My younger sister, Kippy, unexpectedly died a week ago. Well, she had been talking about dying…planning on dying, for at least fifteen years. She caught onto the idea at Mother’s funeral in 1995, when we had such a good time at the graveside service telling lovely stories about our family matriarch, laughing, singing and praying in celebration of her steadfast and gentle, artistic life.
Kippy, whose mental age was fixed at about six-years-old, asked my other sister, Ann: “When I die and go to Sky of Heaven, you tell stories about me?” Being a staunch Baptist, Kippy also took literally every good promise of having a pain-free body and being able to do all those things that were now forbidden to her on Earth. That would include drinking buckets of coffee and tea to satisfy her serious caffeine addiction, as well as endlessly riding her beloved horses; a delight which she had enjoyed well into her fifties, before she tipped and slid slowly off the saddle to the ground, harming three vertebrae and ending that career.
In Sky of Heaven, nobody has to grow old. She couldn’t wait. She began to bequeath all of her possessions, verbally writing her Will whenever Ann and I were nearby. “When I die, give my beltloops belt to Michael,” or any one of the strapping young men helping out in the group home. There was nothing better than leather, especially tooled leather, in Kippy’s estimation…unless it was sweet-smelling soap. Every possession was given to a hundred different people over the years while she waited for the moment when she would be wafted off to that Great Bye and Bye, a place which she always indicated with a thrust of a finger pointed upwards.
And over the years, that death date was constantly kept about three years ahead in time. Every New Year’s Day, we would always notice that the date had somehow been bumped up again. Finally, Kippy fixed the date as 2009 and stuck with it. Nope! Nothing happened and we were just planning a 2010 Valentine’s Day weekend together. Though she lived in an Assisted Living Center in Plant City, I brought her home to Clearwater about once a month to go to the beach; go out to eat; run up to Tarpon Springs to buy a new sweet soap supply; or just sit around and watch her favorite vintage cowboy movies on dvd.
We were all set to do that last Saturday, but she had a fall, skidding around a corner in the group home, and wound up with a fractured shoulder bone. We cancelled the visit and reset it for March. That night, she ate dinner as usual, got slipped a rare cup of coffee by a kind nurse, (she usually resorted to stealing them off the trays of the helpless elderly residents…she was a wiley caffeine addict, after all, from whom I always had to secure my tea bags and coffee jars). She went to bed happy and never woke up. Just like that. What a way to go at age almost sixty-eight! Can’t do it any cleaner than that!
Kippy was a character; sometimes a nuisance, (she talked non-stop), but she was often very funny and original. Anecdotes accumulated around her throughout her life. She garnered fans of her pithy sayings and witticisms. She was very generous in allowing other people, places and things to share in the use of the Letter K, always stating “I not mind, they use my Letter K.” And she even allowed others to call themselves Kathleen, as well. I doubt if she had to share her nickname very often. That was pretty singular.
So you can just imagine what would happen when thirty friends and far-flung family members gathered at her graveside Thursday, to see her off. Some folks wore blue jeans and cowboy clothes; as did she, boots and all. We told our stories and laughed and lingered long, then gave away her treasured objects in an old-fashioned potlach, like the Indians used to do at death. After that, we went to a nearby restaurant to indulge in another of Kippy’s favorite activities – eating out – for another two hours; this time, to catch up on each other.
I’d like to include here just one of the things read at her fun-eral. My son’s vision of what must have happened on that Saturday morning when Kippy woke up in Heaven:
Kippy Awakens To The Smell of Wood smoke In The Fresh Morning Air…
A light, cool breeze rustles the long, lush meadow grass upon which her sleeping bag lies, bringing with it the sounds of horses tethered not far away; soft whinnies and the clinking of bits and metal fittings.
There is a creak of leather from right beside Kip. She turns her head. A man has crouched down next to her, holding out a big dented metal cup of hot, strong coffee.
It’s Jesus. He resembles a kindly Clint Eastwood, only with a beard and long hair. His head is covered by a big Stetson – worn and faded by sun out on the range. His vest and gun belt are of the finest quality leather, as Kippy instantly notes, covered with many a decorative filigree and silver accent. His boots also meet with her approval.
“Mornin’ Miss Kippy,” says Jesus, handing her the fresh black, aromatic coffee. “Welcome to Sky of Heaven. Reckon we’re all right pleased to have you stay about as long as you care to” he says with a big smile.
The sun has now fully risen and its warmth and light fill the little mountain valley. Jesus says: “Looks like a fine day for horseback riding….”