It’s taken me about three months to sort through what I want to say about this topic. My older sister L’Chelle died at 7:00 am on June 7. I have a great many feelings about her life and her death.
If you’ve read my blogs in the past, you know that my sister had a very hard life. She was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and she was plagued with mental illness as an adult. Her life was anything but easy. Yet, in spite of this, she faced her cancer and her death with courage and dignity. She did not want to die, but there did come a time when she accepted her imminent death. The main thing that kept her going was the thought of seeing her daughter.
Her daughter, J’Nelle, had not been in contact with her mother for many years. Unfortunately, this did not change before her death – more on that later.
The week that L’Chelle died, she had been requesting that I bring her more chocolate. It was one of the only things that kept her going. I had been chatting with her every day about all sorts of things. Most of the time, she was actually fairly lucid. When I went on that Wednesday, she was very sleepy and non-communicative. This was very uncharacteristic of her. She always wanted to chat. I had an unsettling feeling when she wouldn’t talk. I stayed and talked to her for quite a while. I called my wife, Susan, and told her that I thought there had been a significant shift in L’Chelle’s situation. I told her that I was going to stay and I didn’t know when or if I’d be home that night.
L’Chelle did not wake up. I sat with her as she slept. My wife came to the nursing home and sat with us. A couple of Mom’s friends from the Kingdom Hall came to sit with us for a while. Apparently, one of them had promised my Mom that she would try to look out for L’Chelle after Mom was gone. They were very lovely and they knew me fairly well, since they were both frequent visitors to my house when Mom was spending her last days with us. Of course, they prayed with her and tried to give her comfort, reassuring her that it was okay to just go to sleep. They stayed until around 11:30 or so. Thanks so much for all of your care, concern, compassion, and love that you showed, Marianne and Joan. Susan came over around 9:00. She sat with us. I figured that L’Chelle could still hear us, so I spent the time telling stories about her to the others that were there. Also around 9:00, a hospice nurse came in. L’Chelle’s breathing started to exhibit the congested rattle that often precedes death. The nurses agreed that it seemed like she had transitioned and was in her final hours. The nurse was there to help make certain that her departure from this life was as pain and anxiety free as possible. She was very caring – letting me know that it was important to give her permission to die and telling me how to see if she was anxious about things, even though she couldn’t verbally communicate.
The hospice nurse stayed until around 1:00 am. There really wasn’t any more reason for her to stay. I dozed off and on until around 3:00 am. I finally told Susan that she should go on home and sleep in our real bed. No sense in her staying with me, not getting any sleep and making her back miserable. About that time, I decided to break out my computer and do some work. I was working on re-designing an English course for school, so I figured I could write some of the script for the slide show. I worked and sipped a cup of coffee for a good bit. Around 6:30 or so, L’Chelle’s breathing changed again, in rate and intensity. It was enough of a shift that I stopped what I was working on. I held her hand and just talked to her. I told her that she’d fought this vicious disease long and hard, but that it was okay for her to give in and rest now. I promised her that we would not stop trying to contact her daughter, J’Nelle and that, from what I could find online, she could be proud of her daughter. She seemed happy, healthy, and happily married to a nice young man.
At 7:00 am, L’Chelle took her last breath. There had been no indication of pain or anxiety. Finally, she was at peace. Now the business of settling a person’s final affairs had to begin.
Of course, I began notifying various family members began. I called the funeral director so that he could come and take L’Chelle away and prepare her for burial. The funeral director was very helpful and compassionate. My brother and I began an ongoing conversation to plan L’Chelle’s funeral. We wanted to be sensitive to L’Chelle’s JW past, yet not have this funeral conform to the traditional JW funeral where focus is on the doctrinal hope for the dead rather than on who the person was and celebrating her life. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate all of the help my brother provided during L’Chelle’s last months. His visits with her and all the gifts and cards that he, Jennifer, and Olivia sent her way – as well as the nearly daily telephone calls. I know she appreciated every single one of them. Though he and I have been at odds from time to time throughout L’Chelle’s illness, I felt like the primary concern for both of us was her well being. In my opinion, our working together made what life she had better than it would have been otherwise.
