What is it we mourn when we lose someone? We miss both what was, and more often, what might have been. If we lose someone close to us, we miss their smell, their voice, their presence in our lives. We miss the little rituals that they had become a part of in our lives. My mother still expects my sister to show up for dinner on Sunday evenings.
Our grief is often exacerbated by what was left undone. We grieve for letter never written, the words never spoken, the trip never taken. In the case of my sister, it was the movie she never got to see. She died of cancer on July 4, 2008. About a month earlier, the highly anticipated feature film version of the hit HBO series Sex and the City was released in theatres. My sister had been an enormous fan of the series, never missing an episode, and told me she was “dying to see the movie” Sex and the City. Dying, indeed.
She was in the hospital the weekend it was released, still hopefully unaware of the five tumors in her brain. Despite her release from the hospital, she would quickly learn she was unable to care for herself at home. She lived alone, and my 78 year old mother had spent most of her energy taking care of my father for three years before he succumbed to lung cancer less than six months before. It was my sister-in-law who came to the rescue, brought my sister to the guest room in her house, and took over as her nurse maid. By the time my sister learned her fate, I had already seen the movie she was dying to see. My best friend dragged me to it. I had never seen the series and knew nothing of the stories or the characters. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could follow the stories and that I actually enjoyed the movie.
There was a time when I would have seen any new release with my sister. We had a ritual that lasted for almost twenty years. She and I would get together every Sunday afternoon, find a movie we both wanted to see, and went to a matinee. After, she would drag me through some dreadfully boring shopping trip (am I the only woman alive who actually hates to shop?), and then we would go to Mom and Dad’s house for dinner. By the late 90’s we were living more than fifty miles apart, and though we both still made it to Mom’s for dinner on Sunday, I had given up the ritual of trying to see a movie with her in the afternoon. Eventually, I would also give up on the weekly trips to Mom’s dinner, and not long after, I would announce my engagement to my parents during an afternoon visit.
These changes in my life did not stop my sister from her weekly routine, nor it did stop us from enjoying movies together. We simply compared are notes and impressions on movies we had seen when we did get together. Her intelligent “reviews” of the movies were always of great interest to me. I actually suggested she apply for Gene Siskel’s job as Roger Ebert’s partner after Mr. Siskel’s death. We did make some special trips to the movies together along the way. She took me and my then 2-year-old son to see his first movie in the theater (it was Nanny McPhee). We made time to get together for the fourth Harry Potter movie, and compared our thoughts on the fifth.
I would have thought a month earlier that if I did see Sex in the City, it would be with my sister. It would be an experience we would share. After I saw it, I couldn’t wait until she saw it, so we could share our thoughts, as we always did when we saw the same movie. It was not to be.
When my sister was in the hospital for the last time, I offered to relate the movie to her, tell her all I could remember of the plot and the story and the characters and the moods the movie evoked. She would not let me. “No, I’m dying to see it,” she would say. She would say it again at my sister-in-law’s house a week later. By this time, she was clearly housebound and could barely hold her head up for two straight hours. She wasn’t going anywhere. I knew it. Everyone else did too. Yet I couldn’t get over the feeling that the reason I had seen the movie to begin with was so that I could share it with her. She never gave me the chance.
How many of you, having lost a loved one, began wearing that person’s clothes, sitting in that person’s chair, following rituals you would have followed with that person, as if trying to keep some physical remnant of the person’s memory alive? I realize now that though I missed sharing one last movie with my sister, I saw one last movie for my sister. That turned out to be my one little experience that kept me close to my sister as I remembered her, as I remembered us, even as she was slipping away from me.