Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Last Breath

A daisy dances on my kitchen windowsill. It is the plastic made-in-China sort, with a solar panel that when charged by the sun, stirs the flower to life and sets it swaying from side to side. Slender leaves simultaneously flap up and down as if trying to free themselves from the spot where I placed the little flower two months ago. Each morning the sight makes me smile, makes me remember my younger sister. The daisy first graced her windowsill.
Gatholyn Lee McIntosh took her last breath the evening of April 21, 2012. I know, because I was there, sitting at the end of her hospital bed, hoping for one more shared moment. I arrived in the wee hours of that morning after a fifteen hour drive spent rehearsing what I could say to perk up her spirits, to give her hope, to let her know I loved her.
I forgot it all when I held her frail hand, nails neatly lacquered in bright pink, her face thin and drawn, flush with unnatural color. I blubbered useless memories, asked stupid questions…the kind where I already knew the answer. When she complained of hearing voices I shut the door to her ICU room to mute the conversation of nurses and doctors, the squeak of rubber soles on tiled floors, the urgent warning clatter of machines.
“My sister and I got our blue eyes from our father,” I told the nurse. “Unlike me, she doesn’t have any strands of gray hair.” Gathy smiled at that, and for a brief instant I was reminded of daddy’s gentle laugh. I pretended cheerfulness and waited for her to die and, yet, when she took her last breath I was unprepared and surprised. It came quietly, almost softly, between one intake of air and the next.
In the days that followed I learned the extent of my sister’s growing paranoia, the real problem of excessive hoarding, the depth of her denial about the state of her illness. My daughter, husband, and I helped my niece sift through drawers, boxes, storage tubs, suitcases, and large plastic sacks. We found thousands of useless receipts dating from 1974 to the present, a collection of ancient holiday cards, newspaper and magazine articles, college papers, pamphlets, irrelevant legal records, and keys of all descriptions. We found decades of bank statements, cancelled checks, bible study notes, and every letter she ever received, including the ones I wrote to her.
We found letters and cards she had written, but never mailed. What we did not find was her will, her life insurance, her savings account, her car title, her safety deposit box information…what we did not find were the necessary documents to finish her last affairs, to put her to rest.
Fortunately, death is not an everyday companion to most of us, or surely we’d not be able to rise each morning. Yet, we know it lurks, if not for us, then for someone we love. Years ago, Gathy and I buried our grandparents and parents. We knew what it was to be left behind, to settle up with the funeral director and close out accounts. So, why had she chosen to keep secret all that we would need to finalize her departure from life?
Perhaps Gathy thought we’d surely find the hidden documents. If so, she overestimated her family’s detective abilities. The search goes on, encumbered by state laws governing death and the right of heirs. Alone, her daughter must now tackle a mountain of boxes stacked to the ceiling in a storage unit.
As for my husband and I, we’ve made sure our daughters know our affairs and where to find important information. The story behind each family heirloom is collected in a notebook so that history is not lost when our girls are faced with their cousin’s unenviable chore of what to keep and what to get rid of. We do this not only for our descendants. We do this for the ancestors that once claimed each aging item.
Those mornings that I rise early and stand at the kitchen sink and stare at the motionless plastic daisy, I am reminded of my sister’s last breath, how between one second and the next, life slips away and all is still.
Lately, I wait a bit to go in and start my coffee. I wait until the sun’s light moves past the back awning and comes through the window to set the flower to dancing again. It is then I remember camping out as children and wading along lake shores or through fields awash in wild flowers, or squirming at Easter time in organdy dresses with daisies appliqu├ęd across the front. I remember my sister, Gatholyn, and it makes me smile.

Did you know: Despite massive campaigns about the evils of smoking, lung cancer due to smoking is still the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. In the U.S., lung cancer is responsible for 29% of cancer deaths, more than those from breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. The lung cancer mortality for 2012 will not be known for several years, but my sister, Gatholyn, will have contributed to the total.