On a sweltering morning last August, my sister and I shared our last meal together this side of glory. The cuisine was homemade biscuits and sawmill gravy prepared by her husband and we ate it through smiles and tears over her deathbed.
Truth be told, I’m the only one who ate. She nibbled, winced in pain and then tearfully shoved the bowl away when it became obvious her body could no longer accommodate such things.
One of the worst parts of watching her slowly die was that she continued to hunger and thirst long after her body began to reject even the slightest hint of sustenance. Undaunted by the vomiting and the pain, she’d continue to ask for all manner of crazy chow – chicken lo mien from one particular Chinese hole-in-the-wall across town; the croutons from Olive Garden’s salad; a plate of steak nachos from her favorite Mexican restaurant –“hold the chopped tomatoes”.
It was like fetching food for a fickle pregnant woman, except so utterly heartbreaking because my sister was pregnant with her own death.
That particular morning, she was hankering for her husband’s famous biscuits and gravy. By then, she’d lost the ability to articulate long sentences which, for a mouthy girl like her, was tantamount to a fate worse than death. Instead, she took time with each word and stared at the listener with begging eyes.
“I really want…I just can’t quit thinking about…you know…what I’ve been asking for…” she said, eyes big and pleading.
To my astonishment, her husband replied, “You want biscuits and gravy, don’t you?”
“YES!” Her face lit up.
There might not be any bigger relief on this earth than to, after thrashing around alone, finally be understood.
“You sure?” he asked.
She hadn’t eaten a meal in weeks and he was loath to make her something else that would only upset her when she couldn’t keep it down.
“YES!” She nodded like a kid being offered ice cream from the truck.
He smiled at her broadly, as if finding he had the ability to fulfill her desire was akin to winning a prize. “Alright then,” he said softly.
What do we know of love, anyhow, until we find ourselves here, in this space where another’s joy matters much more to us than our own ever has?
As he worked in the kitchen, she looked at me expectantly.
“Are you… gonna… eat?” she asked, eagerness all over her. Her gaunt head wobbled on her impossibly thin neck as she spoke, and my impossibly broken heart wobbled within my chest.
“Oh no,” I begged off. “I’m fine. My stomach’s been a little queasy anyway. You enjoy.”
“What? NO! I want… you… to try it. It’s sooooo good.”
I’d been purposely keeping myself small so as to go unnoticed by anyone in the world but her. I barely ate and, other than a continuous stream of coffee, I barely drank. I was mostly silent unless I was praying or speaking to her caregivers. When I did speak, it was in hushed tones.
My one goal was to serve her with every last bit of myself, to spend myself completely. I didn’t want her husband cooking me meals or worrying about my needs at all.
“No, really. I’m fine, Em.”
She stared at me for a long moment, her smile vanishing.
“You never… let me… do anything… special for you.”
Her emaciated frame screamed weakness but, in that moment, my fierce sister was standing up to me, leveling me with the hard truth.
Our lifelong relationship could best be described as complicated. Did we love each other? Yes. Did we like each other? Mostly, no.
On more than one occasion, we swore each other off and went our separate ways. Eventually, in the tradition of complicated relationships, we circled back to each other again and again.
I always thought she was the real problem in our relationship, though I didn’t say it in so many words. I’d be blindsided when she’d accuse me of acting superior or “high and mighty” (one of her favorites), only because I didn’t have conscious superior thoughts about myself.
My inner dialogue didn’t sound like this: I’m better than my sister. In fact, she’s beneath me.
Yet, she’d been communicating this for years.
I told myself that she wasn’t a safe person to confide in, that she had too many problems of her own to burden her with mine, that she wouldn’t understand my issues anyway.
Isn’t that the way it always is with “helper” types like me? We cover ourselves with these convenient excuses, sheltering our hearts from others in a way that God never will.
If Jesus is the very face of God and He’s also the kind who would share a meal and a kiss with Judas, knowing the betrayal was coming, then what hope do our hearts have in His care?
So we elevate ourselves above those who could do us real harm and we couch these maneuvers in spiritual terms such as discernment.
Speaking from experience, though, what we’re really doing is hiding from the messiness – perhaps the astonishing pain – of entrusting who we really are to others, though the Bible sings this as our purpose.
The horrible cliché of it all isn’t lost on me – on her deathbed, my little sister finally had my undivided, unwavering, unselfish attention and, for once, I was hearing her.
And she was telling me this…
I want to help you the way you’ve helped me. I want to know your weaknesses the way you’ve known mine. At last, allow me the gift of being the giver.
The imbalance of the scale was, after all, overwhelming. Here she was before me, completely vulnerable, at her worst hour, and all she wanted was to finally know that I was human too – that I, too, feared and cried and longed and thrashed around wanting to be understood.
“Okay,” I relented and handed my heart to her.
She wasn’t lying, either. Those biscuits and gravy were soooo good. As I ate, I cried. I allowed the tears their passage and I didn’t apologize. She watched me with a bright smile on her face and I felt totally exposed and supremely loved in that holy moment.
“This is delicious,” I gushed and meant it.
“See…I…told…you,” she said with a satisfied smile.
Yes, she did tell me and she’d never been more right. On her deathbed, my little sister taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life.
The same Jesus who supped with Judas and drew close to him, knowing the knife that was behind his back, is also the One who emboldens me to live and love likewise – that is, like a person who can lose none of her most important things because God has given them to me and, therefore, they can never be taken away.
When I’m tempted to fear what others might do if they see the real me, to climb up high and cocoon in a place where they can’t see my struggles and flaws, to keep myself always helping and never helped, the right thing to do – indeed, the only thing to do if I want to be like Jesus – is to come down off my high horse, pull up a chair so that I’m eye level and eat, with joy and perhaps even tears, the biscuits and gravy.
In memory of my baby sister, Emily, who began her new journey one year ago today.