The breathtaking Hawaiian Islands are an inappropriate place to become ill, but Honolulu, their state capital, largest city, and principal port, is where my younger sister Sharon had chosen to live–where the last months of her life she was hospitalized. In her early twenties she had left Chicago where we had grown up and I still live and she had visited one exquisite picture post card place after another in Spain, France, the South Pacific, and the Mediterranean, and so on, in search of the single place where she thought she would be happiest living and had found it.
Now she was thirty-seven and married. She had long, black, slightly curly hair and was petite–thin, not very tall. Generally cheerful, often smiling, she was a pianist. She could spread her hands wide, spanning the keys with her long, thin, limber fingers. After some time I went to see her. Twelve months earlier she had telephoned to give me the bad news— the disease she had believed was gone without a trace and would never terrify her again was back.
I had been in Honolulu seven days, getting to the hospital at about eight every morning, spending the day with her, and leaving at about nine p.m. Those would be our last days together, and it was difficult to watch my visit passing day by day, being aware that after I left her room that last afternoon I would never see her again. One day in the future while I was back home or traveling for business she would go into a coma and pass away.
On the nights of my visit after seeing her I would walk on the beaches, reflecting on the day, finding restful the fresh air and coolness, and sleeping at Sharon and Ron’s apartment. On the kitchen floor there was a scale to measure the dwindling of my sister’s existence, and sheets of paper on a clipboard suspended from a nail on the wall that recorded her declining weight: ninety-eight pounds, ninety, eighty-eight…and a calendar that had Xs on days she wasn’t healthy enough to work that in recent months had become all Xs. Against a wall there was a full-length gold-framed mirror that in the past she had looked into. The mirror was dusty.
I was crossing the hospital’s parking lot after visiting Sharon that last time before leaving on a flight for home. During my visits I had looked down at that lot from the often-breezy twentieth floor balcony while hospital people and Sharon’s many friends, her husband, and his relatives like actors all pretending their spirits were high, streamed into and out of that sorrowful room. Ahead of me I saw Sharon’s favorite nurse getting into a car. I called her name–“Kathy”…”Kathy”–and she turned and waited for me. I ran and caught up with her. We smiled. She was Japanese-American, in her late thirties I thought, a professional nurse in the most caring sense, a sweet, tender woman with a soft voice and bashful eyes.
There was no need for Kathy and me to discuss where Sharon stood. It needn’t be said that it wouldn’t be long and that soon Sharon would be gone entirely from my life and from the world. I knew that the moment coming from the airport and entering her hospital room and putting down my bag when I saw with a shock how puny Sharon looked now. The illness had given her an old woman’s body that had been ravaged by suffering there in that bed that was now her final home–so skinny–all bones–very sick–dying. The pain had turned her black hair white and it was short from the treatment and no longer long. Her once-pretty face was gaunt, her cheeks gray, her body very tired. Her long pianist’s fingers were so thin that her ring had slipped off and was lost. But there in her gray, lonely, fading beauty there was still about her that same gentleness you could ruffle with your breath, the same spirit in her fierce eyes, the same poise, and the same elegance. Looking into my eyes, imagining what I was seeing, Sharon had clutched her gown across her chest in embarrassment –covering herself in shame–still a modest woman–and said, breaking my heart, sucking the breath out of my lungs, “I’m a mess aren’t I?,” and I had replied to her, “Shar, you are beautiful.”
I told Kathy that I had been looking for her, and that I was happy to have this last chance to talk to her before I left because I would not be coming back. The tips of the restless waves on the ocean to my right glittered in the sunlight. The cloudless sky was a perfect azure as far into the distance as I could see. I told Kathy that I was grateful to her for the gentleness and goodness I had seen her show Sharon. She, more than the other nurses, and the technicians had been so careful not to hurt her when she had to be sponge-bathed or moved as though she thought Sharon a prized porcelain doll.
I said to Kathy that I would never forget her kindness, her thoughtfulness. In my mind Kathy remains as she was then, at four-thirty in a parking lot that was a short distance down a dirt path and across a little park from exciting Waikiki. Then, as though she wanted me to have something tangible to take home with me, Kathy told me what a good patient Sharon was, how in spite of the pain and having to live until her death with the bleak knowledge that there was not the slightest hope, Sharon had never complained and “was always so nice and had good manners,” and how it would make her very sad when she would have to say goodbye to her and would feel for her then the heavy weight of sorrow.
I had planned to sleep on the plane that night, but I couldn’t. I was wishing Sharon had her life to live over again. In my imagination I saw us as the happy girl and boy that we had once been, getting ready to ride our bikes to the library. The gray interior lights were dimmed low, as if the plane itself were drowsy. Everything was silent but for the deep hum of the engines, the other passengers asleep. I wanted to prepare myself for what it would be like now without a sister, my parents without a daughter, my children without an aunt.
One month later, in January, the twenty-first, when I was leaving my home on an errand through winter winds and swirling snowflakes, my daughter Alice shouted out the window, “Dad, Uncle Ron is on the phone.” He said succinctly. “Sharon died today.”
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