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The Last Journey and a Sister's Goodbye

A trip to Santa Fe with a dying sister was fraught with complications, but ultimately a life-affirming experience for these two devoted sisters

By Leah Blatt Glasser

My sister Marilyn was at the height of her metastasis from breast cancer when she persuaded me to help her flee New York City for a professional gig in Santa Fe. There we became fugitives at an elevation of over 7000 feet, 2000 miles from her medical team, comrades in sisterly love and denial. We thought we could make it work. If this is a tale of sibling loss, it is also the tale of a sibling journey fueled by the fierce assertion to live fully, even defiantly, to the last breath. 

An old photo of a young girl smiling with a young woman. Next Avenue, sibling loss
From left, Leah and Marilyn at ages 6 and 20  |  Credit: Courtesy of Leah Blatt Glasser

Was it right to support such risk-taking in this final stretch? In Santa Fe, she was no longer a dying patient; she could affirm her identity as a public intellectual. Then too, swept up in her zeal, and my love for her, I needed to defy her march toward death as much as she did. Just as she refused to count the days to death's door, I refused to accept losing her.

I also understood that this was to be our last sibling adventure before the last goodbye.

Perhaps it was selfish to have joined in her fantasy escape. I had had my own bout with breast cancer, and she was my cancer guru. Now her cancer was back, and I needed her to survive for my sake, if only to prove that everything was still okay. Yet I also understood that this was to be our last sibling adventure before the last goodbye.

This force of sisterhood grew out of a lifetime of love. I was a toddler when she left home for Vassar on a scholarship while I stayed behind, full of longing. My mother told me later about my inconsolable nightly wailing, how they finally "threw me in the car" and drove to Poughkeepsie so that I could see that she had not left us forever. Marilyn later described her guilt for abandoning me.  As she put it, she got to enjoy "quintessential springs at Vassar" while I "mucked about in the dreariness of East Flatbush."  

A Lifetime of Love

Marilyn returned on semester breaks with countless books for us to read — "Winnie the Pooh," "The Red Balloon," "The Wind in the Willows." The sound of her voice was as close to the soothing notes of a lullaby as the spoken word could be. I fell in love with reading because of that voice. As I got older, I would await her letters from graduate school and write back same day.

On the cusp of adolescence, I escaped our dysfunctional family life in Brooklyn to visit her. I felt safe with her in Cambridge, far from the turmoil of home. Over the decades, I counted on her advice as I juggled graduate school, teaching, writing, early marriage and motherhood, and ultimately my own chemotherapy. She was my surrogate mother, mentor and savior at times.

At fifteen, I was summer nanny for her kids in London. My reward was our 5-day spree in Paris. We were a funny team. Marilyn would ask for directions because my accent was incomprehensible, and I was to listen and attempt translation. We'd hurry away, hoping any wrong turn would go unnoticed, only to get lost again. After sharing a bottle of wine, we would ramble tipsily down the Champs Elysees, past the ogling eyes of Parisian men. In a mock scolding, Marilyn reminded me that she was my chaperone.

Now our roles were reversed. I should have known that this was not an adventure from which we could return unscathed. I hesitated at first, especially when she gasped for air on our short walk to CVS the day before the flight. What about pain management, arriving after midnight, the altitude, the drive from Albuquerque airport — a shlep for a healthy person, let alone someone whose cancer had moved to her bones and who knows where else? What if we couldn't make it back?

Marilyn dismissed my concerns. "You're coming, right?" she stated more than asked. "It's important." I nodded. I could never defy her when she raised one eyebrow like that.

I should have known that this was not an adventure from which we could return unscathed.

"Listen, it's a vacation for us. We can get massages. See Santa Fe," she said. As if to appease my worry, she added, "I'm going to beat this thing. Anyway, I can't back out now. I'm on the program!"

I repressed the urge to say she had the best excuse; she was dying, with no hope of further treatment. But metastasis be damned, off we went to Santa Fe. Armed with prednisone, pot brownies in tin foil, an inhaler and morphine, we thought only about the tawny peaks of Santa Fe and the elegant Hacienda Hotel.

We held, no gripped, hands for take-off. Marilyn made fun of the menu on the flight, and we ordered every snack box available using Jet Blue points.

As the plane soared upward, I watched Marilyn turn pale. "You okay?" I asked. She smiled, mischievously. "I forgot to mention that the doctor said I could end up in the hospital!"

