I had already started a column for this week, but when I went to save what I had done, using the date as the file name, I realized my older sister Moira’s birthday is in a couple of days. Would have been in a couple of days? That has always confused me. When the person is dead, is it still their birthday? I can see it’s still their date of birth, but birthday? Don’t know.

How old would she have been? Don’t know that either. Age was a taboo subject in our house when I was growing up. Swear to God, no one knew how old anyone else was. Well, let me rephrase that. I didn’t know how old anyone was.

It started with my mother, who absolutely refused to tell her age. That, of course, meant no one else could say how old they were because, with the help of some hinky math, it might have been possible for someone to figure out her age. Look, I think I’m 66, but if someone told me that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be a shock to me.

My mother finally started to reveal her age when she hit her late 80s. It gave credence to her incredible toughness to be able to say, for example, “I’m 89, and I still come to America, by myself, twice a year.” Which she did. No one who knew her would ever say my mother wasn’t incredibly tough, though they couldn’t say “for her age” with any degree of certainty.

Born during World War II, Moira was the oldest of the three of us. In many ways, she was an amazing person. She battled depression and was in and out of mental institutions until the late 1970s, when the medications she was being given finally seemed to gain traction. She also battled alcoholism for her entire adult life and her getting drunk after 23 years of sobriety paid a major part in her death, even though the official cause was cancer.

To an outsider, the relationship between Moira and me would seem, well, non-existent. We rarely talked to each other. Never wrote. Very rarely visited, unless it was a side visit when I went to New York when my mother was in the country. Still, we had what in our family would be considered a really good relationship. When we found out in 2008 that she had lung cancer, going to visit her was a no-brainer. I actually visited her three times, though she was in a coma during the third visit, but even at that I was able to hold her hand and it comforted me to be there.

Moira, my other sister Betty and I visited the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City where her doctor told her there was no reason she wouldn’t live at least three more years, probably more. And she may well have, but here’s where I believe her alcoholism shortened her life. She didn’t really care to live another three years “at least,” and so she started drinking again, picking up where she left off 23 years before.

In addition to all the other challenges she had to face on a daily basis, she was also addicted to cigarettes. She could not stop smoking. Each day I visited her in the hospital, the first thing she would do was ask me to take her out for some “fresh air,” a euphemism that fooled absolutely no one.

My sister was a good person when she wasn’t drinking and far less so when she was. There are times I really wish she was here now so we could talk about cancer and what to do about it. But she isn’t, and my sister Betty has only what I would call required interest in my health. As long as I’m alive, that’s all she really needs to know. Please don’t look at that as a critical statement, it isn’t. The way we’ve lived for 60-plus years would make any other reaction … well … just plain wrong.

So, we all carry on. Each doing the best we can. All of this stuff resurfacing, though, has reminded why I used to tell people I disliked Olive Garden: When you’re there, they treat you like family.

Jim Arnold is a former copy editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. To read more about his journey through cancer, visit his blog, findingthepony.blogspot.com.

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