March 10th, 2021
By ~ Joy Jech
Artist of Beach Painting Unknown
There is a meeting of souls that happens sometimes, an unspoken sisterhood that dances with recognition. My sister-in-law and I have a special saying about who we are to each other; "sisters beyond blood." For us, our ethereal sisterhood has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the heart and the spirit. Of course, if you're an atheist like our family friend Idun, you might see this phenomenon differently. She might call this "a meeting of like-minded people in this one tangible life."
My biological sister and I go way back. Since our mother was a baby, we were there together, nestled in the hammock of her ovaries. To be fair, our brother was there too, but this is a story about sisters. Unlike boys who produce sperm throughout their lifespan, baby girls are born with all of the eggs they will ever have. Over the course of a female's lifetime, these little bundles of DNA will drop one by one into her womb with the fullness of each passing moon and the invitation to bring forth new life.
Our grandmother, Anita, was born in Eden, Idaho, on November 24th, 1917. Depending on how you define the self, in a purely biological way, if nothing else, half of my mother was born that day, right along with our grandmother. Practically microscopic, my mother waited there silently, patiently for twenty-three years. Until, with the Zen-like precision of the Tao, she chose the perfect moment to let go. She was rewarded for her superb timing and made whole in a sweaty matrimonial moment of rapture. Her gooey, complete, and perfect self was finally born on December 5th, 1940.
Science tells us that by this day, my sister and brother and I were all cuddled up together inside of her ovaries. Well, half of who we would one day be, anyway. Following in her footsteps, we quietly prepared for our entrance into this world. Waiting, we were there the day our mom learned to walk, the day she got bit in the butt by a horse, and the day she almost drowned in the irrigation ditch but was rescued by their ranch dog, Pepper. We were there with her as she walked for miles to school every day in the deep snow of Pendroy, Montana, where she was sometimes teased and called "Carrot Top." We were there for her heartbreaks, her triumphs and fears, and even on the lonely nights. We were there.
My sister Jenna was eight years in front of me in line for life. I imagine this must mean that even when we were huddled together in our mother's ovaries, she was already ever untouchable.
When I was little, whenever Jenna would allow me to be in her presence, I was momentarily relieved of my lonely childhood. Since most of that time she was a teenager, it was not as often as I had wished. In those precious moments, I tugged on her coattails and looked up to her decisive face, scanning for clues as to who I might one day become.
My relationship with Jenna shifted in my teenage years as we started to spend more time together. One hot summer night, I brought some LSD with me when I visited her in Seattle. In general, Jenna was pretty straight-laced, but I had a way of rebel-rousing her to explore the inner worlds that psychedelics offer. We sat on the old carpeted floor of her apartment, coloring and talking about our family dynamics. The window was open, and the breeze brought intermittent wafting of cigarette smoke from the passers-by. Jenna's smile seemed to take up her whole face when she brought up the time I took the Green Tortoise hippy bus from Seattle to Santa Cruz to visit her there at college when I was just thirteen. "Remember how we cruised all over the streets of that city? Me on my bike and you in rollerblades. I pulled you along as you hung on to the back of my seat for dear life!"
"Yea, that was so fun!" I was fond of that memory, too, since it was the first time in my life she had let me into her world. Then my enthusiasm dropped to a more serious tone. "Do you remember how on one of those excursions you asked me if I would be sadder if you died or if mom died?"
"Of course I remember; you answered mom." Jenna wrinkled her forehead and shone her electric eyes at me in a put-on pout.
"Yea. And then when I asked the question back to you, you said you would be sadder if I died because we are sisters. You said, 'We have our whole lives together. Mom is going to die one day, but we will still have each other.' I've been thinking about that lately, and I get what you mean now."
She grinned up at me and winked. "Good! I knew you just needed a few more years to come around. Now, pass me the red, will you?"
At some point, we decided to venture through the University District's streets to find the grocery store. Our eyes were playing tricks on us in the dark. Thinking we saw gang activity, we ran and hid behind a car only to look again and realize it was merely regular people out walking just like us. We fell to the ground behind the car in hysterics before we were able to collect ourselves enough to make it to Albertsons.
