When my sister Suzy — a brilliant fine artist, wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, and friend — suddenly became seriously ill in the summer of 2016, I believed that though she was beginning her battle with a life-threatening illness, nothing — not even a virulent cancer — could triumph over her formidable spirit, her joy of life, her love of her family. Nothing.
With firmness of faith that I could love her back to health again, I would sit with her for hours, holding her hand and and thinking of all the days before when she cared for me — and, in many cases, saved me. I told her that I would stay with her for as long as it took to see her through her ordeal. After all, I told her, “You took care of me my whole life.” “Because I love you,” she said. “That’s what sisters do.”
Her lifelong care and concern for me was not born out of a sense of responsibility, but rather her deep sisterly love that had its seeds upon my arrival decades ago into her little 15-month-old life. When I think of how dearly I was loved by Suzy, I often recall the times Suzy and I would venture to Chicago together, beginning as teens and extending deep into adulthood. When we were children living in Gary, Indiana, our parents would take us to Chicago quite frequently to experience the many joys of the big city — where Mom and Dad both grew up. We went to museums, the theatre, concerts, parks, stores and visited the many unique landmarks that defined the city that we had grown to love.
I recall the first time my sister and I were permitted to go to Chicago alone. My sister, of course, was older than me, but because she was being allowed to go with two of her friends, Mom said I could go too since Suzy would be with me. I asked a friend to join me, and Mom dropped us all off at the South Shore train station on Lake Street in Miller Beach — -a suburb of Gary where we lived. I was excited to go “on my own”, and as we sat on the train — Suzy with her friends and me with mine — I noticed that Suzy turned around frequently to check to see that I was OK. Once we got to the Randolph and Michigan station in Chicago, she continued to check on me as we made our way out of the station and directly to the Marshall Fields department store on State Street. We all stayed close together that afternoon…Suzy with her friends and me with mine…but she never lost sight of me once. Not once.
I think back upon that day often — -especially now. That day concretized for me the feeling that I had throughout my life in the company of my sister…that she was always looking out for me. Her exquisite paintings and mosaics of Chicago never fail to remind me of that special, beautiful, memorable day my big sister and I went to the big city on our own. It was then that I experienced something I had never experienced before in all of our previous visits there: The sheer power of our lifelong bond each time my eyes met her loving, protective glances. I miss her with a longing so deep that at times, it becomes nearly unbearable.
A few years later, when we were in college at Indiana University, my foremost recollection is how she watched over me — constantly. Suzy entered IU in the Fall of 1969. I came a short four months later in January, 1970, having graduated early due to a teachers’ strike in Gary Public Schools. I moved into the Forest dorm — just one floor up from my sister. Once that semester, I became ill with the flu, and Suzy would bring me soup and crackers each evening and orange juice in the morning until I was well. The next Fall, we were in the same sorority “rush” class, and during our time living at the AEPhi house, Suzy hovered over me, especially when I was sick. One evening, I was running a very high fever and Suzy came into my room at frequent intervals (for three days) to take my temperature and report back to Mom and Dad about how I was doing, and to get further care instructions. She was my big sister and she took that role seriously — doing everything she could to ensure my well-being. Having her there with me gave me so much comfort and a prevailing sense of safety under her watchful eyes.
Our love for one another only grew and ripened with time, and she knew her sense of concern and love for me was wholly reciprocated. With only good intentions and not knowing what other words to use, people said after her passing in late February of 2017 that I would grow accustomed to the new “normal” of my life. Oh, how I loathe that term. New normal? Really? As if I could ever get used to the daily rhythms of life that would rise, and then slow and ebb, only to rise once more without her. I have yet to experience (or perhaps acknowledge and accept) this new “normal”. Can it be because Suzy comes to me nightly in my dreams..so…ALIVE? In these dreams, we are together doing the things we once enjoyed doing as sisters. We are browsing through fashion magazines. Talking about boys. Gossiping. Going on miles long bike rides. Swimming in Lake Michigan. Laughing together with our children. Walking in downtown Chicago. Eating out with friends. Enjoying Passover Seders together. Mom is in my dreams too much of the time, but Suzy is there without fail. Every. Single. Night. She does not counsel me not to grieve, nor does she speak to me from somewhere “beyond.” She is simply Suzy, my beautiful, talented, eternally wise, brutally honest, loving sister, who I am overjoyed to see every night. I invariably ask of her welfare during these dreams, because I am aware that she is desperately ill (though she looks to be healthy), but she brushes it off saying, “I’m fine right now.”
That she appears nightly in my dreams is a gift that I just cannot measure. And in the daytime, I pass her works and Mom’s (also a fine artist) on the walls of our home, whisper something to them, and tell them I love them still. And to Suzy, I say that I’ll see her later…and I always do. I will love my sister fiercely until the end of my days.
Soon, Losing Suzy, Part II — “I’ll be around…just in a different way.”