Love and Death
My sister-in-law, who was forty years old, died last week. A little over a year ago, she was diagnosed with a rare, inevitably fatal cancer; her death was therefore not a surprise. Still, the shock and horror–she died swiftly, her children are young, her parents are bereft, my stepbrother is devastated–of her death are undiminished by expectation, and there does not seem to be any way to make any of it all right.
I took my younger son to the funeral with me. We drove up the night before and slept over at my boyfriend’s apartment; the next morning, we took the subway to a commuter train, which whisked us north through a series of beautiful, affluent suburbs in full bloom. My son held himself carefully on the train, mindful of his outfit–a hand-me-down jacket that was slightly too big for him, a new pair of pants I’d bought for his piano recital the week before, and his very first tie, which my boyfriend had knotted for him that morning. Coming with me had been his idea. “Maybe it will be nice for the cousins if I’m there,” he said, and I said I supposed he might be right. My stepbrother’s older daughter is nine, the same age as my younger son, and his younger daughter just turned five.
Despite the coincidence of the two nine year olds, and despite the relatively short distance between our houses, my stepbrothers’ daughters and my sons have never been close. They’ve spent time together at family gatherings, of course. We’ve dutifully exchanged Christmas gifts and birthday presents and thank-you-notes, and we’ve kept track of each other via the family grapevine, but the kids don’t know each other well, haven’t grown up in each others’ orbits. And though my stepbrother and I were quite close when we were little–I wrote about our relationship, glancingly, here–we have not seen much of each other as adults. Sibling relationships wax and wane, especially when you grow up and out of the house, even more once you marry and have kids of your own. Once you start to spend holidays on your own or with your spouse’s family, you even lose the default see-you-at-Thanksgiving annual reunion. Of course, whenever I did see my stepbrother, the years fell away. But we crossed paths less and less the older we got, and I didn’t know his wife well at all.
Like my own ex-husband, she was not terribly interested in forging relationships with members of the family she married into. She was never obnoxious or rude about it; she simply kept her distance. This puzzled my parents, and my sisters, and me; was it something personal? Did she dislike us, were we coming on too strong, were we (an unlikely possibility) perhaps not coming on strong enough? When she and my stepbrother visited our parents’ house, my sister-in-law would excuse herself early (my stepbrother would follow) while the rest of us stayed up playing Boggle. During the day, she’d inevitably absent herself in some harmless way–reading in her room, for example–for hours on end. “Shit, I didn’t even know you could DO that,” my sisters and I exclaimed, marveling at her nerve. Imagine–instead of straining to interact with the in-laws, you simply don’t show up!
It is odd to write this. It feels like speaking ill of the dead. I do not mean to imply that I disliked my sister-in-law–the fact is, I did not know her well enough even to have an opinion. She was inscrutable, and her relationship with my stepbrother was a mystery. What we knew was that they seemed to adore each other, and not to need or want much to do with any of us. After her cancer diagnosis, they became even more private. They did not want to discuss her prospects or the diagnosis with anyone; they did not want anything but to be left alone to cope.
It is surprisingly difficult not to intrude when people you care about are going through a bad time. I had googled my sister-in-law’s particular cancer; the five-year-survival rate was, everywhere I looked, given as zero. “Most patients die within a year,” the Mayo Clinic bluntly said. “Do not ask us what treatment we are pursuing, or what we expect will happen, or what we think the prognosis is,” my stepbrother wrote in an email he sent out to family and friends. And so we did not ask. We talked among ourselves, of course. We worried. We were sad beyond measure, thinking of their children, thinking of my sister-in-law, facing death at what should be the prime of her life, thinking of my stepbrother, about to lose the wife he adored. But we were put off, individually and together, by their absolute insistence that we leave them be. (I should add that my stepbrother has, through hard work in a lucrative field, made a truly colossal amount of money. This made it easier to swallow the idea that he and his wife had everything under control. They had access to, and the means to afford, any medical treatment they chose. They had the resources to cushion the horror they were facing with anything money could buy. They had full time hired help–they did not need anyone to bake casseroles or babysit or walk the dog or take turns driving carpool.)
There was nothing we could do for them, in other words. And nothing was exactly what they seemed to want.
The morning of the funeral, my father and one of my sisters picked us up at the train station. My son, tricked out in his tie and jacket, shook hands solemnly with my father. My sister looked beautiful, and it made me very happy to see her. (Is there always a family-reunion aspect of funerals that runs like a strange countercurrent to the main event? Until last week, I had, believe it or not, never been to a proper funeral before.) When we got to the temple, and my sister’s wife handed me their seven-month-old baby girl, saying “I know you’ll want to hold THIS,” and my beloved aunt and my stepmother and my youngest sister and her intended surrounded us, there in the lovely spring sunshine, I was happy, and slightly shocked at myself for being happy. The baby waved her arms and kicked her feet with joy. My nieces–the little girls whose mother had just died–marched right up to my son and started chatting. My stepbrother looked hollowed out by grief; still, he smiled when saw us, and hugged me hard and kissed me, and nuzzled my sister’s baby’s soft little head. There were pictures of his wife on the walls of the temple, pictures of their wedding, of their family on vacation, pictures in which she looked absolutely gorgeous, pictures in which she was clearly very sick. We were gently herded by the rabbi into an annex, where we stood with my sister-in-law’s family for a few minutes before the ceremony began. I tried to remember the last time we had all been in a room together, and couldn’t.
