Sheree’s Last Hug

Posted on December 29, 2020


I remember the last time I hugged my sister, Sheree. It was July. We were in the Westgate parking lot in Ann Arbor. I had met she and sister, Karen, at Zingerman’s Roadhouse after Karen’s oncology appointment at U-M hospital. It was the day that the doctor had said that it was time to switch our thinking from “treatment” to “comfort care,” as Karen’s cancer was killing her.

Sheree clowned through our visit, as usual. We were worried about Karen, but she had seemingly taken the news in stride; she showed no visible signs of distress, so we maintained our normal interactions and had a good time.

Karen, Sheree July 2020

When it was time for them to get back on the road to Alma, Sheree helped Karen into the front seat of the truck, and when she was settled, Sheree and I walked behind the truck, out of Karen’s sight. Sheree couldn’t say “cancer” or “dying,” but she communicated the dire situation in a roundabout way, and I knew what she meant.

SHE showed distress, only for a second, and she grabbed me and held on tight as I hugged her back, even as I reminded her that we shouldn’t be hugging–because COVID. She waved away my concern with her hand, and hugged me again before pulling away and saying, “I love you.”

What I didn’t know was that Sheree had received a diagnosis very similar to Karen’s, and that, while I was aware of Karen’s situation and prepared for each stage of the living-and-dying-with-cancer process, I had no information or preparation regarding Sheree’s terminal illness. As soon as she had arranged for Karen to go into hospice care, Sheree succumbed to her illness and went into hospital, where she was barely conscious and unable to take calls.

I don’t know how, but somehow, Sheree convinced the hospital personnel to release her in time to say goodbye to Karen. She spent about an hour with her before she was exhausted and had to get to bed. Karen died a short while after Sheree left her bedside. I think Karen waited for Sheree.

A few days later, Sheree was so ill and weak, she attended Karen’s funeral in a wheelchair. By then, we knew that she was dying, but even then, she didn’t tell.

She wanted to return to her home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula the day after Karen’s funeral. Since she was too weak to get out of the car at Karen’s grave, I, like other family members, took my turn at the window of the car, telling her that I was sorry she was suffering and that I loved her. We never spoke again.

I understand Sheree’s desire to forego cancer treatment. She had survived breast cancer, but having experienced it once, she refused to ever have Chemo treatments again. I get that. Having seen a number of family members deal with cancer, I decided long ago that if I received a cancer diagnosis, unless I was being offered more than ten years to live if I took Chemo, I’d rather let nature take its course and seek pain relief only.

What I cannot wrap my mind around is why she opted for such immense and incomprehensible suffering. She had State of Michigan retiree health insurance and access to excellent end-of-life care. By keeping her diagnosis private, she denied herself the very same pain relief and comfort that she used her last bit of life to insure for Karen. WHY?

Grieving Sheree’s sudden and torturous death is so much more difficult than grieving Karen’s, because of all the unanswered questions. I am thankful that Karen died peacefully, with her pain managed expertly, with our sister, Loretta, present. I am thankful that I knew all along that Karen had cancer and that we all had time to spend with her before she got very ill. Everyone in the family worked together to insure that Karen would have a good death. If we had known, we would have cared for Sheree in the same way. But we didn’t know.

I remember our last sister lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. I remember our last hug, heads turned away from each other because of COVID, Sheree’s hand waving away my concern, her fluffy hair brushing my face. When we pulled away, we said, “I love you.”

I didn’t know that it was Sheree’s last hug.

No wonder she held me so tight.

Good night, Sheree, good night.

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Karen, Sheree 2016

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy
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Posted in: Mindfulness, Wellness