Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, United States (Winter 2015)
Never were two sisters as close as Lori and I. It hardly mattered we were married and had our husbands, our passel of kids, and each earned a nice living at our jobs. Lori owned a string of nail salons in suburban Philadelphia called “Lorelei’s” while I was co-owner of Angelo’s, a fantastically successful restaurant and catering company, which had its own dance floor and boasted the best rib-eye steaks in town.
Many a night the two of us would be on the phone watching a film from Netflix. I would be lying down watching on my laptop from my red living room couch, while Lori watched the film on TV, from her living room in her plant-filled condo.
Don’t think me forgetful, please, but I can’t remember the name of this particular film, which had us both commenting, in whispers over the phone, “Oh, c’mon, don’t die yet. You’ve gotta give us the name of the killer!”
We discussed it when we met for drinks on Saturday at a local diner. I ordered my usual chocolate milk shake while Lori decided to try something new: a foaming steamed tea called “chai.”
“To tell you the truth, Luci,” said my sister, sipping on the hot tea, “my stomach has been giving me some problems the past couple weeks.”
With my thick straw, I drew in the delicious milk shake and wiped my mouth.
“Then get thee to a doctor, Lori. Post haste!”
“Aye! aye!” she said, giving me a quick salute. “I just have to make sure the new manicurist at our Hatboro store works out.”
We fell into a discussion about prolonging one’s death. Our own dear father, whom we called Papa, had fallen ill suddenly and was dead six months later of pancreatic cancer.
“He certainly wanted to die,” I said. “Remember him saying, ‘how much longer is this gonna last?’”
“Sure, he was useless to himself and the world,” said Lori.
But suppose, we wondered, if a person was on their deathbed, doomed to die, say, within a few hours, hospice had been called, and the family gathered around, could the person actually postpone their death?
We were certain it could be done. Papa, after all, had waited until everyone gathered around his hospital bed in the large family room near the stone fire place. Everyone was there, from Mom to Gram, to the two of us, and Trissy, too, the little white dog.
We were relieved he passed away. Both of us had vivid dreams for months thereafter, dreams that Papa had returned to us. I saw him striding up the driveway wearing knee-length khaki shorts and a green striped shirt. Never had we loved a man the way we loved Papa.
I was at my restaurant, Angelo’s, preparing for a huge banquet in celebration of the birthday of a charming and beautiful ninety-year-old woman, when I was told I had a phone call.
It was Lori.
“I’m at Abington Hospital,” she said. “Room C-103. Write it down.”
Hopping in my Lexus, which was parked out front, I drove to the hospital and parked illegally in the lot for the Abington Police Department. It was an honor system and you never got caught.
In Room C-103, Lori wore a blue nightgown and was staring out the window.
“You’re the only one that knows,” she said.
I nodded and looked at her.
“Ovarian,” she said. “Stage four.”
“We’ll fight it,” I said.
“No we won’t,” she said in her usual voice. “Good ole Dr. Day, Papa’s doctor, gave me the diagnosis.”
I was silent again.
“He just left. See if you can find him, Luce,” she said.
There he was out in the hall, tapping on a computer. He had sent Papa to Sloane-Kettering in New York for experimental treatment that didn’t work.
“Dr. Day!” I called, running up to him.
“Luci,” he said, taking both my hands in his. “I am so sorry.”
He explained there was nothing to be done, not even experimental treatments for stage four.
“We’ll order palliative care,” he said, “and send out a wonderful hospice nurse.”
Those horrid words, heard once again: palliative, hospital, make them comfortable for their final days.
Lori’s family had a fit when she told them she would spend her waning days at my house with me and my husband Roy.
“It’s my life,” she told them firmly, “and I’m going to die where I feel most comfortable.”
Firm voice turned into a weakened voice; mobility turned into longer stays in the hospital bed in the dining room.
Daily visits by Grace, the hospice nurse, alleviated her pain with morphine. I watched my sister rolling her eyes with what I suppose was euphoria. A happy event was the arrival every single day of one of her manicurists.
“My bucket list,” she had laughed. “To get a new manicure every day of my life.”
Ozzie who ran Lorelei’s in Willow Grove, came out to the house with his black backpack.
Light streamed into the living room windows and the attached dining room.
“Ozzie,” she said, when he arrived at her bedside. “Stop with that long face. I simply won’t have it.”
The wiry short man with slicked-over black hair wiped both his eyes with his knuckles.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, and zipped open his backpack.
Out came a see-through bag filled with bottles of nail polish. He placed each one, like a chess piece, on the bed tray across her bed.
“Beautiful, just beautiful. All of them. No wonder I’m in the business,” she smiled. “We could…” she said, “paint each nail a different color?”
“Oh, no, ma’am,” said Ozzie seriously. “Not a good idea.”
They decided on a very dark red, called “Crimson.”
I held the cold bottle in my hand. “Nice!”
As he painted her nails, Lori mentioned our old Crayola box of crayons. “Crimson was always my favorite,” she said.
“And I the Burnt Umber.”
She fell asleep during the application.
Next day, when the hospice nurse arrived, she motioned me into the kitchen. Sunlight streamed into the windows as if all was well.
“It will happen very soon,” she said. “Maybe even today.”
Lori’s family visited every morning. I called and asked them to arrive within the hour.
We heard their cars pulling up the driveway.
“Lori,” I said before they came in. “You are very, very near. Are you afraid?”
“A tiny bit. As I’m going, please hold my hand.”
We heard a knock on the door and then the door swung open.
Silence filled the air as we gathered around her hospital bed, which was cranked up so she was in a sitting position. She nodded to them, not speaking, and then her eyes became vacant. Absolutely empty.
She was fading away.
“Lori,” I whispered, squeezing her hand, which had gone limp.
“Lori,” I pleaded. “Can you stop death, like in that movie we saw?”
Her eyes didn’t blink and she was gone.
RUTH Z. DEMING, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, suburban Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo and Mused Bella Donna. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group – for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.