The beginning of Mom’s cancer journey turned my world upside down. The weekend after her abnormal scan brought all of the siblings together, several from out of town. Every weekend following felt like a holiday in those early days, when hopes were high that the right smoothie, sauna, or supplement would change the game and shrink the cancer. Mom’s weight loss made her happy, and she still functioned fairly well.
Those were strangely golden days, fast and slow simultaneously. I still feel them in the chill of fall. Brilliant blue skies and bright yellow leaves wrap me in melancholy and call forth my tears.
Being the local daughter meant supporting and accommodating, a role deeply familiar. I worked hard to balance home, business, and a dying mom. Being the local daughter meant that when siblings came to town, I could step back, though I also wanted to step forward and lean into time together. Every sibling was trying to get what they needed from the process of losing our mother, and I wanted that for each of them.
What did I want for myself? What did I need?
This was a season for me to learn, and what I discovered is that I wanted to be in a space that I often fled.
Home was not a comfortable place of belonging for me. This changed when I dared to stay at our parents’ house with my sisters the week after Christmas. I packed a bag as if I were leaving town, and my husband dropped me off at the back door.
That first night, two of my sisters and I piled into the guest bedroom downstairs. They slept together in the queen bed. I slept on an air mattress. Though there were other available rooms upstairs, we wanted to be close. We lit a candle, naive to the timeline and process of dying and vigils. I watched it burn into the night, casting shadows on the wall as we talked ourselves to sleep.
Early in the morning I woke up, needing to use the en suite. The process of propelling myself from the now slightly deflated air mattress to a standing position was comical and took serious core work. I felt like a gymnast doing a dismount and wondered if I would be able to land it. My sisters slept through the entire routine, which I shared with them later. We laughed hysterically in the room that would play a somber role in the coming months.
It was a rollercoaster of a week, full of lifts, drops, twists, and spins. It was the first time Mom’s pain level rose to a seven at night, resulting in fear and trauma responses from us all. We ruptured and repaired. I sat with Mom the next morning in her upstairs room waiting for the hospice nurse to visit.
“I wish…” she whispered.
“What do you wish, Mom?”
“I wish I didn’t have to have this visit.”
We waited together in silence. She was not about to go downstairs, so the nurse came up to her. They spoke privately before we gathered together to hear the new pain management plan. Managed pain made Mom a new woman, and she emerged from her room dressed and ready to take on the day. She planned to drive herself to an appointment. I offered to drive her as a way to spend time together, and she accepted.
While we were out, she expressed a desire to move to the downstairs room where the sisters were staying. We spent the afternoon moving her things downstairs, transitioning her to a new space. The process of emptying and sorting, one that had begun at the beginning of this journey, continued. There was a lot of emptying and sorting in this season.
We were in a death spurt, the opposite of an infant or child’s growth spurt. Just when the pain was managed and routine was found, something shifted, resulting in further adjustment. Comforting routines were suddenly disrupted by new developments, new losses, new declines.
This first weeklong sleepover was precursor, preparation, and practice for extended visits in the months ahead. Daring to stay meant daring to lean into deeper heartache, deeper grief, and in an odd way, deeper joy. Daring to stay created space for me to live in the same house with all of my six siblings, spanning sixteen years, for a brief season. Daring to stay made me a sibling again.
I woke up on New Year’s Eve to the feeling of a stranger in my bed. This was a first for me. I was aware of a body in the dark, one that I did not expect. I thought I was sleeping in this room alone. I was not. It was safe. I was safe. It was a sister.
Julie McClay lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with her partner of 31 years, four of their eight children, and six fur and feather babies. Two precious grandchildren bring deep joy and delight. Julie is a lover of stories and words. She serves clients, both in person and virtually, through Heart Path Story Coaching, offering a creative space of kindness, curiosity, and Story Work. Writing and Art Journaling are key elements of her process.