On another visit to Seattle, while waiting for my sister in her fifth-floor apartment on Capitol Hill, I decided to stroll down the hall and knock on her friend Idun's door to kill some time. The two of them had just returned that summer from two years of college in Marburg, Germany, where they met. They had hit it off so swimmingly that Idun decided to come back to Seattle with Jenna, where they could move into the same apartment building and explore the city together. To a young untraveled high school student like myself, Idun and Jenna were cultured and intriguing. Jenna was studying foreign language and was on a mission to travel the world and become a Spanish teacher. Idun was a librarian, a historian, and becoming a German translator. They were both fluent in three languages.
Tap, tap, tap, "Hello?" I called out over the loud music. The door swung open, and there Idun stood in a messy old classic apartment full of books. The mix of musty with new paper smell alone transported me back to my last trip to the library. There were books everywhere--on the bookshelves, on the coffee table, and the kitchen table. One wall was made up of bricks entirely and met a well-worn wood floor also scattered with books. As she scurried, tripping over her novels to get to the stereo and turn it down, I called out, "Cool tunes! What band is this?!" When she spun around to reply,
"The Ramones!" I could not miss the way her chestnut brown hair danced about her, draping clear to her knees.
My eyes grew wide with amazement. "Oh my God! Your hair is so long!" She shrugged and started spinning the substantial mane into a twist that would land almost to the top of her head. Even though Idun had a gregarious and enchanting cadence about her, she also had just enough humble nerd vibe going on to put anyone at ease. And her smile did not hide from her face often, exposing her zest for life. Everything interested her. To my pleasant surprise, this included me.
Sauntering toward the kitchen, she looked back at me, "You want a beer"? The sparkle in her eye said it all. This was a meeting of two rebellious young women. Okay, so one of us wasn't quite a woman yet, but Idun had a way of making me feel like we were standing on even ground. I tried to sound cool, "Sure." She handed me a Heineken and raised her's high in the air, "Prost!" I lifted my bottle, and that was the start of our sisterhood.
From that point forward, she came with Jenna to the family farm for almost every gathering we had. Each year that passed, she became further etched into our family tree. Since she wasn't blood, nor was she married in, she couldn't be one of the leaves. So we carved her name into the trunk.
After the family festivities at Christmas time, you might have found Jenna, Idun, and I "prosting" in the hot tub at the farm on Dry Slough road under a dark and star-splattered sky. Together they told me stories about Germany and their travels across Europe. Jenna described the cultural differences. "It's more crowded there, and people don't care if they get too close to you the way they do in the states. At the grocery store, someone might bump into you, and they won't even bother to say 'excuse me.'"
Idun clarified, "Yea, it's not considered rude. It's just a completely different relationship to personal space. You get used to it." She went on, "They also go naked or topless a the beaches there. Bodies are not over sexualized in the same way they are here."
Although Jenna and Idun had inspired me to travel the world, my fate turned in a different direction when at age twenty, I gave birth to a fiery redheaded baby boy. I named him Mountain and raised him on my own while going to midwifery school in Portland, Oregon.
At some point, Jenna met her goal of becoming a high school teacher, was married, and bought a house in the outskirts of Seattle. When she had a son, we welcomed another redheaded baby into the family, Julian. Idun moved into a small bedroom in the upstairs of Jenna's house and was like the Aunt everyone wishes they had to Julian. The two of them became very close. This room was much smaller than her old apartment, so there was less space for the books. Now her books might as well have been very thick wallpaper because you couldn't see past them to the walls. When I traveled from Portland to Seattle to visit my sister, I often ended up hanging out up there with Idun drinking Corona after my sister had gone to bed.
Inevitably, Idun would end up giving me some sort of history lesson until we could hear the birds chirping outside her window. On one of these nights, we scoured through an old box of family photos and letters from the late eighteen hundreds. Idun told me all kinds of things she could decipher about our family history by looking at the pictures and reading the letters. "Your family had money. You can tell by the clothes they are wearing and all the photographs. You wouldn't be able to have so many photos taken in that era if you didn't have the money to pay for it either. And most people didn't." I was fascinated by all that she knew. Of course, I didn't remember everything from the lesson the next day, the hangover took care of that, but somehow that didn't matter. Idun was a blast to be around, and her thirst for knowledge infected me.
