Jill is dead. My younger sister, 69, my sweet, funny, bright, troubled, generous, kind, sad sister died at the beginning of this first day of summer.
I’ve been waiting, but not ready, for this day since she nearly starved herself to death as a high-schooler. We had no word for anorexia then or any tools for dealing with it, and I think that’s when she ruined her health. She had a Scarlett O’Hara-sized waist, and her hair came out by the handful.
I don’t remember when the pendulum swung waaaay back. I must have been in Boston, struggling with a college life for which I was completely unprepared.
When she was in college, we, meaning our mother, started getting the dramatic phone calls. “I have a fever of 107,° and I probably won’t see you again.” Almost as soon as she finished at Penn State, she had a diseased kidney removed.
What killed her this week was probably a perfect storm of all her ailments, undoubtedly complicated by diabetes. A hospice doctor told me Saturday afternoon that any one of them could have done her in.
She had recently given me a list, and I said nobody could have that many things wrong with them and walk around. She said I was being dismissive. My husband agreed. I told her he agreed and wasn’t it a wonderful thing that I had never tried to be a doctor?
She took a bad fall and couldn’t get out of her chair a couple mornings later. She sent away the first ambulance that came to pick her up and told me how embarrassing it was to have to ride in one to the ER.
We’re a 7- to 8-hour drive away and had already planned to be in her neighborhood this past Saturday. As recently as Wednesday she felt good, moved from ICU into a regular hospital room and was making plans to go to rehab. On Friday she laughed at her grandson’s new jokes. By Saturday she no longer responded to any of us.
So Jill’s son, his wife, my husband, our youngest daughter and her staunch, supportive boyfriend talked in her large, peaceful hospice room on Saturday afternoon. Somebody was usually holding Jill’s hand, and a surprising amount of the time we laughed.
I never knew about her obsession with alligators eating children. Her son said she was able last week to comprehend the news about the child in Florida and say, “See, I was right. What did I always say?” (She and I both grew up on cowboy and adventure movies and TV, and like the Facebook joke says, both of us obviously thought alligators and quicksand would play much bigger roles in our adult lives.)
On Thursday Jill wanted to make sure every visitor had a refreshing beverage and offered our youngest and her boyfriend a platypus each.
We were free of the pretense that she was going to improve and so could make a big list of all the things she enjoyed and/or of which she could be proud. Taking her son and family to Disney World multiple times (alligators, alligators!) would probably have been second on her list. First would be the son with a heart big enough for his 6-8-1/2- inch frame and his 11-year-old son with the chocolate-drop eyes and lashes out to here.
Jill was a sunny little girl, 21 months younger than her not-so-sunny sister. She was a rainbow-colored soap bubble floating around a house full of angry depressives, and, eventually, that just got to be too much for her intrinsic nature. That and constantly being compared to the sister who could do lots of stuff and almost always (until the big college whammy) got perfect grades. Thing was, Jill was probably brighter — just not so loud about it.
I thought this morning about when she was 4 and I was 6 and I was in Geisinger Hospital, having nearly died from spinal meningitis. She had a fever and possibly meningitis.
Nurses put a tourniquet around her arm to start IV antibiotics, and she burst out crying because she thought they were going to chop off her arm (those movies probably). I wonder where our mother was. Probably out in the hall, trying to calm down my father who was always enraged about having to spend time on anyone but himself (even though he spent plenty of time in the hospital).
She was far nicer, less judgmental than I. When I told her about family members neglecting a child, she said “They’re probably just too damaged themselves to deal with it.” But when you finally did piss her off, she had a memory forever. A shrink suggested she write an obit expressing her true feelings after our mother died, and it was scathing.
She lost three babies after this stalwart son was born. She nursed her invalid husband for years. She loved gambling in Atlantic City and playing pinochle, the “Twilight” series. She gave crazy-generous gifts, and her nails always looked good. (I was so jealous of her long, pretty fingers after my piano teacher said I had square, German hands.)
Both of us struggled with weight issues for as long as I can remember. But I really can’t remember her taking care of herself. In a house where no one ever (no, never!) said “I love you,” it was difficult to even think we merited loving care. I remember Jill standing in a bathroom here in this house, injecting herself with insulin and saying she’d rather eat cake and take the shots.
I feel sad. I feel guilty. So many have touched my soul in the last 24 hours — children and grandchildren, friends, acquaintances in my Weight Watchers meeting this morning. (I also went to Silver Sneakers — I am determined to take care of my health.)
There is no one left in this world who remembers what I remember from our unhappy home. Of my great-grandmother Josephine’s 9 great-grandchildren she is the second to die, and the only one who knows how miserable our parents were together.
Other people saw Girl Scouts, piano lessons, concerts and plays at Bucknell — we knew that no one talked at mealtimes, waiting for my father to leave the table and throw himself down on a couch somewhere with a Mickey Spillane or Erle Stanley Gardner mystery. He went to bed at 7 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m. so he wouldn’t have to connect with the rest of us.
I believe in an afterlife of the spirit, but I don’t imagine Jill hanging around here. I like to think her buoyant spirit and the giggle that embarrassed me so often have crossed the rainbow bridge and found the spindly-legged 17-year-old Siamese she coddled until his recent death. And that the small rainbow over us yesterday afternoon, the enormous balloon moon over the pink clouds and Blue Ridge mountains as we drove through Fancy Gap at dusk were clear messages that all is well, she will safely rest, God is nigh.