Song of My Sister by Virginia Hughes

Mary carries me across the river.

Mary and Virginia

Mary and Virginia

She carries me

home from church.

She is my third mother, 

on a team of three women,

made of Mother and my two older sisters.

Mary explains about boys

and changes that will come.

She knits scarves of many colors

to warm the cold winters when we move from the tropics to the bitter Midwest winters.

My bedroom is drab until she gives me curtains and matching bedspread in a pattern of bright blue ponds hopping with green, smiling frogs.

She teaches me how to clean house and babysit with thorough finesse; passing down odd jobs so I learn the dignity of work and earn money to buy elephant bell-bottomed jeans at the Bargain Center.

Wanting so desperately to be in love, during college, Mary wills her way into a young man’s heart and they wed. He welcomes her devotion, and then resents her. He does not love her as she longs. Their life twists into cords of strangling suffocation as the decades pass.

Mary carries me again helping plan my wedding as my adult life is just beginning.

Her husband goes into the night at odd hours, and her diaries clang with worry and jealousy over women she suspects he entertains. Her mind screams into the emptiness, why is he leaving? When will he return? She rocks their young sons to sleep. She finds love notes signed with flirting hearts and flowers in his closeted, tweed pockets.

Throughout her turmoil, Mary keeps an open house inviting us all for the holidays for years and years where we feast together enjoying warmth of family. The bubbling tension between her and her husband melds a crazy blend of beauty, delicious food, decorations, awkwardness and tears.

In this fertile soil where mostly misery grows between them, Mary begins to weave, sew and explore her own artful pursuits. Her home gleams with creative ingenuity. The air fills with aromatic recipes of tender roasts, and baked desserts as she plays the consummate host. She pushes her husband forward into many a juried art show, insisting he complete art projects that land him coveted art fellowships and national acclaim. She quietly frames his art, handling the business side of things, paying bills and collecting payments for his artwork.

Then comes news that Mary has terrible lung cancer. It is so advanced that surgery will not help her. Her husband dotes on her, willing her to live. He begs forgiveness, and clears the space between them. They suddenly become the fantastic, golden couple she always knew they could be.  He is all hers those last few weeks.

Where oh death is thy sting?

Inflamed in the deathbed of my beloved sister.

Even knowing her death is swallowed up in victory, I struggle on this side of heaven.

Why her?

Death looks for blame.

Why does she hide the shadow on her lung detected two years earlier?

She knows; for a long time, she knows. Why does she give up so soon? Is it soon though? She has been miserable and eaten up for years.

Why does this husband pay attention now so very late?  

He breaks, and we are there for him. Maybe not so much for him anymore as for our dear grown nephews standing in military dress blues drowning in waves of tears as they memorialize their mother.

I do not want a heart of stone. It takes more than resistance to make that a reality. Paper covers rock in the game, “Rock, paper, scissors.” I need God’s blanket of grace to cover me completely lest I harden.

Soon after Mary’s death, our brother-in-law is engaged, and in a blink, the newlyweds stand declaring their undying love in the same church; on the same spot by the altar where my sister’s casket rested, and my brother-in-law draped himself weeping, one year before.

I struggle to forgive when I would rather forget. I don’t want a root of bitterness to grow in my fragile, mourning heart. I go numb. What is a root of numbness compared to one of bitterness? It may indeed be worse. After the wedding, I avoid, avoid, avoid. I don’t want to see him happily getting on with life. I miss my sister. Why did she die and now he’s so happy with this other woman? The smiling faces of congratulations clash in cacophony. Thankfully, we don’t live in the same town or state. Our paths needn’t cross. But family ties pull us together.

I’m planning a family gathering and I leave my brother-in-law and his new wife off the list.

It is for my sister. Is it? What would she want me to do to honor her memory? She and he reconciled and had their best few weeks right before she died. She forgave.

I read about doing unto others, and how I am to forgive others as God has forgiven me. I cannot imagine a life where I exist feeling unforgiven by God. I need forgiveness like water, air, and the God particle that holds my flesh together may well be his spirit of forgiveness. I think of Corrie ten Boom and the families of Christian martyrs, and scores of others who have forgiven much greater wrongs.

It is a small gesture, but I invite my brother-in-law and his wife to the family gathering. 

Forgive me my debts as I forgive my debtors

As Mary carries me across the river.

Virginia and her siblings

Virginia and her siblings