In Which We Celebrate the Original Barefoot Girl

And so it was that on a spectacularly beautiful summer morning, a morning kissed by the sun and danced upon by butterflies, we held the final services for my big sister Barb. I still can't decide which was the worst and which was the second-worst day of my life: the day I learned the news of her passing, or the day we buried her.

And who was the girl who threw herself, wailing and sobbing, onto her sister's casket at the viewing? Why, yes, I have to admit: that girl was me. But I was finally pulled off by two pairs of strong arms: my little sister and my older brother. As we clutched each other tight, hugging and hugging each other in a circle that has no end, these words were whispered to me: "We will get through this TOGETHER."

A few days before the event, we siblings had agreed that we would wear the t-shirts Barb had bought us for Christmas a few years back. Most of us were middle children, so my shirt said: I'm the middle. I'm the reason we had rules. My little sister's said: I'm the youngest. The rules don't apply to me. And Barb would go to her final rest wearing her matching shirt that said: I'm the oldest. I make the rules.

Barb would also go to rest barefoot, as she spent most of her life; for she was the Original Barefoot Girl. Even in winter time, when there was snow and ice on the ground, sometimes you had to convince her to wear shoes. And so we sisters and several of Barb's closest and dearest friends decided we would go barefoot, in her honor, at the final funeral ceremony in the cemetery at St. John's, our family church.

The night before, I polished my toe nails to a fine purple shine. And I had the bright idea to place a message on the tops of my feet. It was something that Barb used to say to all of us: "I love you to the moon and back." I wore the silver necklace she bought me that had the same message on it, and several others in our party did too. I put a temporary tattoo on the back of my left hand: a tiny, golden butterfly.

My little sister had handled most of the arrangements, and there were displays of things Barb loved. A photo board displayed pictures of Barb, and us, in happier times. Many of the photos were ones I had taken of her, with her big, bright, beautiful smile. Years ago, Julie and I went in together to buy a colorful butterfly display under glass for Barb (the blue morpho was her favorite); that was there too. The butterfly photo blanket I made her was tucked around my sister, so she went to rest covered in butterflies, and with two of my latest blip-stories (the butterfly blanket, and lessons my sister taught me) printed out for her to take along. 

At the grave site, as butterflies flittered all around us, the pastor talked about Barb, and about our hopes for eternal life. He spoke of the springs of living water, and I just knew that if there were any such waters, Barb would be out there wading in them in her bare feet. If she had been a guest instead of the featured attraction at her own funeral, Barb would have found some small, fun thing to do: she might have been somewhere along the edges, with the children, blowing bubbles. She might have even been dancing.

Then we were invited to share memories of Barb, and we did. I talked about our trips to Atlantic City. How we would take our shoes off in the very early morning and walk barefoot in the ocean together, running from the waves. How we would drink huge cups of Starbucks coffee, and when they were empty, fill them up with seashells to take home so we would never forget our ocean trips and the fun we had together: just sun, sand, and sisters. She was Big Sister to the World, I said; we should put that on her grave stone.

My husband read a poem he had written for her, a touching tribute about how she was our hero, and especially mine. And a few minutes after he was done, several of us looked up and laughed: for there, on my husband's shoulder sat a beautiful butterfly!

We could hardly bear to think of leaving my sister there, and I wept again before I could walk away from her closed casket. But I knew that the best and brightest part of Barb had already flown away. No grave could hold my sister down. What is left is only her mortal remains, the shell that held her, and not the golden spirit that shone as one of the brightest lights of my entire life. (Who will I call now? I thought, miserably; the only phone number I kept right beside me, written on a slip of paper that always sat on my table at home, was hers.)

We watched my parents, age 88 and 89, walking together arm-in-arm, away from the cemetery and back to their car. They looked so small, and so old, and so frail. They were wrapped around each other, as they always are, together in their grief for a child who passed before her parents; a loss no parent should have to bear.

And I considered the churchyard, which will be my final resting place too. I never really feared that thought, but how much easier it will be when my own end comes one day, knowing that my big sister is waiting on the other side for me. Dear sister, we will see you again. I know you will be waiting for me, barefoot, on the other side.

I walked around the graveyard and looked at the grave stones of family members. And thought about everything. And looked at the message on my bare feet. I had placed it on the tops of them so that my sister, if she were flying over us as an angel in her brand new wings, would see it there. If not, the butterflies would see it and carry this message aloft:

You are well loved. To us, you will never be truly gone.
You will be with us forever. Forever and ever, amen.

The soundtrack is Randy Travis, with Forever and Ever, Amen.

Bonus: a link to the last photo ever taken of all of my family together, at Christmas 2018.

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