My sister, Jill, would’ve turned 50 today.
I’ve thought a lot about this the last few months. I’ve wondered how we would’ve celebrated, how much Jill would’ve grumbled, and whether or not we would’ve all found a way to be together in spite of the spinning chaos that is life.
I think people often show love in the way they most feel loved. Let me say that again. I think people often SHOW love in the way THEY most feel loved.
Think about it – if you put a lot of thought into picking out a unique and fitting gift for your loved one, and you continuously get an Amazon gift card with a pat on the back and a “pick out something you’ll like” in return, you’re bound to feel let down. Or, if on your birthday weekend, the husband takes the kids to the aunt’s house so you can “have some space”, and “having some space” includes you having to go buy your own birthday cake and flowers because no one else gave it a thought and left you all alone on your birthday weekend…well. Perhaps that means the husband most feels loved when you take the kids and give him some space, and that he doesn’t understand that you don’t feel loved the same way. But I digress…
Jill showed love uniquely. Like the time she came up with “Sister’s Day”, a combination of our birth dates every April when we would get something for ourselves and buy the same thing for the other two sisters – usually something that reminded us of a certain memory, or shared experience. (A framed “Will Rogers” postcard since we all went to “Will Rogers Elementary School”, a “Dartmouth” t-shirt since we all grew up on “Dartmouth Dr.”, a hand drawn “Family Tree” with the names as the trunk and branches of the trees – because I used to actually have something called “time on my hands”). The year after she died, I bought “The Pirate Movie” for our Sister’s Day gifts, because it was one of Jill’s favorite movies. She once saved Christopher Atkins plastic fork for me when she waited on him at Barnie’s in Orlando, and sent it to me in a plastic ziplock bag with a note instructing me “not to lick it” because I didn’t know where he’d been. (Thanks, Jill. I would’ve licked it otherwise. Ick).
Like the time I visited her in Orlando around my 16th birthday – every time we went out to eat, she secretly told the waiter it was my birthday. Every. Time. (I got to the point that I’d hear clapping, and I’d just put my head down on the table). We have umpteen pictures of an awkward 16-year-old Jamie (braces included!) in some humiliating restaurant hat with a cake in front of her. Don’t kid yourself, she did this in part to embarrass me – and it worked – but it was also Jill showering me with attention. Just like the sign she held up at the airport that said “JAMIE: Have they grown yet?” as I got off the plane. I walked past her and pretended I didn’t know her.
Like the time she surprised my Grandparents for their 50th Wedding Anniversary. She flew in to Iowa, where Jodi was doing an internship, and drove down to Kansas with her. Jill covered up with a blanket in the backseat, and Jodi asked Grandma and Grandpa to come out to the car to help her get their gift. (“Aw, you shouldn’t have! You’re doing an internship…”) When Jill jumped up from the blanket, Grandpa got tears in his eyes. Milestones were a big deal to Jill.
And I’ve been wondering if we would have disappointed her on her 50th birthday.
When our Mom turned 50, Jill was the one who came up with a plan to do something really special. Like many people, Mom wasn’t particularly thrilled with turning the big 5-0 and was feeling pretty “blah” about the whole thing.
What you have to remember here is that this was before Facebook and social media. Heck, this was in the dawn of the internet – it was 1993, and the commercialization of the internet didn’t happen until the mid-90’s. (Source: Wikipedia).
Jill got our Grandma to dig up old class reunion contact lists and highlight those that were good friends with our mom in high school. She then contacted these people, asking them to write down a memory of our mother. She got a lot of responses. One man wrote back that he’d had a huge crush on our mother and always regretted not asking her to prom. She’d had no idea.
I had a menial task assigned to me, at 17 – I was to color Madeline L’Engle pictures of Americana (Mom liked Madeline L’Engle) without our Mom seeing them and send them back to Jill covertly. I dutifully colored these pictures on breaks at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute where I was studying theatre, and sent them back with our mom being none-the-wiser.
Jodi can’t remember what menial task she had. (When I asked her, she said, “How the hell would I know? Sorry, I’m old.”)
Regardless, we both know that Jill carried the bulk of the responsibility. She took all of the collected goodies – notes from former classmates, notes from us, Madeline L’Engle pictures, etc. (etc. = whatever Jodi did), and put together a bulging scrapbook for our mother, which was presented at her 50th birthday dinner. It was an awesome tribute.
One time I think I came close to making Jill feel loved the way she felt most loved. Her older cat, Scratch, got sick with a thyroid issue and was dying. He needed a treatment that would cost $1000 and, with Jill’s medical expenses for her depression, they didn’t have the money for it.
I was a poor college student and didn’t have much, but I donated $100 towards Scratch’s treatment. I then put together flyers, had Jill open a PO box, and listed where people could send a small donation towards Scratch’s treatment. I explained that my sister was already dealing with long term depression and that it would be heartbreaking to lose Scratch because they couldn’t afford the treatment. I posted flyers in grocery stores and community boards in Norman, and then sent them to relatives and asked them to post in their neighborhoods.
Our Aunt Shirley called me and said she would get the money from other relatives and that we didn’t need to rely on strangers. And she did. She called and cajoled and got donations from her brothers and kids and we sent Jill a check for the remainder. Scratch had his treatment and got better. And Jill felt loved.
Two months before her death, Jill was in Dallas for treatment at the Meier Clinic. Brian and I had just moved to Dallas a day before, and Jill and I were sitting in my new (old) duplex among moving boxes and disarray. (One of my favorite memories is that Jill grabbed a recycled gift box packed with things, and this box had pictures drawn all over it by Hailey. When she noticed it, she was over the moon).
I had been waiting tables since college, acting, and was generally broke and worried about bills all of the time. Jill mentioned that Scratch was sick again, five years on, and likely needed treatment. I was more world weary, five years on, and I shook my head and said something like, “I’m sorry”. I didn’t offer money. I didn’t offer to round up the troops and figure out a way to get him treatment again. I just said, “I’m sorry”. And I undoubtedly let her down. She was gone two months later.
I didn’t call her on her last birthday.
I worked a double at the restaurant that day, and didn’t have much of a break to run home and call. (No cell phone). Anyone who knows my family knows that a phone call is an investment of time – we like to talk – and I didn’t feel like I had time to run home, call, and get back to work in time to have a breather. I’d sent her a card and a gift, so what was the big deal, right?
Wrong. When I talked to my mom later that week, she told me Jill was really hurt that I hadn’t called her on her birthday. I was ashamed. Jill ALWAYS called me on my birthday. I resolved to do better and call her on every birthday from that point on.
She didn’t have any more birthdays.
I hope we would’ve celebrated her appropriately on her 50th birthday. I hope that she would’ve felt truly and deeply loved by our efforts. I hope that she knows how much we still love her, how much we wish she and Hailey were with us to celebrate milestones and ministones, and how much her way of loving others is missed. She was something else…