We made an agreement four years ago to never talk politics, this sister and me. We are night and day, sun and moon, opposites in so many ways. She has strong religious convictions and I’m a shoulder shrugger who says, “Who knows?” She is soft, sweet and civil and I am sandpaperish, rough and too direct on too many occasions.
When it comes to politics, the differences continue. We cancel out each other’s vote and four years ago before the General Election, we went from passionate discourse to out and out screeching at one another. Our argument didn't affect the election results but it hurt our hearts and friendship.
Inevitably and with stubborn resignation, we’d agreed to disagree and found pathways to loving one another that didn’t involve like mindedness. We knew from hard lessons learned that love does indeed cover a multitude of sins, including our own and one another’s.
We hadn’t seen each other for several months. This past Saturday, my sister came over to spend the afternoon in lazy and luxurious ways. She arrived complaining of having a stressful week due to her job and adding to her stress was word from her doctor who, upon examination, discovered her blood pressure had skyrocketed and a stronger dose of medication was prescribed. She was worried and exhausted to the core.
We had fun doing nothing, playing with the puppy dogs, laying on chaise lounges in the warm sun recalling even warmer childhood memories and then moving on to the new ones that surely were in store. Our parents had been gone for a long time and we found comfort in the company that one experiences with those who have shared the bloodlines of parents long gone and missed.
Sitting out on the deck after a meal of barbecued steak and vegetables plucked fresh from the garden, we settled into our chairs, enjoying the setting sun and full stomachs. Our memories relapsed and we went down a slippery slope and began talking about the upcoming election. Our voices quickly raised in volume and intensity, accusations were made and gauntlets thrown. Snippy retorts, like razors, were slicing egos to pieces and a bridge was beginning to burn.
My sister got up in a huff, threatening to leave and went into the house. I sat there with my arms folded stubbornly and thought, "Fine, good riddance. Who needs this?" But we caught ourselves quickly realizing the fruitlessness of our words and reigned ourselves in before the bridge had a chance to collapse, feelings were pummeled and dinner was ruined.
With a safer conversation pursued and as the sun sank down to bed, my sister changed course with an abrupt change in mood. She announced she was suddenly feeling nauseous and ill. I encouraged her to take some deep belly breaths and hoped the feeling would pass. She looked down and I noticed her mouth was shut tight, as if sutured together, and I coaxed , “You need to open your mouth to take a deep belly breath”. I waited for her response but there was nothing except the sounds of the crickets as they played hooky with the night.
Alarmed, I started calling her name and as before, there was no response. Suddenly, she lifted her head and her eyes were as wide open as a bowl of peaches. She bolted back in her chair as her body began to move in strange and unnatural ways. I jumped up from my seat to go over to her, calling out her name, yelling, anything to get her to respond to me.
By the time I reached her, her body had stopped twitching and her eyes were fixated on something far and unseen. The lights were on but no one was home, as they say. “This can’t be happening!” an inner irrational voice told me but yet here, right in front of me, there she was, motionless and vacant. I could see the puppies out of the corner of my eyes. They were standing in rapt attention watching the scene as if they were paralyzed with their own inability to affect a thing.
I resumed my loud begging, clapping my hands loudly in front of her, grabbing her shoulders, commanding her to look at me, urging her to come back to Now, now! Still nothing. My property was eerily complicit in its inaction as I ran inside the house to find my phone to no avail. Running back outside, I tried again to get her to come back from whatever dark and unconscious place she was in, yelling and sticking my face in hers, trying to get her to see me.
Mercifully, she came to. She looked at me with confusion and feebly grabbed at my arm. I was flooded with relief and asked if she wanted some water. She nodded to signify agreement and as I reached for the glass, her head tipped back once again and the whole thing started again.
Holy Mary, mother of God. My mind and heart were racing. I remembered where I put my phone and ran into the house to get it and called 911. My words went into rapid fire mode as I gave my address, explaining that my sister was unresponsive and didn’t seem to be breathing while I was simultaneously urging my sister to please, please, please, dear God, talk to me NOW. Nothing. Her lips were gray, her face was ashen white. I listened closely and couldn’t detect breath, or could I? I was so scared and stumped and a thought rushed in,“This is it. My sister is dead. She’s died right in front of me."
It had been years since I had taken a course in CPR so I surprised myself by impulsively attmpting the crudest form of it one could imagine. Forgetting about pinching her nose, I started to blow sister air into her mouth as I was pressing on her chest, all the while begging her to just come back to this place and time.
It seemed like hours but within a minute or two (or was it only seconds?), she once again came to and looked me right in the eyes, asking, “What on earth are you doing, Mary?” I couldn't answer her I was so overcome with emotion. I wanted to hug her so tight I would have suffocated her if I had followed the impulse. She maintained eye contact with me as the 911 Operator was reassuring that help was on the way.
As we sat suspended in time waiting for those whose joy comes in the work they do in helping others, there was the most splendid and rare of moments. It seemed as if the axis of the Earth had slowed to a stop. The air was still and pure. I felt as though my sister and I had been suspended in time, plucked from heaven and fallen softly into the presence of Love. I could vaguely hear the sounds of sirens fast approaching but they were of no concern to me in that strange and precious moment.
The only thing on earth that mattered was that of my sister before me and the life of us as siblings flashed before my eyes. I saw us as children, teenagers, wives, and mothers. It was crystal clear that Love was all around us and our lives here are brief and uncertain. I knew that every day, every moment, every breath was gift taken for granted by busy and hurried people. And it became more than clear to me that when we are in those final days, those last moments, whenever they may be, that Love is the only Truth that really matters.
After the eager ambulance rushed out of my driveway with my sister safely inside, I stood for a moment to gather my thoughts and push my disheveled hair out of my eyes. I let out a long breath of relief and thought back on the earlier argument with my sister about politics and I couldn’t believe I would ever utter a mean word to my dear sister, a fragile and strong soul of a woman.
Twenty-four hours later and a battery of tests, my sister was released from the hospital and we were told that some events seem hell bent on having “why’s” who are doomed to never be answered. The doctors couldn't be certain but it seemed that doubling the dose of the blood pressure medication had caused the dangerous dip in her blood pressure and we were thankful she had been at my home instead of hers where she would have been completely alone.
Focusing on Love in that 911 moment wasn’t frivolous or corny or temporary. Love waits patiently to be admitted into the inner recesses of our hearts. It comes not to subdue, but to liberate.
I've heard it said that the regret most dying patients express is that they wish they had been kinder.
No one would argue that we don't live in anxious, divisive and violent times. It's all around us. But Love is bigger than any of it really. We just have to have the eyes and the hearts to be open and curious enough to see.
Note: I have every intention of signing up for a refresher course in CPR.