Remembering Cheree

Remembering Cheree

ChereeFifty-four years ago, late morning, Cheree died at home. Mother was in the bedroom with her and I was instructed to try and reach Daddy who was with Uncle Everett. They had gone to pick out a grave at Woodland Cemetery, a few blocks away.

But Uncle Everett didn’t have a telephone at his home. Mother said he was too cheap to pay for one even though he was believed to be the richest relative we had. So I called his next door neighbor – that’s always how we had to reach him.

If they were at the cemetery – my father and uncle – I don’t know how the neighbor got the message to them. If she drove over to Woodland, or if they happened to still be at his small, bachelor house, unadorned and  plain.

He hired my sister, Cheree, and me once to clean it. Cathee and Cheree. We took the job quite seriously, sweeping, polishing, wiping down the plastic curtains that hung over the casement windows. When we finished, we went outside in the Miami sunshine and picked flowers – bougainvillea, trumpet vine, alamanda and hibiscus and arranged them in a vase we dug out of a back cabinet.

Cat&Cher-1So proud of our work, we stood back and admired it all. I imagine we would have been about 10 and 8 at the time. Later, Mother told us Uncle Everett said we left dust under the bed. That was his only comment. She was furious.

Now, five years later, my little sister lay dead in her bed, her life claimed by Cystic Fibrosis, almost an unknown disease at that time. And I, disobeying my mother, had not tried to reach my father initially, but had called my church to tell my youth pastor because I suppose I wanted some comfort first.

The secretary had answered and when I asked for him by name, she said, “He no longer works here.”

Her words were clipped and she invited no further questions. At 15, I wouldn’t have known what to ask anyway. I hung up, called the neighbor and delivered the dark message.

Within moments, it seems now as I look back, the house became a sea of people, confusion. As I was trying to make the phone calls, Mother was crying, “Cheree, Cheree. No, don’t go. My baby!”

Once people arrived, I don’t know what I did or where I went. But I know all I could think of was Leslie was gone and I didn’t know who else to call.

It was the beginning of my false belief that if I surrounded myself with people and activity I would be just fine. Everything would be okay. I kept myself over-occupied for the next forty years.

As my parents made necessary phone calls and the ambulance came for her body, Dr. Turner pronounced her dead and made out the certificate, I stripped the urine-soaked sheets and took them out to the laundry room. “When death comes, the body releases fluids,” Dr. Turner was explaining to Mother.

My mother had regained her composure by now and I don’t remember her crying again. Not even at the funeral. She kept it all inside her aching soul and I learned to be just like her.

When the Miami Herald arrived the next day, Daddy was shaving and Mother brought him the obituary.

“The Postman Rings but Cheryl is Dead” the title read. My father started sobbing.

I think now, what a horrible way to read in the Miami Herald of your daughter’s death. How disrespectful and uncaring for a newspaper to print that. Didn’t they know how those words would knife and embed themselves forever in the memory?

Cheree had participated in a TV English class the last year, when she was too sick to go to school. Mr. Singer, the teacher, had asked the class – which spread over most of Dade County – to write letters to Cheryl. Every day the mailman would deliver sackfuls of mail addressed to her. She loved reading the letters. The newspaper headline made sense, I suppose, to whoever wrote the obit. The reporter just failed to think what it would sound like, the absolute finality of it, to a parent opening the paper and reading those words aloud to his family.

When the funeral was over all the family flew back to Texas and Rhode Island. The drama of death was extinguished and the house – our home – settled into a disturbing shroud of silence.

As I lay in bed a few nights later, in my own room finally—one I’d wished for when my sister was alive—guilt washed over me like an incoming tide down at South Beach.

I knew her death was not my fault, but how could I be glad over having my own room and experience the loneliness of becoming an only child all at the same time?

As I let the memories come, while I knew for sure my sister was present with Christ, a sudden fear choked me. What if she arrived at the gate and no one was there to escort her to her rightful place? She was so picky about her hair – who would help her fix it?

Just like mother, I hadn’t cried at the funeral. All my teenage friends were there, six handsome young friends acting as pallbearers. But now the tears came and I was afraid for her.

Quite at once, a memory rose from the past. I thought of our nightly ritual in this very room, each of us in our twin beds with the yellow calico coverlets, lights out, and us in our dotted swiss shorty pajamas.

“Let’s say our prayers first and then we can talk,” I directed as the older sister in charge of things. “When you’re finished, just say ‘I’m done.'”

And so it would go every night. After the last one said, “I’m done,” we’d chat about the day or make plans for tomorrow and drift off to sleep – two sisters in love with life.

But one night, we had a different kind of conversation. Cheree said, “You know what I’m going to do when I get to heaven?”

This occurred long before her diagnosis or any thought of something as impossible as death claiming one of us.

“No, what?” I answered.

“I’m going to ask Jesus for a piece of apple pie.”C&C Mathesan (1)

I remember laughing, knowing how she loved to eat. Cystic Fiborsis affects both the respiratory and digestive system of its victim. Cheree’s lungs were always stable but the thick mucous caused by the disease blocked the tubes feeding natural enzymes to the small intestine. This impeded the digestion, not allowing nutrients to be properly distributed. Because of this, though she was little, she ate twice as much as anyone else her size. She was always hungry.

We probably talked a little of heaven after that. We both went to the big Baptist church near downtown Miami and it would have been a natural conversation for us at that age.

I thought again about my little sister – gone away. Was she just “out there” somewhere, lost, wandering around and bewildered?

