I like to write. All my life I have turned to writing when my emotions were raw, and I needed to convey what I was feeling. Today is no different. My beloved big sister, Bertha, died recently of COVID-19. In the coming months I want to warn you that you may hear more about the impact her death has had on me and my family than you care to hear. There is a simple remedy for that: Don’t read it. Tune it all out. If in fact, you can do that, count yourself lucky indeed. No such luck for me or my family as COVID is now indelibly a most significant part of our life story. While I won’t apologize for sharing my thoughts, as writing is cathartic for me, I do sincerely apologize to my co-host Teresa who unfortunately will not be able to avoid reading about my pain as our standard protocol is to review each other’s blogs before they are published. Teresa was visibly moved when I told her about Bert’s passing as if she too had lost a family member.
So today, marks my first installment about Bert’s death. How many installments will there be? As many as I need to regain my footing. Some things are far too painful to even consider sharing so this could in fact be the only one. My heart is shredded when I remember the horror of losing a loved one and not being able to assure them they are not alone and have not been forgotten when not one person can visit them in the hospital. My sister-in-law Teresa had quite a time convincing my brother it was futile to travel from Florida to the hospital in South Carolina to stand outside the building where she lay for almost a month. I did my best to help convince him, but I too was confused. Shouldn’t we be near her? Was she wondering where we were? Did she feel abandoned? Folks, take my word for it: You experience a new level of anguish when you feel you let your family member down by not being there when death is undeniably approaching. I wish I had the right words to adequately describe how you later constantly fret over funeral decisions that must be made in light of COVID implications to keep those still alive safe when your prevailing desire is to appropriately honor your loved one. She deserved at least that. So many questions to answer and decisions to be made. I still wonder if we got it right.
Some years ago, Bert asked me to speak at her funeral. I told her I didn’t want to. Bert’s response was that she really wanted me to share reflections during the service and that she knew I could do it. When the subject would come up, I would protest. I always planned on talking her out of it, but never got the chance. Death came too soon.
What follows are my words shared at the private, graveside service, because when your big sister asks you to do something, you do it.
For those of you who know me, you know I was a cheerleader. A cheerleader’s job is to ramp up the crowd and yell loudly when a player executes well and keep players and fans encouraged when the game is not going in their favor. I grew up with brothers who really loved sports, so I invariably watched quite a few games. Sports were a part of our lives. To this day, I plan my social schedule based on if there is a game on I particularly want to watch. I yell so loudly during plays that before we attend Super Bowl parties my husband will remind me that I can’t yell as loudly as I do when we are home. What does that have to do with my big sister Bertha and her recent death? Everything. I like to tell people I had the best big sister. I didn’t say that because it was expected or because it was a nice thing to say. I said it because with Bertha it was so true. From the time I was a young girl, she was always on my side, encouraging me to play hard and win in the game of life. When I was afraid of some challenge before me, she would tell me I could do it. When I had lofty life goals and got knocked down, she was the one who spoke to me and encouraged me to get up, dust myself off and get back in the game. No matter what was going on in her life, she stopped what she was doing to look out for me. When her only child Marcus died unexpectedly, I planned all the way on the ride from Virginia to South Carolina how I would be calm when I saw her. I planned what I would say and how I would be the one to carry her as she moved through her grief. I strengthened my resolve as I entered her home. However, when I actually saw her I immediately crumbled in her arms and cried unconsolably. Bertha ended up comforting me, telling me it would be ok. That’s the way she was. She took her big sister role seriously and executed it well even in times of tremendous personal pain.
My husband retired a few years ago and didn’t adjust well to retirement. He missed being busy and challenged at work. He subsequently decided to take a job in North Carolina. He came home on weekends, but the weeks were challenging for me. To get you to understand why that’s important, I have to share my secret. I didn’t start sleeping with the lights off if I was alone until I was probably in my late twenties. (Ok, if my family is reading this I was in my early thirties.)
I was fearfully afraid of the dark. In the dark I would hear all kinds of strange sounds which terrified me. When my husband took the job, because I knew he really wanted the job, I didn’t say anything about being afraid and should have won an award for how I kept assuring him I was fine. I put my game face on. Tried to be brave. However, Bert knew I was afraid because she knew me. When he left, I was not doing well, and I told her that.
I could tell Bert anything and she never judged me. I told her I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function at work because I was so groggy and was making poor work decisions because I was exhausted. Bert tried talking me through it. Then one day in the mail, she sent me bible verses. Lots and lots and lots of bible verses to remind me of the greatness of God and how He was always with me. The verses she sent weren’t cut and pasted from other places but were handwritten. I couldn’t believe she took all that time to do that. Bert reminded me that no man would ever love me more than Him. She reminded me that God was my protector and encourager. When I wasn’t reading her words, Bert would work her scripture reminders into our everyday conversations. Those scriptures and Bert’s words calmed me, and I began to sleep soundly again. When Bert was admitted into the hospital and later died, my insomnia returned with a vengeance. But this time I remembered what she said about trusting Him. I revisited her handwritten bible verses. So, you see, even in death my big sister Bertha, my cheerleader, came through yet again.