She’s Alive and (not so) Well

Despite a deluge of engaging, upsetting, and even inspiring climate change news, I have not posted anything in several months. My attention has been elsewhere.

At the end of October, my sister Eliana was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The surgeon met me in the recovery room post biopsy, took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “I’d say she has three weeks to live.” My groggy sister lifted her head from the gurney and repeated with some alarm, “three weeks?”

But she’s a fighter. It’s been eleven weeks and while she is dwindling, her life force is still strong. She’s not in pain—instead she refers to it as discomfort. She’s walking slowly, cat napping during the day, doesn’t go outside much (wears five layers of clothes indoors as she is always cold), has distinctly yellow skin, and is runway model skinny. Her mind is getting hazy and the strangest things make her laugh.

Eliana is an artist, a web designer, an introvert, a cat lover. She loves the Flat Iron mountains behind her house and takes particular pride and joy in swimming naked in icy cold lakes in the summer. Despite experiencing depression for decades, she is a hopeless romantic and an ultimate idealist. Her search for heaven on earth continues to be the defining through line of her life.

She has lived alone for most of her adult life, that’s why it has been so surprising that she’s wanted a sister (there are four of us) by her side since she was told she has pancreatic cancer. So we sisters have risen to the occasion and tag-teamed one another—sometimes doubling up on our watch. We’ve logged hours and hours of phone conversations, and my daughter Sarah (also on watch) has provided much needed comic relief. (Check out Eliana’s Make-Up tutorial on her caring bridge site- https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/elianaberlfein. Spoiler alert–those are not Eliana’s hands…)

 As Eliana has defied all predictions for her passing, the borrowed time has given all the sisters the chance to talk about how she wants to be buried (wrapped in a shroud, lowered straight into the ground with no coffin), who will lead the service, (Rabbi Tirzah Firestone), who gets her handmade Maruka bags (um, mostly me).

 When it looked like she had three weeks to live, all the sisters, their spouses and all the nieces and nephews flew to Boulder to spend the weekend together. We sat in a circle on the carpeted floor in her tiny living room and told stories. We told Eliana why and how she’d made a difference in our lives. There wasn’t a dry eye.

She’s learning to ask for what she wants. Even at this late stage. Instead of phone calls, and visits, she’s asked that friends and family send her cards via snail mail, (a changing gallery is displayed on the shelves of her hutch and the rest have been collected in a box that is bursting with beautiful, thoughtful notes). She’s been able to be present in life for those words that are usually reserved for after someone passes. (How strange that we don’t tell the living how they have made a difference in our lives.)

It’s been and continues to be a wild ride. Sometimes I pat myself on the back for the time and attention I have given to my sister. Other times I rail at myself for my impatience, judgment and irritability. We are all trying the best to take care of Eliana and to take care of ourselves along the way. Sometimes we are more successful than others.

I wanted you to know why I haven’t been yammering on about climate change. I am grateful that so many others have stepped up in my absence to carry the torch for a livable planet so that I could turn my attention to the graceful living and dying of one human being—my sister.

Thank you.

 

34 comments on “She’s Alive and (not so) Well

  1. Oh, Davia. I’m so sorry about Eliana. But what a wonderful story of your family coming together in such a meaningful way. Thank you for sharing.
    Warm wishes for blessings to you all,
    Bonnie

  2. Sorry sorry sorry. She wants a green burial same as me. I’m making arrangements to do mine in 30 years at Joshua Tree Memorial Park. They hand dig the grave, no machinery and it costs more for that part. The rest is cheaper. Shroud is fine.

    • Thank you for sharing this journey. A tribute to your sister and her sisters and a reminder to us all of the richness of the dying that is inextricably woven with living.

  3. i’m so, so, sorry, davia. thank you for sharing this; it was an honor to read. i shall keep you and your sisterhood in my thoughts. love, marina

  4. Davia, I’m so very sorry to hear about your sister. You are all brave and loving to her and each other. Please know that my thoughts and heart are with you. Sending love and strength your way. Love, Maggi

  5. So amazing !!!! May your heart, and those who read your writing know the blessing this is for us all. This is also ” climate” change Davia .

