Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk.
Susan Scarf Merrell
My Aunt Vickie died last Friday morning, only two weeks after her 74th birthday. She had been sick with Parkinson's disease and asthma for a long time. Then, only days after her oldest sister died, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She never got out of the hospital after surgery and, even though I knew she wasn't doing well, I didn't expect her to die so soon. In 2011, all of my mother's sisters were still alive. By April, 2012, she only had one sister left. I think that the picture above was taken the summer that my mom moved to Michigan for what turned out to be the rest of her life. Aunt Vickie is frowning and maybe even about to cry because her sisters were leaving her behind.
When we were growing up, our family travelled to Kentucky every summer and usually stopped at Aunt Vickie's and Uncle Buddy's in Louisville. I had a lot of fun there and, even though my mom and Aunt Vickie were different in many ways, they never seemed to stop talking during our visits. They didn't even let things like bathroom breaks stop them. I can remember times when the two would be in the bathroom chattering away, while one or the other was using the toilet or attending to personal grooming. My Aunt Vickie was the more glamorous of the two. She loved looking pretty and never went anywhere without her "face" on. She loved to paint her fingernails and more than once painted mine too. When I talked to one of her daughters about two weeks before Aunt Vickie died, she told me that one of her girls had painted her mother's nails blue. I smiled because I could picture it so easily: Aunt Vickie in the hospital, so sick some days that she didn't even know where she was, and her granddaughter painting her fingernails. Blue too. I hope it was a bright shiny blue and that it made Aunt Vickie and everyone else smile.
I'm not sure when the four sisters were last together. The picture above may have been taken on that occasion. I don't know whether they were at the annual family reunion or a funeral. Sadly, as the sisters aged, their health made it harder for them to visit each other because Kathleen and Vickie lived in Kentucky and my mom and Eve lived in Michigan. That day in the lush Kentucky heat may have been their last time together.
The day Aunt Vickie died, I talked to my uncle David who told me that, "If we lived to be 100, it would still pass off fast." He sounded so sad about Aunt Vickie, and who can blame him. He was younger than her and had never known a world without her in it. My mother called early that morning too. I was in the bathroom and couldn't get to the phone and when I played the message back later, I heard my mom's distressed voice, calling to my dad. "I don't know," she was saying, "I don't know where she is; she doesn't pick up." I knew right away what must have happened and phoned back and, yes, Aunt Vickie was dead. No one could reach Aunt Eve. Her phone had been acting up and neither Mom nor my uncle could get through. I tried, ringing her home number first and then her cell phone. That's where I caught her: grocery shopping. I hated to tell her while she was in public, but she knew anyway. "It's Vickie, isn't it?" she asked. Later, she told me that she cried after I hung up and a woman came to ask her if she was alright and told her that her father had just died of colon cancer and the two women hugged and cried together. No matter how many siblings you have - eleven like my mom or three like myself - when one of them dies it's hard not to feel sad about your dwindling family and the miles and years that stretch between you and the ones you first loved. (photo: Vickie and David, circa 1954)
Here are several places to read more about sibling loss:
Here are some books to check out:
Like my Aunt Vickie, Levon Helm died in April and was laid to rest on April 27 in Woodstock, New York. That's why I chose this version of Angel Band, even though the trailer on the bottom of the video is a bit distracting.