Are you looking for the Holy One? I am in the next seat. My shoulder is against yours.− Kabir
We call it Passing Away, or Kicking the Bucket. Casting off this Mortal Coil. Biting the Dust. Meeting your Maker. Facing the Void. Going Home. Ram Dass, the Western spiritual teacher, refers to it as ‘this energy transformation dance called dying.’ If I’d approached it in that way when I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009, I wouldn’t have been so paralysed by fear.
I’d had a pointy mole on my right ribcage, shaped like a Ligurian olive, for over a year. It was so black and shiny that in some lights it looked blue. When the biopsy results came in, the first person I called was my sister. She’d had a melanoma in her left eye two years before, it had been removed and now she worked, drove and parented with a glass replacement. In her empty socket, making the glass orb move when her intact eye did, was living tissue from an organ donor. We cried together over the phone, for both of us. But I was the fortunate one, from an earthly point of view. I’m still alive, and she’s dead.
Annette and I were born on the same day. I was her eighth birthday present. It was November, purple jacaranda petals strewn on dry lawns, cars and concrete in our suburban neighbourhood. On the surface, she was delighted with the red, colicky bundle and was the only one who could get me to sleep, rocking me in the summer twilights and singing a made-up lullaby as she swayed, williko, williko, a heart-rhythm that seems part of my blood and fibre even today.
Beneath her early maturity and devotion, I’m sure I challenged her with the messy collage of resentment, boredom and guilt any new sibling can trigger. We weren’t close as she grew into her teenage years – she was away most of the time, riding her bike, roaming the streets with gangs of boys; I was the stay-at-home bookworm and Mummy’s girl. Yet in our adulthood, the bond strengthened once again. We shared responsibilities, adventures, the up-and-down trials and joys of having children. I could sometimes soothe her suffering, as she’d done for me. When her melanoma metastasised into her liver, lungs and brain in 2010, our twinned pain transfigured us. When Annette died, a year to the month after my own diagnosis, I felt that somehow she had sacrificed herself for me.
The day before she died, she lay on the couch in her home overseeing everything: her family, the angles of afternoon light on the staircase, the way our grief-stricken mother rinsed the dishcloth and draped it across the tap. Annette was lucid, her mismatched eyes larger than ever. She licked her cracked lips often; she was uncomfortable and sweaty. She spoke of where she wanted her funeral to be held, she half-read the obituary I’d written for her. She never mentioned the agony of the tumours that had swelled her liver so large she looked pregnant. When she dozed, our father massaged her feet. She couldn’t eat or drink; I brought her coconut water, she took a sip and said: ‘I wouldn’t cross the room for it.’ When I had to leave, I paused at the front door and turned to look at her. She raised her chin, and the sharp bones stood out in her cheeks and jaw. ‘Thanks for coming.’ She tried to smile.
She was still warm when I saw her the next day in hospital. Her face, that had been so drawn and skeletal the afternoon before, was sleek and youthful. Her lips were tender and moist. Her hands pliant. She was there, in all her momentary splendour, but she wasn’t there anymore. And now, Annette is still here and not here, in form and formless, fully alive and fully dead – as we all are.
I’ve come a long way since the terror of my own stand-off with death, and Annette’s swift decline. I no longer see death as the end. I sometimes even yearn for the surrender, the delicious letting go, the ultimate union with the infinite. I see Annette treading the steps of the eternal dance, a few beats ahead of me. Her being, her body, her movements, her specific smell, her Annette-ness, has been transmuted into other forms. Other light-points of energy. But nothing that was ever real about her has gone.
It’s winter now in Australia, and we’re heading for the solstice. I swim each morning when the sun is balancing on the rim of the Pacific. In the ocean pool, as I watch my breast-stroking palms trace patterns of glitter through the foam, Annette is at my right shoulder, exactly where she’s always been.