She used to tell me, "You Jech's are the smartest people I know. I wish I could be as smart as the Jech's." I tried to let her words settle somewhere into my feelings about myself, but I couldn't help but think that was crazy. She was the smartest person I knew. What I had learned in my youth from the media and school socialization was that what mattered for girls was to look good. But Idun planted a seed in me that I could own my intelligence. And intelligence might even be cool.
When Mountain was nine, we started receiving boxes of books in the mail from Idun. They were all for him, and he devoured them. To name a few of the books she sent; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, and The Carpet People by Terry Pratchet. When many things in his life were hard, he now had books. Mountain climbed the rungs of the lifeline she threw him, and chapter by chapter explored other worlds. After that, on our trips to Seattle, it was him that spent time with Idun into the wee hours of the morning. She searched universities abroad online to expose him to all that was possible for his future. She turned him onto Bollywood movies, more and more books, travel stories, and culture, all with that great big laugh of hers.
These shared times waxed and waned. Over time when the stark differences between Jenna and I began to reveal themselves, they just waned. On the path of life, my sister has always paved her road wide like a five-lane highway that goes on for miles. She laid out a clear plan for achieving exactly what she wanted, the way she wanted it. After high school, she went to college, traveled, became a teacher, bought a condo, found a husband, bought a house, and then had a child. All destinations were tidy and clearly marked. It was almost like this approach allowed her to fasten her seatbelt and switch into autopilot whenever she wanted to. It was her way of taking care of herself. We came from a "take care of yourself" kind of home.
My way is different. I came into this world with a machete in one hand, a blazing torch in the other, and headed straight for the jungle. I cleared as I went and made decisions on the fly. An obstacle? I'd find a way around it. I was like a girl on fire, moving with the shifting wind. Driven by a thirst for thrill and intimacy in human connection, I went by feel.
I wanted to confide in Jenna about the challenges of my untethered life, but when I tried it seemed to make her feel uncomfortable. Over time, I stopped sharing and mostly listened. Our connection eroded in the wake of this new dynamic, and we visited each other less and less.
On one of these infrequent visits, I stopped in Seattle to see Jenna on my way to our mother's place in Skagit Valley. Pulling into her driveway, I turned off the car, threw my tote over my shoulder, and made a break for her covered porch. I knocked and shivered while watching the drops of rain slide down the tendrils of my hair and scatter onto the deck. Staring at the plants in terracotta pots surrounding the entrance, I wondered how they felt hearing that rain pelt loudly on the glass ceiling while they sat thirsty right underneath yet unable to drink. Maybe they feel quite like I do, I thought.
The door swung open. Jenna greeted me with a smile and her flashing blue eyes. "Come on in! Let me take your coat. You want some hot tea?" Heading for the heater vent in the living room, I gratefully accepted. The wood floor was hard under my weight, but I welcomed the warmth pushing through the duct and onto my back. My eyes rested on a familiar painting she had brought back from Mexico years before. Diego Rivera's iconic image of a native woman wearing colorful traditional Mexican attire knelt and seemed to offer me the bouquet of Calla Lilies she held in her arms.
"Tea's ready!" Jenna appeared at the dining room table, holding two steaming mugs. She started telling me about some issues arising between her and Idun. "Idun is reading the books to my son that I should be reading to him. I feel like she's taking my place with him. She doesn't ask me first if I want to read him classics like The Lord of The Rings. She just gets started, and then I can't take over because she's so damn good at all the different characters' voices; I just can't compete." Her eyes turned glassy, and her words caught in her throat before she shifted to something less personal.
"It drives me crazy that she refuses to drive. She's still harming the environment. She's just using my gas and my time to do it! She and my husband are now at odds too. I don't know how I can keep the peace in my marriage with her living here." She paused, taking a sip of tea.
I took a deep breath considering her words. I myself was gasping for air caught in life's undertow. Still, I tried my best to sympathize. "That does sound hard. But, you two have been great friends for a long time. I'm sure you can work it out."
