Holding on to bittersweet memories

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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campbell The watch my brother-in-law gave me for my birthday in February is inscribed on the back: "Remember."

And I try to.

I remember smashing Susan's hand in the front door to our house one day. If she was 2, I would have been 8, and I hadn't noticed that she was walking behind me, holding onto the door jamb for balance. It was so long ago that the image is hazier than the still-lingering feelings of guilt. I didn't break her little fingers, thank goodness, but still I cringe.

I remember walking with her late one night, trekking something like three miles along the National Mall from Capitol Hill to George Washington University in the summer of 1984. She was an Arlington college student interning for then-U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, and I was visiting. I don't recall why we couldn't find a cab, but I do remember thinking how foolishly dangerous to be there at that hour and how our parents would kill me if I let anything happen to her.

I remember how gorgeous she looked, my baby sister all grown up, in her low-cut party dress the night she accepted a distinguished alumna award from UT Arlington in 2006 and gave the most gracious, insightful, inspiring -- and concise -- thank you speech I've ever heard.

I remember an afternoon on the gravel trail at Memorial Park in Houston in fall of 2011. Susan and her husband, David, walked while I ran, and we met up at the end. Susan covered three miles without tiring and talked about joining me for a 5K run the following spring.

But the following spring -- last March, April and May -- carries its own memories. And I find myself trying to hold on to those images, not daring to forget even their most painful details.

There David and I sat outside M.D. Anderson Cancer Center on a toasty Saturday, numbly eating sandwiches with a friend, not knowing what would happen after Susan had a seizure, but certain we had to pray and lean on each other.

The day she got to go home, I made sure we emptied the water from the many flower bouquets she had received so they didn't spill in the car. Powerless to make any kind of meaningful difference, I grasped for minor ways to help.

I remember the morning she cheerfully ate cereal with bananas and toast at her kitchen table before going for a radiation treatment on the lung cancer lesions in her brain.

And I remember the April day she came home from the hospital for the final time, in an ambulance. It was Holy Saturday. Boxes of fluid bags and medications and supplies were delivered. Someone explained to me how to use the oxygen machine. I wondered how to hope against hope.

There was the way she perked up in bed when friends stopped by, how she would wave when they entered the room, ever the gracious hostess.

There was the day she drank a chocolate shake and pronounced it "delicious." There were the hours I sat and held her hand as she slept, feeling sadly happy when her beloved cats curled up by her feet.

There was David, staying by her side at all hours, keeping her comfortable, making sure she got her medications, lovingly living his vow of "in sickness and in health."

When my sister found the love of her life, I envisioned becoming fast friends with him over years of Susan and me double-dating with our husbands. I didn't foresee a bond forged during condensed weeks of sharing crisis and loss.

Susan would have turned 50 on Friday. In my mind are treasured pictures of her smiling joyously, at other birthdays, at her wedding, at some small delight that made her laugh.

But those days last spring were a gift, too, excruciating yet precious.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.


Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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