Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
I wish I could say the same, but that’s not my song. I have a huge regret that has haunted me for many years. The saddest part is that I can never go back and make it different. It’s too late. My sister-in-law, Kim, is gone.
I still remember our conversations. Medical websites had her convinced that she had five years before she would die from breast cancer. She calculated that she would die at the age of fifty. Our conversations went like this:
“Anne, this cancer is going to kill me. It will spread to my bones and then to my brain.”
“Kim, stop talking like that. You’ll get chemo and radiation, and you’ll beat this. You have to be more positive.”
“No! No, I won’t beat it. I am going to die while my daughters are in high school. You and my brother have to promise to be there for them. This is so important to me. I can’t stop worrying until I know you’ll be there for them.”
“Kim, of course we’ll be there, but this is crazy talk. What does your doctor say?”
“I told him I don’t want to know, but I am telling you. I am dying.”
Never in my wildest dreams did I think she could be right. She was young, and spirited, and full of life. She was a kindergarten teacher who made a difference in kids’ lives every day.
Kim and I had always been close. We were like sisters for years. But then we had a kerfuffle over the simplest thing—a stupid pig roast! We were planning a catered picnic for her parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary surprise. When Kim asked how we’d get them to drive to our house two and half hours away, I said, “Easy. I’ll just have Scott call and say he’s having a surprise party for my birthday.”
I thought it was a genius idea, so I was shocked when she said, “Oh, they won’t come up for your birthday. You need something that involves the kids.”
I asked her, “Are you serious?”
She said, “No, they really won’t come up for a party for you. Think of something for the kids.”
I decided not to have their anniversary party. I had hurt feelings, but I told Kim that I didn’t want it to affect our relationship. Well, it did. Things were strained between us after that. I knew Kim didn’t mean any harm. She was just telling me the truth.
Years ago, my mother-in-law had breast cancer, and she underwent a mastectomy. After her surgery, she never mentioned the word cancer again. When Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer, she also had a mastectomy. She didn’t handle things the way her mom did. Kim sunk into a deep depression. The doctors told her that a mastectomy had a 95-percent cure rate, but Kim fell into the 5-percent range of cancer statistics. A few years later, the cancer resurfaced. There was cancerous growth near her spine, which needed to be radiated. The treatment and surgery resulted in her legs being paralyzed.
Within that same few years, Scott and his mom had an argument, a simple family disagreement. She’d also heard that I didn’t want to have that damned pig roast, and that put us in the doghouse. This wasn’t unusual. We had a family joke that her doghouse had a revolving door; every family member has been there. But this spat meant that she didn’t talk to us for years. Unfortunately, this kept us in the dark with Kim’s condition. You don’t get phone privileges when you’re in the doghouse… just silent violence.
At some point, my in-laws built an addition onto Kim’s house. The initial plan was that Kim and her husband would take care of her parents as they aged. A complete twist of fate changed all that. Now they were all living in the house, and still no one told us what was going on. We weren’t even aware that the surgery and paralysis had taken place.
When we finally learned about Kim’s condition, I said to Scott, “Oh, my God! We need to go see her. I miss your sister. It’s time to visit.”
“Are you serious? My mother is there!” he cried.
“Who cares? We need to go, and we’re going tomorrow.” So we made the two-hour drive with much trepidation. We had no idea what awaited us.
Well, no worries! Everyone was delightful. It was bizarre, but delightful. I sat down next to Kim and hugged her as soon as I saw her. I had missed so much time with her over something so trivial. She wore her hair cut short and highlighted. She looked healthy, except for the braces on her legs. She was perched on the love seat with her walker nearby. She wore black orthopedic shoes, and white plastic ankle supports. The metal braces were fitted into her shoes.
At one point, she wanted to go to the bathroom. “Turn your heads,” she told us. “I don’t want anyone to see how badly I walk.” She could barely get off the seat, and once she had the walker in place, she wobbled through the kitchen. “I have to will my legs to move, and it’s really slowing me down,” she said. She tried to joke about it, but it was heart wrenching to watch her push the walker.
When she came back and settled, she leaned over and whispered, “I have to wear adult diapers now. It is awful.” Then she changed the subject to her new short hairstyle. It was like old times. I was fluffing the back of her hair, feeling the cut. We laughed and joked, and I was sorry when we had to leave. She didn’t look, or act, like a person who was dying.
I called her a few days later and she sobbed into the phone. “I just want to unzip myself out of this body. I can’t even go in the store with my daughter to get a prom dress. Karin had to model for me at the window. All of the other moms were walking in with their girls. I can’t even buy a prom dress, Anne.”
She was crying so hard I could barely understand her words. She said she smiled when Karin got back to the car, but her sunglasses were hiding her tears. In a few years, her youngest daughter, Aubrey, would need a prom dress. She said, “I might not be alive then.” Again, I didn’t listen.
Kim and her husband never wanted to burden the girls with the truth about her cancer. They never wanted them to feel sad. She’d grieve while they were at school, but when they came through the door, she wore her happy face.
If I could buy those years back, I’d do things so differently. I’d sit with her; we’d drink tea, and I’d hold her while she cried. I’d listen and let her talk about how scared she was. I’d never let her go. I would ease her worries. Her biggest sadness was that her daughters wouldn’t have a mom. She’d miss their graduations. Her chair would be empty at their weddings. She’d never hold her grandchildren. She would have been the absolute best grandmom!
On her final weekend, we got a call from her husband on Friday night. She had fallen at home. She had actually said, “Oh, my God! I’m dying!” Her mom told her to stop talking like that. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital. We’d moved to Florida by then. We booked the first flight out the next morning. We were getting our rental car when our brother-in-law called us. We were too late. We sat in the sedan in disbelief.
She knew. She knew. She knew. And I didn’t listen.
My only one, small consolation is that I’d told her, “One of my biggest blessings is that we made amends. I missed you in my life.” There was silence.
Then she sniffled and said, “Awww… that’s sweet.”
After she passed, I prayed that I’d find a way to make amends somehow. A few months later, my prayers were answered. Scott and I had begun to volunteer at the VA Hospital, on their hospice floor. We make brunch for the patients and their families every Friday. It’s a special time. During our training, we learned the importance of listening to people who are dying. To let them talk might be uncomfortable to us, but it is so healing for them. I learned to listen.
I received certification in Healing Touch energy, and one day, I was asked to see a patient named Holly. She was terminal and just fifty years old. When I first met her, she was moisturizing her bald head. Since she had no visitors, I adopted her as family. I did everything for her that I wished I had done for Kim. I brought her dinners and desserts. We talked for hours on end. She told me about her three ectopic pregnancies, and that she was sure the babies were waiting for her in heaven.
Once she said, “Anne, you’re mothering me.”
I laughed and said, “No, I’m not. I’m sistering you.” We both laughed.
I told her about Kim and about my regrets. She said she understood what Kim meant. “There aren’t many people who want to hear sad stuff. It’s really hard to keep it all to yourself. It’s a very lonely feeling,” she told me. “You must have been close with her for her to tell you all those feelings.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t hear her,” I told Holly, with tears running down my cheeks.
Holly said, “I bet she knows you’re sorry. I’m sure she’s forgiven you.” She offered to tell her personally when she got to heaven.
I still have trouble believing that Kim is gone. I talk to her all the time. I just can’t get past that block in my heart that I was so deaf to her. When her daughters visit, we tell Kim stories to honor her. Sometimes, I think I can hear her laughing along with us. I miss her so much. Every morning I ask God to let her know that I am so sorry. I hope she’ll forgive me.
I sure hope she’s listening.