It is a question that I have been asking myself since June 27,2014. On that day, my twin sister, Denise, passed away. It was 10:07 p.m. that night when she breathed her last breath here on this earth. I had not heard her voice for several days as she was comatose. Her diagnosis was mesenteric neuroendocrine cancer. The cancer started in her mesentery, just below her belly button. The tumor was wrapped around her major arteries that carry blood to the lower extremities of the body and back up to the upper body. The tumor metastasized into the liver and her kidneys were starting to show lesions as well. In her upper left lobe of her lung, they found nine different nodules of some kind and they were all in a straight row.
Denise was sick. She went through ten different chemotherapy treatments that gave her three different types of chemotherapy. Thirty treatments, in other words, that was administered to try to kill the cancer. Instead of killing the cancer, the chemotherapy slowly took the life out of my sister. For an entire year, my family, especially my mother, Fran, saw her wither away. It was horrible. But all the while, Denise kept her positive attitude. She was going to fight for as long as she could–and she did fight. There were battles that were won during her illness, but the war was lost.
Many friends were gathered at Denise’s memorial service. It was most appreciated by my family to see just how many friends she had. A fourth grade girl who had Denise as a teacher in second grade came to me at the end of the memorial service to tell me that Ms. Yambra was her favorite teacher. Through tears, her dad told me that she was so upset when she saw that Ms. Yambra had died. He told me that she had been crying for days over this loss. This was the most memorable part of Denise’s service.
I had many friends present as well. I am grateful for those who were in attendance and for my friends Teddy, Cynthia, Jeremy and Kari leading out in worship through music. Denise loved music–all types of music, but she loved Christian music the best. She knew words to songs that I have heard over the years but have never been good at memorizing. She knew the words, the meanings of words, and she knew how to apply what she knew to her life.
What she learned during her illness was evident in the way that she lived her life the last year. Each passing day, although it would be hard on her body and mind and soul, she simply knew that all things would work together for good because she loved God (Romans 8:28). She and I would talk and she would always say things like “This is part of God’s plan for my life” or “I’m not sure why I have to go through this, but it’s alright because God has all things in control” or “I know that God knows what’s going on with me so I don’t have to worry about it.” Applying what she knew. I remember her words; I remember her voice–that voice that I miss so much.
When she heard from the doctor that she had only two weeks to two months to live, my Cheryl and I arrived at the hospital. She looked at me and asked me the question, “Did I do something wrong? Did I choose the wrong treatment?” What could I say? I could only tell her that she chose the best option with what she knew at the time. I would not even to this day know what the best option would be. But in the stillness of that moment, my twin sister and my wife began to sing “Lord I lift Your name on high / Lord I love to sing your praises / I’m so glad You’re in my life / I’m so glad You came to save us / You came from heaven to earth / To show the Way / From the earth to the Cross / My debt to pay / From the Cross to the grave / From the grave to the sky / Lord I lift Your name on high!” If only I had that recording today. I can hear them singing in my mind’s ear. I can hear the words and see them sitting on the hospital bed, my twin writhing in pain, holding my wife’s hand as they sang that song.
Those last two months were hard on her and the rest of the family. However, it brought us all back together. If there was one thing that Denise wanted after my parents divorced–and we often spoke about this together–it was to have our family all together again. She would sit in her recliner in her living room with a sheepish grin on her face as we were all talking, laughing, crying, singing, playing games and just reminiscing with Denise. She would sit there and fall asleep sometimes because of the heavy doses of pain medications she was taking. But there we were, fulfilling the dream that Denise had for all of us to be together. What a blessed time.
She declined. She declined. The hospice nurse would come and check on her and she would tell us that she was declining and that it would not be much longer. Denise began to sleep more and more. At times her breathing would be so shallow. My family would let me sit by her bedside alone just chatting with her. Once in a while Denise would respond and at other times she would just keep her eyes closed and grin holding my hand the whole time. I cried, boy did I cry when she stopped responding. My twin had always responded to me, but it stopped. Driving home I just cried.
