Few of us ever tell the people we love exactly why we love them. Sure, we may list a few reasons, but we rarely give too much detail. The same was true of Janice Kennedy and her sister Sheila Tynan. The fact that they loved each other was something they always took for granted and neither felt a great need to discuss it. Then Sheila was diagnosed with ALS. In the final months of Sheila’s life Janice decided she needed to do more than say “I love you”, she needed to give Sheila the “specifics”. Starting in June of that year Janice sent a daily email to Sheila telling her exactly why she was so loved.
“I’d sit in a quiet spot, close my eyes, think about Sheila, and send her my daily message.”
Here are those emails.
I love you…
** because you’re the very best sister any human being could ever be lucky enough to have.
** for your spontaneous generosity. I’m reminded of it every time I grate garlic or sip wine from our Riedel stemless — which is to say, every day.
** because you enthusiastically travelled all the way across the country for christenings, birthdays, weddings —basically every significant family event that ever happened.
** because you and I are the only people in the world who understand what it means to sing “It’s A Great Day for the Irish” — and how to sing it.
** because you made it clear from a really young age — like when you joined the Christophers — that you wanted to have adventures AND do good things. What a beautiful approach to life.
** because when we were both still youngish, you were often over to visit, eat my vegetable soup and play endlessly with your adoring toddler goddaughter.
** because you’ve always celebrated the True North Strong and Free with gusto and the kind of enthusiasm I love.
** because you married a wonderful person, adding so richly to our family.
** because you’re the only person in the world who will laugh if I say, “I’M not going down there! There’s pumas down there!” We have such a history.
** for the way you’ve always savoured life, in ALL its aspects – like now, when you continue to find light each day in what is otherwise a very dark place. When I call you an inspiration, that’s not flattery and those are not idle words.
** because you’ve always loved me (warts and all) steadfastly and stubbornly.
** for your capacity for deep and meaningful friendship. All your life, you’ve had such beautiful friends — and I’ve always loved getting to know them.
** because you always gave terrific, thoughtful gifts at gift-giving times — and terrific, thoughtful gifts at non-gift-giving times.
** for your curiosity and empathy, demonstrated by your embrace of sign language — just because it reached into another world.
** because you visited Aunt Helen so faithfully and warmly in her final years, bringing a real ray of sunshine into her diminished life.
** because you always made everybody you met — from the family and friends you knew, to the strangers you didn’t — feel like a million bucks. Still do.
** because it was your idea to take Mommy on that Maritime tour after the terrible year she’d had. What a great idea. What a Sheila idea.
** because you were such a damned good — enviably good — photographer. You have a great eye, and you took so many inspiringly beautiful pictures.
** because you were a fabulous maid of honour all those years ago. It was so great to have my best friend as my maid of honour.
** for your ability to lay out the welcome mat. For decades, you’ve been welcoming me with such unrestrained warmth. I’m thinking Prud’homme, Kitsilano, Burkeville, Steveston….
** because you welcomed Dan so enthusiastically into the family all those years ago. And no one has ever had a better or more loving sister-in-law.
** because you’ve always been stubborn about principles. When you know something is right, you stick to it, dammit — no matter what anyone else says. (In that, I think there’s a strong streak of Mommy in you.)
** because even when it seemed as if I were taking you for granted (as big sisters do), you never let it bother you. I’m a very lucky sister.
** because you had one of the best weddings I’ve ever attended — one of the best ANYONE’s ever attended. You (and Margaret) really know how to celebrate.
** for your lifelong good taste in great music, from timeless pieces like “Nessun Dorma” and Handel’s “Largo,” to “The Parting Glass” and all that other Irish music that seems to make both our hearts beat faster. We’ve spent a lot of time on the same wavelength, you and I.
** because, like me, you’ve always been so interested in food (I suspect it’s genetic), and sharing your discoveries. On those few occasions we got a chance to cook together, I think we had a pretty good time.
** because you’ve never mixed up your priorities. You’ve always cherished the most important things in your life, and life generally. And you’ve always held true to them.
** because you took Mommy on that fabulous cruise to Alaska. What a thoughtful, generous, terrific idea that was. She absolutely loved it.
** because you’re so plucky, always willing to try things. Your new machine is wonderful, but no one doubts for a moment that it requires an awful lot of focus and very tiring effort. But you’ve embraced it, and you’ve done so with that famous smile on your face. You’re plucky.
** because you never hesitated to take me to task when I needed it, though rarely in anger. You educated me in areas where I was lacking.
** for your joie de vivre, much of it summed up in the line, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” Thanks to your good example, this is something I’m working on.
** because you’ve never been superficial. Never. In everyone and everything, you’ve always appreciated the deeper beauty, the real beauty, underneath.
** … because you’re a softie. Always have been. Yes, being a softie means you often get choked up, but who cares? I think “softie-ness” is one of the finest traits a person can have. And you have tons of it.
** … because you’ve always entered everything you’ve undertaken, from Health and Safety teaching to managing Abreast in a Boat, with absolutely contagious enthusiasm.
** … for your smile. If the eyes are windows to the soul, your smile is a lovely big portal to the whole spirit that is Sheila. You are your smile.
