Several weeks ago I lost the last of my three older sisters. Condolences are still coming in almost every day via calls and notes and emails. In response I’ve often explained that while I’m feeling extraordinarily sorry for myself — much of my lifelong identity has been as the youngest of four: The Moreland Girls — I do not grieve for my sister Helen.
Helen, I am quick to say, was greatly beloved. By her four children and twelve grandchildren, by a host of friends and other relatives, and very particularly by me. I was her Franciscavichy; she was my Helenchen. Though we’ve been geographically separated for most of our adult lives by thousands of miles, we wrote (yes, old-fashioned notes and letters) and emailed often, and spoke on the phone at least every few weeks. A visit to her western New York retirement community home during the pandemic break of 2021 and again in the fall of 2022 were highlights of those years.
I just don’t mourn for Helen.
The Moreland Girls circa 1940s, bookended by Helen and me (Author photo)
Some years ago, not long after the death of her husband, Helen began to talk about how she didn’t want to “linger.” Her husband had lingered.
When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his late 60s they called to say they were going out to celebrate. He had suspected dementia, she’d thought he might have a brain tumor, and they both believed Parkinson’s a far better affliction.
His physician had said my brother-in-law could expect to have “10 good years,” and they said with one voice, “We’ll take it!”
What nobody talked with them about was how many bad years he would have, and how bad they would get. My brilliant, witty, gregarious brother-in-law had spent his life in academia but spent his last years in hell, slowly losing his mobility, his speech and eventually all physical or cognitive function.
I knew exactly what Helen meant when she spoke of not wanting to linger.
More recently she took to saying things like, “This isn’t living.” Life, for her as well as for the two of them during their long and eventful marriage, meant going to dinners and lectures and events with other bright minds, singing in the Boston community chorus they founded, attending concerts and operas and plays.
I often quipped with Helen that she might consider taking up prayer — she was a determined atheist — so she could pray when she went to bed that she wouldn’t wake up. Instead, she simply wished it.
Once, after feeling bad all day, she was so certain of this likely happenstance that she left a long message on my answering machine about what a wonderful little sister I’d always been; she wanted to let me know that in case she didn’t wake up. (A lovely message to have now forever.)
Over decades of working as a volunteer with hospice, an AIDS support group in the 1990s and currently End of Life Choices CA, I’ve seen some tragically bad deaths, and more than a few you’d call Good Deaths: peacefully in one’s own bed, surrounded by loved ones.
Helen finally got the good death she wished for. Her physician daughter came over to rub her back when she went to bed, after a day of feeling generally low. The next day she didn’t wake up.
Helen was 95. We should all sign up for this: resting in peace like my Helenchen.
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