The memory is as clear to me as if this is happening as we speak.
I am a new first-grader in a big room in an even bigger brick schoolhouse in the tiny town of Russell, N.D. I miss my mom. I miss home. My sadness has reduced me to tears.
My teacher has issued a summons. The door opens and in walks someone who brightens my day like a beacon in the night. She has come from her upstairs classroom to wrap an arm around me and assure me that all is well. School is fun she says. I’ll learn to love it she says. Hours pass quickly and at the end of the day we will go home together – she says.
This person is four years my senior and knows all about this sort of thing. She is my one and only sister!
That’s the moment Lori Duesenberg became my lifelong inspiration.
I know the grave can’t claim the victory. I also know that death has a powerful sting – for I feel it. After decades in a loving sisterhood relationship, Lori is gone from my sight.
Many times over the summer of 2012, I spoke the words, “Hello, my sister.” She responded the same to me. But not once did I say, “Goodbye my sister.” At the end of each of my first five visits, I simply said I’d be back. I’m so thankful that promise was kept.
On my sixth trip to her home in St. Louis, she opened her eyes and saw that I had returned – in time. Four days later, lying in the upstairs master bedroom she shared with Bob, her husband of 49 years, Lori took leave of us.
It was exactly four years ago today, Sept. 28 of 2012.
Even then I did not say, “Goodbye my sister.” When she was gone and we were alone I kissed her forehead whispering, “Till we meet again, my sister.”
It was in September of 2006, that Lori became ill while lunching with friends. The next day she learned an aggressive beast had emerged from out of the blue. It bore an ugly name – glioblastoma brain tumor.
After surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Lori had three healthy years. When the tumor again began to grow, she had a second surgery and more follow-up treatment. How we rejoiced when some MRIs showed no tumor action. Those reports, however, did not last.
On my first visit in May, 2012, as I helped Lori dress for an appointment, she said, “I used to resent going for the results of an MRI.” When I asked if she no longer resented it she said “No. That’s a negative feeling and I don’t want negative feelings.”
An hour later, at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, Lori, Bob, their son, one of their two daughters and I were told by Dr. Gerard Linette that the MRI showed the treatments were no longer effective. The tumor was growing and little else could be done. We were beginning to face the end.
My sister had a deep and abiding Christian faith. The worse thing I ever heard her say was, “Stupid brain tumor.” For years she wrote every day in a gratitude journal. For years she sent monthly Bible verses to her grandchildren in Florida to ponder. She was a lover of great music and for a long time sang with the Bach Society of St. Louis.
It was my most high honor to assist Bob and their children, Lynda, Kirsten and John in the care of their beautiful wife and mother – my sister.
Many a morning during my summer of 2012 visits, I flopped on her bed and we’d talk about everything under the sun. We reminisced about how we would clean our beautiful farm home near Newburg, N.D., every Saturday while growing up. On one of those long ago Saturdays, we gloried in the fact that both of us and our late mom all had July birthdays. “We could be the Ruby Girls,” Lori said at the time. The name stuck.
I took something with me on one of my trips that final summer and I asked Lori to promise not to get up by herself while I fetched it from my suitcase. Her response was, “I decided I’m not making any promises today.”
In the midst of it all Lori made us chuckle.
I brought to her a faded and tattered washcloth I had taken from our mother’s house after she died. I remembered that Mom would dampen it to cool her forehead as she rested. I told Lori that Mom had used it, that I had been using it and now I wanted her to use it. That way, it would have caressed the faces of all three Ruby Girls.
Lori’s eyes filled with tears. “Mom would be so honored,” she said, grasping the cloth. During her last days, when Lori seemed flushed, we placed that cool, damp cloth on her forehead.
The summer of 2012 was a hot one in St. Louis. In the shade on cool mornings, we sat on Lori’s front step drinking coffee and eating sticky buns. I cherish every moment I rubbed her feet and read to her from the Gospel of John and the nights we had devotions with Lynda, Kirsten and John.
On one occasion Lori told us she was thankful to have always had a “grateful heart.” I asked where that gratefulness came from. “From the Holy Spirit,” was her answer.
I treasure having played the piano and singing with Lori the tunes we grew up on from the Golden Book of Favorite Songs and from the hymnal.
I loved rolling her hair after Angie, the Hospice aide, gave her a shower. We grew to adore both Angie and Sue, the Hospice nurse. Lori also was a registered nurse. She attended Valparaiso University in Indiana before entering Lutheran Hospital School of Nursing in St. Louis.
In the spring of her final year, Bob and Lori set up the Lorraine F. Duesenberg Endowed Scholarship Fund at Valparaiso University’s College of Nursing. Their intent is that students considered for this grant be selected from North Dakota.
One July evening Lori was deep in thought. “I wonder,” she said, “what my last moment will be like.”
I am thankful that it was so very peaceful.
On another night, when everything was a struggle, she said to me, “I hope you don’t ever have to go through this because I won’t be here to help you.”
Late in July she began to cry as I helped her in the bathroom. She looked at me with such longing and said, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to thank you.”
We had done so much together and now we cried together. “You don’t have to thank me,” I said.
Lori may be gone from my sight, but her life and death lessons help me every day. My reward, you see, is having known and loved and shared this life with my sister, the one who left us four years ago today.