** … for your ability to make an entrance. From the time they were little, our kids have always reacted the same way to news that Auntie Shee was coming: big eyes, big smiles and comments like “Yay!! When?” You’ve always known how to cause a (good) fuss.
** … for your indomitability. Your body may have been broken, but your spirit, despite a battering, has never been defeated. You have courage and grace to spare.
** … because you always seemed so proud of anything I might have achieved as a writer. You were a tonic for my self-esteem. You made me feel so good.
** … for your thoughtfulness — although don’t expect me to give examples. Sixty-three years of being sensitive to others is too much for me to categorize. You’re a warmly thoughtful person, period. Just like our mom.
**… because you’ve always surprised and delighted. I’ll never forget the night of my retirement party when there you were, suddenly, smiling and serving me wine — after travelling all the way across the country, unbeknownst to me, to help me celebrate.
** … because, growing up in our family, how could I not? We may have had our dysfunction (and what family doesn’t?), but a lack of love was never part of it. You were absolutely adored by Mommy and Daddy, and it was contagious.
** … because you’ve never stopped caring about others, especially the people you love. Even when you’d have every good reason to focus only on yourself, you still ask how others are doing — and it’s clear you really want to know. You have the same great heart you’ve always had.
** … because you have always had an adventurous spirit. Taking off from your old life to a brand new one all the way across the country? Such a bold move. I think you’ve always taken leaps of faith because, deep down, you have an abiding belief in both yourself and humanity.
** … because, well, you’re as bad as I am when it comes to gadgetry and gimmickry and techno-baubles. From spiffy new stereos way back when, to sophisticated camera gear, to fancy computer electronics — you’ve matched me, penny for enthusiastic penny. And personally, I consider it the sign of an inquiring mind.
** … because you were such a sweet little golden-haired squirt. I may have more than six decades of Sheila memories, but the very early ones haven’t ever faded away. And I still love them.
** … because you’ve always been there for me, no matter what the reason. To share my joy, to help me through rough times, to share my sorrows, you’ve always been a huge part of my life.
** … because, at a (relatively) ripe age, you started dancing! I still haven’t been able to shed my inhibitions, but you did. Way to go, Shee!
** … because you’re still my baby sister. I wish I could hold your hand through this.
** … because you’ve always known how to smile, no matter where, no matter what other stuff is happening. You are that candle in the darkness we all want to be.
** … for being the linchpin of our family.
** …because you still harbour a full measure of righteous indignation (case in point: your recent Facebook post of Rick Mercer’s furious anti-Harper rant). Because you still care.
** …because you never got jaded or cynical. You’ve always known how to be justifiably critical without sneering (I should take lessons from you), and you’ve always known how to appreciate what’s good in life.
** …because you’re one of the greatest People Persons I’ve ever met. You love babies, small children, teenagers — even cranky old Big Sisters — with an openness and authenticity I can only envy.
** … because you’ve been a caring, skilled and marvellous nurse all your life, even without the RN tag.
** …because you loved the Laurentian cottage as much as I did. The house with its old-wood smell, the cool water, the dark hills across the lake, the white bridge, the red rowboat, the scent of spruces, the wildflowers, the friends, the fresh teapot for every drop-in…I know all of that spoke to your soul. As it did to mine.
** … because you (aided and abetted by Margaret) have such a joyous sense of goofy fun. To me this Christmas 2010 picture pretty well sums it up.
** … because, no matter how negative or grouchy I was (my default position, sometimes), you never seemed to get fed up with me — at least not visibly. You’re an extremely tolerant person, Shee, and I have been a lucky beneficiary.
** … because you’ve always been such a dedicated advocate. Whether walking with Pride, or supporting the great women of Abreast in a Boat, or getting the word out about ALS, you’ve always managed to wrest goodness, light and even hope from the darkness.
** … you knew how to fish! And gut and filet the slimy critters! Have you any idea how much awe this has always struck in me?
** … because you’ve fought the good fight — not just with ALS (although that has been awe-inspiring), but in everything you’ve done. Really, truly, you’ve fought the good fight.
** … because you’ve always loved our roots. Exuberantly. (“It’s…a…GREAT day…”)
** … for never complaining when, as a little kid tagging along behind me, you used to have to do that little hop-skip to keep up. That was so you. Unlike certain big sisters I could mention, you’ve never been a big complainer.
** … because you’re an enthusiast. Always have been. You seize upon the very best of something — whether in a piece of music, a travel destination, an idea, an accomplishment (your own or others’) — and wrap your heart right around it.
** … because you’ve always engaged with people, and not just the people you know and love. From young lads bringing you an interesting new beer to try, to fellow tourists in some exotic locale, to teenagers just sharing elevator space with you — you’ve never been indifferent. You’ve always brought smiles into other lives.
** …because you’ve never been afraid of change. Your whole life, anything new you embarked upon, you did with real relish, welcoming the joys, and even the challenges, that went with it.
** …because although your journey of the past few years has been one of terrible and relentless loss, day after day, that’s not what you’ve focused on. With grit and determination, you’ve looked for the good. What a perfect testament to your character.