The best piece of news came when L’Chelle’s daughter let us know that she would be coming down for the funeral, along with her new husband, Bryant. I hadn’t seen J’Nelle since she was about a year old. I sent her a message and offered her and her husband accommodations in our guest room. I also offered to pick them up from the airport. Eventually, they communicated to me that they would like to take me up on both of my offers. I was both excited and nervous at the same time. I’m sure that she probably was too.
My brother and I coordinated our efforts and eventually had a plan for a funeral service for L’Chelle. Of course, one awkward component was that my sister had specifically requested that my Dad be at her funeral. Dad had been a fairly regular visitor of L’Chelle as she was in hospice care. I felt like he had made the efforts to come visit her and, after all, this is his daughter we were talking about. I can’t imagine how it must feel to lose a child. I hope I never have to find out. However, Dad’s being in attendance has the potential to spark things. My brother has not had anything to do with Dad for quite some time. Dad and my brother have long been like oil and water. Dad just doesn’t seem to be able to see things from my brother’s point of view. In some ways, he’s not very good at handling their differences in an adult manner. Also, J’Nelle didn’t yet know about her grandfather and his transgendered lifestyle. I had no idea how this would sit with her.
L’Chelle’s good friend Al also planned on coming down from New York to attend the funeral. He, too, would bunk at my house in the other spare bedroom. I was glad that I got to meet him – finally in person. He’s someone who remained in L’Chelle’s life through thick and thin. Many had abandoned her while putting up with far fewer shenanigans from her, but Al stuck with her. He was truly a good friend and, he loved her a great deal in his way. It turned out that his flight got in about an hour before J’Nelle’s flight was scheduled. So, I got to meet not one, but three people I’d never met before on that day. As soon as I saw J’Nelle and her husband, I knew she was my niece. She looked so much like her mother, just with an Asian look. Of course, she was apprehensive about meeting me and staying with us. After all, not only was she meeting me for the first time, but the only things she knew of me and my family are the things that her father told her. She also had seen my Facebook profile and she knew that, though I was raised as a JW, I no longer practiced as one. She didn’t know if I would be one that she might consider an “apostate” – trying to talk her out of her own faith. I have to say, I admire her courage for coming to her mom’s funeral in spite of all these uncertainties. I also can’t say enough good about her husband, Bryant. He’s a good young man who really cares about his wife and her wellbeing.
My brother flew in later that night. We were all able to visit for a while and we were able to tell J’Nelle more about her mom and our side of the family. The next day was the funeral. It was good that we were able to spend a bit of time getting to know one another and catching up. The funeral was going to be tough.
The morning of the funeral, there were many things to organize. My brother and I went to the funeral home first, to be present for those wishing to pay respects. The rest would ride along with my wife and they would b there before the service started. When we got there, my Dad was already there. My brother’s only words to my Dad were, “I’m way too stressed today to deal with any of your drama.” I kind of felt bad for Dad. He was grieving just like the rest of us, and I know he had a hell of a lot more regret than any of the rest of us too. Whatever the case, there was no unnecessary drama about the day. Though Dad wanted to speak to J’Nelle, he kept his distance, which I thought was probably the best course of action. The service was a nice mix of people. There were 50 or 60 who attended. There was a combination of people who had known L’Chelle in some sort of way. There were JWs that had known Mom & L’Chelle. There were Baptists who had made visiting with L’Chelle a part of their visits to the nursing home. There were Catholics who had come to pray with her at the nursing home. Also, there were those who had come to support us, the family members – including some of my workmates. The service was a combination. Because J’Nelle is a practicing JW, we included a JW service, but with the understanding that my brother and I would be able to say a few words after his service was done.
When it was our turn, each of us offered anecdotes to try and illustrate the person that L’Chelle was and how she lived her life. After the service was over, several came up and let us know how much they enjoyed our stories. They all felt like they exemplified who L’Chelle really was.
After the funeral, all of the family came back to my house for a meal and fellowship. One of the best parts of the whole thing came during that time. J’Nelle spoke of how apprehensive she was about coming, but she felt like her visit was bittersweet. On the one hand, she was attending the funeral of her mother who she’d not seen in years; yet, on the other hand, she felt like she regained a family. Suddenly, she began to understand where some of her traits came from. Again, I’m amazed at the courage she and Bryant showed.
Eventually, everyone left and it was now time try and get back to a regular life. Work still needed to be done. Life would go on. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to cope with all of the emotion and grief I’d been faced with in the last year.