by Miriam Krasno

When I visited my sister, Francine, six and a half weeks before she died of breast cancer at 48, she asked me if I had brought “all these joke people” with me. 

“Huh, what joke people?”

“All these other people in the room. Did they come with you and Mommy and Daddy?”

“I don’t think so,” I responded, not really wanting to show my confusion.

“Are they part of the family?” she persisted.

I wanted to say if they were telling jokes, I doubted they were part of our family, but I resisted the sarcasm. In her state, it would have muddied things even more. So I simply asked if they were bothering her. 

“No,” she answered, “they are telling pretty good jokes.”

When her brain was checked out, Fran was like a child again. Oblivious to anything but the present, she could feel physical discomfort, but little anxiety of her terminal condition warranted. About a week later, the hallucinations stopped, and she almost regained her normal brain function. The joke people were relegated to a simple explanation–a toxic reaction to the current chemo regimen.

It certainly seemed more plausible than my sister seeing “beings.” But in my mind, the joke people served a purpose best not explained away. They were telling jokes to ease her way into the spirit realm, like jovial coaches preparing her for the task of dying.

Why couldn’t angels be intentionally assigned the comic comfort role? Maybe because of my Jewish background, I could see Catskills comedians telling my sister bad jokes between sips of schnapps and a quick tug on a cigar. That would explain her association of the joke people with our family; put them in my parents’ living room, and they would look just like the uncles and cousins I learned to avoid at every endless bar mitzvah or wedding.

For ten years as Fran fought against her illness, she raged emotionally–never able to come to terms with her fear and anger. We read so often of cancer patients who get “healed” during their battle, somehow blissfully glimpsing the lessons of that intimate dance with one’s mortality without tripping over the scary stuff. The “healed” patients seem saintly to me in those stories, the flow of their wisdom illuminating all whom they encounter. My sister’s cancer education was of a darker sort.  

She would rage at my oldest sister, Ina, and me. Yelling over the phone, she would repeatedly berate us for our health and hang up after asking, “Why couldn’t it have been you instead of me?”

What do you say to that? She had always been self-centered–a result of middle child syndrome, as she was only 1.5 years younger than Ina, and 5.5 years older than me. She was furious that our parents wouldn’t (or really couldn’t) finance her post-grad year in Mexico or buy her a car. She insisted they had done so for Ina and me–even though we had financed our own trips, education, and cars–but she finally got them to underwrite one major expense: years of therapy to deal with her “upbringing.” “It was the least they could do,” she reasoned.

I would sob after the phone calls, guilty that I was healthy and pissed as hell at my sister for not being a cancer saint. I had no idea what life was like for her or would be like for me once she passed away. 

On my last visit, she asked my mother and me why Aunt Sadie, my mother’s beloved older sister who had died of heart failure 25 years earlier, was with us. My mother looked befuddled and ignored the question. I acknowledged Fran’s vision and asked her to say hello for us. She obliged and then promptly asked my mother to make her a sandwich. Tuna salad was on the menu that day.

My mother hurried to unpack the goodies for lunch, and we sat down at the dining room table to eat. Fran took a tiny bite of tuna and spat it out. “It’s disgusting,” she complained.

Her lack of appetite was not new, but I could see my mother’s eyes tear up as she quickly turned away. My mother tried to coax Fran to eat a bite, but she would only take a sip of some Ensure-type drink. Fran looked miserable. Her belly was enormous, despite having always been lanky and slender. The bloat was from the metastasized cancer in her liver; she would need the fluid removed soon–an ordeal she now tolerated weekly. 

The rest of the visit was somber. My mom, dad, and I got in the car and started the long trip back to Pennsylvania. I sat in the back seat and cried quietly. My mother remarked, “I remember bringing her home from the hospital.” They were the saddest words I’d ever heard.

“I remember bringing her home from the hospital. She was the most beautiful baby.”

Fran died a few weeks after my last visit, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My last conversation with her was a surprise; rarely had she been able to make a phone call or have a coherent conversation in the past month or so. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked with a soft edge in her voice. 

“What?” I asked with some trepidation.

“That BooBoo died.”

It’s true. I didn’t feel it necessary to let my sister know that my beloved parrot of eight years had died–actually, a rabbi/veterinarian had euthanized her on my dining room table. When he arrived at my home as part of his animal hospice practice, I blurted out that my sister was very ill and asked him to say a prayer for her. Was it a prayer for BooBoo or my sister? I was so overwhelmed with grief that it didn’t really matter to me. He paused, put his bag of equipment down, and asked me to join him in prayer. Then, that kind man cradled my bird lovingly and prayed her into animal heaven.

I was bereft without her, as only pet owners could understand, but in relation to what Fran was going through, I thought it ill-advised to let her know. She found out through the Krasno grapevine and in her last words told me how sorry she was for my loss.

“I know how much she meant to you and John,” she offered.

Clearly, she had moved into cancer sainthood. 

That phone call comforted me when I shuddered under the weight of the shovel at her funeral, tears blotting my face. I was comforted by the hope that the joke people and Aunt Sadie came back for Fran to help her along her journey. Distracted by lewd jokes and newsy bits of gossip about long lost relatives, Fran wouldn’t see us gathered around that coffin as the dirt piled up.

Miriam Krasno is a former publishing executive and a recently retired social worker/psychotherapist. Currently working on a book of creative nonfiction about intergenerational transmission of trauma, she works on mental health equity issues in her town of Skokie, Illinois. Her poem “Separation” was published in the anthology Her Soul Beneath the Bone from University of Illinois Press. Her work also has appeared in a variety of Aba Press magazines and in Fan, a baseball quarterly.