On the concrete playground of his elementary school in Spain, my 8-year-old son, Griffin, called his classmate Juan a bitch. Luckily, Juan doesn't speak English, but there still needed to be a consequence for this bad behavior. So my sister Stephanie, who had heard about it from a teacher, handed Griff a broom so he could sweep our courtyard, which was littered with grape and olive leaves after a fierce storm. I watched him work, bare-handed in the cold, my own hands clasped so I would not run to hug him, and then turned away, knowing that my sister was just as good as I was—perhaps better—at disciplining my son.

The word commune evokes images of free love and fields filled with flower children, not two middle-aged sisters who have blended their families into one. But though our group is small—me, my husband, Ethan, and our two young boys; Stephanie, her husband, Todd, and their two preteen girls—we share interests, possessions, resources, philosophies, and work. And we do it while living together on two crowded floors of a rented, drafty, quaintly crumbling 18th-century palacio in a Spanish port town.

This is not how I'd imagined life in my late 40s. In 2012, my family was living in a five-bedroom house in Los Angeles, where I managed West Coast operations for an Internet company and spent weekends shuttling the kids from soccer games to the beach. Then one brilliant June afternoon the phone rang. It was my 74-year-old mother calling to say she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Her prognosis—two months at worst, two years at best—prompted Stephanie and her daughters to fly back from Spain, where Todd is a surgeon at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Andalusia. Our younger sister, Simone, and her husband, Chris, took leave from their jobs in Seattle. Everyone moved in with us, and for nine brutal months our lives orbited around my mom's weakening star.

We settled into tasks that suited us. I used my local contacts to organize a top-notch team of doctors. Stephanie, a former science teacher, researched alternative treatments to the chemotherapy that kept pushing my mother to the brink of death. Simone and Chris, both gourmet cooks, whipped up healthy meals. Ethan did laundry and drove the kids to playdates while my sisters and I took turns lying next to our mother in bed, running fingers across her parchment white forehead, whispering "I love you"—the words a mantra of hope and despair—until, in the space of one small breath, her bright light blinked out.

My mom's death I had prepared for; end-stage cancer brings the fervent wish for your loved one's suffering to stop. But the idea of our group disbanding unleashed a new fear: How would I bear the weight of this unholy grief without my fellow warriors? As my sisters prepared to head back to their lives, the thought of just my little family at our dinner table felt like an abandonment of the worst kind.

One morning, sitting on my mother's empty bed with Stephanie and sorting clothes into sad heaps of "keep" or "donate," I begged her not to leave. The fierce neediness in my voice was startling, considering our turbulent history. Growing up, my bossy older sister preferred studying to socializing and got straight As, while my hobbies included feathering my Farrah Fawcett hairstyle and chasing boys. Since conflict resolution was not high on our mother's priority list—an English professor working toward her doctorate at night, she had little time to referee—Steph and I settled disagreements with our fists. Once, when she hid the keys to our shared Honda Civic, I yanked out a spark plug, and she knocked me out with one punch.

It wasn't until the wrinkles of middle age appeared that our relationship began to feel more like a choice than an obligation. When my first marriage ended, Stephanie stocked my empty refrigerator and insisted on turning on the lights, even though I preferred to sit in the dark. Too humiliated by this colossal failure to reach out to friends, I took refuge under her wing. Later, after we'd both struggled with infertility, we celebrated the births of her kids—and then the births of mine—in our respective delivery rooms.

Now as my sister hugged my shaking shoulders, I felt her own great need. "Come with us," Stephanie whispered, and amid the painful detritus of our mother's life, the idea of leaving my comfortable, familiar world behind did not seem crazy at all.

Ethan was on board right away. He'd held me as the tears ran down my face in such a rush that I felt like I was underwater, and he knew that physical reminders of my mom—our piano, for example, which she had played on New Year's Eve in a red party dress just ten weeks before she died—would slow my healing. And so, after we'd rented out our house and quit our jobs, Ethan lugged a dozen boxes filled with jeans and T-shirts to the post office for overseas shipping while I lugged a dozen more filled with designer suits to an American Cancer Society thrift shop. On a clear summer night, we took off into our new future, the lights of Southern California fading to black beneath us.


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