Thirty-three years ago, my younger sister and I were wrapping last minute gifts on Christmas Eve. In a fit of punchy giggles, I began a story (winging it, as usual) about something that happened while I was at the mall buying last minute gifts. It took a few minutes for her to catch on that I was fabricating the whole thing, and then she started to laugh but played along like it was the truest story ever. The next year, I told her again, and after I got married, I called every year to talk about the old man with the long white beard and the red coat. It became a tradition. Every year save one, I told my sister the same ridiculous story. The small details changed, like where or how, but the basic story remained the same.
This year won’t be like that, because last month, I flew out to say goodbye after she went home on hospice.
My younger sister. My little sister, even after she surpassed me in height.
This isn’t supposed to happen. Not like this. Not ever.
All I could think of—selfishly, perhaps—was Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t be able to tell her the story, like I always did. On December 24th, I wouldn’t be able to call her again. All I had was then, September, three months early, so I brought her something. I handed it to her and settled back in the chair by the window, my back to the Pacific Ocean. She smiled her thanks as she took the pretty gift bag. The fog horn cried in the distance, and the white tissue paper shushed in her too-thin hands as she pulled out the lotion I had bought two days before.
While she smoothed the thick cream over long fingers—I think it was strawberry? Why can’t I remember? I ought to remember something that important—I said, like always, “You’ll never believe what happened while I was at the store.”
Her hands stilled for a moment, then slowly resumed rubbing the lotion in—yes, I think it was strawberry—and she raised an eyebrow. “What happened?”
I drew in a deep breath. “There I was, minding my own business near the shampoo, and this older man with white hair and a long white beard and wearing a long red coat—although, why would anyone wear a coat in California in September?—came up to me and asked, ‘Young lady, what do you want for Christmas?'”
A huge grin crossed her face, and her fragile shoulders fell back against the pillows. “Really? That’s strange.”
So, I told her the story, not the one I wanted to tell, not the one I’d thought of on the plane before I bought the lotion. Sure, I started that version, but when she gave me a smile of anticipation, I decided to tell her the same impossible, stupid, ridiculous story about the man-I-never-called-Santa, brainsuckers, and a hole in the floor.
She laughed again. After each laugh, she leaned back to rest, her eyes closed, and then those lovely green eyes fluttered open. She nodded, and I went on. Several times, the words swelled up in my throat, and I swallowed back tears.
“And so,” I finished lamely, “when I was leaving the store, my phone rang. Not even kidding. With a Christmas carol, and I don’t even have that ringtone!”
Her eyes crinkled. Like always, she asked, “Did you answer it?”
Like always, I said, “It was that man, and he demanded, ‘Young lady, you still haven’t told me what you want for Christmas!'”
“No!” She managed to get a little surprise into her voice, though nothing I said was new. “What did you do?”
“I hung up, of course.” That was how it always ended, and that time, it felt like the most pathetic, most anticlimactic ending I had ever spun.
But maybe it wasn’t.
Because she laughed again, and after a moment of rest, she smiled that big, generous smile and said, “I love you.”
I tried to say I love you back, but the words were garbled by tears. She understood.
Only a few days later, I stole another chance to sit alone with her. I held her hand, but I don’t think she knew. Not then. The room was quiet save the mournful call of the foghorn. One big, gray cat lay stretched at her left and the other curled up at her feet, like they, too, knew this was all they could do. Just being there. I wished I had figured out being there, just being, earlier.
That was when I told her the other ending. The one where the old man asked what I wanted, and I told him.
“I want my sister. Healthy. Whole.”
A crowd of witnesses, beautiful, shining people, appeared behind him, some with gentle compassion on their faces, some with fierce joy. And the old man said quietly, “Oh, child, I know. And she will be. She is coming home, and she will be well.”
“But that isn’t the point. It isn’t fair. She’s only forty-seven.” The smallest things tumbled from me, too important not to say. “I’m supposed to send her the silly counted cross stitch that says, ‘I’m FIFTY. Please act shocked.’ It always goes to the next fifty-year-old woman in our family. She needs to turn fifty.”
“I know.” He gestured behind him. “We all know. Sometimes, life isn’t fair, but God is good, and she will be well. Jesus is waiting.”
I didn’t get to the end of the story that time. I couldn’t get out any more words at all. I just knelt there, holding her hand, ugly crying. At some point, my youngest sister joined me, and then my mom did.
And that night, my sister left us.
She is pain-free, now. She is whole. She is well.
But Christmas Eve will not be the same.
But, oh, my sister—
I love you—