My sister, Lois, died on a Sunday last January at age 74. She died peacefully in her sleep due to complications from diabetes and heart problems.
My brother and I, younger by four and five years respectively, decided to speak at the service commemorating her life. When David said, “Let’s tell of some happy and funny experiences with her,” I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. What I remembered was her irrational behaviour and her discontent with life and the people around her. I remembered the family arguments when I was a teen. I was often blindsided by her deep anger.
Lois suffered from schizophrenia. Diagnosed in her 20s, she was hospitalized several times. In the 1950s and ’60s, little was known of this illness, and far less was ever spoken about it. Despite all of this, she attended teachers’ college in Fredericton and taught for 15 years in New Brunswick and Alberta.
For the past eight years, my sister lived in Saint John, N.B., in a high-rise seniors’ villa with other fairly independent residents. Her diabetes and mental health were monitored and medicated by the resident nurse, doctor and a mental health professional.
My partner Don and I drove from Nova Scotia to plan her service and clean out her apartment. As we walked into the lobby, several residents introduced themselves and spoke of Lois as a beautiful person, a good friend whom they would miss very much. “She was so outgoing and cared for each of us,” someone said. I was handed a sympathy card filled with about 30 signatures. I did a mental double take. Was this the sister whose words so often wounded me during our lives?
As the week went on, we learned that Lois had thrived in this community. My brother and I had seldom visited her, perhaps once a year, as she would often panic and call to say she did not want to see us. However, weekly phone calls were tolerated. She had told me of several close friends, especially her companion Tom, who took her for drives. It was only in the past two years that I could say, “I love you, Lo,” and have her reply, “I love you too, Em.” Grace wafts in on quiet wings.
The funeral was to be held in the residence where Lois lived; her community lived here, too. When the morning came, the chapel was filled with nearly 100 people. David opened the service, laughing as he recalled how Lois would tell us scary stories in the basement when we were little. We would run upstairs, shivering and shaking, then run downstairs for more. I also managed to find some positive memories, like the times Lois and her friend Sue, in their early teens, dressed up as “elegant ladies” and had a tea party on our front lawn — white gloves, long dresses, fancy hats and all. I was the maid in black skirt and white apron.
Both Don and I are retired United Church clergy, so I read scripture with an Anglican minister, and the villa’s chaplain and Don gave a poignant committal for Lois.
I came away from that week feeling a psychic change: instead of anxiousness, my heart now held deep pride for my sister. I applaud her for her journey, difficult and frightening at times. Yet Lois was gifted with joy and love in her last decade. Each moment of that week, each interaction with residents or staff, each box of photos sorted felt holy. The painful memories of the past are placed in a chalice of understanding, while the image of my intelligent and courageous sister dances its beauty across my consciousness. Her death was truly a resurrection — for me.