It's been over two years since I've heard your voice.
The importance of saying what needs to be said before it's too late.
Yesterday marked two years since the last time I heard my sister’s voice. I still can’t remember the final words I said to her while she was conscious. So, I wrote about the importance of saying what we need to say to others before it’s too late.
Friends! Next Thursday marks two years since my sister’s death so I’m setting two ambitious goals that I’d really like your help in hitting: 500 subscribers to the newsletter and $50/month on Patreon. We’re at 420 subscribers and we’re up to 9 Patrons for $36/month now thanks to my cousin Lori — love you so much Lori P! To get to $50/month we only need six more Patrons at $3/month (since Patreon takes a cut). To hit 500 subscribers, I have a favor: If everybody reads this shares this with one person and encourages them to subscribe (for free!) to the newsletter, I’m virtually certain we’ll get to 500 in a week, so let’s do this!
If you’d like to buy me a cup of coffee a month — these newsletters are almost always written with a cuppa joe by my side — go to my Patreon and begin contributing $3/month! If instead of a monthly contribution, you’d like to drop a dollar or two as a tip, here’s my Venmo or PayPal. I hope to make a few extra bucks here and there to keep this up and commit more time to my writing and see where that takes me. Every dollar is dearly appreciated. And, as always: feedback, email replies, comments, and shares are also dearly appreciated. To have people support my writing in that way is one of the coolest feelings ever. Thank you all.
I was doing my treatment and she wanted to see Harley. Nothing made her happier than her Yorkies — first Coco then Harley — and calling them “My child.” Coco’s tragic death from anesthesia shattered our family a few short weeks after Nanna and our aunt Zizi Rose died. Pops didn’t originally want Coco but became so close to her that of course we had to get a new dog to mend the pain of her death. We found Harley. Harley’s personality — or doggonality as my dad says — is the antithesis of Coco’s; he plays all the time, is (generally) super sweet, and he’s even cuter (sorry Coco-nut).
She would FaceTime me without giving me a heads up whenever she was in the hospital. If I was in the middle of something, I’d either quickly text her “busy call u right back” or answer and see what she needed. It would annoy me when sometimes she wanted me to drop whatever so I could show her what Harley was doing — almost always he was doing nothing but sleeping.
The last time I spoke to my sister was over a FaceTime call. She called me after all the family left. About six weeks earlier, we told everybody what the doctors had told us: There were no remaining options and Alyssa was nearing the end, but it was impossible to know when that would be. She was admitted to the hospital towards the end of February. We told our extended family that she was feeling well enough to have visitors. Alyssa never wanted anybody to see her on a ventilator; it wasn’t vanity, it was to protect us. She knew it would destroy all of our family to see her in that state; maybe not suffering, but sure as hell looking like it with all of those tubes.
Death and dying are not the same. Dying is a process. For those that are designated terminal — cancer patients, end-stage cystic fibrosis patients with no hope for a transplant, or transplant recipients diagnosed with chronic rejection — the expiration date we’re all living with all the time is no longer abstract. Suddenly, there is a laser focus on the end. When a loved one is dying, it’s awkward. We shy away from the realities of it all when it’s apparent to the person dying that everybody is tiptoeing around the reality. Alyssa knew, whether or not we explicitly said it, that we were kinder, more understanding when she was dying. She knew when our family came to visit she had to put on a strong face and act like her normal sassy and funny self to ensure their final memories were good ones.
The day before our final conversation, I went downstairs to get her french fries. I was told to get them “extra extra” crispy. I said extra crispy, but dammit, she knew I didn’t say the extra “extra.” In front of everybody, she jokingly yelled at me. We were all laughing our asses off because she knew I’d make the mistake (but she was definitely actually upset haha). That night, some of my friends were bowling back home so I asked if she minded if I went to hang with them — we had maybe fifteen to twenty people visiting anyhow. She said she didn’t mind at all. The next day, when I took my cousin Maria to the airport, I expressed to her I felt bad that I had left; Maria said Alyssa emphasized to all of them how important it was that I went and that she didn’t interrupt that.