** …because you were, I suspect, the most beloved postie in the whole of Vancouver. Maybe the whole country.
** …because every time I hear someone sharing something about you, I feel so proud of you. You’ve created such a lovely legacy.
** …because you’re such a word whiz. Lord knows I TRIED to beat you often enough on Worder or Boggle or Hooked on Words — but I couldn’t. It drove me crazy (you know how competitive I am), but I had to tip my hat to you, time and again.
** …because, as a kid, you were so cute with your double cowlick bangs and your very sweet little smile. In my mind’s eye, I still sometimes see you that way.
** …for always stepping up. If ever anyone from among your family and friends sent out a distress signal, there you were, ready to help.
** … because you’re gracious. Along with Mommy, you’re the most gracious person I’ve ever known.
** …because you are completely, fully, deeply lovable. I wish I were there right now to hug you.
** …for your defiant spirit. When you were diagnosed, tears were your first reaction to the terrible news, understandably. But your second reaction? The creation of a fabulous bucket list, into which you and Margaret threw your all. That is real character.
** … because you have an inspiring gift for appreciation, for getting real joy out of life’s good things, big and small. In your wedding pictures, your smile literally shines. But it always shines — even for something so simple as just seeing someone you love walk into the room. We should all know such joy.
** … because you’re so articulate about the things that are most important. I was especially reminded of this re-watching the TV videos of you that focused people on ALS awareness. You cut right to the chase.
** … because you’re so stubborn — in all the right ways. When I shared Kaye’s Facebook post about your voting visit to the Elections Canada office, I referred to your “stubborn civic-mindedness.” But as far as you’re concerned, we could also tack “stubborn” on to “love,” “loyalty,” “optimism” and “generosity.” You’ve made stubbornness a virtue.
** … because you’ve been such a fine sister to Leonard, Neil and me: dutiful, thoughtful, loyal and, most of all, loving. Overwhelmingly loving.
** … for your openness. You’ve always worn your heart squarely on your sleeve, never feeling the need to hide what you think or be coy about the way you feel. That’s a beautiful quality.
** … because you’ve made my life as a sister so rich and meaningful. Thank you for being there, little sis, and thank you for being who you are.
** … for your sweetness. Your approach toward others has always been pure, open-faced kindness and generosity.
** … because you overwhelm me. You leave me blown away and helpless when I get off FaceTime with you, because I can’t imagine life without you. You are so…wonderful. And I love you so deeply.
** … because as a cook, you were always as fussy as me. Absolutely our father’s daughters, we know that getting the presentation just right is as important as the preparation — no matter what impatient onlookers say.
** … because no one was ever a prouder or more thoughtful aunt. You always made your nieces and nephew feel wonderful, and you always made it clear to them that there was no end to your love.
** … because you don’t give up. You have a serene sense of acceptance, but never defeat. You don’t give up.
** … because you’ve taught me such powerful lessons about the nature of grace and the nature of courage. I love you, and I thank you.
** … for your unshakeable sense of family and togetherness. You are our heartbeat.
** … because you were always game for anything — from ziplining through Costa Rican forests, to shaving your head for a good cause, to dressing up like a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day. You’ve been the Gung Ho Kid.
** … because you’ve always made people feel good about themselves. Not just me — everyone.
** … for your earnestness, which has always been lively and engaging. While others may have masked their enthusiasm under veils of cynicism, you embraced each cause you believed in with openness and energy. We should all be so earnest.
** … for your recipes. This is not as shallow as it sounds. Each time I make “Shee’s Baked Lamb Chops” or “Shee’s St. Anthony’s Dressing” or “Shee’s Brussels Sprouts,” I am reminded of your generosity, your enthusiastic kitchen skills, and your impeccable good taste. Thank you, Shee.
** … for your deep, deep serenity. Yes, you’re sad and yes, there are tears, as there should be. But you are serene in your decision, serene in your acceptance, and serene in the knowledge of your lasting legacy. There could be no greater inspiration for the rest of us.
** … because of your capacity to inspire. Quietly, never tooting your own horn, you’ve shown incomparable grace throughout your entire journey, both when you were more physically active, and now. Inspiring others to move beyond themselves, you have been a genuine role model.
** … for your courage. What you’re doing right now, today — I can only stand in awe. You are an outstanding human being. I’m so proud that you are my sister.
**… for your tenderness. Countless pictures of you holding babies — from my kids, to their kids, to foster babies needing just that little extra bit of Sheila loving — make so clear the tenderness and sweetness that is the core of who you are, and what you are.
** … because you’re you — reliably, beautifully you. And on this Thanksgiving Day, I give deep thanks that you were part of my life, and always will be. That is why I love you.
Oct. 15 (first day she didn’t get out of bed):
** I love you, Shee. I don’t think you need any more explanation.
You’ve always been with me. You’ll always be with me.
I love you.
Shee went into hospice Thursday, Oct. 8 and died Oct. 21.
Janice Kennedy’s article on the loss of her sister can be found here
Photos and letters to Sheila, Copyright © Janice Kennedy 2015
Copyright © JD Cottier 2015