And just as sure as if Mother opened my bedroom door and turned on the light, it came to me. The answer. I knew it for sure.

She was eating apple pie with Jesus!



  1. I’m feeling very privileged to listen in on your time with sweet Cheree. I just love the ending. It’s a great piece, Cathee. Raw but tender. You churned up my heart and then wrapped me up in peace.

  2. Sue’s description about Cheree was perfect. I want to share this with a friend of mine who just lost her 9 yr old granddaughter to a brain tumor who also had a younger brother.
    Thanks Cathee, I love the way of your words!

  3. I remember when Cheree passed away. I understood your pain. My oldest brother passed away at the age of ten with a brain tumor. I was six years old. Reading your feeling the church was indifferent to you when you called, saddened my heart. Someone else should have been offered for you to talk to. I also experienced something not all have experienced (thank God). One I loved was molested along with many others his age. Not all in the church were touched by this, so there was a lack of understanding of all the family’s pain. Faith and God’s promises helped us through the pain of this situation-never forgotten by the one whose life was shattered. That same faith and claiming God’s promises has sustained me through many things-especially the passing of the love of my life (since the age of 14). I love you and Bob. I was so happy the first time I heard of your marriage. May God give you many more sweet years together. Mary Blair

    • MB
      You were the person I most looked up to as a teenager. I loved you then and I love you now. Yes, it turned out that the leader I called had failed all of us miserably. And through the years in ministry we’ve continued to see the mighty fall. But Jesus is the same today, yesterday and forever. I never felt Riverside failed me in any way. It was the great bastion of my faith and the vehicle by which I came to Christ. I am forever grateful!!

    • MB
      You were the person I most looked up to as a teenager. I loved you then and I love you now. Yes, it turned out that the leader I called had failed all of us miserably. And through the years in ministry we’ve continued to see the mighty fall. But Jesus is the same today, yesterday and forever. I never felt Riverside failed me in any way. It was the great bastion of my faith and the vehicle by which I came to Christ. I am forever grateful!!

  4. Beautiful memories of Cheree. Oh to eat apple pie forever without digestion problems. Thanks for jogging my own memories of loved ones who are now in eternal bliss.

  5. Dear Cathee,
    In all the years I’ve known you we have never spoken about this day. This is probably the day I dread the most in my life… losing my sister. We all will face this heart ache at some point, unless we all get to leave this earth together. I share everything Sue said so well in her comment. You are the best at conveying feelings, good and bad. I am always touched by your words. I look forward to each new post and know you have so much more to share with us. It is my joy to share you with so many. You are a dear friend and I love you so much! Cynde

    • How odd, Cynde, that I never told you this story. I’m glad. It was time. You know how I love you and appreciate all you’ve been to me over the years.Only hate that we are so far apart. And secretly, I’ve always envied your wonderful relationship with Sarah. You are both so blessed to have each other.

  6. Cathee,
    I remember you talking about Cheree years ago, maybe because you wanted me to be aware of my own little sister. You have been such an encouragement to me over the years. We have a special bond that I don’t have with anyone else – an odd bond – but a bond nonetheless. Thank you for being a part of my family in a special non-related way! Much love, Donna

    • Thank you, Donna, for your comment. Yes, we have a bond that’s remained all these years. I thought at one time we’d be sisters in a different sort of way but that wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, you went on to connect with Bob, who still mentions “all the neat kids” and we’ve had years of great fun together. I appreciate your kind words today.

  7. Thanks for sharing this story. I mentored a woman who with her husband have eight children. Three of the four oldest have cystic fibrosis. Long story short, she recently told her story in her book titled, Comfort: Inspirations for Parents of Chronically Ill Children. Through the mentoring process, we decided to use her prose poems paired with a devotional. Weaved between the eight chapters of 56 pairings are short snippets of her family’s story. It’s a great book to help parents, grandparents, and caregivers. I loved your telling of this story.

  8. I can remember being in that house and that yard while talking to and playing with Cheree. The funny thing is that my memories are also in black and white.

  9. Cathee, I was overjoyed to read your blog about Cheree. Though I have heard many of your memories of her, I am most excited about that fact that you opened a part of your heart in this way. Brave of you! This is so key to your writing and understanding the “real” you. Keep it up, as you can see, you can only grow by revealing those early memories. Things will explode from there.

    Yes, I am able to feel like I was right there with you. My favorite stories spring from the early days. Press on my girl!

  10. What a wonderful tribute to the sister you so obviously loved and still miss. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I have heard the story of you and Cheree many times and it is always an emotional experience for me – you tell it with such feeling that I relive it all again. How much I love you!

  12. Cathee I always feel that it is such a privilege to read your blog – I’m so thankful for your vulnerability and know that I am not the only one encouraged and growing because of you. I love knowing you better!! Love you!

    • Getting to know you over the last four years has been one the highest joys of my life, Susan. I thank God often for you and look forward to so many years yet to come. You cheer me on quite often and I’m grateful.

  13. Cathee, this is a very moving story that evokes so many emotions. I admire you for sharing so many of your thoughtss that others might try to keep hidden. You are becoming a powerful communicator.

  14. Cathee, this is a very moving story that evokes so many emotions. I admire you for sharing so many of your thoughts that others might try to keep hidden. You are becoming a powerful communicator.

  15. Moved to tears…it was beautiful! Thanks for sharing. As always it was intriguing…it reminded of sitting with you and our talks we used to have.

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