Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rosalind Risser Yasui

Well, it finally happened. We knew this was coming for a long time but I just couldn't grasp it so I tried not to think about it. My most wonderful, funny, smart sister died April 17, 2010 from breast cancer. Now, no one dies from breast cancer in their breast. It's when it travels to more important parts that it kills you. In Roz's case it went to her lungs and slowly drowned her. It took a year.

I can't write a story that makes sense right now so I am going to just write about things I remember as they come to me. My memories of Pinky.

When we were kids there was a TV show for children. Sort of a precursor of Mr. Rogers. It was called Romper Room. The host would sing a song...
Pinky winky baby,
Pinky winky woo,
Pinky winky baby,
I love you.

She loved that song and want to be Pinky, so she was for 50 years. She would answer the phone, "This is Roz." and I would say, "No, it's not, it's Pinky." And she would agree, "This is Pinky."

When we were kids we shared a room and back before we got carpeting, it had a blue linoleum floor. On rainy days when we couldn't go outside, we would play games on our beds. In one of them, the floor was the ocean and we had to stay on our beds, which were boats and wriggle on the ground as if swimming, if we had to go to the bathroom. We also would fight like cats and dogs and I had scars from scratches on my forearms well into my 20's. If I dared to hit her back, I would get into trouble as I was older. Also, Roz was always sort of frail. Not really sick, just not as hale and hearty as the rest of us. As the baby, she was picked on and defended in about equal measure.

When we were 11 and 13 our father took a sabbatical leave and took all but our brother, Randy who was in college, to live in the Kingdom Of Tonga. We were all teenagers. Roland was going to be a senior in high school and Robin had just graduated. We lived in some of the most primitive situations. Places where water was what was collected off a tin roof and we had to strain the mosquito larvae out and boil it to even use it to brush our teeth. Practically a full time job with our little camp stove. We also had places with actual beds and running water, even though it was only from a hose bib in a large area with a real concrete floor.

Dad enrolled us in school. Rosalind went to what I remember as Tonga College..what they called high school. She had to wear a uniform of a blue skirt and white blouse. Roland and I opted to go to Atenisi Kolisi, or Athens College. Their uniform was black skirts for girls and black slacks for boys with a white shirt. We chose Atenisi because it was the Tongan version of continuation high school for unruly kids and started later and ended sooner than the other schools. I remember they asked Paula to come sew the skirts. There were no ready made. He just looked at you and started cutting fabric and made the skirts. They called him Paula Faka Leiti or Faka Fefini. Paul was gay and Faka means like and Fefini means woman. Paula is the Tongan version of Paul, I don't know of any words that end with a consonant.

Because we lived together and knew almost no one else, we became very close. Dad bought a bicycle (pisikileta is how I remember it) to get around on. I would ride Roz to school every morning on the flat framework on the back of the bike. She would sit side saddle and I would drop her off, then ride home and walk the few blocks to my school in case Dad needed the bike. Roland ended up opting out of school when they tried to get him to teach as he was already better educated than most of their teachers. He ended up going out fishing on ocean-going fishing boats most days. After school I would go back and pick her up. One day I rode a horse to pick her up. I always loved stories of kids that got to ride back and forth to school and thought she would be thrilled. She was not. She had to climb up on a big horse with a skirt and ride home in front of all her friends. In Tonga girls did not ride horses, other than me, and they tolerated me because I was an American and we all know they are different.

After Roland went back to finish high school, Robin, Roz and I became even closer. I remember walking down some road in the soft, warm rain while we worked out 3 part harmonies from songs where we tried to remember the words. We tried not to sing around Dad, because he would then make us get up in front of any group of Tongans that had invited us for a feast and have us perform. We were not the Osmonds and I resented every minute of it. I think we sounded OK, but I'm sure our faces let people know our opinions! So we banded together throughout the South Pacific and then on to an 8 week tour of Europe crammed into a camping van. More bonding against parental units!

After Roz had her breast surgery, she came to stay with me in Laguna Niguel to recuperate. She was horribly bruised from her armpit to her waist. The incision was small and I think they went up to the lymph nodes from the breast incision and I think they should have done two incisions and they wouldn't have hurt her so much. She was told from the beginning that her kind of cancer HER2- was the worst kind and it always came back. From then on she accepted that she had less than 10 years and lived her life that way. I kept thinking they were wrong and that she would be lucky and not get it back. She did everything they told her...chemo and radiation and even some experimental drugs from UCLA to prevent the occurrence even though she had to stop early as it was affecting her heart. But she always knew it would come back.

After a year of treatment, Roz came back to Laguna Niguel because she wanted to get her SCUBA certification. She always loved Hawaii and we had spent a lot of our time in Tonga snorkeling, but she wanted to do the "real" thing. So we both went to a sports shop and then to local pools and finally two ocean dives. Once off the coast of Laguna Beach and once off Catalina. We promised each other that we would go to Hawaii or the Caribbean and do some diving where big heavy wet suits and correspondingly heavy weight belts to counteract the buoyancy of the suits, were not an issue. We were together for a whole month and loved every bit of it.