The ceremony was devastating. I do not cry easily or often, but by the time my stepbrother gave the final eulogy I, like everyone else present, was in tears. My son buried his face in my lap, holding me around the waist so tightly it hurt. “I never thought she would die,” my stepbrother said at one point during his speech, and my two sisters, sitting on either side of me, stiffened in disbelief. How on earth, I wondered, as my eyes brimmed and my throat threatened to close, could he not have known she would die? “Even her mom and dad said they didn’t realize how sick she was,” my father told me later, when we were back at my stepbrother’s house, surrounded by flowers and friends and food. “They kept everything so private, you see.”
I didn’t see, not at all. Two months before she died, my sister-in-law was rushed to the ER and put on life support. While she was there, my stepbrother sent a series of mass emails detailing her progress–something he had never done. They were businesslike, no-nonsense dispatches charting her condition–which tests were negative, which results came back inconclusive–up until their very last sentences. When my sister-in-law was extubated, my stepbrother closed by saying, “I love hearing her voice.” A few days later, he wrote, “My wife kissed me today.” From my stoic stepbrother, these moments of tenderness made public were extraordinarily moving. And then my sister-in-law was released, and the emails stopped coming.
In his eulogy, my stepbrother described their final hours at home, before he drove his rapidly worsening wife to the hospital where she would lose consciousness and die within a day. “We were getting ready, and I broke down and cried, uncontrollably,” he said. “And she asked me what was wrong.” He cleared his throat, swallowed. “I didn’t tell her,” he said, staring out over our heads with the look of a man who knows he’ll go to his own grave haunted by regret. But it’s not that he wishes he’d confessed, I thought. He wishes he’d been braver; he regrets weeping in front of her. My god, it’s not just us. They never acknowledged even between the two of them the fact that she was going to die.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” my stepbrother concluded, addressing my sister-in-law’s casket. “And so I won’t.”
We sat shiva at my stepbrother’s house for the rest of the day, if you can call it shiva when half the sitters are as anglo-saxon as it gets. It was a beautiful afternoon. My stepbrother’s older daughter found my son and me out in the garden eating lox and bagels (“There you are,” she exclaimed, hands on hips) and led him off to play. I stayed alone for a while, peaceful in the sunshine, forgotten by everyone. I was reluctant to look for my stepbrother, oddly skittish about seeing him after his speech.
In truth, his very expression, his thinly veiled desperation, his absolute refusal to accept what was inevitable, the fact that he had lived in fierce denial right up to and through the bitter end, spooked me a bit. The look on his face when he refused to say goodbye reminded me of the look my ex-husband wore for the dreadful months during which I insisted, and he refused to accept, that we simply could not stay married. My ex-husband, like my stepbrother, had thrived in what what a friend once called the “terrarium of modern-day marriage”. Whatever was left of his life after work, he poured completely into the little glass bubble that contained his wife and children, needing nobody else, wanting nobody else, refusing even casual relationships with anyone else. My stepbrother, an amiable guy, was not the type to build walls to keep other people at bay; but I had a feeling he’d been quite happy to let his wife build them for him, making it much easier for him to retreat into their private world. “Some people pick spouses who can put up those barriers, because they can’t manage to do it themselves,” a friend told me at lunch a few days after the funeral. And some people, I thought to myself, pick spouses who allow them to opt completely out of the social and familial whirl, because their spouses whirl along happily on their behalf.
Not all marriages are like this, of course. But they can be. Such insular devotion is often praised, even envied, and I daresay it’s all well and good until somebody dies or gets divorced. The difference is that my stepbrother’s refusal to accept the loss of his wife seemed moving, passionate, even noble, I thought. While my ex-husband’s behavior came across as deluded and horrifyingly sad.
This was a pointless, even cruel line of thought, and I quickly abandoned it. Since when was divorce anything at all like early death? Just then my son came back, alone, and sat down beside me with an odd look on his face. I asked whether he’d seen his cousins’ playroom, which I’d heard was rather epic. Yes, he said, it was full of those things–what are they called? Princess hotels? “Castles,” I said, smiling. “So I’m guessing not a lot of nerf guns or Legos.”
He shook his head. He’d been given a tour of the whole house, ending with both girls’ bedrooms, which my older niece had led him proudly through. One of the bedrooms was very pink, he reported; the other was not quite finished. “She told me that her mom was really good at decorations, but that she didn’t know who’d finish everything now,” my son told me. “And then she stopped and said, ‘I’m kind of freaked out that I don’t have a mom any more.”
Christ, I thought. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘I’m really sorry. It’s so sad for you and your sister.'” He hugged me again, but he did not cry. When I felt I could speak, I went to find my stepbrother. It was getting late. It was time to say goodbye.
The evening my sister-in-law died, my stepbrother sent a mass email telling friends and family that she had been admitted to the hospital the night before. “I love my wife more than she will ever know,” he wrote at the end. My god, I thought, this is it, and I typed a frantic response.
“Oh honey,” I wrote. “She knows. Believe me, she knows.” And then I hit send, and nothing happened, because the internet and phone and cable all over town were suddenly down. I hit send again and again, and then I picked up the phone, which had no dial tone. The message is still there in my drafts folder, because by the time the internet came back up, my father had called my cell to tell me that my sister-in-law was dead. Presumptuous of me, really, to think I’d have a final, helpful word, to think I’d be able to give solace at the end of a long sadness I’d never been part of or understood. Still, I wish I’d been able to send that message. I wish he’d read it, no matter what it might or might not have meant to him, before she died.