Sister Love: Remembering Marian, Part 2
On the very chilly afternoon of Saturday, January 9, we held a perfect memorial service for my sister Marian on Plymouth Beach. Due to group size limitations on COVID restrictions, we could not hold a traditional funeral, but Marian specifically said she didn't want her memorial to be sad. She wanted happy and fun. And so, we gathered a tiny circle of immediate family members and her very best friends at the beach, led by Rev. Dr. Helen Nablo of the Church of the Pilgrimage of Plymouth, to honor Marian. We met in the parking lot, and walked under cloudy skies against a 30-degree raw beach wind to the day parking area—a distance of about a mile. It was a trek and a half. Within a very short time, our group of 14 had expanded into a long column, each of us struggling through thick sand and heavy emotions at our own walking pace. Some walked alone; some of us walked in small knots, remembering Marian and talking about the many forms that our grief had taken over the years she had Alzheimer's. Having a loved one with Alzheimer's extends that grief out to every day; I have heard it called "the long goodbye." Truth.
My husband Steve drove ahead with young Liam, and the two of them scrambled over the sea wall rocks to set up a sacred space among the three-mile expanse of beach. Steve stuck three spinning flowers from previous Alzheimer's walks into the sand, propped up a framed 8x10 photo of Marian, and Liam got to work making a circle of stones. His pants were soaked from the wet sand within minutes. As we all arrived, we gathered in a circle in the whipping wind, all of us bundled up and masked. It was cold. Real cold. There is so much to say, but words fail me today. Her daughter Connie read inspirational quotes Marian had hand-written in a journal many years ago; the minister offered prayers and spiritual comfort; Steve and I sang her favorite Lindsays song. A lone seagull flew overhead as I read the eulogy below. Was it her spirit? Do you believe in things that way? Sometimes I do.
Forgive me; the writer friend that lives inside my head has been thinking a lot lately but is a little worn out. I have more to say. Not today, I guess. This is all the prose I have to offer you this morning: Everything was perfect. It's EXACTLY what she would have wanted. All I feel is love. Here is what I read.
EULOGY for Marian Hyder (July 15, 1959-January 2, 2021):
Like every good eulogy, it makes sense to start by listing some of the things I loved most about Marian. There were so many things; she was my beloved sister, and I adored her. We were so different—her, head to toe in LL Bean and Talbots, and me with pigtail braids and cheetah print jeans—but as sisters, we shared a special bond of mutual understanding. Amid a sometimes stormy family life, we were each other’s rock. We got each other. And we looked after each other, each in our own ways.
We walked side by side through this illness long before the day we got that awful Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and I suppose I can feel really good about that, even though every caregiver knows that no matter how much we give we are still riddled with guilt. Together, we went to all of the most important doctor’s appointments, we visited the residences where she might someday live, we sat with the lawyers and tied up almost all the loose ends that we could think of, and we walked the Alzheimer’s walks, raised money, rode our bikes. We were side by side, often accompanied by her daughter Connie and her closest friends, too, with almost no arguing.
She blew me away every day: She was SO positive and so proactive and did not complain. She accepted this disease with superhero-style grace and nobility, and you know what? My mom had been the same. These were powerful, powerful women that Connie, Sam, Áine, and I have to look up to and be inspired by. Marian had a variety of illnesses—Alzheimer’s, cancer, sarcoidosis, and more than her fair share of many smaller annoyances too—but she took care of them all and bore them with dignity and poise. Of these illnesses, especially the Alzheimer’s, Marian said to me many times that things just happen; we can’t wallow in them and we have to make the most of it. That doesn’t mean it was easy for her, of course. Just like my mother, in private, she suffered. Like I saw with our mom, many times, Marian cried face down on her bed. She swore, and loudly. She threw things. She had a “dammit doll” that she sometimes beat against the desk when she could no longer figure out what had been simple tasks on the computer. Yes: She vented. She didn’t pretend it wasn’t there. But then she got back up and moved on. Worked out. Hit the beach. Went to yoga. Ate chocolate and potato chips. And she kept walking.
I loved and respected this so much, and as sisters, we got along well. In our adult lives, I can only remember one or two arguments, but sometimes we measure negative experiences not so much by their quantity but by their sheer size in our minds. In other words, there weren’t many disagreements, but by god, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the ones we did have. Or almost had… Marian actually didn’t argue. She would just close down in a thunk of icy cold silence and leave you freezing, wondering what the hell you just did. Probably, you’d never find out.
In the last few years of her life, a huge amount of my mental real estate was devoted to her: actually caring for her, managing her affairs, managing her caregiving care staff, worrying about her, paying her bills, ordering her meds, and generally feeling like a big ball of ahem because I couldn’t do more. Still, so many of her friends told me I was a good and loyal sister to her, and I am deeply grateful for that support. Truth: I know that I did my best. But still, I’m human so of course I look back and wonder if I could have done more or differently. This isn’t supposed to be about me‚ though—and in all honesty, it isn’t. It’s about you, and about all of us.
