Friday, February 6, 2009

Tears of Laughter

Somedays her memory will not let me go till I think of her and remember that she is the inspiration for the way I do ministry. So tonight her story must live on my blog for all to share in the memory of my sister.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

I don’t know for sure when my sister decided that she would become my second mother, but what I do remember is a brief memory of her as a teenager teasing my oldest brother Ray. Only a few glimpses of those days of my young childhood still exist and those that do rest delicately on the synapses of my mind. In fact, most of what I remember seems to come from deeper in my soul. Perhaps it is my heart, a less perfect thing for remembering, that preserves these memories for me? Wherever they are stored I write this story of my Sister with great thanksgiving that they do still rise to the surface now and then.

On that day, while I sat comfortably on the couch eating a butter and sugar sandwich and watching cartoons, my sister came flying through the living room with a blur, followed close behind by my brother Ray. Screaming all the way, my brother and sister headed for the front door of the house. My sister opened the inside door and then the outside storm door which was made almost totally of glass. My brother’s shouts of anger could be heard through out the house and I imagine across the neighborhood too. Then, as quickly as the shouts came, they stopped abruptly with the shattering sound of glass. As the door was being pulled closed by tightly stretched springs, my brother reached out to push it open and as life has often taught me since, when two strong forces come together something or someone is going to break..

My memory ends there. Its curious to me why we remember the things we do and don’t remember the things we don’t. I don’t remember seeing the blood running down my brother’s cut up arm though I know from the stories of others that it was there. I don’t remember what they did to heal his arm. I know that they went to the hospital but I have no real memory of that and for all I know I simply went back to eating my sandwich and watching “Popeye the Sailor Man.” As hard as I squint my eyes to remember, those moments are not there and part of me wishes they were.

Most of my memories of my sister are of her as an adult though I am sure she was not much more than 22 at the time. She was the first to go to Junior College and then on to the University of Northern Iowa and become a real college graduate. This may not sound like much but in my family that was a “Tears of great Joy” moment. She had made my parents extremely proud of their first-born child. This accomplishment was not lost on her little brother who would one day follow her in the pursuit of that dream and so many others.

Although she had dated enough to find a husband she had been so focused on graduating from college that she had passed up many opportunities to settle down and have children of her own. Secretly, she had always hoped to do both, have a family and be an independent woman ready to take on the world. However, she told me later in life that sometimes, you just have to compromise and take what you can get. I think perhaps it was then, with no real chance of having a family or child of her own for awhile that she decided that she would take care of me, her little brother.

I loved her so for those years when I would spend hours listening to her tell jokes and laugh at my completely absurd and obvious riddles. My insides are tied up in laughter even now as I reflect on those times.

Those joyous bits of time have inspired most of my life and still bring me comfort when life becomes too difficult or I loose my way in this world. She was like that for me for her whole life long. She was the person I would come to and ask the deep questions of life. We did not always agree on the answer but she was always there to make me laugh and listen to those things that lie deeper than questions – the part of us that is most visible in a 7-year-old child laughing with no understanding of the world’s problems.

Though when I allow the more complete memory to surface I remember moments when my childhood unfiltered-honesty must have caused her pain. In the midst of the tears of laughter, she would say, “You are as silly as a monkey.” I would then respond by crying out at the top of my voice, “You are as big as an elephant!” Her facial expression would drop and the whole world seemed to stop. However, before I could fully understand how devastating those words were to a young woman struggling with weight issues, my sister would regain her smile, reach out and tickle me and start the laughter up again.

I think this was the pattern of her life or at least the part of my sister that I would like to remember the most. Even as the unforgiving evil of Cancer had begun to chew up her insides for the second time in her short life she got on a plane to see me, her young and still naïve brother. She was there at my wedding, though I know now that the Cancer had returned yet again. So when I received a call from my mother telling me that Pam was not doing well at all, I dropped everything, got in my car and drove the 15 hours to her house. When I walked into her room and sat beside my sister’s now emaciated body I first thought deep in my mind with tears of laughter, “She is not an elephant any more!”

I could not hold back the tears for her as I looked into her eyes. She whispered, “Why did you come to see me?” I knew what she was really asking me for all people who are near death are wise enough to know that when relatives start showing up as I did from miles away it can only mean that death is near. I smiled and said, “Because you would have done the same for me.” She reached out, touched my hand lightly and simply said, “of course, of course.” Then like the sister I had known in my childhood she turned the discussion away from her and said, “I hear you are now a father. I hope you will bring your son to see me soon.”

My sister had defended her soul long and hard against the relentless destruction of cancer most of her life. Not once but three times it attacked her body and twice she fought it with drugs and love and a desire to get from life everything she had dreamed for herself when she was so young. In time, she met a man named Rick who loved her and chose to struggle with her in the pursuit of happiness. He stood by her each time the cells attacked her body and though part of him would be lost in that sacrifice he stayed the course. Together, during a rare remission of the cancer, they were able to have one child. His name was Brian and he was the completion of my sister’s dreams for her life.

On the last day of her life, my wife and I stepped into the elevator with our now 4-month-old son, Tristan Michael Spangler-Dunning. We smiled at each other as we looked at this life wrapped in swaddling clothes. I had fulfilled my sister’s request to bring him to see her soon. We walked into her room and she reached out in her weakened state, smiled and asked to hold him next to her body.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

My sister who had always been strong was asking me, (Me! Her not-so-little, not-so-naïve anymore, brother) for permission to say goodbye. Unable to speak or understand her request of me in that moment, my wife replied for me, “Yes, you can follow the angels.” I simply smiled and put my hand on my son, as he lay on top of my sister. We said our goodbyes and as we were leaving she said to me again, “Remember, tell him about his Aunt Pam.” “I will, I will,” I said as we slowly and reluctantly backed out of the room.

There is much more to tell about my sister but some memories I choose to keep to myself and never put them on the page. Perhaps that is selfish but in another way it is my way of honoring her life by never trying to fully explain whom my sister was to me or everyone else she met. We shared in many other arguments, discussions, and even laughter sessions but those are mine to contemplate now and then. I share this story so that my sister, Pamela May Dunning Bishop, will live beyond my memories in the hope that other’s who struggle against all the cancers of life, will seek in the midst of their tears a little laughter.


Chris said...


I didn't know you had a sister or any of the things you shared in your story. Heartbreaking... But, you have an amazing outlook on life.

Randy said...

thanks . . . with a smile & a tear & great thanks

Bravo said...

Wow, what a great story Bill. (Don't ask how I came across it)
I won't fess up to tears (okay, yes) If you have any others I'd love to hear them.

-Brian (yes THAT Brian)
(so what if i occationally google family members)