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The Last Lesson

Alice S Pratt
June 11, 2019

Family gathering

On that Christmas of 2016, I watched my beloved eldest sister artistically play the piano. It was our family tradition to sing Christmas carols after dinner and nothing made her happier than when the family gathered together and there was music making. We had two new additions, my granddaughter and my great nephew. The babies were happily responding! She turned to me halfway through and said, “Come on, Ali.” It is your turn. I shook my head, “No”. I could not bring myself to play for two reasons. One was that I was halted with my cancer diagnosis by the imagination that I would not be there in the next year. The other was because I simply wanted to savor the special way she played even the most childlike songs. The lyric was always reflected in her style of playing. I wanted this to stay in my mind as long as possible. I am so glad I did.

She had been my first piano/singing teacher and I loved it so much that like her, had become a music educator until cancer brought things to a sudden halt for me. It was a passion for both of us and a special bond we shared.

A lung cancer diagnosis

In the spring of that year, despite never having smoked, I had been diagnosed with Stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, which had been determined from the removal of a tumor on my skull that was working into the brain. I had just completed the radiation and chemotherapy for the tumor in my lungs and the affected lymph nodes. I was suffering as much emotionally as I was physically. And she was there during all of it, even in the wee hours as my family awaited that first surgery to be over. A breast cancer survivor herself, and my co-pilot in helping my mom’s breast cancer, she knew what was needed.

A joyful trip

When treatments concluded, we planned a brief trip to Florida. My sister suggested we use the gift cards we both had to one of the most upscale spas in town before my husband and I left. There we were, like two young sisters, giggling and doing nails and taking in the glamour of it all. We vowed we would do it again.

A devastating loss

But the fates did not allow that. I received a call that something was going on with her, an episode of atrial fibrillation, a suspicious mark on her head and some behavioral things that let her son know something was going on. Three weeks later, she left us, having somehow sustained a brain injury too severe to support life.

My devastation had no words. I somehow led the family in one last song at her funeral, “Amazing Grace.” I humbly played in her place. I knew it was the right thing to do for her.

Lessons she taught

I traveled through some other hurdles with the additional diagnosis of thyroid cancer, a surgery, and treatment for it. Then, another brain tumor from the lung cancer warranted stereotactic radiation, but three years and two months, and a daughter’s wedding, and two grandchildren later, I am still here. I realized that, even in her death, she was still teaching me as she did all those years when I was a child and sat by her side as she sang and played piano and I discovered my own love for music. She taught me many other things as we went along, as well. I realized that in her death, she taught me her very last lesson: do not let your mind race to the place where it is not. Do not automatically think your end is now, next week, next year. The fact is, we just do not know. Of course, I was aware of that. But I did not KNOW that when the word cancer was spoken about me. I thought I was the next in line to leave our family and I was painfully wrong.

Now, with the Last Lesson under my belt, I take each day as a gift. I thank God for every second, for knowing Him better. I corral my wild thoughts about the disease and look at every second as a chance to play life with the same abandon I saw in my sister’s eyes, living to its fullest until God decides when it is over on this earth.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Alisa moderator
    6 months ago

    Alice, what a beautiful tribute this article is to your sister as well as you living life to the fullest. Thank you for sharing. We are here to support each other. Warmly, Alisa, Team

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