She batted the idea away. "I don't see how." Then she lamented about some other friendships she had been trying to form who weren't reaching back to her with the same enthusiasm. I listened and offered feedback for a while until my thoughts drifted back to the plants on the covered porch and how they couldn't even get a drink in this downpour with that damn glass, sealing out the sky.
She must have noticed my retreat because the "what's been up with you lately" formality flew from her lips. I took a deep breath while my inner self warned, don't do it, don't do it. She doesn't really want to hear it.
Then a flood of words burst from my mouth with the momentum of an old and tired hope to be heard. "I don't know what to do. I don't think I can stay with my husband. He used to be so good with Mountain. But now that Mountain is getting older, Gemini is isuddenly the one acting like a teenager. His emotions are all over the place, and the other day he actually called Mountain an 'asshole.' I can't keep…"
My words were cut short by her tension. "It sounds like you should see a therapist." She had a shut-down look in her eyes. The kind of self-preservation that I had seen so many times before. In that look lived the expanse of the Skagit River by our mother's farm. She stood casually on one side, and I knelt on the other.
Clearing my throat, I looked away. "Maybe you're right."
She stood and gathered both of our empty mugs, "I need to make a trip for groceries; you want to come along?"
"Sure," I shrugged.
It wasn't long before Idun moved out of Jenna's place. Jenna and I continued to stoke the embers of our friendship over family get-togethers just enough to keep it from going out entirely. Idun no longer came with Jenna to the farm for the holidays. Our lives got busy. And that's how Mountain and I lost touch with Idun, the wild intellect who inspired us to recognize our own intelligence.
My marriage dissolved, but my midwifery practice thrived, and I loved my work. One night I lay in bed with my youngest boy sleeping beside me after a long day of prenatal appointments. Scrolling through Facebook on my phone, I came upon a rare post from Idun. My breath froze as my mind processed the words I read on the screen. "I have terminal brain cancer (seriously terminal!) WISHING YOU ALL WELL."
Glioblastoma is a fatal brain cancer that causes the affected person to rapidly lose their mental faculties, followed by a slew of unthinkable symptoms until they find their way to their grave.
Reading through the comments, I discovered she had already had surgery to remove what they could, but the doctors gave her less than twelve months to live. I did not comment on the post. It seemed too big to touch when I hadn't even seen her in a couple of years. No, this needed direct contact.
I immediately thought of Jenna. The next day I called my sister for the first time in over a year to see if she knew about Idun's condition.
"Hello?" Her voice on the other end wasn't warm, but it was not curt either.
"Hi," I stuttered slightly, getting the first words out. "I was calling because I saw on Facebook that Idun is sick. Do you know about this?"
A short silence was followed by, "In the last couple of months that she was here, she kept telling me she was having seizures in her brain. I couldn't see anything happening. I asked her what she wanted me to do about it. If she was having seizures in her brain, then she should see a doctor! I didn't know what to think, but what did she expect me to do? You know Idun; she's eccentric and set in her ways. She wouldn't see a doctor. Just like she will never cut her hair and never get a car. That's all I know. I haven't talked to her since she moved out." This time, a long silence as I realized Jenna did not know Idun was terminal.
"Jenna, she has brain cancer, and she is going to die. You need to reach out to her. You will never forgive yourself if you don't make things right with her before she dies."
Her cavalier attitude turned to shock, "Wait, what?!"
"Jenna, I am so sorry."
A few days later, my phone rang. "Hey, Jenna!"
She got straight to the point. "I tried to reach out to Idun. I called, I sent a card and went to her house. She won't speak with me, and she definitely won't see me."
"Really?! Why not? I can't imagine how scared she must be right now. I'm sure she will come around. Don't stop trying."
A few days later, my mom came to visit us in Portland. She had brought Jenna's son Julian to say goodbye to Idun over lunch on her way. She discovered Idun was planning an assisted suicide and had picked out a date, 11/11/2014, Veteran's Day. The thing Idun valued the most in this life was her mind. I had a pretty good idea why she made this decision; she wanted to go before it did. But I was still stunned to hear we didn't have months to reconnect. We only had a couple of days!
