The following is an adaptation of the eulogy I gave at my sister’s funeral service. She died of cancer in March 2018.
She was my only sister, born seven years after me. I never imagined I would have to one day stand here and give her eulogy. A few days before she died, I told her that she has to get better to one day take care of me, and that I would get sick on purpose and even make her wipe my butt. She would usually laugh when I made a joke like that, but now she could barely manage a smile. The morphine and fentanyl were taking away her mind. She was no longer herself.
You may be in a state of shock as to what happened because she probably seemed normal to you when you last saw her. I want to be honest and explain what the cancer did to her.
She was diagnosed with stage 2b triple negative breast cancer in October of 2015. Stage two means that cancer cells escaped from the site of the initial tumor and made their way into nearby lymph nodes. I live in Europe, so after she was diagnosed, I came back to help her with treatment. I was with her for most of everything the doctors advised: chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. I did my own research and verified that she was getting the best treatment that modern medicine allowed. She was going to get better. The cancer would go away.
Chemotherapy was the hardest for her. Imagine a volcano that activates deep within your body but refuses to erupt through the surface. It caused far more pain than the tumor itself. There was no shortage of cheerleaders in the doctors’ offices and the support groups that told her to be strong and never give up. This was only temporary, they said, a mere speed bump of what would be a long and fulfilling life. She took it to heart and endured months of medical torture, more than I believe I could handle myself.
Once her treatments were done, I went back to Europe and believed she would go back to living as she had before, but one thing they don’t tell you about cancer is the terrible, constant anxiety you face while in remission. A random headache was brain cancer. A stomach cramp was cancer of the gut. Fatigue was blood cancer. Her doctors wanted to put her on anti-anxiety medicine, because any problem to them can be hammered away with drugs or surgery, but instead I talked her down from many of the panic attacks she experienced, all of which I was sure were false alarms.
During these panic attacks, I was careful to not say that the cancer didn’t return, because how could I know for sure? So many people told her she’d be okay, and the cancer would never come back, but how could they know? They were just saying words, building her up as a “cancer survivor,” but cancer always comes back, and in her case, I don’t think it ever left her.
In January of this year (2018), she contracted the flu. The flu turned into bronchitis. Then it turned into bilateral pneumonia. They say that on an x-ray lung cancer and pneumonia look the same, so one month was lost pumping her with antibiotics when the symptoms were caused by cancer cells that relocated from her breast to her lung. I was walking to my favorite French café on a Saturday evening when I got a call from her. The results of her lung biopsy came in.
“It’s cancer,” she said.
“Are you joking?” I replied, not wanting to believe her.
We cried together. I told her that I’d be with her to fight this just like before, and she wouldn’t be alone. I booked a flight that night. Four days later I was back home. She was already on round-the-clock oxygen, fed through a nasal prong. Her coughing was continuous. She couldn’t lay on her back or else she would feel shortness of breath. She didn’t sleep for more than three hours a night. I knew she was experiencing bad lung symptoms for the previous six weeks or so, but when I saw how bad she was, I couldn’t believe it. I just saw her a couple of months ago, and she was fine.
The worst was the pain in her chest. She said it felt like a tight squeezing, as if her heart was about to stop. One night, we swapped out her oxycontin for another pain medicine that we were told could manage her pain better, but it didn’t work. She howled for hours until it was safe enough to resume the oxycontin again. My little sister was suffering, and all I could do was watch.
We received a new treatment plan from the doctors: eighteen weeks of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation. Both were to start at the same time. I liked the plan because it was aggressive. We were going to go after this cancer and put it on the defense, but I couldn’t help but notice the word “palliative” on the medical consent forms she signed. I knew it was a form of care that aims for comfort instead of a cure.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t discouraged. There were many stories of people with advanced cancer who survived many years, and not once in her dozens of doctor appointments did I hear the words “death” or “dying.” Everyone knows that we all die, and you know that one day you will die, but we don’t really believe it. Death is something that happens to other people, not us, and not to your kid sister.
Her condition declined so steadily that every day I came to expect a new function or ability that she would lose. I bought a wheelchair because it became too difficult for her to walk, and being her annoying older brother, I wheeled her at a fast speed to give her an adrenaline rush. One time I tried to wheel her over grass, but we got stuck and I accidentally dumped her on the ground. She forgave me, which was easy to do because I tormented her much worse when she was younger and I used to rip off the heads of her Barbie dolls for fun.
