In a few hours I will board a plane to fly due East to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There I will join a gathering of my living siblings and their spouses. We will call this a “Family Reunion”, a descriptor we have been using to explain this convergence for what is now decades. Some years the second and third generations join us; this year they will not. I had been chiding myself for not posting a blog before I left. As is often the case, the immediate events that shape my life provided a topic. I just needed to notice this and record the thoughts that shape this experience for me right now.
There are six of us remaining, three with spouses, three without. There were eight. Our sister Patty died a few weeks before she would have turned 7 years old. Most of her life was shaped by years of debilitating illness. She was the fifth child. The youngest of the eight of us was an infant when Patty died.
Our second encounter with death of a sibling was Ken’s death. He was the youngest of the four boys, and died a few weeks before he would have turned 60. He had undiagnosed cancer, identified too late. He too died “young”. We already have struggled through the inexplicable loss of a beloved sibling, first as children as our sister died, then as adults as our brother died. We know what is coming.
The oldest of our living siblings is 83; the youngest is 70. We share thoughts about aging in our phone conversations, sometimes in emails. It is communal, sometimes sobering, sometimes hilarious. We grew up with death as an abiding reality. Our parents grew up in a farming community. Farmers have a realism about the cycle of life that is hard to locate elsewhere.
Our father was the only son with four sisters. He was steeped in the life practices of the farmer though he walked away from it as a young man. Our mother was the youngest of 11, and we witnessed her process of burying her siblings. She took us to a potpourri of “wakes” and funerals, burying the many members of a spacious extended family. We know the drill.
My oldest sibling, Bob, is a priest, and hence has played a central role in the dying and burial of many of this very extended family, carrying the mantle once embraced by my mother. Funerals are familiar “work” for him. Pragmatically, he has planned his own dying and death process, and has shared this as each of us refines our personal version of the same process. We are used to Bob managing the death ceremonies of our family; he may not be here for future funerals and we know this. So does Bob.
While all of us share the sharp experiences of the death of two siblings, this merely helps us know that this will not be an easy part of our futures, and it will happen more than once, at least for those left behind. We have other death experiences that shape who each of us has become, however this “Family Reunion” shines a bright and unforgiving light on that unique loss, the death of a sibling. We know it is in our future; we simply don’t know the details.
Two things strike me when I ponder this. The first is that as a “sibling group” we are rather intensely linked. We really like and care about one another, and have a bond of love that others have described as strong, even exclusionary. For us, perhaps, the loss of a sibling carries more threat and fear. We already know what it feels like to lose a sibling; we don’t welcome that experience.
The second is that no member of this “sibling group” embraces the often obsessive belief that “I must live forever” (or at least as long as possible). It is my experience that this almost fetishistic commitment to “staying alive” at any cost has framed much of the US culture. If you think this way, then death denial and avoidance is almost automatic. Because denial and avoidance prevail, a thoughtful and compassionate preparation for death is a difficult opportunity to access. Even simple conversations that include the words “when I die” can create dramatic diversionary tactics with many.
We six remaining siblings have a grocery list of health issues, some quite serious. Two of us are nurses so we can even discuss these issues with some degree of knowledge. Two of the next generation are physicians, so we can also call in our “family experts” as needed. We chronicle these indicators of decline somewhat sardonically, often with humor. Most of the time it makes more sense to laugh than to moan or mourn. We are humans, and at this point in the normal human life cycle, decline is a given. We are not enjoying it, but we also are not denying it. We for the most part work toward maximizing function; we know that this will not last forever. We know death is the next big life event.
These are the realities we bring to our gathering in Milwaukee, home of my older sister. The other siblings all live in the Midwest. I will fly in from the Pacific Ocean, and join them as we collectively first celebrate the sheer joy of a shared presence. We will do updates, chronicle the lives of children and grandchildren. We will compare notes on the challenges of aging and the clever ways we manage it.
Because it is a central family value, we will laugh a great deal and work to create laughter among ourselves. We will celebrate the gathering. And each of us, at some point, will look around the room and know that time is not on our side. We will not gather like this “forever”. It is perhaps an unusual way to meditate on death and dying, yet it is the reality we share. Cherishing this time will be a priority.
“The greatest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”
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