After returning from the airport, I decided to spend the Sunday at home. That’s when she FaceTimed me. She was clearly exhausted from channeling all of her energy for the previous 48 hours for everybody else. I can hardly remember the content of our FaceTime call aside from me showing her Harley. That night, my dad would call me around 2 am telling me her respiratory rate was changing and to get down there the next morning. For the next week, she was in and out of consciousness until she finally stopped breathing on March twelfth. I do not remember the last words Alyssa heard me say while fully conscious.
Dying is uncomfortable for everybody; maybe worse so for the family. How does one ask a doctor if it’s ethical or legal to continue increasing the pain meds until your loved one’s heart stops? How do you essentially sanction the death of a family member when you know they have no time remaining? Death is ugly and requires one to be as honest with ones’ self as possible. On the last day of her life, her palliative care doctor sat with us. A young resident named Priya came with him. As they were about to leave, Priya asked if she could come back after her shift to speak with us and get to know Alyssa a bit better.
Later that evening, Priya sat with us for quite some time. She had a calming presence. As she sat there, she held my sister’s hand. Alyssa was breathing deeply. She wanted to know about Alyssa’s life. We told her stories about my sister; we told her about how she had been a fighter from day one. We told her stories about us as siblings. We told her about how she would’ve loved Alyssa and how Alyssa would have loved her. In what was one of the most unspeakably difficult days of our lives, Priya was the presence we needed. Through tears, we told Alyssa’s story. Priya provided us an opportunity to reconcile that my sister’s life was coming to an end but her story wasn’t. Alyssa had an effect on Priya’s life as she lay there, dying. The memory of sitting there, laughing and crying with my parents and this resident I’d only known for fewer than 12 hours, is genuinely one of the best memories of my life. I will hold it dear forever.
I promised my sister we would be okay. I promised her I would take care of my parents. I promised her we would all find a new normal. It’s been two years since I’ve heard her voice and I’m still searching for so much. I find myself split between two opposites: “It’s already been two years, I should be over this!” and "It’s only been two years, how could I be over this?!”
I think back to Alyssa’s final eight days. Really, it’s all a blur. I shouldn’t be hard on myself that I can’t remember the final words Alyssa heard me say to her — I hope on everything I said “I love you” when I ended that FaceTime call — or if she heard all the things I said to her when she wasn’t fully awake. Priya told me hearing is the last sense to go so it’s likely she heard it all.
It is incomprehensible to me to think about all of this. So often we separate ourselves from our circumstances; rarely do we ever actually reflect or consider our lives. It’s a defense mechanism; if we were universally present, we’d never learn but if we spent all of our time reflecting, we’d never enjoy life.
We never know what our final words will be to the ones we love most. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to say final words when we know they’ll be our final words. While I can’t recall what my final words I said while my sister was awake, I am deeply grateful I got a chance to talk to her while she was still alive.
When I think back to what I told my sister in that week, I’m lucky I got to say anything at all but I’m also grateful that I didn’t leave anything unsaid. I told my sister how proud of her I was; I told her how she was a fighter but she didn’t owe us a fight anymore and she deserved peace; I told her we’d be okay.
I miss my sister every single day. I’m fortunate I said what I wanted to say to her. I hope you make sure to always say what you need to say to your loved ones. There will come a day when you’re no longer able to. Losing a loved one is hard, but never having the chance to tell them you love them again is harder.
I’d give anything to be annoyed to see her name pop up on my phone when I’m in the middle of something just one more time.
Thanks for reading. I know I’ve written about death a lot in the past few months, but I think it makes life a bit better when we recognize its finality and fragility. I promise to expand my topics more but this time of year is very tough. As of next week, since we hit my goal of $20/month on Patreon, the framework of the newsletter is going to officially change a bit. If you have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts!