let me know if there’s something I can do. My shoulders aren’t very big, but they’re tough.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. You already know that we lost our daughter when she was 32 from cancer. I was never so proud of this beautiful young woman as I was during her fight to survive. She only once started to feel sorry for herself and shed a couple of tears, then stiffened her back, wiped her tears, and said no, I won’t give in or give up. She never did give up, but her cancer beat her. She never let me give up either and during those eight months we grew closer than we had ever been. She made me a very proud mother and one of these days I will find enough strength to not hurt on those special times like Mother’s Day.

    Your sister is an amazing woman and I will keep her in my prayers, Suzanne. Thank you for sharing her story.

  5. Melissa Lewicki

    Suzanne–I have been thinking of you and your sister ever since I read this yesterday. I don’t have a big sister, I am the big sister. Three years ago, I almost died. My little sister was right there the whole time. I know I pulled through because of her. God bless sisters.

  6. Oh my goodness Suzanne, your cup runeth over. It seems these days like one thing befalls another. I am so sorry my friend. You have been on my mind for some time now. How are you doing? Wait, that’s really a loaded question. Don’t answer that if you feel that you’re unable. Sometimes it’s all too much. The loss of a loved one can rip our hearts to pieces. I know. I’ve been through it. And to have to deal with your own health issues besides. It just shows how unnatural death is. We don’t quite know how do deal with it. And yet, we must. Well, you are in my thoughts Suzanne. And I’m sending you a great big {{hug}}! Take care.

    • You know, Karen, I’m doing great. My sister’s injury has reminded me that life is precious and that we can’t afford to squander even a single day. It certainly put my own health issues in perspective. Life is what we make of it. Thanks for thinking of me!! *hugs*

  7. Suzanne, you are a pair of warriors. I can feel your strength and your sister’s coursing through your words. I don’t have to tell you to stay strong, because you will. Blessings.

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