Sneakin' Sodas

We were both caffeine junkies and it was a habit our mother abhorred.

Her mouth set in a thin, disapproving line, we feared her wrath and learned to sneak them in. We were 36 and 28, my little sister and I.

And she was dying.

It was Cherry Pepsi for her and Diet Coke for me. We knew who had the best ice (crushed), the best cups (styrofoam) and the best fountain sodas (not too carbonated, a little flat and on the sweet side.) It became a game. She would shoot me a look that only I could interpret and say something like "I need a drive." We'd both suppress the giggles at two grown women lying to sneak away from our mother for a trip to the drive-through and two cups of sin on ice.

It was a struggle to get her into the car, the right side of her body paralyzed from her brain tumor, and the "good" parts of her too weak to do much. I helped her shuffle and let her lean while I guided her feet, using mine propped in-between hers. Step, shuffle, step, shuffle. It was a strange kind of dance to get where we wanted. The car always seemed miles from the front door, but the escape was worth it. When she got too sick and too weak to handle the stairs in my house, she stayed with mom. It ended up being the last few months of her life and when you're 28, that's not an easy pill to swallow. So we'd run away whenever we had the gumption and the craving for our "fixes". Two trouble-makers on a mission.

Because the steroids she needed to reduce the swelling in her brain kept her awake all night and that added with death and a broken marriage staring her in the face, well, neither of us got much rest.

So caffeine was a blessing and we reveled in it! But our sneaking out wasn't just for the caffeine, although it was definitely a main staple in our diets. We'd drive through, our cups of rebellion in the holders between us and then we'd drive. This is what we really ran away for.

We'd just drive, no goal, no destination, just us, the road and our favorite music. We'd hold hands and sing. She couldn't complete a sentence, thanks to her tumor, but she could sing like an angel.

Whole songs. Every word. It was precious sister-time that neither of us will ever forget. Sometimes we'd get doughnuts too. Life is short.

Singing together like the Judds, we'd cruise past the snow-covered mountains of northern Utah and look at dream houses. We'd pick out our favorites and talk about hiring maids so we could shop. When she had the strength, we'd hit the All A Dollar store and painful step by shuffling step, we'd cruise the aisles, hunting for bargains she'd never have the time to use. If she wasn't strong enough, we'd just keep driving, talking about our husbands, our friends, our home town, seven hundred and fifty miles away. I knew she'd never get back there, nor to her beloved ocean, and I longed to give her the gift of one last trip. I often wonder if there are beaches in Heaven. I hope so.

The earth turned to spring and she became weaker and drifted bit by bit, to the Other Side. I watched with agony in my heart, wanted to scream and beg her not to go. She knew deep down, beyond the confusion and almost complete cessation of her speech - all caused by "her tumor". She knew and the closer she got, the more peaceful she was. She had been given glimpses on two separate occasions and told me it was "marvelous" and "beautiful". I had no doubt and was glad she would be free of the pain and uselessness that was now her body. She couldn't move, couldn't talk, except for a word or two here and there, and she was barely there in those last days. I could no longer take her for drives, but I could sure still sneak in her Cherry Pepsi. We'd clink our cups together and say "cheers", giggling like kids and innocently tell mom it was caffeine-free. Hey, if she wanted the moon, I'd get it for her.

Two days before she died, I brought her soda and her face lit up when I came in. "Yay!" It was one of her last words. We had this one good day still and I just wanted to make her smile, make every single second last. She had a sip or two and then fell asleep in her wheelchair. I looked at my sister, her blonde hair now gone, her head bald and scarred, dark baby hair coming in. Her beautiful face was now swollen beyond recognition and her right arm dangled dead at her side. It too was hugely swollen. I ached for her. As I had so many hundreds of times, I hid in the bathroom and let the sobs take over, my body shaking with the pain in my spirit. I knew her time was very, very near.

Two days later, Angel died. I laid my head on her chest and sobbed, but I knew in my heart it was just her time. She had completed her time on earth and her body and spirit had endured more than most people ever have to. She had earned her wings.

Time went by and the pain became buried as I worked feverishly to complete my book about her life. We had begun it together during her last year and I completed her legacy a few months after she left.

The day the books came, I stared at the box, tears burning my eyes, knowing what was inside. Angel's Legacy. We had done it. I tore open the box and took a breath as the cloud-covered tops stared up at me.

I smiled and cried simultaneously. The memories came flooding back as I opened the first copy, gingerly turning the pages and reading my own words, seeing the photos of a lifetime of one person who made a huge difference. I knew it was time to celebrate.

Hopping in the car, I grabbed a copy and hit the road. I stopped off at the store for two things and then another for a balloon. It said "I miss you." The cemetery is thirty minutes from my house and I cried the whole way there. I cried from sadness, the grief still fresh, and I cried from joy. I had helped her achieve her goal of leaving a legacy. I kept picturing her smile and knew she was pleased that we had done it.

Pulling into the cemetery, I immediately spotted her grave. With an angel emblazoned across a gray marble marker, hers was decorated as beautifully as her life had been. Angels, flowers, pinwheels, windchimes, all adorned her grave. I grinned at the spectacle. She was loved.

I sat down in front of her grave, tears sliding down my cheeks, my purchases and her book clutched in my hands. I propped the book against her marker and tied the balloon to her Cherry Pepsi. I must have looked like a crazy woman, but I didn't care. I could almost hear her giggles over the heavens. I carefully lifted my soda to hers and silently toasted to her legacy, her life.

I sat there a long time, reveling in the moment, feeling the hugeness of accomplishing a dream we shared. My first book and her last dream come to fruition. Our last sneaked sodas and our last toast. I could feel her with me, warm and comforting like a handmade quilt. I knew we'd be together again and that she knew more joy right now than I could ever dream of.

I stood, grass stains on my knees and gathered the book and my soda.

I left hers there, a last sister-day forever saved in my memory. As I pulled away from the cemetery, I felt her hand on mine and began the words to our favorite song, hearing her sweet voice chiming in... just like always.

Susan Farr Fahncke copyright 2002

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