Life as an Extreme Sport

The General

My sister is amazing. She has been my mother’s constant caretaker, day and night, for a month, watching one of the most painful things I think anyone can ever watch – the physical and mental decline of a parent. And she still manages to be cheerful, strong, calm, and collected.

It’s all her years, of course, working in oncology, at RMC, even at CHOP on the transplant project. She’s mastered that art of the distance, of the shield. Me? I’m an emotional wreck. I lost it this morning, and then when my brother started crying tonight, well, that set me off, too.

I cried into Mom’s hair as I wished her good night. I kissed her forhead, I ran my hands through her hair, I told her how much I loved her, and she told me she loves me – and I couldn’t leave. I was choked up and crying and breaking the no hard sobbing around Mom rule, but I kissed her head again and smelled her hair and told her again how much I love her, and then I told her to sleep tight and not let the bed bugs bite.

She repeated that last bit to me, don’t let the bed bugs bite, and then she rewarded me with the most treasured of things, she laughed, what passes for a laugh now, and smiled.

Tracy, though, deals with it all – and does it with amazing skill and grace. She came upstairs to sit with me, hold my hand and comfort me, and talked for a while about her thoughts about going into palliative care, and as strange as it is to picture for me, it was like bells going off at the natural fit. My sister has an amazing gift with the dying – of strength and patience and boundless love.

I envy her for that, and the stillness that seems to be necessary to do this.

I am the restless one. The one who’s job is to hold Mom’s hand, to let her know I’m here, to comfort, to assist Tracy in whatever way I can, and most of all, make Mom laugh. I’m the one thinking forward to funerals and relatives and details, things that keep my hands and mind busy. I guess it’s my own way of having an emotional shield.

I spent a lot of this last year being jealous of Tracy, and a bit resentful (and yes, she reads this blog, and yes, she knows this – one of the things I love about my sister is the fact that we actually do talk about this stuff). She got to be here, be close to Mom, doing all the things she’s done… but finally? I’m not. Not because my back hurts, or my arm, or that I’m tired, or stressed about work, or any of the numerous things. But resenting Tracy her ability to be here is like resenting a sunflower for moving as the sun arcs across the sky – she is just doing what her innate gift is.

We all have our innate gifts, and they are unique to each individual. Being upset and jealous over the fact that my sister managed to have just the right gift is just… silly. In fact, I am, more than anything, grateful. I’m grateful, and thankful, that things have worked out that my family has been able to be my mother’s caretaker. As she has gone through this process, of illness to the dying process, she has not been in the hands of strangers. She has never been in a hospital for long. She has always been taken care of by her family, and fiercely protected by them.

And I’m also grateful, and thankful, that she understands that it’s important that we – Timothy, Dad, and myself – are as involved as we can be. That we can give her water, help to move her, hold her hand. That Tracy doesn’t have to do everything, she just has to be the General leading the rest of us.

She is an excellent General.


  1. Kelly . . .

    you have such a gift for stories. It brings tears to this stranger’s eyes, as we get set to bring a new life into this world. Be kind to yourself, friend.

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