When I realized that Marilyn was struggling to breathe, I stumbled down the aisle for help. She followed, clinging to the seats, then nudging me aside. She would not have me speak on her behalf.  Together, we explained her condition to the flight attendant, and a row of seats was cleared for her to lie down. The attendant reached for the oxygen mask.

As if we were in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," three stunning women came forward to help — a doctor, a nurse and a nurse practitioner. It was all so surreal. I wanted to joke with Marilyn. But she had the oxygen mask over her face now. This was no time for jokes. I prayed, even though I knew that prayer would not help.


'Don't Let Me Die Here'

Upon landing, a medical team transported us by ambulance to the Albuquerque ER despite Marilyn's protests. There we spent an endless night. Marilyn pleaded, "Leah, don't let me die here." She had to get back to her children, grandchildren, friends; yet I wondered if I could prevent catastrophe.

At 5 a.m. we left the ER, wheeling the oxygen carrier and canisters to the hired car for the ride into the higher altitude of Santa Fe. Over the sound of the device, Marilyn blurted, "We made it, kiddo. Let's have a nice breakfast when we get there."

Two women smiling together. Next Avenue, sibling loss
From left, one of the final photos of Marilyn and Leah  |  Credit: Courtesy of Leah Blatt Glasser

The rest plays back in my mind like a time-lapse video: arriving at the lovely hotel only to glimpse at the brochure for the spa we would never experience; changing the oxygen cylinders while Marilyn hovered, insisting I was doing it wrong; attending the gourmet dinner in the adobe-like house in the mountains, where Marilyn charmed everyone at the candlelit table; feeling my panic rise at the sight of the near-empty oxygen tank; racing back to the hotel for a refill. The night before the lecture, she worried that the mic would amplify puffs of air going into her nose, never considering that she might keel over and die.

At her final lecture, I sat with an audience of 800 and watched her soldier on, knowing the oxygen from her portable concentrator was running out. She stood at the podium in her black slacks and blazer, beige cashmere sweater, silk scarf tossed over the portable tank to disguise her vulnerability. She was radiant, if also breathless, and they were captivated.

For the audience, she was Marilyn Blatt Young, brilliant anti-war historian, beloved professor at NYU, and author of "The Vietnam Wars." For me, she was the big sister, and I was still that kid, perched on the edge of the worn sofa in our tiny Brooklyn apartment, in awe of her debating skills at our family gatherings. Only now she was struggling to stay alive.

The Last Weeks Back in New York

After the lecture, the hotel room was our bunker. There we warded off death and planned our return home. We watched "Doc Martin," our mother's favorite show, or listened to guided meditation tapes through the unbearable breakout pain. I doled out doses of morphine as her doctor instructed, fearing she'd never wake up. Eventually, we hurried to the airport. Just before boarding, I kneeled down, still somehow surprised to see her in a wheelchair, and we shared the pot brownie we both needed.

Through those last weeks back in New York, we feasted on memories. Our Santa Fe adventure became the story we told together at the dinner parties her friends hosted in her apartment. "I don't know WHAT that was," Marilyn said, "but it wasn't a vacation!"

Did our trip accelerate her death? Or was it life-affirming? Her next words saved me from regret.

Then with a shrug of her shoulders, half-smiling, she looked my way. "I guess I can't fly anymore. We'll have to take a boat next trip. Go to England. Want to come?" I said yes, of course. 

Finally, we yielded. No boats to England for us. Marilyn asked me not to cry. "Then I'd have to comfort you, and I can't now," she said. "But if there's anything you need to say, now's the time." 

I sat beside her, unable to find the words, because there never were words to describe this love.  "Just ... I love you," I whispered.  

"Same," she whispered back.

On the last night that conversation was possible, with hospice now in place, I rested beside her in her bed. We had made it back from our wild journey, but I worried once again. Why had I joined in her madness? Did our trip accelerate her death? Or was it life-affirming? Her next words saved me from regret.  

"My dearest baby sister," she began. "In Santa Fe, I wanted to talk about how much I love you, but it makes me cry, and I didn't want to, you know? I wanted to live." Her hand touched mine. "You let me try."

Then we did what siblings do. Poised on the precipice of loss, we held each other for dear life.

Contributor Leah Glasser
Leah Blatt Glasser is professor emerita of English at Mount Holyoke College and the author of the literary biography In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). She is currently working on her memoir, tentatively titled Between Sisters. Read More
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