March 7, 1957 Theresa Marie Stilling was born. She was my only sister born 6-1/2 years before me. The story I grew up hearing was that she danced and sang at my birth, “Ive got a little sister, I’ve got a little sister!” Terrie died on April 10, 2010. Today would have been her 61st birthday.
Her illness, fight with Leukemia, and untimely death left me deeply changed. Thank god! If we aren’t deeply changed by profound experiences, what is the point to this life? We all (or many, many of us) get caught in the cycle of work, social media, care for family, social media, news, sleep. The endless addiction to our screens can keep us from feeling much of anything, and strong feelings we do have, can easily be stuffed down or numbed by our addictions – to screens or intoxicants.
I’m now a year older – 54 – then Terrie was when she died. I often feel I am living on borrowed time. One of our brothers died in 2012 – Chester was only 57. Life is short and difficult, and joy-filled and distracting. I was distracted by my grief for many years and distracted by comparing my insides to others’ outsides. I wasted time watching others get over death and sorrow much quicker or differently than I did. I am finished with that phase of my life.
It is odd losing siblings. Your history is gone in an unnatural way. You can’t check things out from childhood. I am the youngest of 4; me and my oldest brother are still alive, but we live 2000 miles apart and life gets too complicated most days for me to ask him what he remembers about my childhood. My sister always had those stories ready. She wasn’t perfect – there were many times in her life where she was downright tortured by her demons, but she was my only sister, and we were good (most times) at allowing each other the space to have our demons. I’ve experienced too much death and grief to put the dead on a pedestal – Terrie was human and flawed – like me – but she was my sister. I would have been willing to take the risk of fighting with her once in awhile to see what it would have been like to grow old (or at least older) together.
She has a granddaughter she never met. She would have been OVER THE MOON about Ryleigh Marie! Her 20-something children have turned out to be quite awesome. The politics in this country are what she would consider catastrophic – she was a big fan of President Obama, and was never embarrassed to be brazenly liberal in a deep red county in Maryland.
My life has changed too. I am an empty-nester, enjoying much time with my spouse of 24 years. Today, I am quieter, more introspective, less in need of distraction and attention. I don’t mind being alone. I don’t mind sitting home on a weekend (in fact I’m quite protective of my weekends). I don’t need to be so busy that life rushes by. I have a perspective that may come from being 54 or may have been aided in losing siblings in their 50’s. Being able to sit still in a society that won’t stop competing and running and working and distracting is not something that just happens. It takes a lot of practice. And I have practiced!
I practice and teach Mindfulness meditation, and I am a Buddhist. I’ve let go of my addiction to work and am able to make my own schedule and enjoy lazing around most mornings or hiking with my dog in nature before heading to work. I don’t use intoxicants at all, and as I age I can’t understand why people do. Life is just too short to be numb – even for a Friday night! I want to be awake and present.
I left the rat race. It’s something I never thought I would do – I was addicted! I was addicted to work and attention and saving people and institutions! I was delusional and numb. And then Terrie got sick, and my life changed profoundly.
In retrospect, I’m glad I was profoundly changed by my sister’s life, illness, and death. But it was so fucking difficult in real time. Eight years later, I still rarely have a day go by where I don’t think of her; the way I feel when I think of her has changed drastically, but the thought is still there. Terrie’s death compelled me to write, and writing saved me from succumbing to debilitating darkness and depression. I don’t write much anymore, but today I wanted to give Terrie a birthday present. I wanted to give her the gift of being remembered. It’s selfish too, because as I live on borrowed time, I hope my relationships are profound enough, that I too am remembered when I am gone.
Photocred: William Stilling – my very alive brother took the picture of Terrie and photoshopped it.