When a Star Burns Out…

25 04 2008
June Elizabeth Oliver Long
1958-2008

What do you do when a star burns out?

That’s the question I keep asking myself as I come to terms with the extinguishing of my North Star.

That’s what I called my sister June. My North Star–for 41 years of my life, she was a constant, that never wavered. People use Polaris for navigation, and as a direction toward home, and June was often the one I looked to for this. She was always there as my big sister, playmate, friend, surrogate mom and counselor. In an inconsistent world, and my often inconsistent life, she was there. But now she’s not, and I’m quite unsure of how to feel about it.

Since 2001, she had been battling a rare form of skin cancer, commonly referred to as mycosis fungoides, but in recent years, properly re-termed as cutaneous T-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Even with this diagnosis hanging over her head, the failure of treatments, and the inaccurate prognoses she received from doctors, she remained steadfast and resolute. She lived her life, worked hard, continued to raise her daughter, and continued to have hope that the disease would be driven into remission, and that she would be healed.

She has been, just not in the way we all expected. A little more than a month ago, she went home to Heaven, leaving behind her broken body and the cancer that ravaged it.

I know she left in peace. She was ministered to by my church family, her daughter Gabi, and me and Lynn. Gabi is now a young adult, and was mature enough to take over June’s care in her last months. The timely blessing of our new home afforded both of them a safe place to be without worry of finances and eviction. And after years of living through my relational and housing crises, I know she experienced great joy seeing me finally find love and a secure home.

Her final gifts to me (although I didn’t know it at the time) was the blessing of having her stand with me at the altar as I said my vows to Lynn, and her beautiful song. Despite the disease’s ravaging of her face, she walked down the aisle, and stood in front of a crowded church to sing, When Love Takes You In, a beautiful melody about being embraced and adopted into a heart and a home. The tune was an expression of Lynn’s and my embracing of each other and finding home, but it was also an expression of June’s and my kinship; her heart toward me, and in turn my heart toward her. So the song spoke to us on many levels. It was her final act of honor, and I will cherish that forever.

Some psychologists outline the five stages of dying and grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then acceptance. Another psychologist gives a simpler process of numbness, disorganization, then reorganization. Sometimes I feel as though I’m walking through all of these experiences and emotions at once. I’ve definitely been numb for a while, but now am getting quite angry and depressed that I don’t have her here to talk to, share our day-to-day, or more milestones, like the birth of babies and wedding anniversaries. I also get angry that more couldn’t have been done to save her earlier on; but that’s neither here nor there–hindsight is always 20-20, and there’s nothing that can be done to change what is.

For a few weeks, I was very disorganized and discombobulated, and for the first time in my life, didn’t beat myself up about it, but allowed it to be, knowing that this too shall pass.

But now I’m sensing an acceptance, that we did all we knew to do, and most gratefully, that we cared and loved with all that was within us.

The reorganization is coming on too. I am organizing the living room, finally getting rid of the piles of paper and extraneous boxes that were still cluttering it after a year of residence. And I think I now feel able to finally open the door to her room and start processing her items to give to others, or to charity.

So ultimately I do know what to do without her; I just didn’t want to have to be at this place any time soon.

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