My mother died unexpectedly in 1999. That was tough. She was 76.
But now my little sister has died after a stroke. She was only 59.
The thing about death is that it forces you to evaluate life. It makes you retrace and evaluate your involvement with the life that has been lost. And it forces you to face and evaluate the life you now live.
With my mom, my self-evaluation was replete with regrets over the gray hairs I must have given her when I was in high school and college. But I know she was at peace with who I was after I married and gave her six wonderful grandchildren.
With my sister, I never felt at peace with my role in her life. I always felt that I should have done more.
Kathy was a beautiful, vivacious, happy girl who idolized her older brothers growing up. She seemed proud of me when I was in high school. She was five years younger than me. And she entered seventh grade at Leo Junior-Senior High School when I started my senior year.
I spent way too much time being annoyed by a pesky baby sister who just wanted to be a part of whatever it was I was doing. I was mostly embarrassed by the little seventh-grader waving at me in the halls at Leo and telling her friends that I was her brother.
And when I went off to college, I pretty much left her on her own to deal with the pressures of teenage life. I was off on my own, and my older brother was off on his own. And Kathy waded into adulthood with little influence from me or any apparent active concern for how she was doing – or what she was doing. My parents did the best they could, but her path took some bad turns, and along the way she fell into a life that led to problems that eventually took away her health – and so much more.
And now I look back at the fond memories I have of her: the little 5-year-old wearing a white T-shirt and a plaid skirt on backwards and the biggest smile I've ever seen as she opened presents under the tree on Christmas morning, dragging a huge doll out of its box. And I remember one of our family vacation trips in the station wagon with her singing, as she always did, whatever happened to stick in her mind. This time it was a church hymn, “When the roll is called up yonder.” And after she sang the chorus several times – “When the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there” – she suddenly stopped and asked her mother in the front seat, “Mommy. What's a pyonder?”
And then I fast-forward to years later when I tried to be involved when she really needed help getting her life together — two divorces, one after the death of her second child only a few days old, alcoholism — and I realized that it was too late.
But now, I believe, she's that vivacious, smiling young woman again reunited with her sweet mother and her baby boy who died all those years ago when things started to go really bad. And now it's all good.