The following is my tribute to my sister, Denise, two years younger. She passed on Feb. 6 after living five years with metastatic breast cancer. Her services were held Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at Peace Church, Duluth, MN.

I sat the other day and gathered pictures of Denise.

So many photos. Stacked up prints … skinny kids with knobby knees dating back to our childhoods in the ‘50s and ‘60s taken in careful pose in twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes and finally sevens by our father, aware of the cost of developing but not, clearly, of child rearing.

Each photo is a piece of her life and our lives and I had too few pieces of her to hold.

I looked at one of the photos and thought what was she doing smoking a cigar? Without wine?

Denise with cigar
Denise Marie (Shipley) Hamsher

My stacks of photos reminded me of her stacking and organizing fabric for her quilts. She would stitch together carefully arranged pieces to become a greater, warmer whole.

She would make the quilting run in elegant, geometric loops and sweeps, or orderly lines, or organically, like spreading branches, connecting each piece and binding them tightly, even if stitched imperfectly, where only she could see and would point out.

Our lives in memory are like that: episodes and people stitched together. For Denise, it was always careful, determined, practical work. Denise warmly embraced life with Dennis, Chris, Becky and Lara, and each grandchild, Zalia, Tinley, Brooklyn, Owen, Leila and Matteo, this gifted time had graced to her.

Life doesn’t always run along the stitching laid out in plan. It doesn’t for any of us. Cancer certainly wasn’t in the pattern. Denise chose to live with cancer, not letting it break her off her design, simply folding it into her life.

This past December she made sure she was with family over the holiday as in pattern. Family is a bit far-flung but it was she who made the journeys. Her visit to us was joyfully welcomed.

She took respite in Costa Rica in early January this year, as she had since resting there after a mission trip a few years earlier. Earlier trips now seem so long ago. Then, we had forgotten cancer as she had walked with us; bicycled to beaches and into town and back; and, laughed about grandchildren at restaurants over fresh fish, rice and beans, and gin and tonic from grapefruits picked off the trees at the house we all shared.

But this year, when she rode the bike to Playa Carillo, she rode back on Dennis’ motorcycle. We walked more slowly to sunset on the Pacific beach together, she holding Dennis’ hand. We took the bus into town and not a bike on the beach. She was stoic, but weakened, as we knew since she had relinquished the kitchen she had always commanded previously there and elsewhere.

Denise and Dennis were planning trips to Alabama and on a Mediterranean cruise. One evening she sat in our chat circle and arranged travel insurance. It was a “just in case” arrangement, she said, turning the focus to what they would do in Barcelona.

She lived with cancer, but it wasn’t going to dominate her days.

Our time for our visit had ended and she and I hugged goodbye, her grip around me stronger and longer lasting, it seemed.

My heart feared.

Memories occupied the trip home for Roseanna and I. Regret crept back for childish teenage fights Denise and I had. Who was in charge while mom and dad played bridge? (She was!) Who got the car this night? (I did.) Roseanna reminded me that Denise had introduced us one winter evening some 50 years ago.

Denise clearly wasn’t well and wanted to see her doctor here in Duluth. She returned early. Dennis took her home where she passed peacefully in her bed, her family beside her. This is so precisely how she intended … having lived with cancer.

It was the last piece she had determinedly stitched into the pattern of her life.

In my tomorrows, I will wrap myself warmly in her quilt, running my hands over the stitching while tracing the better memories of our lives, episodes we can laugh about or cry over even regret but must always embrace.

Denise lived with cancer while planning quilts, gathering the pieces, artfully laying out the design, stitching the pieces, then the quilting to bind everything together only to, once finished, give quilts to family, her children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews and their children and beyond to friends. This was her pattern.

It is how she addressed life.

It would be good to live as generously determined, as purposefully stitched to life, living with as did my sister, Denise.