What My Dying Sister Taught Me About Courage


June 30 marks the 5th anniversary of my younger sister, Melissa’s, death from metastasized breast cancer.

Almost as soon as June begins I think of her constantly. And in these past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on what she taught me, particularly about courage.

It’s one of life’s ironies that Melissa and I looked so much alike but in many ways couldn’t have been more different.

As a child, I was self-deprecating and acted as the family peacemaker while Melissa was the rebel, the one who was so clearly out of the box.

A born risk-taker, she was always more daring than I was.

I remember the first time we went skiing. I was about nine.

My Dad had successfully maneuvered us up the chairlift and onto the bunny slope. He was busy adjusting my binding when he looked up, glanced around and then turned to me. “Where’s your sister?”

She was already down the hill!

And she kept living like that.

At 18, she went skydiving, at 20 biked alone across the Netherlands and France and at 22 moved to Cairo. She was her own person and was a great teacher for me about living courageously.

Here are just a few of the lessons she taught me:

1.     Don’t Be Afraid To Be Yourself

Melissa was a one of a kind.

She wore some of the craziest combinations of clothes you could imagine. She loved to don wigs and colorful hats. Her favorite place to shop was the thrift store and she often wore her finds from there although was partial to Who t-shirts and jeans.

She was outspoken and honest, almost to a fault. Sometimes she’d make me cringe and think, “I can’t believe you just said that!”

Her ability to speak her truth, to wear her truth and live it were inspirational.

It has helped me transition more from doing what other people want to truly listening to the voice of my soul. When I can listen to that voice within and be guided by it, I can show up and be authentically me.

That is truly living.

2.     Go For It

Melissa was a thrill seeker and was never afraid to try something new – if it was the latest roller coaster or a crazy, high jump she could coax her horse over.

When she lived in Cairo, a place most single women would never go, she often took the public bus to visit friends in a densely populated neighborhood. These city busses were so full that passengers were commonly hanging off of them. Mel actually told me that the busses didn’t stop so people had to literally jump on or off.

When I asked her how she managed to wedge herself on, she just shrugged as if it were no big deal.

In my life, I’m most afraid with physical challenges and that’s why Melissa was such a great teacher for me. I don’t want to experience pain or discomfort. But when I push myself through, it’s always rewarding.

Some aspects of our beings are more easily motivated and change can feel effortless.

While in other areas, we need more coaxing, inspiration or confirmation.

When we can identify the areas in our lives that we’ve ignored or let lie fallow, and move into them courageously, we can awaken to a greater sense of who we genuinely are – and become more balanced and whole.

3.     Live Every Day As If It Is Your Last

The most profound lesson Melissa taught me was how she handled her terminal cancer diagnosis.

After chemotherapy and a mastectomy, we assumed Mel would live a long healthy and cancer free life. After all, she was in her 30s. But almost immediately, she learned that there were tumors everywhere  - in her spine, brain and liver.

This time, she chose not to do chemo. As she said, “I don’t want to be sick and bald for the rest of my life.”

Here was her gamble – quality over quantity.

For the next two years, Mel only did what she really wanted to do.

She quit her job, rode her horse (her first love) nearly every day and trained for competitions. She travelled the world visiting some of her favorite places like the United Kingdom and Syria as well as some new spots such as Portugal, Chile and Argentina.

When her liver began shutting down and her oncologist told her it was the end, Melissa faced death head on. She talked about what was happening with her doctor, nurses, social worker and us.

She was no stranger to pain, and endured chronic throbbing in her body. Yet she held on to say goodbye to all of the people she cherished, her large circle of friends and her family.

She allowed us – her loved ones - to take care of her and be there for her final transition. She never wavered in her decision to face her physical demise with eyes wide open.

I hope that when my time comes, I can show as much dignity, grace and honesty.

In the meantime, I cherish every day I’m on this planet, in a healthy body.

I savor the sun as it warms me and feel my legs pump as I climb up a hill. I relish the sheer beauty all around me – in nature, art work and in another person’s smile.

I try hard not to take anything for granted.

I still miss Melissa everyday but the empty place her absence has left in my life feels less painful the more I hold on to her essence and the multitude of gifts she has given me.

Her love, courage and zaniness live on in me.

I carry her with me everywhere as I remember to live my life fully everyday.

Can you learn from Melissa too?

How can you be more courageous today?

Let me know by leaving me a comment below.

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