Dear Sister: A Gratitude Letter

Dear Sister,

A friend is doing a gratitude diary and it’s been helping her a lot, so I thought I’d try as well. I believe in the practice of gratitude, have seen the articles showing measurable improvement in mood and cognition—I just find it difficult to engage in the good practices of self-care when I’m so deeply shaken. Though our brothers are still left, it feels like you were the last person who had known me all my life. No, that’s not quite right: you were one of two people who cared about the minutiae of my life, who I told things that I hadn’t carefully selected for their interest or relevance to the conversation. The other person, of course, is my husband, for whom I am grateful every day because of his cheer, his wit, his love for animals, for how he asked me when you were alive if I’d heard from you that day, for how he asks me now how I am “in myself,” a Britishism I love.

Dorey with 8-week-old Skye the Golden Retriever

So: I am grateful that we took you to the beach less than two months before you died, how you managed to get into the ocean every day we were there despite having so much stomach pain that you hardly ate. I am grateful that you loved my stepdaughter and made her know it, that she could come along on that beach trip as well as her sweet boyfriend. I thought I was good with college kids but you were alight with laughter, your face like open arms, then as always.

I am grateful for the puppy you encouraged me to get. She grows redder every day, her gold transmuting towards chestnut, like the horses you and I each loved when we were growing up: your Royal, small and willing, and my Crest, a big boy who took care of me as though he knew nothing else (though we both know he made adult riders work to get him to do what they asked). I am grateful that we managed to get you down to meet the puppy while you still could, your friend driving you halfway and me picking you up, you handling the seven hours in the car as best you could. I wish the pup hadn’t been in her puppy-biting stage; she is so much more fun now, her retriever mouth softer, gentler, and able to calm down for cuddling.

(I am trying to leave out what I am still angry about, the incompetence of doctors and your husband’s anger. I am grateful that he finally found a way to curb that anger in your final nine months, but why couldn’t he have done that years earlier?)

Dorey leading her horse Royal & Katie riding, 1970s

Still, it is sunny out, here in late January in Tennessee, and the daffodils are six inches up, which means they’ll bloom here in a couple of weeks. A downy woodpecker eats at the suet feeder. I don’t live in the windswept center of Illinois like you did, but I have some beauty around me, and that is worth my gratitude.

I’m grateful that my knee will recover in another week or two so I can again walk the puppy, watch her joy and feel the kick and swing of legs moving as they should. I’m grateful that I didn’t break my kneecap when I fell, trying to step over the puppy gate. I’m grateful that we have insurance so I could go to the doctor, get the proper knee brace and reassurance and advice. I’m aware of the coincidence of it, that you had a bad knee for so many years and I hurt mine mere weeks after you were gone.

Mostly I’m grateful that we had fifty-one years together, though I expected more. Your giggle was something no one who heard it could ignore, a bell, a trumpet proclaiming that many things might be wrong with the world but there was delight anyway. You set standards I could not reach, older sister, saving the world in rural and urban America, Guatemala, Colombia, and other places I can’t remember right now. You did so by talking with people, offering the gift of your attention and understanding. People who spoke other languages loved you, coming to you through fog and dark to find welcome. And the traumatized children and teens, survivors of violence and abuse, of the mental illness of their caretakers and themselves—you didn’t need to know what had happened to them. You gave, and gave, and gave, and you didn’t think it was anything, just being yourself.

central Illinois sunset, after my sister’s memorial

Ok, so I admit I’m also grateful that I’m not worrying about you every day, about whether you’ll be able to pay your bills or whether you’ll have another car accident, another head injury. About your angry husband and whether I could ever save you so you might have a true love, be cherished as you deserved. I’m grateful you were never destitute, or homeless, that you managed to always be able to eat and feed your dogs and horses and have heating and air-conditioning, despite doing jobs that paid so little. I’m grateful to the people who helped when you needed it, their money and time like flotation cushions in water that sometimes got a little too deep.

Sister, I’m grateful you were alive.





Categories: Health, Katie's Voice

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