I went for a walk through the neighborhood and called Idun myself to say goodbye. My feet crunched through the afternoon sunlit piles of yellow, brown, and golden leaves fallen beneath the deciduous trees. With heart-pounding palms sweaty and my breath quick, I gathered the courage to hit the call button. What can you say to someone you love who's leaving this world in a couple of days? While on the phone, she invited us to come to her "Last Night On Earth Party." I said we would be there.
I went back into the house to make sure Mountain and my mom wanted to come. Neither of them hesitated to start packing their bags. The next day we drove straight to Seattle to meet "the party" at the boardwalk. On the way there, we sat in heavy silence.
After parking the car, I stepped onto the city street and took a deep breath of fresh ocean air. Looking up at the stars sparkling in the night sky, our reason for being there felt like a dream.
When we found Idun among all the people, I noticed there was something different about her. And it was more than her missing hair. She had a radiant presence that seemed to live in the acute awareness of her own transience. She appeared to meet the fullness of the moment with her whole being. And her diagnosis did not diminish her big welcoming smile. Running her hands across the smooth roundness of her head, she moved first to embrace Mountain. Now, at sixteen, he towered above her, and she looked small in his arms. It was hard to believe she would just be gone tomorrow.
When a person's fate allows them to see death approaching, there is a unique invitation to step completely into the present moment. There is no longer a future to consider. And maybe the past becomes like a fading dream. Idun took this opportunity and claimed these last moments among us.
About twenty people in the party started walking along the boardwalk in small groups of three or four. The marina lights reflected and danced upon the water as she moved between us along the strip that hugged the Puget Sound.
Being cold is something I typically avoid at all costs. I'm skinny, and it makes my bones hurt. As we walked, I found myself thinking, I wish I had worn different shoes and thicker socks. My feet are so numb! Why would Idun want to be so cold in her final hours on earth? Just then, guilt rode in on the frigid wind that pressed my back, slipped up my jacket, and invaded my warm body. How dare I wish to rush any part of this? Just because of my frozen feet!? This is Idun's last night on earth!
When she joined up with our small group of three, we split off one at a time so she could have a little time alone to talk with each of us. When it was my turn, she took my hand, and we walked and talked about the sculptures of marine vessels that we passed along the way.
"So, what's new with you?" She asked me after a while. What I was doing seemed irrelevant, but I told her how I had just bought a sailboat and planned to get rid of all my belongings and sail it back home to the San Juans to live on it there.
"That is so cool! I love sailboats!" her voice pushed into the wind and met my ears just like it would have on any other night. I forgot about my freezing feet and slipped into her moment in its totality. From this silent space, her vulnerability emerged, "I can't believe my time is up," her voice cracked slightly to eke out the words.
I squeezed her hand. "Me neither."
We didn't talk of Jenna. Maybe I should have brought it up, but I knew that her response or lack thereof to Jenna's attempts at reconnecting was her choice, and she must have had her reasons. I wasn't there to talk her into anything. I was there to love her, support her, and honor her.
After a couple of hours passed, we turned around, and Idun escorted the group to the Chowder House for dinner. When I walked through the door, the warm air hit my face, and the chorus of people talking under the soft light offered a welcome and soothing ambiance. We all huddled by the door, waiting as Idun spoke with the hostess. Then we followed her in a single file line and made our way to one very long table in the center of the restaurant. I happened to be right behind Idun, so I had the privilege of sitting next to her in the middle. This is so much like The Last Supper, I thought as I took my seat. I felt both lucky and unsure if this spot would have been better suited to someone else.
Her sister and mother sat across the table. It was the first time I had met her family. Her sister was beautiful and kind with a big open smile like Idun's. But her quivering lip revealed the grief behind it. Her restless eyes jumped from mine to the chandelier and back down, landing on Idun.
Most of the other people there were friends from her book club, and the conversation centered mostly around books. Idun told me she had been up all night the night before so that she could finish a great read, Transitions by Ian M. Banks.
"I had to find out the ending!"
Feeling more than I wanted to, my insides quaked and refused to settle. As the waitress made her way around the table, I felt a familiar eagerness to order a beer. She took Idun's order before she got to me, and I noticed that Idun did not order a drink. Peculiar, I thought, she loves beer!