She completed her first few days of treatment and then Friday came. She had serious difficulty making it to the car for the trip to the doctor’s office. She saw black in her vision and had to pause for minutes when performing the most basic of movements that I take for granted every day. I was still determined to complete the last radiation session of the week because I knew that without treatment, she wouldn’t make it, and I didn’t want her to die.
I pushed her to try just a little harder, and we made it to the doctor’s office half an hour late. She somehow managed to hold her failing body in the machine to get zapped with radiation. Then she looked at me and told me she was done. She couldn’t make it home. I called 911. While waiting for the ambulance, I called my mom to tell her what was happening, but I was so choked up that no words came out. I had to compose myself and call her again. The ambulance took her to the hospital and she was admitted to the intensive care unit.
Her decline continued in the hospital. The doctors pumped her with so many drugs that I joked with her that she was officially a medical experiment, and that when she got better, she’d appear in all the top medical journals. In addition to the oxycontin she was on, the doctors gave her a patch of fentanyl, a drug so powerful that children have died playing with their parents’ used patches. That wasn’t enough to relieve her pain, so they also put her on a continuous morphine drip.
Her physical pain faded, but at the cost of impairing her mind. She became confused and shared random memories from years ago, but even in this condition, no doctor told us that she was dying. I even used the medical word for dying, “terminal,” to ask the lead doctor if she was indeed dying. He told me that she was “getting to” the terminal phase. I had to read between the lines to know what was going on.
The biggest hint I received was when one doctor showed me side-by-side CT scans of her lungs spaced one month apart. Last month, there were little white specks, but now her lungs looked like Swiss cheese. Part of her left lung collapsed. If those were the scans of any other woman, I’d think she was in dire straits, but this was my sister. I didn’t want to accept that she was dying as much as it was staring me in the face. The doctor said, “We don’t usually treat a patient with cancer this extensive.” I told my mother and father, and we began to prepare for her death in our own ways.
They actually gave her a round of chemotherapy while she was in the hospital. “Our goal is to get her home,” the oncologist said. My dad and I were desperate to try it, thinking that it could help, but chemo takes weeks to begin working. My mother, who has watched her stepmother and sister die of cancer, was more realistic. She prayed for an end to her daughter’s suffering.
She soon needed a mask that delivered 100% pure oxygen. If I were to put that mask on you, you’d pass out quickly, but even with it on, she complained that she felt like she was suffocating. I couldn’t imagine the agony she was going through, and although she had no shortage of people by her side, she was dying alone, experiencing it alone. She grabbed my arm and said, “Brother, I’m scared!” I replied instinctively, “Don’t be scared,” but I was scared too. At that moment I would have done anything to trade places with her, to exchange my healthy body for hers, to die so that she can live. I would have made a deal with the devil if he presented himself before me, but there was no deal to be made as I helplessly watched her approach the abyss.
I couldn’t handle what was happening. Nothing in my life prepared me for this. I snuck in a bottle of scotch to the hospital and started drinking in the nearby family room. I’d sit by her bedside, break down while holding her hand, then go back in the room and drink some more. If she opened her eyes while I was beside her, I’d wipe my face and pretend everything was okay, but she wasn’t fooled, and asked me why I was crying. I kept drinking until the hospital ceiling started to spin. I passed out and my mother put a blanket over me.
The next day, the doctor said, “If she becomes unresponsive, she will likely pass in 24 hours.” I drove home to shower and get a few days’ worth of clothes. On the way back, my mom called me and said “Hurry up” before hanging up the phone. I gripped the steering wheel tight and yelled so loud, in a way that I never have before, that it didn’t at all sound like me.
I arrived at her hospital room. My mother and father were by her bedside. The pulse and blood oxygen readings on the monitor were now replaced with the word “Comfort.” She was unconscious and taking her last breaths. I could hear fluid in her lungs. I paced the room back and forth, repeating “I don’t believe it” while shaking my head. I wanted to grab the television that was hanging on the wall and throw it through the window. I wanted to destroy everything in sight. I wanted to kill myself.
I calmed down long enough to sit by her. I held her and told her that I loved her and will always love her, and that I was sorry this happened to her, and that it was okay for her to go now because it would end her suffering. The space between her breaths got longer and longer. Her limbs turned a faint purple and then her face. My beautiful sister, the most important person in my life, took her last breath. Minutes later, I swear that I could see her chest rising up and down, because there was no other way that I could see my sister other than alive, but she was gone.
