This Time Last Year
Revisting the year leading up to sister’s unexpected death
I constantly think about what was happening at this time last year. There are big moments — like in November I remembered that at that time the year before my sister, Alison, had finished her chemo.
Christmas was the anniversary of her hair starting to grow in and she stopped covering her head.
In February we breezed by a weekend when the year before my siblings and I all got together for a couple of days with our families and had fun making pizza and spending time together. It was the type of visit where you realize the dynamics had changed — we all had partners, and two of us had kids. We were expanding and I liked it.
April 9 marked the anniversary of my sister moving from NYC to the suburbs where we grew up, making it much easier for me to visit her and we were together at least twice a month for the remainder of her life.
Last July I visited her three times. This weekend last year I was driving to NY — she needed me to babysit her son for the day while she and my brother-in-law were out at an appointment. I took this picture of our kids.
And the following day, while babysitting alone, I took this picture — it’s her son tantruming and I texted her seeking advice. She recommended going outside and we sat on the rock wall staring at the driveway waiting for her to return. I can see her so clearly waving from the car as they drove up to greet us. She ran out of the car with her arms stretched towards him and he turned his face and clutched my leg, a consequence of his crankiness because my sister was, by far, his most favorite person. It was funny at the time, but Alison made a face that showed her disappointment and that memory is haunting now. She would be dead in less than two weeks.
Before I left her that weekend she secretly set this photo to be my cell phone wallpaper. When I discovered it she couldn’t stop laughing. I can’t bring myself to change it — so Sam’s tantrum is an image I see every day.
This weekend last year was the last time I saw my sister alive.
The morning I left she had scooped up her son to take him to the library storytime.
I had stayed at her house, waiting for my daughter to wake up from her nap so we could get on the road to Boston. Corinne slept much longer than usual, so I was unexpectedly still at my sister’s house when she returned an hour later.
When I drove away I surprised myself when I started to cry…
She walked me to the car and we hugged and said I love you. When I drove away I surprised myself when I started to cry — at first confused because I was planning on returning in less than two weeks to visit for my mom’s birthday, and I never cry when I say goodbye for such a short amount of time.
I remember thinking that my sister was so happy — and I was so genuinely happy for her, in a way that I haven’t felt for anyone else. But I was so incredibly frustrated with my anxiety. Though her cancer had not returned, I knew that it could (small cell cervical cancer is rare and aggressive) and all year I had struggled with enjoying the moment and appreciating her health while we had it.
I look back at the few journal entries I wrote when she was sick and I would find lines repeating, “Alison is ok. Today she is healthy. Alison is ok. Today she is healthy. Today everything is OK.” I wanted to follow her lead and be a mirror to her joy. She was living life with so much appreciation. I wanted to do better for her.
On that car ride home I vowed to try harder. To let go of my fear and enjoy what we had, because last summer, until August 4th, was amazing.
I remember telling myself it was probably nothing.
We talked on FaceTime every day. I spoke to her on August 3rd and that is the last day that we chatted and life felt normal. The next day she was in good spirits but told me her stomach was bothering her.
As a child who grew up surrounded by my dad’s many illnesses, it doesn’t take much to make me nervous. I distinctly remember hanging up with her and trying to convince myself it was probably nothing. Stomach aches don’t mean that the cancer is back. She’ll be ok.
I checked in on her on the morning of the 5th and she told me via text that she was feeling worse. That was the last thing she said to me. I called her five times but she didn’t pick up. That night she went to the hospital and I drove down on Sunday morning — August 6th. I stayed at her house to care for our babies.
I didn’t see her in the hospital. None of us thought that she would die there — the same hospital where our dad died 13 years earlier.
Alison was brain dead by the morning of August 9th. August — once a month that housed memories of the endless feeling of summer and a slight simmer of excitement for the return of school, the month that includes my parents’ anniversary and my mother’s birthday, is now a word that prickles my skin and tenses my shoulders.
The end of July hasn’t been great either. When signing paperwork at the bank yesterday I had to ask the teller the date three times within a span of ten minutes.
I just couldn’t remember it, and now I wonder if I refused to remember. I know what was happening this time last year — the last time I knew life with my sister being healthy and happy. I think I’m choosing to remain ignorant of the day as August 9th approaches, trying to stay lost in a haze of summer. The same way it was when I was a child and I didn’t have school to keep me on track. It was all just summer.
Soon I will have parented longer than my sister…
Alison became a parent 51 weeks before me. I turned to her often as a source of baby wisdom. Even though she’s been gone for nearly a year, I have my ‘at this time last year’ memories of her son to apply to my daughter. In January, my daughter got roseola — just like my nephew did the year before.
In April Corinne stopped eating all her favorite foods but was delighted when I started making her paninis…an idea I got from my sister when she did the same thing for Sam the previous spring.
Soon I will have parented longer than my sister, and will no longer be able to use my memories to support me with the challenges and questions that lie ahead. It’s added to the list of things that make her absence so fucking unbearable.
I miss her so much.
Kellyn has been trying to change the way people support each other in grief since the unexpected death of her sister, Alison, in 2017. Her work can also be found on her blog and Modern Loss. She reluctantly posts on Instagram.