I was not dissuaded. "An IPA, please. I'll go with your Space Dust."
Once the waitress had passed us, and everyone else was still distracted ordering or choosing their food, I asked Idun why she hadn't ordered a beer. "I quit about a week after discovering I was terminal. For as long as I am here, I want to feel everything. As much as I love the taste of beer, it doesn't allow me to do that," she said.
"Good for you," I responded sincerely and searched my reservoir for any motivation towards my own sobriety. When the waitress came back around and set my foaming cold beer down in front of me, I looked at Idun, who was already wholly engaged in a conversation across the table. Then I looked back down at my beer. Maybe I'll quit tomorrow, I thought.
When my glass was empty, I excused myself to use the restroom. Exiting the bathroom stall, I found my mom and Idun talking in hushed tones in front of the sink. They moved over so I could wash my hands, and then I joined them. Idun was talking about tomorrow evening's plans for her death. Without thinking, I spoke from the heart.
"Do you want us to come, Idun? To be there for you tomorrow?"
A tear escaped down her cheek, which was countered by a smile. "I would like that."
"Then we'll be there," My mom said. I nodded and we all hugged.
When we arrived at Idun's house the next evening, she graciously greeted us at the door. "Come on in! I'm so glad you could make it! I guess you already met everybody last night." There were flowers on the coffee table and about ten people sitting around talking. If we hadn't known we were going to a unique kind of wake that would start just a couple of hours before the guest of honor would die, we might have thought we were showing up to a birthday party.
Idun was a gracious host, "follow me, and I'll show you to the snack table." We followed her into the kitchen, and I asked her where the bathroom was. Pointing to the stairs, she fluttered away to do some more mingling. There was a spread of baked goods laid out across the table. We stood in front of it and looked at each other. None of us made a move on the food. Instead, we awkwardly started making our way back to the living room. "I'm gonna run to the bathroom; I'll meet you guys in there," I told them.
I walked up the stairs and saw two women who hadn't been out with us the night before sitting at a small table. Without thinking, I asked the casual question, "Bathroom?" pointing around with my finger. As they looked up to reply, I noticed they were carefully involved in pouring powders from tiny capsules into a cup. For a second, I froze as I realized it's the Death Doulas.
When I returned to the living room, I sat next to Mountain on the floor. My mom was sitting next to us on the couch. I reached for a small photo album displayed next to the flowers on the coffee table. When I opened it up, Mountain and I discovered photo after photo of my sister Jenna. Jenna and Idun in Germany, Jenna and Idun in Seattle, Jenna and Idun on Orcas Island, Jenna and Idun at Dry Slough. Among the photos there were some sprinkled in of just about every member of our family on various adventures which Idun had joined us on.
One of her roommates leaned over and said, "She looks through this album every day." My mom looked over at me in curiosity, wondering what the roommate was referring to. I handed her the photo album. When she opened it and flipped through the first few pages, our eyes locked in mutual disbelief. Our shared exchange seemed to ask, If she was looking through this album full of Jenna pictures every day of her final few months on earth, why did she refuse to see her? Why did she refuse to make amends?
Just then, Idun squeezed through Mountain and me and made her way to sit next to my mom on the couch. After a few minutes, my mom started to rub Idun's back. At which point I heard Idun say, "Don't do that. It will make it too hard to go."
"Okay, I understand," my mother lowered her arms. I looked down, pretending not to notice, and fell into my thoughts. I wondered if maybe for the same reason she couldn't let my mom rub her back, she couldn't make amends with Jenna. Perhaps she loved her so much that making their relationship right again might have made it just "too hard to go."
Suddenly I heard the sound of Idun's loud jest toward Mountain, "You don't know the chicken dance?!" Then she promptly jumped up and announced, "Everybody, here is your lesson in the chicken dance!" Then singing a tune, she unabashedly bent her hands in towards her armpits and started flapping her arms like wings, shimmied down, and shook her tail feathers. A few of us jumped up to join her, and for a brief moment, we all laughed and forgot the evening's plans.