  6. Wonderful post, Davia. Thanks for directing us to the caring bridge site. How great to make and include videos at this point in her journey. Preserving these precious moments. While it all sounds so effortlessly joyful, as you said some days are good and some aren’t. Good for you for devoting this time, however long it is to creating a wonderful ending for your sister and invaluable memories for yourselves.. As one of 3 sisters, and the oldest, I’m aware of how special that sisterhood is. You’ve made me stop and think about more ways I can deepen these relationships while we’re all healthy.

    Love you.

  7. I appreciate your sharing your experience so eloquently. It is sad and I have deep compassion for you and your family…and yet your sharing touches my heart. I am also from a family of 4 sisters. My oldest sister was given a very similar timeline after discovering colon cancer 5 years ago. She lived for 7 week and it was such an intimate time with her for all of us.. During that time we all learned new lessons about life, ourselves and each other that perhaps only death can teach us. Sending you love and compassion.

    • Kat, thanks so much. I just found your comment in my spam folder. I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly when I wrote the piece and never checked the spam folder for comments. Ah yes, one of four sisters. I’m curious to know how the constellation got rearranged after your sister died. We’ve always been the four girls. Who are we now?

  8. Davia,
    I’m terribly sorry to hear about Eliana. What a gift that she has you sisters and you all have each other through this sad journey.
    xo

  9. Dear Davia, I’m heartbroken about your beloved sister. And I’m profoundly heartened by your family’s love and care for Eliana and each other. May you treasure each moment you have cherishing her presence. Deep breaths and blessings.

  10. I have been thinking of you, missing your posts, wondering where? – and here you are. I am so sorry to hear of your sister’s condition and very moved to hear of how you are all present with each other as you, and she, go through this passage. Love.

  11. Bless you, Davia, for your compassion, not just for your sister but for all of life. Of course, I didn’t know Eliana, but now I do – just a little – and I’ll grieve with you for that little.

  12. Thank you for this, Davia. Before reading this, I didn’t know your sister. Now I do. You are a good sister and a wonderful person. Savor all of it. xoxo jennifer

  13. Wow, Davia,
    I’m so sorry but what a beautiful exit you and your family have been able to provide for your sister. Your story is such an inspiration. Thank you so much for posting it! A real lesson in living an authentic, loving, good life.
    Iona

  14. Davia, so sorry to hear about Eliana. I’m inspired by how you and your family are handling her end of life. My friends and I have watched our parents have unplanned, often traumatic ends of life and want our own to be different. I love the idea of a natural burial. Hope you’ll be able to be in DC in June. With love, L

  15. Sending love to you and your dear ones! Also, deep gratitude for the love and circle of caring you have contributed and have shared. Thank you, thank you. Every bit of time surrounded in peace and held in love is a gift to all.

  16. Davia, so sorry to hear about Eliana. The ways in which you and your family are handling her end of life with her are inspirational. I would want the same, especially the celebration of her life and the natural burial.. Hope to see you in DC. With love, L

  17. You brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t even know your sister. Such a mitzvah, and such powerful sisterly love.!

  18. I join the chorus of friends and acquaintances who love and admire you, dear Davia. And you already know that, but it’s good to say it here, too. Breathe in our acknowledgements and know that we hold you and your family during this time.

  19. I too am so sorry you are in the process of losing your sister. I experienced a similar goodbye with my mother except that she did not know who I was (yes she had Alzheimer’s.) It is a gift to spend this time together to say goodbye but in your case she is dying way too young. I wish you comfort and love as you continue to go through this process.

  20. Thank you for sharing your courageous and vivacious sister’s story, and how you and your sisters are supporting her.
    I have ramped up my advocacy work in honor of your sister’s day to day life.

  21. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, and I’m sorry your family is going through this. I hope the time you’ve spent together will carry her memory forward when the time comes.

  22. Dear Davia:
    I have been silent since i read your blog because the story is so painful I didn’t know what to say. But I returned to it today because I had to let you know I have been thinking about you and your sisters. In particular Eliana, who seems graceful and cogent about her wishes and is showing so much courage to get through this period of time. It’s a lovely thing to be able to say goodbye. My thoughts are with you and the family and I send lots of hugs.

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