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Ronnie Polaneczky: After sister's death, an absence of peace

WE LOST Franny two weeks ago. My sister was the middle child in our family, the fifth of nine kids, our mascot, moral compass and comedienne. I feel like I've lost a limb.

Frances Paul, Ronnie Polaneczky's sister.
Frances Paul, Ronnie Polaneczky's sister.Read more

WE LOST Franny two weeks ago.

My sister was the middle child in our family, the fifth of nine kids, our mascot, moral compass and comedienne. I feel like I've lost a limb.

Franny's death from cancer at 50 was so different from my mother's death, six months ago. Mom was 84, had endured many age-related maladies and spoke often of being ready to go to Jesus. I buried my face in her neck and cried a river when she died. But in the days afterward, I was startled by how quickly a sense of peace eased my grief.

Why wouldn't it? My mom had raised her brood to capable adulthood, welcomed 23 grandchildren to the world, told us constantly what we meant to her.

"Love you, love you, love you," she would coo at the end of every conversation - and, as her dementia advanced, at the end of every sentence.

Her decline was a gentle winding down in the arms of her family. It was a beautiful end, nothing left unsaid or undone. No wonder my sadness was twinned with gratitude.

Franny's death was a horror. Wracked with pain in her final months, she nonetheless fought desperately to stay in this world, to finish raising her two teen sons, to grow old with her husband in the house they'd rehabbed to accommodate our family Thanksgivings for 50.

This time last year, we thought she'd beaten the disease, which had started in her appendix and spread to other organs by the time it was discovered. She'd come through 12 months of barbaric surgeries, poisonous chemo, repeated emergency admissions for medical complications whose unpredictability left us exhausted and rattled.

By July, her CAT scans were clear and she was hoping to return to work in the fall as a patient advocate, a role she'd honed over 30 years in nursing.

She was well enough to dance with abandon at our nephew's raucous wedding in Chicago, which for us was as much a celebration of her life as it was of the expansion of the family tree.

And in September, her crazy "celebrity imitations" - she could do Cher better than Cher - made my sisters and me scream with laughter during a jubilant weekend together in the Endless Mountains.

In October, just as we'd all caught our breath, Fran's cancer roared back. Gone, this time, was our initial bravado that we, together, would defeat it. It was replaced by a creeping terror that Fran's strong spirit, our love and her superb medical care were powerless against a marauding beast.

As Fran's health worsened, her denial of the inevitable kept her going. A gifted craftswoman, she began crocheting blankets she must have known she would not finish. She started designing jewelry that she'd never complete for friends. She decorated clay pots, gifts for her five sisters, but became too sick and confused to grout them.

"I can't die, right?" she'd ask. "Not with all I have to finish?"

"No way you'll die," I'd answer with conviction, because that's what she needed to hear.

But she did die. On a beautiful spring afternoon, as a blossom-scented breeze ruffled the curtains in her hospice room. As we wailed in grief, I wondered how such pain could accompany such loveliness.

As the blur of funeral plans commenced, I kept waiting for a peaceful feeling to take hold, the way it had when my mom died. But Fran's services were last weekend, I have returned to work and there is no peace.

I feel no peace about a vibrant life ended too soon, that left two boys motherless, a husband widowed, crocheted blankets unfinished.

What I do feel is gratitude that, through the horror of Franny's illness, there were moments of transcendent grace, of almost unbearable tenderness. The moments that we rubbed her feet, washed her back, slept with her at the hospital, wept with her for all she was losing - these things did not save her life, but they were not in vain.

Love never is.

Email or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at