My sister, Jackie, died of brain cancer in January, 2003, and I brought at least a dozen vases of beautiful cut flowers home after the memorial service. I thought a houseful of flowers would brighten my spirits, but they only made me sad. Already, some the petals were going brown at the edges. We had spent a year and three months watching Jackie die, and I simply couldn’t stand the thought of watching these small, inevitable deaths now. So I took all the flowers to the basement and stripped the petals onto cookie sheets I set on the pool table: roses, daisies, lilies, lavender, snapdragons—every kind of flower, every color. Over the next weeks, watching them fade, dry, and shrivel up, I tried (I’m still trying) to believe that Jackie was really gone.
Her birthday was April 13 and, that first year after her death, my other sister, my daughters, and a group of Jackie’s women friends gathered for a dinner of all her favorite foods. I divided the flower petals, put them in glittery see-through bags, tied them with ribbons, and attached a little card to each with this quote from Jane Austen: “Where shall we see a better daughter or a kinder sister or a truer friend?” Which exactly describes the kind of person Jackie was. There was a bag for each of the women—and two extras, to be tucked into her sons' brides’ bouquets someday.
We’ve celebrated Jackie's birthday every year since then. Tonight, we ate pizza and birthday cake and toasted her--which made me miss her all over again.
I love this poem by Lisel Mueller, which I read at Jackie’s funeral, and find it more and more true as the years go by.
AFTER YOUR DEATH
The first time we said your name
you broke through the flat crust of your grave
and rose, a movable statue,
walking and talking among us.
Since then you’ve grown a little.
We keep you slightly larger
than life-size, reciting bits of your story,
our favorite odds and ends.
Of all your faces we’ve chosen one
for you to wear, a face wiped clean
of sadness. Now you have no other.
You’re in our power. Do we
terrify you, do you wish
for another face? Perhaps
you want to be left in darkness.
But you have no say in the matter.
As long as we live, we keep you
from dying your real death,
which is being forgotten. We say,
we don’t want to abandon you,
when we mean we can’t let you go.