The next thing we knew, we were all following her down the stairs and into the basement. A couple of glaring fluorescent lights in the background hardly cut the dark and musty overtone. There was a tall workbench table against the corner. Grime and cobwebs streaked the windows. She didn't hesitate to take her final seat on the bench. "I meant to spruce up the place, but I never got around to it." She laughed, wiping a few of the cobwebs away with her hand. "You know the original owner of this house used to work down here. He was a maker," she told us as she reached up to tap the old cracked hanging light that now swung softly above her head.
Mountain, my mom and I held on to each other as we stood witness among the other guests gathered around Idun. Her voice filled the dingy space, "Mother, will you please tell us all again? What is the prognosis of this disease?"
Scientifically, her mother answered as if she was a physician making her rounds, "Idun has been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive malignant brain cancer. There is no treatment for this disease. If left to run its course, the patient will endure a slow and painful death."
Wasting no time, the two Death Doulas came forth. One of them held out a cup of liquid poison, "Are you ready?"
"Yes." Without a moment's hesitation, she knocked back the liquid as if it were a shot of whisky. The room fell quiet. Idun cut the silence. "Well, don't just stand there. Somebody say something."
No one said a word. So I offered Idun an adventure upon which to rest. "We will be sailing our boat to the San Juan Islands soon with your name on the side. Picture the sails full with the swift wind, cruising through the waves in the sun. Of course, there will be whales. We will prost to you, Idun Reisender."
Her last words were almost curious, informative; they echoed against the cement walls. "I'm starting to see double." And then she fell back onto the table, dead.
Her mother and sister let out their repressed sobs in unison, and someone asked that we give the family some space. That was the last time we saw Idun. Everybody but her immediate family made our way back up into the living room and sat in silence for a while before we began to share Idun stories.
Mountain and I drove back to Portland the next day. I had mothers on the verge of giving birth to see. I had brand new babies just a few days old to check up on.
There were things that occurred in the aftermath of Idun's death that I was not expecting. As I went about my days, my mind replayed a loop. Idun was sitting there talking to us and joking one moment; she drank the poison and then fell back dead. This imagery haunted me. Over and over, the scene repeated for weeks as I tried to wrap my mind around the finality of death.
During this time period, I discovered there are many ways besides death to lose someone. You see, something else died along with Idun on 11/11/2014. My relationship with my sister Jenna would never be the same. To my surprise, my being there for Idun in those final moments was like a hot iron in my sister's side. The embers of our relationship turned to ashes. I discovered coming to life through the same set of fallopian tubes doesn't exactly exempt one from this kind of loss. The bond between sisters turned out to be as fragile as the eggs we rode in on.
When I tried to explain and offer my empathy for my sister's pain, she shut me out. Similar to the way Idun closed the door on her. On the surface, it may seem like she shut me out for a different reason. But Idun's choice was universally human. However good something feels-- it has the equal potential to hurt when it comes to it's inevitable end. Sometimes we turn away from our heart's longings because to let in all that love; we have to risk everything. Our open hearts break. So let them break because, alternatively, a closed heart shrivels.
I never got to tell my sister about the photo album or my reflections on why Idun wouldn't see her. Although I suspect our mother must have at least told her about the photos because somehow, my mother and Jenna found a way to repair this wound. I don't know why Jenna forgave our mom and not me for being there for Idun. I am left wondering and making up my own versions of her truth.
In my life, I have been faced with the option to find forgiveness for some unthinkable grievances or to carry the burden of resentment. What I have learned about forgiveness and letting go of pain inflicted by others, whether intentional or not, is that we do the work of forgiveness when the relationship is important enough to us to push through the pain and find our way to the other side. But for whatever reason should we choose not to let go and forgive, it is our own heart that suffers.
My wish for you, dear reader, is that you cherish your sisters. When death comes, don't let it drive a deeper wedge between you and the living. Receive its lesson of impermanence and embrace your loved ones with your whole heart, knowing that none of us will live forever. As for Jenna and I, our story is not yet over. Maybe we will find our way back to each other before this ride of life is through. Maybe we will end up back where we started, kicking it in the ovarian hammock together, waiting for another turn. Or if you see things through the atheist lens that Idun did, this is our one chance. This could be your one chance. Let's take it. ~ Joy Jech