"She's gone" were the words transmitted to my cell phone at 10:14 pm, April 19, what would have been my mother's 91st birthday. Appropriate day for my sister to leave us and head home to Mom and Dad and her husband, who had paved the way a mere sixteen months ago. It was the twenty-first day of her coma but when I realized the night before that it would have been Mom's birthday, I hoped it would be then. Comforting in an odd way.
I had been grieving for years but especially so the past three weeks. The final week we were all exhausted but not nearly as much as my dear niece who had been keeping a lonely vigil all that time, far away in Vancouver. I think we had all become rather numb so I was shocked at my response to the expected news. I thought I was ready and all tapped out, but when my grief picked me up and threw me violently to the ground, wailing and screaming for what seemed a long time, I was surprised. It was almost an out-of-body experience as my rational self stood aside calmly and watched the display. I had no more control over it than I would have over a raging bull bearing down on me.
Michael looked on in silence, laying a comforting hand on my convulsing back. He seemed rather confused. I think he understands what has happened. He had quite a bond with my sister, only two months apart. A sister to him too.
That night I crawled into bed very late, my throat raw, my head pounding, shivering uncontrollably. The keening wind allowed little sleep. I awoke in the early hours from a brief sleep, aware of a strange silence in the house and realized the wind had knocked out the power. It was a cold, wet, miserable day, perfect for the occasion. The house was freezing, the electric furnace unable to warm us. Damn, I'd have to light a fire in the living-room wood stove if there was to be any hope of a cup of tea and comfort. My brain was so foggy that it didn't occur to me to call the Hydro company to find out how long we might be in the cold. It seemed entirely appropriate for me to play pioneer and huddle around the fire alone in the dawn half-light. It was at least something to do while I reflected on my sister's life.
Ann Verney Kakuno: May 10, 1948 - April 19, 2011. Daughter, sister, mother, surrogate mother to a much younger me, wife, dedicated teacher, friend, long-time stamp collector, professional standard seamstress and craftsperson, volunteer worker.
In old movies of our childhoods during our early years in Canada she and I seem inseparable, I a toddler, she a gawky but pretty young girl, just launching into adolescence, stuck with my care. There is an image of us hanging out together on the flat, bald prairie, another of us leaping through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. We shared a bed for a few years during my parents' first impoverished Canadian years, even a bedroom with my brother for a couple of years. I remember wetting our shared double bed a few times, in a house that was bitterly cold through winter nights and with no running water to bathe away the rank smell I must have spread all over my patient sister.
Ann left home for university when I was only nine but before that had been a dedicated creator of beautifully sewn doll clothes, and she patiently and meticulously cut out all my finicky paper dolls and their clothes. I was the envy of all my friends. Ann orchestrated my only two birthday parties as a kid, complete with treasure hunts and a fancy hairdo for one.
Years later, I am away at boarding school for four years of high school, hating it but always excitedly checking my mailbox after school for letters from the Outside. There were regular missives from Ann and frequent, thrilling boxes containing all kinds of contraband. We were never allowed to have food in the dorms but my sister recklessly ignored the rules and sent all kinds of fantastic treats that fed many a secret dorm feast. On one occasion we got caught but I never ratted out my sister.
She bought me my first and almost only make-up along with the coolest sunglasses ever, unfortunately long gone. I had my first and almost only cigarette from my sister, experimenting herself in our parents' kitchen.
I was her only bridesmaid at her wedding in June, 1971 to Fred Kakuno, a fine, handsome young teacher at her school. A thrill to an almost fifteen-year-old. In 1980, she stood by me at mine with her feisty little three-year-old daughter dashing around us. I remember looking back to see Fred waving a stick of red licorice trying to lure his daughter to him, all to no avail. I didn't care. I loved my pirouetting little niece and her free spirit.
Ann wept with me at the near-break-up with a bad boyfriend and later at the real end. I held her daughter and cared for her after Ann's first serious operation for a brain tumour, her little girl only a few weeks old. Ann sent me beautiful Christmas decorations every year, mostly made by her. Without her, I would have a bare tree.
In recent years, there were all those roses on a multitude of gifts: quilts, paintings, books, clothing, pottery, all riotously festooned with roses. In fact just three months before she died, she came to me in a dream, bearing red roses. The fact that these roses turned mysteriously into pot scrubbers attested to her sense of humour and my dad's, who was with her in the dream, awaiting her in the wings.
I loved my sister. I am bereft. But she is finally at peace after a long, fiercely determined battle with her body. It let her down oh so many times but through it all, she remained patient but tough, filled with a special grace and dignity.
Fly free Ann.