In April my garden came back to life; in May, even with little rain, I watched how plants filled in bare spots. Being in the garden was a solace, a temporary escape from what was happening overseas. My sister, who was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer March of 2020, did chemo, had surgery, and was pronounced free of cancer in October 2020, relapsed and was given only a few more months to live. The first call after the final diagnosis was heartbreaking; we cried, but we also managed to laugh. Looking on the bright side, my sister said she was lucky to have gotten this far. Most people with a stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis do not make it past 90 days and here she was 12 months later.
My sister, born four years (and three weeks) ahead of me, was my only sibling. This past year, as we see-sawed between hope and despair, I frequently dove into photo albums reliving our past. We emailed, called, and each week I would send her a card. Because of Covid, international travel was difficult and with Truus’ immune systems suppressed by chemo, she could not have any visitors. The Netherlands required 10 days quarantine of any traveler from the US, so even when the end came closer, we were still unable to go. On May 14th she passed away and, as a sign of these (horrid) times, we attended the funeral online a week later.
Of all the pictures taken over 60+ years, it is probably one of the first pictures of the two of us, if not the very first picture, that I come back to time and time again. It perfectly pictures the relationship I had with my sister, safely in her arms. My sister always looked out for me. When we were growing up, we each had our chores; my sister did the grocery shopping, I mopped the floors of the kitchen and bathrooms. Later we got to do grocery shopping together. When we went to the newly opened supermarket in our town and I could not find something on our list, I would look for substitutes, rather than ask someone. You see, back in those days, I was rather shy (I know, that is hard to believe, but true). Sis would come to the rescue, ask around for the required item on our list and back home we would go with everything our mother wanted us to get.
When my sister moved out of our home and moved in with our grandmother to help take care of her, I would come over for sleepovers. Later, with grandma gone, Truus invited me over for dinner and taught me to make kidney bean soup, or bruine bonen soep, a Dutch staple. It was so good; we ate bowl after bowl until we literally could not move anymore. To this day, it is one of my favorite foods.
Once I left for America, our relationship changed, although letters flew across the ocean back and forth. When my marriage disintegrated, I was lucky to go home for a month (good employer!) and once more not only my mom, but also my sister mothered me, something I needed at the time. Years after that, when I remarried, she welcomed my new husband into the family and treated him as the brother we never had. As first our father passed away and years later our mother, again, our relationship changed. Now we only had each other and while we did not see each other as often as when our parents were still alive, we re-forged the bond we had in childhood.
Our last visit to the Netherlands was in 2019, to celebrate Truus and Willem-Kees’ 40th wedding anniversary, together with their daughter Karin, and as many family, mostly cousins and their spouses as could be corralled that day. We had a wonderful day and never could have imagined it would be last time we would be together. A week later, when we got ready to fly back home, I gave my sister a big hug with the promise to see her again the following year in the fall. But Covid and cancer intervened, and it was not to be.
When my dad unexpectedly passed away in 1995, I took it hard. A friend gave me a book about handling grief and the stages of mourning. One part of that book stuck with me forever. It talked about grief being like a suitcase we carry with us wherever we go. Day in day out, we carry our grief with us. Then one day, we get up and without thinking go on with our day. We put our suitcase of grief down and forgot to pick it up again. We do not forget the person but think back with fondness and not just tears.
Dear sister, it will be quite a while before I can put down this suitcase full of grief, but I have many wonderful memories that will sustain me in all the years to come. You were loved and you will be missed.