On the 61st Anniversary of My Sister's Birth

My sister, Daun Kendig, would have been 61 this week. I try to remember her birthday each year, though it is the day she died that is stronger in my memory. In fact, I don't recall the day she was born at all, though I recall the births of our other two siblings, because I, the eldest, was only 21 months old when she, the second of us, was born. She is in the earliest memory I do retain, though, an event that occurred when I was three and a half or so, and I have very few childhood and teenage memories that don't include her.

But once we grew up and weren't living in the same place, we tended to celebrate birthdays, oh, whenever. It wasn't unusual for Daun to begin two months ahead of my birthday to tell me what a wonderful gift she had found for me and then to for me to actually receive it two months after the date when we were back home in Canton because, for one example, the gift was too big to mail, a canoe pack basket which she had picked up at a sale, for god knows why since, except for a required college phys ed class, I have never canoed in my life. (I used it for dirty laundry and car trips home. Now it sits in my entryway and holds winter scarves, hats, and gloves and summer shawls.) We'd phone as close to the day as we could, often even on the day, but we always celebrated in person, whenever that ended up being, often June or July.

But January 19th, more or less, that is her birth date, which I celebrate this week, though it's hard to celebrate without her. It's hard to celebrate many other experiences  without her, too. 

In a recent New Yorker article on Thorton Wilder the author Robert Gottlieb quotes Wilder’s letter to Alice B Toklas, on the death of Gertrude Stein: “WASN”T IT WONDERFUL TO HAVE KNOWN AND LOVED HER? What glory! What fun! What goodness! What lovableness….” At the time, I thought how these words might have provided consolation to Toklas. Since then, poet Janet Holmes (Editor of Ahsahta Press) has noted on Facebook that Wilder’s words seem to her a good attitude to adopt in place of “the crushing sadness” one feels at the loss of friends.

I still feel both the crushing sadness and the glory of having known Daun as sister and friend. And when the sadness has been so crushing that I cannot recall the glory, I turn often to her friends, who, like Wilder, managed in the very saddest of sad times to write and speak and send such memorable thoughts. Some of their eulogies appear, at length, on the webpage I created about her (Daun Gay Kendig); others, in a scrapbook she asked us to create for her daughter. Recently, I pulled some quotes from those eulogies to create a sort of found poem, making all those voices speak in chorus, and a joyful noise it is:

a found poem, in several voices, on the 61st anniversary of my sister’s birth

You see, she could hardly talk about this memorial service, I think, because she was so fierce about wanting to live. To talk about this kind of gathering was perhaps to broach giving up or letting go. And  you know, she never gave up on life or living.

She was the first adult woman in my life who honestly gave me time and treated me like a thoughtful human being, not a child. She helped me grow exponentially.

Her expressions tickled me ("fancy schmansy" and "ritzy titsy" as just a couple of examples). Her descriptions of people and life and adventures were so articulate, so clever and so "right on." I felt that I understood her completely, because she was so open and expressive and wanted to be completely understood. Her voice and particularly her laugh were distinctively beautiful and melodic. I simply enjoyed the sound of her voice and her sparkling laughter.

I always, always admired her to-the-bone stubbornness ... which never faltered, not once, to the very end.

And so we want more. More conversation, more pleasures shared, more time together, more time. On the Saturday night before Easter I told her that I wasn't ready to let her go, that I had come to say hello, not goodbye. She didn't answer.

She taught me a great deal about loving life, fighting for it furiously, valuing family and friends, and the importance of prayer.

For most of us life goes on in remarkably normal ways: We go to work. We eat our meals. We laugh, we drink, we cry, we tell jokes. We read our books and watch our television shows. And yet in the midst of all of that the world has changed in some fundamental way because Daun is gone.

Today the willow weeps, as do I....Her spirit is so strong, she lives on.

She said if she died with the cancer, she was going to be real pissed for a while, and I am sort of holding onto that for her right now myself. In the words of another poet, "I am not resigned."

As her name suggests: a ray of hope in the dark sky.

So I know that on “bright frozen” days, I will not only think about “A Well-Worn Path,” I will think about her.

I can still see her at the head of the room standing up but leaning forward slightly, using big gestures and telling one of her great stories.