This is about afterward. This is a story about Linda (my sister), but not Linda. This is about the end of the Cheyne-Stokes breathing, the death rattles, nothing any writer ever wrote can prepare a person for the sound. Irregular breaths, deep and wheezing. Then nothing. Apnea. A cessation of breathing. Then a horrible relief of a gasp back to breath. Then a while of relative normality. Then a repeat. It can go on for hours. It is one of he ways we, as humans, die.
I don’t know that it was painful for her. It was painful for me.
Then the last breath, and the pause…and pause…and pause… And no more. That is the moment. That is the moment we call death…somewhat arbitrarily, as cells, tissues, organs remain viable on their own time schedule.
What does stop is homeostasis. She started to become cold right away, and this was not my sister anymore. We had been trying, optimistically, to plan her 16th birthday party.
This should be the end, but it is the beginning. It’s the beginning of a relationship with death that wasn’t there before, and a life without. An emptiness never filled. This is childhood leukemia.
These are things I’ve not written, things I’ve carried with me. Some are heavy. Some are tender. Why do they seem secret? That is another topic, for another day. Those of us who have seen this form a wounded little club. Sometimes we meet each other, and we can talk openly about the things that freak other people right out. Most of the time, we carry these things — the happy and the heavy — on our own.
Even those of us who were there together for that last breath. We rarely speak of it. I’m not sure what can be added. We know. We were there.
This was acute myelogenous leukemia, which was in 1988, and I understand still is, very difficult to treat. This was nine months to the day after the diagnosis.
There will be more.
This is me scraping out the inside of my skull like a pumpkin with the lid carved off, reaching in and grabbing random handfuls of gluck, seed, slime, and scooping it out with a big metal spoon. This is me scraping the sides with that big metal spoon until the surface is clean. Until the surface is clean and manageable. Goddamn it. Because I’ll tell you, there’s no logical way to process the last breath of a fifteen year old, especially a sister, and especially twenty-four years later when she remains impossibly still gone. Hide and seek is over, already. Enough with the shenanigans. It’s not funny anymore. Get your ass back here, I need to pick up the phone and talk to you. I still need you.