I know I’m supposed to stand up here and say she didn’t suffer. I’m supposed to say that she died in peace. But that wouldn’t be the truth. She was in tremendous physical pain that had to be managed with the most powerful drugs made by man, and because the end came so unexpectantly, even for someone with cancer, she was not able to make sense of her dying.
She still had a lot of living to do, a lot of places to see, so she felt robbed that the end came so early. If you put a gun to my head right now, I’d ask you to get on with it and pull the trigger, since I’ve done everything I set out to do, but that wasn’t the case for her, and if there is anything that proves to me that life is inherently unfair, her death is it.
I wish they told us. I wish the doctors said she was dying. At least we would have spent the energy of her last days and months in a different way than fighting a futile battle to keep her alive at such a high physical and emotional cost, of repeatedly having hope after hope crushed as the cancer spread on its own schedule, regardless of what we threw at it. The doctors orchestrated a great charade that only added to her suffering.
I have to say that her death made me feel like a fool. For years I’ve been chasing women, fame, and novelty, thinking that those things would make me happy or somehow complete me when the one thing that could make me happy was so close the entire time. Instead I went to faraway lands, as far as I could, to pursue exotic pleasures and entertainment. They were fun at the time because my family was healthy, my sister was healthy, and I was healthy, but now that all seems so meaningless. I don’t even want to remember those experiences. The only thing I’m scared of is that in a few months, once the pain of her death subsides, I’ll go right back to doing all that, because I don’t know what else my life is for.
A few days before she died, the palliative nurse came by and gave us a packet with the title “My Wishes,” which was actually a funeral planning guide in disguise. It was a way for my sister to express herself in case of death, because as you can tell by now, you’re not supposed to tell someone they’re dying.
We went through the packet and got to a question that asked how you would like to be remembered after you die. I have the packet right here so I’ll read to you what she said in her morphine fog: “I want people to remember me as kind, and that I tried my best to share my love and make people happy.”
As someone who gave way more than she took, I know she will be remembered in this way. When I die, I can tell you that thousands of people will celebrate, and it’s a good thing if you don’t know why that is, but with her that wasn’t the case. She was a big-hearted person through and through, which just adds to the unfairness of it all.
I know a lot of you had crazy times with her at parties or concerts, but our relationship was simply one of steady joy. She was someone I could talk to about whatever came to mind, or I could just sit in silence with her to enjoy her presence. We could play off each other and make ourselves laugh until we cried, or have serious discussions about our lives. She was the first person I would go to when I had a bizarre experience, because I loved hearing her reaction and the jokes she could make from it. I would go to her when I was unsure about a woman, and she would give me an analysis that—in hindsight—was always right.
Before I broke up with my last girlfriend, I first cleared it with her to make sure I wasn’t being too hasty. Before any big decisions, I would always get her thoughts, as if I was launching a nuclear missile and needed her to turn her key. I would even focus group my newest jokes on her before trying them on others, because she would never judge me for being dumb. She was my best friend. She balanced my rigid and overly analytical nature. She made me see the light of things, that there is a play to life, not just the seriousness of seeking perfection and trying to figure every little thing out. She understood me more than anyone else in the world. Who will I trust more than her? Who will I tell my silly stories to now? Who will tell me that I’m going too far down the wrong road? She left me and now I don’t know what to do. Sister, where are you? Why did you leave me? I’m still here! I didn’t know that most of the happiness I experienced in my life was because you were a part of it.
Late last night I was trying to make sense of her death. I know her well enough that I decided just to ask her what I should do, and see if a voice answered me back. I closed my eyes and remembered when she was in elementary school and I would pick her up from the bus stop every day at 3:15pm. I remembered when I took her to HFStival, her first rock concert, where I watched her carefully from the mosh pit while she sat smiling in a stadium seat. And I remembered all those chemotherapy visits, of helping her get through the toughest part of her life, where our relationship deepened to the purest love that a brother and sister could have. These film reels were playing in my mind when I asked, “What do I do now?” What came back to me was, “Remember me, take care of yourself, I love you.”
I know that life goes on, but it won’t be in the same way. Experiences I have from this point on will come with a different feeling, a different color. The sadness will reduce somewhat, but I know the emptiness will remain, and I’ll just have to make the most of life without her. My wish for you in the years to come is to remember my sister and take care of yourself, and know that if you are in this room, she did have love for you. Thank you for being a part of her life, for making her who she was, and I hope that her spirit will remain close to your heart until the end.