Even as she faced death, my sister kept asking questions about life

Anyone have any questions?

Oh, I do. I always have questions. After a lecture, a workshop, a staff meeting, my hand almost always shoots up. I can’t stand that moment of waiting while the speaker looks around. It feels so rude not to ask a question, to let the speaker know I was listening. I’m often embarrassed by this habit. I’m sure my colleagues rolled their eyes at me when I was making the meeting go on longer than necessary. But I can’t seem to help it.

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

In this, I’m like my older sister, Sarah, though not as intensely. Sarah has always been curious, information seeking, always wanting to understand and pin down an answer. Everyone knows her signature “Oh, oh, oh!” when she was excited about something cool, or about to ask a new question. I once showed her unedited photos of a trip to Peru and she looked at every single one and asked a question or made a comment. She’d eat a berry off any random plant in the wild to see what it tasted like. Anytime I’ve been to a museum with her, we could spend mind-expanding, and sometimes exhausting, hours. Sarah filled her house with cool stuff, loved secondhand stores, always ordered too much at restaurants. She could be sharply opinionated and bossy, leading to some epic fights. Sarah was a lot. I loved her. 

Sarah got cancer five years ago. She greeted her diagnosis and treatment with curious questions, and went on living her life the way she always did. When the disease spread to her brain, and she was going to have surgery, she said she’d hoped it would be the kind where she stayed conscious. “That would be so interesting!” she said. 

She never quite conceded that she didn’t have years more of a life full of things to learn about, but her remarkable and unique brain stopped working forever a year ago.

Facing death brings up a lot of questions. Oddly, my sister never slowed down enough to ask them. I wanted to talk with her in a new way, acknowledging she didn’t have time left. But in this case, her maximalist style helped her avoid thinking about an unwanted reality. 

But maybe, I recently thought, Sarah’s work had led her to answers about death already. She was an archeologist who studied the indigenous cultures of the American Northwest. The evidence of long-gone people that she excavated fit into an understanding of the sweep of humans’ relationship to their environment. She took the long view. When a wildfire came close to our family cabin a few years ago, and the next year I didn’t want to go see the black remains of the surrounding forest, she assured me there would be green and beautiful regeneration. There have always been fires; there’s a cycle to things.

And Sarah became close to Native American approaches to death as she worked with the Lummi of the Puget Sound. When an ancient burial ground was disturbed in the course of a construction project, she worked to make sure the human remains were both studied and then returned to their descendants so they could return their ancestors to the earth and honor them properly.

My family is not really religious, so our funerals are do-it-yourself and very personal to us. Certainly we aren’t Native American, but our goodbyes to loved ones have been centered in nature. We’ve buried the ashes of other family members in a beautiful place with significance to us, a place we can visit and feel the comfort and awe of the natural world.

We felt her observant spirit there. She never walked through nature without taking in every detail. I will always remember a particular hike with her. She had hurt her foot and had a surgical boot on it, so she was only going to go a short way along the trail. But the wildflowers were especially exuberant, and every clump of columbine or pride-of-the-mountain pulled her on, and she enjoyed it in a complete, full body-and-mind way that I’ve never seen from another person. 

We had another service of memory in the fall, with her colleagues in Washington state. Many spoke about how she had changed the direction of their life, inspired them to always ask the question, try the berry. When I spoke, I recalled her “Oh, oh, oh!” and the room laughed. Several people told me it was almost eerie to hear it, because I reminded them so strongly of her. 

In her way of taking it all in, in leaving room for amazement and knowledge, I see my grandmother, I see my parents, who inspired it in her. But it was Sarah who really modeled this way of wonder for her five younger siblings, including me. I honor her by looking closely at every wildflower, by taking on the “Oh, oh, oh!” and by putting my hand in the air.


Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. 

She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at
editor@moversmakers.org.


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