My sister Helen died on Thursday, April 19th, after fighting pancreatic cancer for over 11 years.
I’m still reeling from this, despite knowing for so long that the day would indeed one day arrive. My head is swimming with all sorts feelings about losing my sister, my friend, as well as thoughts about how people deal with death, the role of religion, the “importance” of stuff, my gratitude for the almost unbelievable beauty of “Ára bátur” by Sigur Ros, and so more…
For now, however, I’d just like to share her eulogy that I presented at her funeral service at the Newman Center in Amherst, NY, on April 21.
Helen, my mom, and my mom’s dog Lizzie last Christmas
One thing Ukrainians do well is throw gut-wrenching funerals. We sing a song–or rather, a long, slow dirge–that is one of the saddest pieces of music I ever heard. It’s just two words repeated over and over: “Vichnaya Pamiat,” eternal memories, “I will remember you always.”
One of my memories is from when I was about six, Helen was about 16, and she was in charge of taking care of me. She was told to make sure I ate my lunch, which my beautiful mother made the night before: liver.
I hate liver.
So I tried every trick I could think of to avoid it, but Helen was relentless. I hatched a new plan: “I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, and she reluctantly said OK. So I went to the bathroom, closed the door, opened the window and prepared to escape, when suddenly… There she was in the backyard, arms crossed, asking “Where are you going?”! How did she know? Was my sister psychic?!
Thankfully, my big sister’s appetite for torturing me with liver faded over the years, but her role as big sister didn’t. She helped take care of my lovely sister Anita, my dear sister Katy (who tragically died in a car crash in 1977), and me, for many years to come.
Helen’s care-taking impulse extended beyond us kids to this community, as many of you shared wonderful stories with me yesterday of how she helped, taught, inspired, listened, and took care of you… She practically became your big sister. “How are you, Helen?” we’d ask. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” she’d answer, and then really listen.
One of her doctors at Roswell even mentioned that, noting that she had to remind Helen that the question wasn’t a social one.
Roswell Park. Cancer Institute.
Pancreatic cancer: the really bad one. Helen was diagnosed with it over 11 years ago.
Seven years ago, I took Helen to the BPO for her birthday because she loved music. She was so excited, she literally sat on the edge of her seat and bounced up and down. What a joy to see her that happy.
So I bought her some BPO tickets for Christmas. She never used them…
I’ll be honest, at first I was really upset. Why would she deny herself something she enjoyed so much?
After a while though, I found I could relate: I didn’t always embrace that which I loved either…
Helen had a very difficult life. We talked about our challenges and difficulties, and shared our struggles. I also heard in the way she spoke that there was more; things none of us will ever know about.
When an opportunity to play here at the Newman Center came up, Helen’s close and determined friend Maryann encouraged her to try. As many of you told me yesterday, Helen started slowly, timidly. It wasn’t easy for her, but she persevered, practiced, tried, and tried again, and soon became the musician bringing joy to the 9AM mass.
I was so proud of her as she sang and played happily, with such ease and confidence! For whatever reason, she wasn’t able to enjoy her BPO tickets, but here, she found her music.
I will miss Halia, my sister, my friend.
I am utterly heartbroken by her death.
I have no explanation for why this happened.
There’s no sense to be had here.
So I’d like to share a thought: What if we allow Helen to continue in her role as our big sister and inspiration, and find your music, your novel, your symphony, your bowl of ice cream, your day at the movies, your passion, your dreams, your joy.
Then in addition to our memories of liver, her beautiful voice and sweet friendship, we can also remember to embrace that which really matters.
It is with that in my heart that I say Vichnaya Pamiat, Halia.
I will remember you always.