everythingsrelativeMargaret lives in Sweden, where there is socialized medicine and reindeer stroganoff, and the Northern Lights streak across the sky. She’s lived there for thirty years and has been trying to get her family to visit for just as long. Now she is dying, and we are coming.

Growing up, I thought that of all my mother’s siblings, Margaret and I were the most alike. Feisty, a little quirky, not quite five feet tall. This was my way of feeling more connected to my mother’s family, even if it was through someone else’s reflection. I too had been physically isolated, an Army brat living in Europe until I was eight, and then landing in Colorado, not particularly close to any relatives.
However, closeness can wear many hats. Maybe I don’t want to spend my two weeks vacation with relatives every year, but they are a part of me, fellow travelers in my genetic caravan. And there is a familiarity – a loyalty – unlike anything else.

Over the years I saw Margaret at a handful of weddings and a family reunion. She always seemed different than her sisters and brothers in that European way, wearing flowing bright clothes and unusual sandals. The gap between her two front teeth undoctored by braces, the strange tubes of cheese in her suitcase.

The last time was at my brother’s wedding, six years ago in Santiago, Chile. She came on her own, and immediately after meeting the bride, announced that she was “phony-baloney” – which turned out to be true.

My mother and her sisters go to Sweden a month after receiving the news. Margaret is feeling fine – she has a portable chemotherapy pack strapped to her side that’s giving her no trouble.

They go shopping for Margaret at the local grocery store, balking at Swedish prices and pantomiming requests for sour cream and celery to clerks who don’t speak English. Alongside Margaret’s children, they cook long into the night, freezing fifteen meals for when she won’t feel up to cooking.

“Getting sick has its advantages,” Margaret tells me on the phone one day. “We’re having a ball here. Pretty soon I won’t need my Vitamin E cream – the laughs remove all the wrinkles!”

I want to tell her I love her. That I’m scared. Instead, I say nothing.
“It’s like going to a funeral,” Margaret says. “Nobody knows what to say, but just being there is enough.”

My mother stays in Sweden for two weeks. Days before leaving, Margaret becomes terribly sick. The doctors have made some adjustments to her medication and she’s in pain. The sisters gather on her bed, talking, until she falls asleep.

They move downstairs and tell my cousin Anna, who is 24 years old, stories about her mother. How as a child she swung from the neighbor’s trees and flung herself off diving boards before she knew how to swim. Jump and ask questions later, that kind of kid. Anna laughs, storing up the tidbits, asking for more from the aunts she hardly knows.

“I’m not depressed or worried,” emails Margaret. “Just didn’t think this would happen to me. Don’t they all say that? I’m pretty certain we’re all going to die and maybe I have a better idea of when, but not really.”

Knowing Margaret is so ill is like seeing her on a rusty old tanker offshore that is making one long, slow pass. I imagine the rest of us on the sand waving madly, wishing the boat would stay a bit longer.

When my mother returns from her trip, she tells me that on the last night, no one can sleep. She and Margaret sit out on the front porch, smoking. The summer sun has finally gone down and there’s a cool breeze coming off the water.

There, huddled together under a soft shawl, they wrap their arms tightly around the other, skinny knees touching, their short dark hair streaked with gray. They are just a stone’s throw from the girls they once were.

They don’t talk about dying.

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