My dear sweet sister Mary died on December 10th. After our mother died in 2001, Mary was the closest thing I had to a mother. I am the youngest of nine children, and, although I still have several living siblings, this loss - especially so close to the holidays - has been very hard to bear. I remember Mary as a fiercely independent woman who loved to truly experience life, travel, have adventures, and had a marvelously demented sense of humor. Her decline and death has left a hole in my heart, and it will take a long time for that to heal. I would like to share with you the words of remembrance that I wrote the night Mary passed away. May you all have someone like Mary in your life:
My eyes are bone-dry. I've cried out all the tears I can today. My eyes
actually ache and burn. And there's this tumor of discontent - uneasy,
nausea-inducing discontent - roiling in my gut.
Did I spend enough time talking to her? Telling her I loved her?
Was there more I could have done to make her last years more enjoyable?
Should I have stopped being a coward about back pain and made sure I drove up to New Jersey more often to see her?
The first year I lived in Maryland, I drove up to New Jersey as often as I could. I had a 1989 Ford Escort station wagon with no air conditioning, and I drove up and down I-95 with my left arm dangling out the window the whole way. I did this enough times that year to actually permanently cook my left arm into a darker pigment than the right arm. It's very attractive. But, honestly, it was worth it. I had a community of family there. And then, when she was still vibrant and able, Mary was at the center of it.
Mary was fun. She took me on my first motorcycle ride (right before she had a horrific accident - that was when I was a little kid.) She had a Triumph Spitfire sports car, and I believe she left the transmission (or the engine itself) somewhere on a New Jersey highway shortly after purchasing it. At one point, she headed west and lived in a valley outside of L.A. for a while. She drank Tab obsessively and smoked (much to everyone's dismay) Benson & Hedges menthols by the carton.
Mary came to visit me when I lived in Russia. She came over with our sister Barb, and we had a blast. Of course, that was in 1990, and some Central Asian guys on Red Square thought my sisters - with their Jersey uniforms of floral leggings and bright t-shirts - were hookers. I laughed my ass off. Looking for souvenirs in Izmailovsky Park, Mary chose the most bizarre and unlikely thing possible - a real dead squirrel, stuffed, posed, and glued onto a tree branch. Some sort of snap binder clip had been inserted into its paws, and it clutched a pack of cigarettes and stared with wild glass eyes. She carried it home in this awful Pepto pink box. I have no idea how the hell she got it through U.S. Customs.
Several years ago, while vacuuming, Mary bumped the shelf where she displayed her Muscovite squirrel. All the fur fell off in one fell swoop.
Naked dead varmint? Not so cute. Citizen Squirrel was finally given the Hefty bag salute and removed from the premises.
After Mom died, Mary had the unenviable task of handling the estate. There wasn't much to the estate. Mom had nine kids. We were like a constant plague of locusts. But it was a mess nonetheless. That was back in 2001. Springtime.
In the wake of 9/11, when the airlines were desperate to get passengers back in the air, United had a frequent flyer mileage reward sale. From my old days of flying back and forth between DC and Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan/YouNameAStan, I had a pile of miles. With the sale, I had enough to buy tickets for myself and Mary to Thailand.
I have great affection for Thailand, and I thought my sister would really dig it. She did. I booked a fabulous hotel in Phuket (a hotel that later would be swept away in the devastating 2004 tsunami) for $28 a night. We ate and slept like royalty and shopped like there was no tomorrow. I have incredibly fond memories of that trip, despite my sister permanently burning the tops of her feet because of her refusal to apply sunscreen to them on a very sunny beach, and despite my mugging at knifepoint in a Bangkok market. I remember coming back to the hotel from the market, after dealing with the police, $800 lighter in my pocket (I was buying textiles.) I'd made my sister see the hotel doctor about her feet while I was
shopping being mugged.
I staggered back into the room, wallet empty, shopping bags unused, and my sister asked, "What the hell happened?!?"
I shrugged. "I got mugged. Lost everything I had."
My sister responded. "Jesus Christ, what should we do?"
