photo by Sarah Whiting
photo by Sarah Whiting

On a scorching hot July day in Brooklyn, my sister Mary Ann was in the hospital again suffering complications from Stage 4 cancer. To reach her that morning, I waited on a subway platform, dodged bugs the size of fists, and rushed under a blazing sun to the hospital. When I saw her face, I felt the weight fall from my shoulders. She had made it. She had lived through another night.

That morning, and the next morning, and almost all the mornings that followed the diagnosis, I woke up between 3-5am and wrote whatever cared to move through me. I wrote for no real reason — other than to sit in the dark, stare at a blank screen, and type words. After many plane trips from Minneapolis to New York, I knew now that the mammograms, the medical efforts, the doctor’s assessments, and the shifts in treatment had all failed her.

I knew the end would come soon. On better days, that acceptance ushered in a stillness. I hoped this was true for Mary Ann. I knew only that she loved her time in a deeper way. She appreciated the blue sky, the view from the rooftop of the hospital, the flowers someone bought her. We had this day. That was enough.

Four years earlier, when Mary Ann was diagnosed, she began to paint like a possessed woman. In the years that followed, amidst the painful treatments and fear, she organized family trips in our hometown of Detroit, to our family cottage, or to an art show in Ann Arbor. The entire time she painted, without doubt or judgment.

She painted at her studio in Red Hook, at our family place, and outside, under a young sun. Everywhere she went in those last years, her clothes and tennis shoes carried splotches of paint. She attended therapy groups and visited a therapist, but nothing compared to the artwork itself — the world it built, the curious way the paint touched the canvas.

Through her painting and life, Mary Ann taught me to notice the details of each moment. As we sat together in the hospital room, I noted the bed with the bars lifted, the multiple IVs, the passing nurses, the names of friends who called: Georgia, Sharon, Eileen. I wrote it all in my mind to transcribe later.

Eventually I understood that the words I typed out, like my sister’s paintings, were the way I could love the days we had left, by paying homage to the colors, the stories, the brush strokes. We are here. Together. Now.

In that way, my writing was an act of love — a prayer in gratitude for what we had, and an antidote to all of the failed treatments. In this time we had together at the end, Mary Ann helped me see a way to survive by building an inner palace — a place no one could touch, both luminous and alive.

My sister’s paintings won much acclaim after her passing. I won a writing contest and published a book. Those things were nice, but nothing compared to those days together, where her brush strokes glided along the canvas, and my words strung together from the subconscious, or the universe, or another world.

The acceptance of death, according to philosophers, allows us to pull away the detritus and shut off the noise in our lives. It allows us a chance to honor our one and only life, so fleeting, and so full of wonder.

Mary Ann did not want illness and suffering to define her. Instead, she chose to transcend suffering. 

When the hard days come, my mind still retreats to that inner space, turns down the noise, and asks only this: what does this moment ask of me? Do I have the courage to honor it, in spite of, or because of, such loss? To honor my sister, and my own life, the answer is yes.