Eulogy for my Sister

Christa Peterson

I’ve spent a lot of my life so far annoying my sister. She was fast, I am slow. She did things right, I do things medium. I think she lived at about three times the rate I do, maybe twice the rate of most of you.

         Brooke had a great talent in the art of living, and she never wanted to waste a moment. She wanted to make a difference in the world. She wanted to accomplish things. She had so many plans, and she worked harder at almost everything she did than anyone else I know. She was productive, not just in work, but productive of meaning. Brooke wanted to make fun. She wanted to foster love, and create experiences. She added so much to our lives.

         Some of the meaning we’re left with now is harder to hold. Part of the substance of Brooke’s life, the part that came in her sickness, is a testament to the depth of human pain, and the randomness of human tragedy. 

         Brooke didn’t know how to make something of this. She wanted to know: why is the world bad, and why was it so bad to her? So she contacted Dean Reverend Doctor Steinwert. Her problems and questions were very big, and so, being Brooke, she pursued the maximal expert she could access. I think she would have emailed God himself if she could.

         Brooke never wanted to ask too much. The other day I found a video of us as kids with my cousins the night before Christmas, asking each other what gifts we wanted. I list a million things, Brooke says “I will be happy with whatever I get.”

         In her sickness, she would pray, at night, “please give me the chance to do what I have been trained to do.”

         In a reflection for JAMA, Brooke wrote “I’m terrified my oncologists have grown immune to tragedy. I want my physicians to be as driven by the fear of my death as I am.” It’s an impossible request. None of us could truly be driven by the fear of her death as much as she was, because she was the only one that faced losing everything.

         It’s an impossible request, and one she was right to make! Because the importance her life had to her was its actual importance—she, who lived what was being lost, knew its worth best. She knew the care, and carefulness, and fight her life called for. And surely it is right to ask people treat your life with regard for its actual value. 

         And it's a request she was right to make because it’s what she needed. “Racing to offer silver linings and positive spins doesn't help,” she wrote. “Joining the uncomfortable space of my suffering does.” It’s what she needed from her doctors, and from us all. 

         I don’t think there is anything we can do to make the world’s darkness better except see it, and meet people in it, and hold it together with them. 

         We can’t always find happiness. But we can find meaning. And where we find meaning—or, really, how we make meaning—is together. We make meaning by joining the uncomfortable space of people’s suffering, by feeling, alongside them, the weight of their pain and their loss, so we are moved by the actual significance of what is at stake, and so, as much as possible, the person is not alone. 

         We perceive meaning and value through our emotions, but in a way that’s sometimes kind of like if we could only see one color at a time. We’re happy, or sad, and they squeeze each other out, like if when we saw something red everything looked red, and if we saw something blue everything looked blue. But it’s a whole picture, and the red of one part doesn’t cancel out the blue of another. 

         To see Brooke, and her life, we have to see her love and joy, and see her pain, and feel both in their turn, and know they don’t cancel each other out, but are parts of one whole: a life that was often overflowing with enjoyment and interest and adventure, and at other times full of shattering loss and pain.

         Let Brooke’s love and joy and strength and determination mark us, and let her suffering and loss mark us too. Let it form us into people better able to meet suffering others. Not to live with sickness and pain as the unseen night side of life, but to live, in health, in conscious, substantive solidarity and regard for the sick and the suffering. Part of what Brooke’s life says to us is this: “This is what some human lives are like. Don’t forget.”

         It’s too much. The world is too much. In the depths, we can know that it is part of it all—and that there is more too. In other people’s depths, we can say “right now I am here, in this, with you.” And it’s not enough. It’s not ok. But it’s our human lives, and all we can do is live the lives we have as well as we are able.

         And Brooke lived hers well. Truly, she did. That didn’t make every part of it good. She suffered, in her sickness, too much. What she lost is unfathomable. There is nothing we can say or do to make the badness go away. 

         And there were so many good things in her life. Achievement, happiness, and love.

         And in it all, she has left so many threads of meaning in this world that we can pick up, and we can foster, and make into something deserving of her. What her life meant, and what she did in this world, is not over yet. But she’s had to leave it to us.