I have just finished writing an obituary for my sister. Yes, the one who refused to see me or even let me know she was sick and dying, because of my lack of religious faith. I did it primarily for her husband, who just couldn’t handle it and asked me to do it. He’s a nice guy; I have no quarrel with him. And I’m a writer, after all. So I spent the morning polishing up the facts and fragments he sent me into a flowing tribute to my sister’s spirit of generosity, kindness, and devotion to her church, what a wonderful friend she was, a good listener and a loving wife. All the good work she did in the community, and how everyone depended on her. How she spent her youth with her family, fishing with her dad and granddad, visiting cemeteries and other historical sites with her mother, talking about religion and spiritual truth with her grandmother, with whom she shared a deep bond in their mutual devotion to Christ.
She leaves behind a sister. She left that sister behind long ago.
Until I was born, she was the only child, the princess, the center of attention. She was 12 when our parents decided to have me, a sibling for her, a dear sister for her to love and share family with. That was the plan. And I spoiled it by being a colicky, difficult baby, and a loud, tomboyish hellion as I grew up. She resented being expected to baby-sit me when she would rather be out with her friends or dating. I expect she found me repulsive. I was wild, scruffy and loud, where she was lovely, polite and well-mannered. I cussed and partied and refused to conform, and as a final blow, rejected the religion which was so important to her.
I think she tried, over the years, to reach out to me. But I was struggling with my own demons, and I didn’t respond the way she wanted me to. I didn’t understand. It took me a long time to mature beyond nihilism and cynicism and contempt for much of what she valued. But I finally got there. I finally understood the value of compassion, the need for tolerance. I had the maturity and perspective to look back and see the mistakes I’d made, and why I made them. It wasn’t my fault; but it wasn’t anyone else’s fault, either. We all screw up. Our anger, our emotions get the best of us, and we do stupid things. All we can do is sigh, try to clean up the mess we’ve made, and ask for forgiveness.
In my sister’s belief system, forgiving our trespasses (or debts as it is sometimes translated) as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Unfortunately, by the time I was able to reach out to my sister, she was unwilling to accept. She was done with me. She refused my attempts to reconcile, citing my lack of faith. And when she was dying, her last opportunity to make peace with me, she instead made everyone around her swear not to tell me that she was sick, and then that she was dying. And then it was too late.
And here I am. Writing her obituary because it seems to me the right thing to do, in spite of it all, in spite of the pain, in spite of the shrieking irony. An atheist, with everyone telling me how Christian I am behaving. An atheist, who tried to reach out in the spirit of forgiveness and understanding, and the Christian sister, who refused. If God exists, He’s got a hell of a sense of humor.
Sufficient adjectives do not exist to describe how surreal this all is, as we pass from one family-oriented holiday to another (allegedly, anyway, apart from the infamous rampant commercialism). This afternoon, we are planning on getting out the Christmas decorations and talking about how we are going to celebrate, starting to make lists and pencil in the schedule. I will smile brightly. And when I attend the memorial service next week I will express my sympathies and condolences and say all the right things, and not speak ill of the dead.
I think I shall buy a commemorative ornament for this year, and it shall be an elephant, in honor of the one here in the room.