by Frances Edstrom
My youngest sister, Terri, died last Sunday night in her sleep. She was 48 years old.
It's strange, I think, that we had been expecting my brother, Mike, to die from his cancer for months before he did. But we were blindsided by Terri's death. People ask if it was unexpected, and we don't know what to say. We certainly didn't expect it, not now. But Terri had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 1997, and after undergoing surgery and radiation was left quite debilitated, and unable to carry on her work as a nurse. I guess we thought that after that magic "five year cancer-free" mark, we could expect her to have a nice long life.
Which she deserved to have. The Bowlers are a feisty bunch, prone to moodiness, temper and bouts of not speaking to this or that person. But not Terri. She was sunny, fun, caring and concerned for all those around her. She had hundreds of friends, and made new friends easily. She enjoyed life, loved to sing in front of an audience, looked for the best in everyone and had a quick laugh.
When I left for college, she was still a little girl. As a bridesmaid at my wedding, she and a couple of her junior high friends got into the spiked punch and giggled all through the reception. It wasn't until she came to Winona to major in Russian at the College of Saint Teresa that I got to know her. By then, John and I had a child and another on the way, and lived on Dacota St., not too far from campus.
We began to form a real relationship then, even though it was usually one of me trying to mother her. She then went back to Massachusetts, eventually into nursing.
In 1988, Terri quit her nursing job to care for my father in his last days. She proved to be a wonderful nurse, impressing us all with her capable and comforting manner. When my mother became ill, it was Terri who called me frequently with updates on mother's health, and through these long phone calls, we became more than sisters. We forged a friendship that came to mean a great deal to both of us.
It was Terri who talked to the doctors and nurses for us. She was the one who translated the medical jargon into a language we could understand. She was the one who fought against the establishment for mother's wish to be allowed to die with dignity.
Finally the years between us were contracted by that great equalizer, the passing of time. And when Terri and I were diagnosed with cancer only months apart, our bond became galvanized by the shared experience.
In September of 2001, while the aftermath of the terrorist attacks still hung in the air like an invisible poison, Terri and Stephen, her one true love of twenty years, were married in a joyful ceremony, surrounded by a few hundred of their closest friends. The only cloud over the day was that the bride spent the night before the wedding on IV antibiotics in the hospital, and went back to the hospital to spend her wedding night.
Our phone calls continued, and became more frequent. Often on a deadline day, when I was sitting in front of my computer waiting for inspiration, I'd call her for an infusion of energy. Her favorite time to call me was on Saturday morning. We never ended a phone call without saying "I love you!"
This is not to say that I didn't twit her every now and then, as a proper big sister should do. I laughed when she packed her hairdryer for a week-end at a cabin with no electricity. I joked that she had the same boyfriend longer than most people stay married. We knew she didn't like shopping for clothes because she was a little color-blind. And it was widely known that if you wanted her to wish you a happy birthday, you had to call her and tell her it was your birthday.
But she lived with constant pain, which was becoming more and more debilitating. Her energy level ebbed, she spent more time sleeping, and her doctor upped her dose of pain medication. She led us to believe it was something she could handle, and turned the conversation to other things, to us. Should we have known how close to death she was? Bouts with cellulitis, an aggressive staph infection that sent her to the hospital for long stays, became more and more frequent. When Stephen called early Monday morning, we thought he would tell us she was back in the hospital. No.
Now she's gone, and our lives are diminshed without her. I've lost my friend, my confidante. We've lost our family diplomat. Stephen has lost the wife who waited for him, and who adored him. Her many friends will miss her. It's as though a major star in the sky has been extinguished, leaving our lives dimmed by the loss.