I had left her house on June 27, 2014 to go home and be with my wife and kids. I received a call that said that she was about to expire after I left. I rushed back to Denise’s house to miss her last breath at 10:07 p.m. I showed up at 10:08 p.m., just one minute passed her home going. For years, every single night, and my wife can verify this, I would look up at the clock and it would be 10:08 p.m. Every single night this happened. I always thought it so odd. That night, I looked at my watch when I saw my twin sister lying there in bed and it was 10:08 p.m. Just one minute late to say good-bye to my twin.I placed my ear to her chest to hear one heartbeat, to hear a breath, but there was nothing. She was gone. Since June 27, 2014 at 10:07 p.m., I have not seen my clocks or watches at 10:08 p.m. I will look at the clock to see if I will, but I have not. It’s odd how things like this occur, but I think it is God’s way of letting us know that He was preparing us for such a time as that–as such a time as 10:08 p.m.
Since Denise left us, I have had so many people say some interesting things to me as if they know how I feel or how I am supposed to grieve. There is nothing in this world that can help me to grieve this way or that way. God has built in each us the way that He has fashioned us to grieve. Some grieve through crying while others try to joke their way through their grief. Some are quiet while others are silent. Some show their sadness while others hide it. It is different for each of us. No one grieves the same and God intended it to be this way I think so that each of us would turn to Him in our grief to help us through it. Yes, there are others who have lost their twin brother or sister, but it is still different for each of us.
I preached a funeral for a twin who had died tragically in a head-on collision. I cannot tell you the number of people who told me that I would do well preaching that funeral because I would understand what the surviving twin was going through. The pain that I felt each time someone said something like this to me was unbearable at times. I would sit up at night crying, seeking God’s face and telling HIm how hurt I was. I did not understand what that twin brother was going through. His brother died instantly. My twin died over the span of a year. His brother was identical. For obvious reasons my twin and I were fraternal. And by the way, she is a girl and I am a boy! We cannot be identical!! At any rate, I did not understand what he was going through and I still do not understand what he is going through.
The picture in my mind of my twin sister right before the funeral director took her away from her house is forever etched in my mind. My oldest sister, Dina, and my younger brother, Richard, and I cleaned Denise’s body and dressed her. She had a white linen dress that she had bought right before she was diagnosed with cancer. She had never worn the dress. Then she also had a light blue sweater that she bought to wear with the dress and had not worn it either. Denise loved scarfs so I asked my Mom to find a scarf that would match the dress and sweater. She did and we covered Denise’s hair on her head with the scarf. There she was. She was gone and yet she was in front of me.
My Dad, David, asked if he could take a picture of her after she was made ready. I said no. Denise would not want anyone to see her after she left us. She would not want anyone to remember her that way, but I do and the rest of my family does. I sat in the room with my twin sister until I heard the funeral director had arrived. I told him to pull his vehicle, a white Chevrolet Suburban, around the back to the garage. I told him that I did not want any neighbors to see my twin sister being taken out of her house that way. He obliged. I helped him place her on his gurney. As light as she weighed by that time, it was the heaviest weight I had ever lifted. I told my family to say their goodbyes. We gathered in the garage and my brothers and I helped the funeral director place her in his vehicle. That was the last time I saw my twin sister, Denise.
So how do I say what I am feeling right now? How can I even describe it to you? Words cannot express to you the deep sadness and grief I feel for my twin. Day-in and day-out this grief seems to grow stronger and stronger. How can I explain to you how I feel, what I am thinking? Quite frankly, I cannot put into words what I feel or what I am thinking. These thoughts that I so often have are thoughts that I only want to share with my twin–but I cannot. These feelings are feelings that I know she would understand. And even though I cannot put into words what I feel or what I think, many people can see how I am feeling as I tend to wear my feelings openly. I cannot help it, that is just how God made me.
In the days ahead, let me encourage you to spend every waking moment with the ones you love letting them know how much you love them. They are here today and gone tomorrow. It may be instantaneous and it may be through a prolonged illness, but either way, grieve in the way that God has made you to grieve. And if something were to happen in your life as it has in mine, rest assured that I will be there to just sit with you, not saying anything, letting you grieve the way God has made you to grieve. Take your time with the grief. Do not let anyone rush your grief. In time it will subside and at other times it will flare up as my grief has flared up again today. But there will be peace. There will come a time when peace will reign in your heart and mind.
Denise left us at the right time and in the right way: believing that God would see her through whatever it was that she was going to face. She taught me that He is in control of both life and death. And today she is forever with Him–not as an angel, mind you. Do not say that she is an angel. No, she is Denise–she is my twin.