One day, Connie and I were cleaning out her house and emptying the drawers to make room for incoming renters. We were in her bedroom, where tucked under the liner paper in the second drawer of her dresser, I found a list, a letter to me of sorts, of all the things I had done wrong. A specific list of grievances about things I had done more than twenty years before, back when I was only like 21 years old when I was still a kid in many ways. Of course, I was floored. And… since I am neither Ghandi nor Mother Theresa, it’s possible that I was just a little mad. I thought, “All this work I am doing, leaving my family at home to come spend the day cleaning out your house and THIS … THIS is what you think of me?! THIS is what you’re still hanging on to after all these years?!”
Well, this is the thing about relationships. They are complicated. People we adore sometimes do things that annoy us. I packed that list into a box, but I carried that list in my mind until a couple weeks before she passed away. Connie was one of the only ones who knew about it, and I had told her what it said. We laughed a little about it, you know… “That’s so Mom,” she said. Marian had high expectations … but Connie said one important thing to me: “Over all the years in all my conversations with Mom, I never heard her say one bad word about you. She loved you. I think she even worshipped you.” And you know, all those cards that have come in to me from her closest friends, they have all said the same. Things like, “You were a good sister; she loved you. She was so grateful for all the help you gave her every day.”
So you know what I realized in all of this? That letter Marian wrote that she never sent to me: it was never meant to be found. It was her personal and private attempt to let things go. She was doing the work, the good hard work of being human: She was venting, trying to understand, and forgiving. She wrote that script so she could let it go and love more completely. These were thoughts she wrote one time, during one hour of one day in one too-short 61-year life. She wrote it down so she could let it go.
This is one thing I think we can learn from her: Let it go, and then move forward. Whatever it is, in whatever direction forward takes you. Sometimes the work of healing we do with our family happens not face to face with them, but in conversation with them in the spirit world. And so I look forward to those conversations with Marian, as I have found them healing them with my mother, and with Paul, and with my Dad. Healing can happen any day; look for it, and when it comes, embrace it.
We all are all here. We are alive, we can love, and we can embrace today with all the energy we can muster. It is our invitation, out of love to Marian and to each other, to live every day with as much joyfulness and as much release as we possibly can. Some days we will be better at it than other days—some days we will need to lie on our bellies and cry, and sometimes will need to swear and throw things. But always, even on those days, we continue to try do our best. That’s what Marian always did, and I know that’s what she would hope for all of us too. She was a gift for us in so many ways.
We found a quote in Marian's personal journal about life, but it had no attribution. I typed it into Google, and here's what I learned about it: In September 1954 the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” published “Robert Frost’s Secret” following the poet’s eightieth birthday celebration. That article recounted a conversation the poet had with journalist and self-help writer Ray Josephs.
“In all your years and all your travels,” Josephs asked, “what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”
Frost paused a moment, then with the twinkle sparkling under those brambly eyebrows he replied: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
He continued: “In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.”
Without a traditional funeral, her closest friends and family in coming months will have to find our own meaningful ways to honor and remember important gifts Marian brought to our lives. In the summer we will bring together all of the people she loved most for a Celebration of Life, and her daughter Connie and I will be so thankful to join together with everyone to remember her.
Now, though, we can honor Marian for all that she taught us about courage, about strength, about sense of humor, and organization, and endurance, and persistence, about hard work, and grace and beauty. We can be so thankful for all these lessons she gave us so freely. She was my big sister, my teacher, my second mother, my inspiration. She often said that she raised me; I believe it, and if I grow to be half as strong as she showed herself to be, I will know that she succeeded in her work with this pain-in-the-ass, pig-tailed little brat. I am so heartbroken that she suffered the way she did—but so grateful that she is at last released.
We held a tiny memorial service on Plymouth Beach on Saturday, January 9, gathering just immediate family and a few of her closest friends and presided over by minister Rev. Dr. Helen Nablo of the Church of the Pilgrimage. At the end of that service, we each placed a flower in a stone circle of love that Liam, her six-year-old nephew, had built for us. A solitary seagull stood by as each of us placed or flower with this invitation:
“Maybe you will think of something beautiful about Marian that you are thankful for. Or maybe you have things to let go…. Let them sit awhile, and then let the incoming tide raise these up, and let the sea take them away. The sea was so special to Marian, and that’s why we’re here. She loved the sand, the surf, the sun, and maybe most of all the ebb and flow of tides. Things come and things go, in endless cycle. Now, with this tide, let’s let her go to the most beautiful, most holy peace, and I hope that in letting go of whatever you need to, you too will find that some of that peace yourself, right here, right now, on this very day.”