My answer, "Fuck it. Let's order room service."
And we did. And we laughed. And I have this awesome photo of my sister, hepped up on pain killers for her feet, holding the vented lid to her room service plate over her face like some twisted carnival mask. It's in my office at work. I put it on the shelf across from my desk so I can see her goofy, plated face every day when I sit down.
Mary would travel with me to the Yucatan Peninsula, too, back in 2003 or 2004. I can't quite remember the year tonight. Forgive me for my lapses - I'm not firing on all cylinders. That year, I was going to travel alone to the Mexican coastal town of Tulum (a relatively short drive from Chichen Itza) for my birthday. However, I suffered a little mishap two days before I was supposed to fly...
I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. My mom had colon cancer, so I thought it was wise to start early with preventative checks.
I did the miserable two days of prep for the procedure, finishing up with that wretched morning-of-the-camera-up-the-rump fiesta that leaves you running for the bathroom and wishing for sweet death. As I waited for the tummy rumblings, I laced my hiking boots in preparation of packing them up for the Mexico trip. When nature not only called, but screamed my name, I bolted from the sofa, knocking one boot off onto the floor.
And I tripped over that frigging boot.
And broke cleanly in half the big joint that holds the big left toe to the angry left foot.
I spent my birthday that year hopping around in a big fuzzy black bootie.
But through the wonders of travel insurance, I was able to reschedule for Christmas, and Mary wanted to come along. We met up in Newark, ready for a Christmas week of sun, surf, and Mayan ruins.
Well, we got the Mayan ruins.
But we also got a freak weather front that brought temperatures in the 60s, rather than the 80s and 90s, and with it, a plague of small black flies. I still went snorkeling (for five or six minutes at a time before I would come out of the water shivering and blue) and my sister still enjoyed the beach. It's just that I started to appreciate my sister as a smoker; her menthols kept the damn flies away.
Flies or no flies, we had a blast.
But it was on that trip that I noticed my sister was faltering. She took spills, including one spectacular fall on a tile floor that made my stomach lurch and fear that our trip was over.
It turned out, my sister had MS.
Amazingly, she self-diagnosed her MS, watching some home shopping channel charity event. Every symptom they described, she had. She went to her doctor, they scheduled some brain scans and discovered fast-moving lesions. Not a good sign. And Mary's health was already compromised: diabetes, smoking, and constant pain from injuries she sustained in a horrific car accident wherein she was struck from behind at stop light by a moron reading architectural plans as he sped down the street on a military facility. Mary had been a volunteer EMT, and some of the guys who responded to her accident knew her. They thought she was dead. But Mary was tenacious. She survived. But she had to have knee replacement surgery, and things were never the same for her.
We thought we were going to lose her a couple of years ago, when she became horribly sick and spent weeks and weeks in the hospital. I kept trying to mentally prepare myself, but that's almost a joke. No matter how well prepared you think you are, you never really are. She struggled back from that illness, but she was fading.
This year, she spent months in the hospital, and every single time I spoke to her, all she wanted was to go back home. I think she knew her time was very limited.
And now she is gone. Like my mother. Like my brother Ed. I was going to a doctor's appointment en route to work today when I got the call. And I cried. And I cried. And I cried. Between meetings today, I would stop and cry. When people were nice to me, I had to then go shut my door and cry. I've had a mule-kick headache since noon.
Nothing seems quite right today. Music on the radio. Laughter in the hallway. Stopping at the pharmacy to pick something up. It feels wrong to be doing anything "normal" - whatever that really means. I feel like I should have just curled up on the sofa and slept. But that's not right, either.
Life does continue, whether we feel it's rhythm acutely or muffled through grief. Life continues. And those of us still here have to tell the stories of those who are not.
My sister is no longer here. But I am.
What is that line from "Shawshank Redemption"?
"Get busy living, or get busy dying."
I guess I better get busy living. For you, Mary, I will get busy living.
Be at peace, Mary. No more pain. No more limitations.
Be at peace.
Mary Colleen LaManna
July 21, 1946 - December 10, 2008