When I turn 57 on my birthday tomorrow, I will be the same age that my sister Judy was when she died in 2007. It's a sobering thought and it feels weird in a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life kind of way.
Her death certificate gives the same cause of death that most certificates do. She stopped breathing. What killed her was the myelodysplastic syndrome and the hepatitis C. She died not too long after being removed from the national donor list for a liver (she had heart issues from rheumatic fever), and her liver stopped filtering the ammonia from her body. It failed, and she was dead a short while after she was removed from life support. My brother-in-law, niece, and nephew didn't make her endure the respirator any longer than necessary, and that's one of the many reasons that I will love them with all my heart until the day I die.
When my sister Lisa and I flew out to Nevada for Judy's funeral, I expected to see her lying in a coffin. I didn't expect how she looked. The only way I could recognize her was to stand at the back of the room and look at her profile. Then she was the sister I loved. When I walked up to the coffin and stared down at her, her face was so swollen and round that she didn't look like herself at all to me. "God, Judy, you look like hell," fell out of my mouth and I left the room in tears.
I walked around outside. Besides the funeral home, there was a cemetery and mausoleum. I sat in the cemetery on one of the benches and cried. Then I walked around looking at headstones and cried. I called Ginger back home and cried. I went back inside just before the funeral started and then I listened. I listened as one person after another told about how Judy had taught them about life and about living. I heard how Judy was so kind and caring and compassionate. How she took care of her friends as if they were family. What an inspiration and role model she was.
Judy wasn't the easiest person to have for a sister while we were growing up. She had a horrible temper that had to be seen to be believed. One time, when our new baby sister had been admitted to the hospital with possible meningitis, I said to Judy, "It's all right, Lisa will be okay." Judy's response to that was to explode on me. She grabbed a big butcher knife from the kitchen counter, chased me through the house and out the door. Fortunately, I could run much faster than she could. Having been the brunt of her temper many times, I had no doubt that she would have plunged that knife right through my heart if she had caught me.
Another time, I was getting ready to go to my summer job one day right after I graduated high school. I was working part time as a teacher's assistant at a grade school across town. I was dressed and ready to leave (I walked the 4 miles to work) when Judy demanded that I take off my panty hose (the only pair I had) and give them to her. She had been dressing for work, too, and had snagged a run in her last pair. I told her no, that she could stop somewhere on the way to work and get a new pair, and I left for work. Mom told me later that evening the she had awakened to the sound of Judy pulling my drawers out of the dresser and throwing them and their contents against the wall. Then she grabbed her car keys and said she was going to run me down and kill me. Mom must have believed her because she told Judy that if she left the house in the next hour, she would call the police and have her arrested. When I came home later that afternoon, Judy was friendly as ever and acted as if nothing had happened. She could be kind of psycho that way.
I remember calling my sister one Christmas Day and my niece answered the phone. She calmly informed me that her mother had just tossed the vacuum sweeper across the room. Something about the Christmas cookies not being baked. Marriage hadn't changed her temper, it seemed, after all. But I think being sick did. I think being sick changed a lot of things.
We had known since Judy had contracted the rheumatic fever in 4th grade that she probably would not live to a ripe old age. When her first child was born, her heart acted up so much that the doctors had to take the baby a few weeks early. But none of us dreamed of what was to come. She contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood. Then the MDS hit. A double whammy. She knew that one or both would end up killing her. And then she told the doctors that she wasn't dying until she was good and ready. It took her 10 more years before she was ready.
Judy fought for life, tooth and nail. All of we siblings were typed/match for a possible bone marrow transplant. Lisa won that contest. (Yes, Judy actually turned it into a competition.) She and Judy traveled to Seattle to the Fred Huchinson Cancer Clinic to get a preview of the procedures and processes. Judy was put on the donor list for a liver. And then she lived her life to the fullest. She had places to go, things to do, people to see. She did it all. She knew all too well how precious life was, every moment, and she tried to show us in so many ways. It wasn't unusual for her to send us an e-mail telling us that we had the best family, that we all take care of each other, that she loved us very much. Back home, she was teaching her family and friends there the same thing.
Judy has been on my mind a lot this week in the days leading up to my birthday. Tomorrow, I will be her age, and I wonder who I have encouraged. Who have I taught about life and living. Who have I been a role model for. What have I done with my life. Have I ever inspired anyone. And then I look at being 57 and I think that I don't have much time left. I may live to be 80, but I may die next week, who knows. Why do I live like I'm dying? Isn't it time to live like I'm living? If not now, when? If I knew I only had one week to live, what would I do with that time? What would be so important that I had to get it done before I die?
When I figure it all out, I'll let you know. In the meantime, Happy Birthday to me. I miss you, Judy.