Janis May was my sister.
Janis died early last month of aggressive cancer that had metastasized, including to her brain. She was the youngest of three, the last here, the first gone. She was not in pain, though she was “absent” most of her last few weeks. By the time she found out, the cancer had spread and within about three weeks had impaired her awareness.
It took years before Janis and I seemed to develop a good relationship. After our mother died in 2002, it looked like nothing was going to change, but a remarkable thing happened; we had an honest and candid conversation about why we were civil, but not all that friendly. Up until then, I did not have a real sense of what the issues were, though I had asked on more than one occasion. Finally, she really did let me know—she felt abandoned. Apparently, when we were younger, I was not present as much as she wanted. I left home and left her and our brother, who is now 68 and also struggling with cancer, in a house we were all nervous about living in. However, I was old enough to leave and she and our brother were not. That situation was not about abusive parents, but about parents who thought about caring and connection in a much different manner than we did. Janis’ perspective was that our mother spent too much hovering and micro-managing her and too much time worried about our brother’s well-being. Our dad spent his time trying to stay out of it. My own perspective was our parents, though not dismissive, had given up on me (that changed later when I was 22), so I was not caught in the same issue. But, in my sister’s mind, I left without considering her or my brother’s plight.
After that reckoning, we still annoyed each, but it was way friendly.
A few weeks before Janis died, our brother, myself, and Janis’ son—her only child, though now 45—had what I thought were some very grounded conversations about the reality of her cancer and the real effect it would have on all of us and many others besides. I’m not painting a rosy picture. Overall, it was a tough run, but we did not avoid or get artificially sweet. It was real and poignant and we had the opportunity to share some very deep laughter and some very honest tears.
Though Janis was not much “there” in the last 10 days, I would sit with her for a spell on my usual 3-day weekends. At some point, she would “come out” and when she saw me, she’d stare questioningly before the recognition slowly came, followed by a smile of hers that looked to be full of gratitude and care. And then she would “slip back” to where her path was headed.
Sometimes a reckoning, including a death, is a chance to bury our own hatchets—those storage sheds of resentment. Resentment is no way to foster a long-term state of true cooperation, caring, civility, and love. Thankfully, all of us cared enough to stick with the relationship and to make it matter. It showed in Janis’ eyes those last days and in our collective hearts.
Thank you, Janis May, we are glad to have shared such a rich experience. You were and are loved. And I’m profoundly relieved, as you seemed to be, to know that none of us were abandoned. Journey well, JanisSister—perhaps we shall meet again.