He cranked up the seat warmers to full blast as I sat physically shaking in the parking lot. I could feel each minute pass with the change of the clock: 5:19, 5:20, 5:21. I sat together with my Bo staring out the window at the dreary white house that held my sister. He reminded me that I didn’t need to go in. The choice is mine.

I was torn. I moved heaven and earth to get to her viewing on time. I arrived early, and then unable to find my legs, watched the time lapse on the private family viewing. I had come so far: 30 hours to evacuate off Kilimanjaro coupled with a 30-hour flight. I stumbled off the plane with enough time to grab my electric red gown, drive from Washington to Philadelphia, and walk straight into that drab house to see Ellen. The problem is that I couldn’t make up my mind. A text from Ellen’s best friend captured my full attention.

Pia: I don’t want to say goodbye to her so I’m going to Peru and going to try to celebrate her life like she would have wanted me to do. I love you.



“I’m going to celebrate her life.” – Pia


I couldn’t get Pia’s reaction out of my head. My choice is clear. Do I want my last memory of Ellen to be that day after Christmas when she dropped me off at the airport, got out of the car, and gave me the tightest hug as she whispered in my ear, “I love you. I’m always here for you. I’m here to listen. You can always call me.”; or this?

I turned to Bo, who sat silently holding my hand, to ponder aloud my indecision. I don’t want to remember Ellen in this way. I want to remember summers past, where I’d take the earliest train on Saturday mornings to spend the weekend. She’d pick me up at the rundown Trenton station at 7 a.m. in her pajamas, but with her hair still amply curled from the night before and her mascara still intact. She’d speed down the highway full throttle to her little sanctuary in a sleepy town along the Delaware River, where American flags line the stone houses on Main Street. Matthew was already making our heart-shaped cappuccinos when we’d sit down on the island bar stools in her kitchen. We’d spend hours glued to this spot, merely enjoying each other’s company as Matthew slaved over making us breakfast and then second cappuccinos. I want to remember the comfort and natural ease of our laughter; not this.

Bo found his voice and reminded me that funerals are for the living, not the dead. With that Ellen’s memories stopped racing through my mind and were replaced with those of everyone that Ellen loved inside. I was off and already through the front door before I could second-guess my decision.



Funerals are for the living.


A warm welcome was offered from the undertaker, who I met a mere hour before to drop off a scarf for Ellen to wear. During the first meeting, the undertaker gasped as she opened the door and said, “You’re her sister.” Then added with a warm smile, “And you had to wear it didn’t you?” as I unwrapped a silk Louis Vuitton scarf from my neck. It was precious because of the memories, not the value. I purchased it a month earlier in NYC with a girlfriend, who despite living halfway across the world, shares with me that natural ease of laughter that I once shared with Ellen. I wore that scarf every day and joked with anyone who would listen that I wanted to be buried in it. It turns out that while I am not, my Ellen is. My only regret is not giving it to her sooner.

Then the real moment I wished to avoid forever arrived. When the tempest strikes, you eventually spin around, but at first you don’t feel a thing. I finally spun around and there he was, the love of her life.

Wubba lubba dub dub. That’s all I could bring myself to say as I hugged Matthew. It’s from one of the TV shows we used to watch endlessly on a Sunday as the bookend to our summer weekends. The show wasn’t Ellen’s favorite, so we’d let ourselves melt into the couch as she toiled around the house. It’s the catchphrase of the main character and he belts it out happily on each of his misadventures. It isn’t until you’re fully convinced of his joy when the meaning of his motto is revealed. In another language it means, “I am in great pain, please help me.” Wubba lubba dub dub. I can see Ellen’s eye rolls now.

My eyes darted away as soon as they met her coffin and landed on Matthew’s parents: Jeff and Ellen. My mind wandered back to Christmas Eve’s Eve. Both our families joined together for dinner at Ellen and Matthew’s house. There were many scenes from that night that will stay with me long into the future, but one is iron clad in my heart. Ellen and Ellen stood next to each other gasping for air over their laughter. Matthew’s mother teasing my sister that she is going to be Ellen Lynes too and my sister yelling at the top of her lungs that she is the better one.

Time was up. There Ellen was and wasn’t at the same time. She couldn’t hear me, but I told her all the same, “You were then and still are to me about the most wonderful thing in the world.”

There was nothing left to do except to mindlessly endure the rituals. I braced myself for the dreaded receiving line and wedged myself between my two brothers, Todd and Matthew. The blur began. I don’t remember who was there or what was said, but there were moments of great gravity that will stick with me to my end of days. Someone grabbed my hands and said, “I can hear you laughing from across the room and it’s lovely.” And it truly was. There they all were, the loves from the many different pieces of her life offering her stories that made me laugh again and again in my darkest moments. The part that I wish to forget, but I can still hear before I fall asleep is, “who are you?” The question wasn’t directed towards me. There’s no mistaking who I was. I have her face; her smile; her laughter that demands attention from the entire room; her voice that’s too loud at the most inappropriate moments; her energy that draws people in. It was directed towards Matthew.



I even have her reaction when mom asks for a photo.


To know Ellen, is to know her Matthew. I recently went through my card box that houses hundreds of cards sent to me throughout life in hopes of finding a message from Ellen. I found myself sobbing holding the last card without finding a single one from her. I began to read it through disappointed tears:


You are always in our hearts and prayers. And in a short time, this will all be behind you. Matt & Ellen tell us how tough you are and that you have a great outlook! For that we are proud of you!

Love, The Lynes Family – Jeff, Ellen, Stuart, Jeremy, Liz, Matt, Jack, & Hannah

Matthew delivered the card from his family during one of my chemos. I can’t remember which one because he was ever present and made the trip from Philadelphia for each treatment. It was Matthew who let Ellen move in with me for the next year. Ellen said it was for a better job, but I think it was to make sure I was okay. It was Matthew who hung back and laughed with me during our last hike in the Shenandoah as Ellen dashed ahead with our dogs, drinking my celebratory champagne while yelling, “If you hike like that, how will you make it up Kilimanjaro?”



Our last hike celebrating 5 years in remission with champange in our backpack.


While I don’t have words from Ellen, I have what she told Matthew’s family five years ago. So the next time I look in the mirror and see her, or hear her laughter through mine, I’ll tell myself:

“Matt & Ellen tell us how tough you are and that you have a great outlook! For that we are proud of you!”



I couldn’t find a card from Ellen, but she was there all the same.