I remember her going out to our small garden. I had recently replanted some mint in a place where I had previously taken it out as it was so invasive. But nothing else would grow there in the shade of 3 palm trees, so I had replanted quite a few mint plants. Roz went out to do some gardening and proudly told me later that she had removed all the mint that had "come back." I never told her I had planted them.

Later she told me that the SCUBA experience and a long trip to Germany with her husband Arnold, combined with a visit with her friend from Finland, Kirsi Heiskala, were all part of her "bucket list". I'm glad I could help her mark off a few things.

When we moved all the way across the country to Virginia, she came and stayed for another month. Arnold stayed for the first week and then he had to go back to work. She stayed and we built corrals and a loft in the barn. I can also picture her weeding my garden here, thankfully I did not have any mint. I have learned my lesson and keep mint in a pot. So now as I drive down to the barn every morning I see the corral she helped build where I put the horses. I see the loft where we store the hay. I see the garden that she spent so much time helping me weed and keep the bushes nicely trimmed. I see her everywhere in my house, yet I can't see her here ever again. I still can't grasp that notion. My much beloved sister will never come see me or go for a dive in clear blue waters. I just SPOKE to her.

Arnold called and said she was failing. I knew she had asked that Arnold be the one with her at the end, but on my last visit I told her I would be back. I didn't want to upset her by talking about this being our last visit ever in the whole expanse of time. I knew she hated it when I cried or talked about how much I would miss her. She didn't want to have to comfort ME. She got mad at me for crying when she was first diagnosed, so I tried not to do it in front of her.

So, when Arnie called me, I asked her if she wanted me to come and she said, "Yes, I'd like that." So I got online looking for a flight. This was Thursday. I ended up booking a flight for Sunday, for a no damned good reason. I did have a vet coming to inoculate the horses and I did need to do some wash to go on a long visit, so I booked for a week-long trip and wondered if I would have to re-book and stay longer, because this time I wasn't going to leave her. I even thought about how I had been a nursing student at one time and had worked in a nursing home taking care of bedridden patients. This was back when nursing staff didn't wear gloves when cleaning up people and I figured I could do anything after that. Maybe that was why I had taken those courses all those years ago. Maybe I had been a nursing student so that one day I could help my sister through the last days of her life. I even looked forward to being there for her in this or any other way. It was to be my final gift to her.

Then Arnold called me late Saturday night and I knew. Even when he was unable to say the words, or even any words, I knew that I had missed the most important thing I was ever supposed to do. I had missed being there with my sister. I had let Roz and Arnold down and I will never forgive myself. I will miss Pinky forever and I don't know if I will ever stop crying when I think of her or talk about her. And I don't know if I will ever stop wondering if maybe she knew how hard this would be for me and she chose to go early to spare me the ordeal. What she didn't know was that I looked forward in a scared sort of way to being there for her. And I was too late and now I'll never know if I could have been strong for her and Arnold and if I would have been a comfort to her. I'll never know and I'll always be sorry I let her down. I'll miss you Pinky.


  1. I'm sorry for your loss. Having a sister is the most important thing for a girl. You have that shared history and someone who just gets you. Understands your jokes and why you are scared of the boogy man as an adult. You never love anyone the way you love your sweet sister.

  2. Rebecca, I stopped by the library today and the ladies told me the very sad news about your sister. I am so very sorry. I know she was very sick, but it doesn't make it any easier when you get the news. What beautiful memories you have together. I always wished for a sister, and now I know why. Know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Your sister is no longer suffering, and she is in a peaceful place. Love, Melissa

  3. I am sorry for your loss. Roz was my friend and work collegue. Roz had a big impact in my life because she shared her insights and I made a decision to adopt my little baby. We had not talked in many years but she was very resourceful as usual, and contacted me through Facebook in April. I am blessed that I had the opportunity to talk with her and share my adoption story. I will always remember her! Hazel

  4. I am late in finding your blog, but want to extend my sympathies to you.


  5. Rebecca, I am also late in getting to read your beautiful memories of your sister. I am sure a day won't pass that she comes through your mind & heart. Your childhood sounds extra interesting and adventurous and having her as your sidekick must have made it all the better. I know YOU feel as if you missed her passing, but I believe sometimes our loved ones leave purposely when we are not there. No facts, no evidence, other than her discomfort with your tears and saddness, she may have wanted to make a private exit, sparing you and her. It is obvious you were not afraid to face that moment with her. Romper Room was a great show for my sis and I too and will think of your "Pinky" now when I remember RR. Thank you for sharing this wonderful loving & fun memory of her with us. ***

  6. I had always wondered about Rosalind. I remember her quite well in fact from our days at Altadena Elementary. She was sweet and intelligent and she was frail which was sort of endearing. So now we have the means to "google" people only to find that Rosalind has passed on. I knew as a third or fourth grader that she was special in some adolescent way. Now I am saddened and I will think of her from this day on.

    1. I'm glad she made such an impact on you. She had so many friends because she was such a good person. Thank you for commenting. I still miss her every day.