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.