The lobby was noisy and crowded. But I recognized her instantly.
There she was with her husband, Chris, seated on a sofa near the fireplace. All of us hugged each other and I was smiling broadly with enthusiasm. Sandra had deep, wise eyes and every sentence she spoke went right to the heart of the matter. We had an instant rapport.
It was easy to feel comfortable with Sandra. I was very touched by the experience.
The five-hour plane ride to Yosemite had tested Sandra’s limits. Both of them were elated that she had made it. Every moment of strength was something to celebrate. I was introduced to Sandra’s sister, Angie. She reminded me of a movie star with her striking beauty. Sandra and Angie were very close.–
It became difficult to converse because the Christmas piano music had begun. In between bursts of sentences, we all paused to listen.
Chris surreptitiously stood up and walked over to the piano. He sat back down with a sly smile and quietly confessed that he had requested two special songs.
I instantly noticed how tenderly Chris held Sandra’s hand. As those songs began to play, he stroked her hand and laid his head upon her shoulder. His eyes were large and his body lightly twitched as he began to silently cry.
I could not watch. My heart ached for this man who loved his wife so much and knew he might lose her at any time. It was now 8 p.m. and Joni and I were hungry. The Callahans didn’t plan on dinner and preferred to stay in the lounge instead.
We hugged them goodbye. After dinner they planned to come to our room so I could play a few songs for them.
Joni and I ate our dinner in the Lodge’s restaurant. We both marveled at the experience of meeting three wonderful new people.
Later on that first night, Angie knocked on our door. She let us know that Sandra was too tired for the guitar serenade I had planned.
I remembered how my deceased son, Jason, was affected by altitude during a vacation in the mountains when he was 3 years old. Jason had a severe heart defect and we had to cut short our trip because he had difficulty getting enough oxygen.
I understood. We planned again for the afternoon of the next day.
Joni and I went exploring and returned for our 4 p.m. rendezvous. But this time, Chris knocked on our cabin door. He said that Sandra was unable to move and needed to rest.
Over the three days we stayed at the Wawona Lodge, every plan to meet again with Sandra did not work out.
Like most moments in life, it was the unexpected that turned out to be the most meaningful.
On our second night, Joni and I decided to check our cell phones to see if we had any messages before going to bed. It was cold and dark as I made my way down the wooden walkway to the one place where there was reception. It was a large and comfortable room that had a fireplace.
I was so happy when I saw Sandra and Chris going toward the same room.
We chatted for awhile in that warm and wonderful place. It was only the four of us. Angie had gone to bed because earlier in the day she suffered from carsickness.
No one else was in the room but us. Suddenly, Joni suggested I bring my guitar and play.
It was so late! I wasn’t sure I had much of a singing voice.
But had I not gone to get my guitar, I never would have played a song for Sandra.
It turned out that I didn’t see her on the last night, as was originally planned.
I scrambled quickly to my room and grabbed my guitar. I was very excited. What would I play?
I began by singing two 70’s songs that I hoped would be familiar. I was pleased that my voice was open and light. The room had excellent acoustics and I especially enjoyed the sound of my guitar and voice.
Sandra said, “That was so beautiful! Now I want to hear one of your original songs, Judy.”
I played for another half hour with deep emotion. I didn’t want the time to end, but assumed that I would share more the following night.
It was almost midnight and I ended with two of my favorite songs, “Beside Me Always” and “Set You Free.”
Over and over Sandra said, “When you sing your own songs, your voice opens up. You are so much more connected to your own lyrics.”
Joni nodded in agreement. She said, “Jude, you sang better than I’ve ever heard you!”
Chris said softly that I was a “treasure.” He and Sandra invited Joni and I to come to Georgia where they lived. The invitation was extended many more times over the three days we saw each other. I promised him that when I got home, I would cook steel-cut oatmeal, since I had never tasted it before.
As I walked to my room, I was exhilarated and so glad that this opportunity had come about. It was completely unplanned and one of the most beautiful memories from this trip.
One of my reasons for taking this trip was because I was looking for ways to heal myself.
It was when I had a brief conversation with Angie during breakfast that I discovered that perhaps there was a profound outcome I hadn’t expected from this trip. I found my insight when I told Angie how my eyesight was a constant source of irritation and discomfort for me.
Angie worked in the healthcare field and recommended that I find another doctor to look at my problem.
Other people had recommended that to me, but for some reason it really resonated this time.
Perhaps it was because Angie had found a way to convince Sandra and Chris to return to California with her certainty that there was a doctor she knew who could extend Sandra’s life.
Early next year, Sandra and Chris planned to come back to California. Sandra was fairly neutral. Having hope was beautiful, but she wasn’t holding onto it.
I was so thrilled when she said, “Judy, I want you sitting next to me after I have surgery – playing your guitar!”
I would be there. She could count on it.
I made sure to take many pictures of Angie and Sandra after our breakfast.
I knew how much Angie would treasure those pictures someday and was glad that Sandra obliged.
Here is what Sandra wrote about Angie in her book, followed by Angie’s entry:
I have a sister who despite a 14-year difference in our ages is like my best friend. I was 14 when she was born and she was the reason my mother decided I could no longer live with my grandmother. The plan was for me to take over caring for the baby after she was born. She was the most precious thing I had ever laid eyes on. Just being with her made me happy.
She is the one who encouraged me to write a blog and felt I had a book to write. She was right about the blog; it has been a great way to process my journey and to meet people who are going through similar experiences. Angie is the kind of sister other’s hope for. To this day I can call her and talk to her about absolutely anything. She is one of those people who truly knows me and still loves me. What a great gift. For this, I thank our mother. She gave me the best gift I would ever receive.
I’ve been asked before what it’s like to read my sister’s very candid blog about an illness that is killing her. I have a confession to make: I’m just so grateful she is still here. I can’t bear to think of her not here. When I see her posting, even when I read an entry where she describes an agonizing day, I selfishly think “but you’re still here.”
Because Sandra’s still here, I thankfully have not had to figure out the answers to a few haunting questions that come to mind from time to time:
Who will I count on to always be there for me?
Where will I go when I want to go home?
How will I heal the enormous pain my heart will feel the day I learn she is no longer here?
Who will love me like she does?
What ever will I do without her?
© Judy Unger and http://www.myjourneysinsight.com 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judy Unger with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.