Friday, December 19, 2014

A Sad Anniversary

Most anniversaries are happy, celebratory occasions. Monday isn't one of them, because it marks three years since my sister Joni passed away from cancer at age 52.

I'm still not sure if I am past it, or even wholly accepted it, which is probably why I'm writing this. She was a special person and I think when you are finished reading this you'll understand.

I come from a family of five kids, of which I am No. 4. Vickie is my oldest sister, Joni was born a year later and Karen came after that. Then it gets a bit stretched out. I am 8 1/2 years younger than Karen and my brother Tim is nine years younger than me.

I have a great relationship with all of my siblings, I have run a couple half marathons in the past with Karen and Tim is a great golf partner (of course he is because he is a club pro!) and I was best man at his wedding 16 months ago. He would've been mine when I got married last July, had a had a best man, but I did select him to ceremonially sign the marriage license, which was to me kind of the same thing.

Me and my sisters. Joni is holding me
Since I was so much younger than my three sisters, I was taken care of pretty well. Being the baby I was constantly being picked up or held or played with. I'm thankful that my sisters were all so kind to me growing up, and that continues to this day.

Still, I just seemed to have a connection to Joni. Maybe it's because we both had an intense love of sports -- especially the Cubs -- liked the same music (I owe my love of 70s rock to all of my sisters), we both had a habit of constantly switching radio stations until we found a song we liked (I think it drives people who ride with me crazy) and we were both, epic, epic sleepers.

That came in handy when I was young. I shared a room with Karen until Vickie got married when I was seven, so Karen started bunking with Joni. When I would get lonely or have a bad dream, I'd wander the house until I could find someone to sleep with, and I would usually end up with Joni, because she liked the fact that I was warm. Even now Darcy calls me her "big heater", I don't know what it is about me, but people like it.

One of my best memories of Joni is listening to music, whether it be in the car or on the stereo. The year she graduated high school was the year Saturday Night Fever came out, and she was more than happy to listen to all of the songs with me over and over. A couple of summers later, when I had one of my best baseball seasons, she would come watch me pitch, sitting beyond the outfield fence on the hood of her Mustang and honking her horn when I struck someone out.

One of my favorite pictures of all of us. This was in the summer of 1986
She married her husband, Doug, not soon after that, and had five kids over the next 7 1/2 years. Regardless of how busy she was, she always seemed to make time for me, whether it would be when we came to visit or talking on the phone. She helped get me through a lot of dark times in my life -- especially the end of my marriage, when she was at the same time dealing with her breast cancer diagnosis. She was such a great listener...I'd call and keep her on the phone for a couple of hours, but she would listen patiently and always offer the best advice.

I always looked up to her, because she was good at pretty much everything she did, she was a great athlete and a great student, but never took that for granted. I remember so many nights where she would just grind away at her homework, and she had this crazy attention for detail. Once I was playing catch with one of her boys and she made a comment about how she liked that I always threw the ball on a straight line without any hump to it, and she hoped her boys would learn to throw that way too. It was something I had never given much thought to, I just threw the ball.

I also loved and admired her for the fact that she absolutely loved people with her heart. If she took you in, you were in for life! Nothing about her love for others contained any conditions or ever changed, no matter how much you screwed up. I know I did, lots, but more importantly, that attitude changed the lives of some of the friends of her kids. Her house was where everyone went, because she was cool and she accepted people as to who they were. Some of my nieces and nephews had friends that had crappy home lives, or made huge mistakes, but many of them now are great people with great families, because she welcomed her into her home, she didn't judge and she always gave them love and support. I'm sure many of them even now feel they owe her a lot of thanks for what she did for them.

She was always thinking of others, whether that was having empathy towards someone who robbed her when she was a bank teller (the girl had a boyfriend that was a meth addict and he put her up to it, and when the girl slipped Joni a note she read it calmly and said, "are you sure you want to do this?"), or bringing a crappy baseball from the ball bag at home so if we caught an opponent's home run at Wrigley Field we could throw that ball back instead of the actual home run ball.

She was a special person and I was rocked to my core when we found out she had breast cancer in the winter of 2009, and I was overjoyed when they said she was cancer free later that fall. But a little over a year later she started having mental lapses, like misspelling words or drawing letters backwards, and the doctors said that lesions had formed on her brain.

Once again she dove into her treatment with a sense of purpose and a true focus. She fought as hard as she could, but this time the cancer had her in its clutches. When the doctors would take care of one lesion, more would show up in a brain scan. As 2011 went on, it started spreading more and more throughout her body.

In October I drove to Indiana and spent the day with her. You could tell she was starting to suffer a little bit, but she still had a positive attitude and knew that even though the end was going to come soon, she was going to face it bravely.

At the time I thought that seeing her that last time was enough for me, but when my mom called me on Dec. 21 and said that the hospice nurse told her to prepare for the end, I just didn't feel like I could stay away. The next morning, when I walked into her house, my mom, who was in the bedroom with Joni, said that she visibly reacted to hearing my voice.

A few minutes later I went in and saw her. It was tough, she probably only weighed 80 pounds, all of her hair was gone and she would breathe rapidly five or six times then stop for about 15 seconds. But when I sat down next to her bed, our eyes locked for a long time, and I could tell somewhere in there she knew it was me.

I wasn't in the room when she passed at about 7 o'clock in the evening, but I have to say that when I walked in to see her it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. The whole day was, in fact. In such a moment of sadness there also existed peace and love. I know it sounds weird to some, but I feel so incredibly blessed to have been there that day as she passed from this life and into the next.

I wear two pink bracelets on my wrist. One of them says simply "Missing Joni Every Day", and another is a pink cancer bracelet I got at a Cougars game on a cancer awareness night. The one I have is actually the second one I've worn, because the first one is buried with Joni.

After the funeral home had come and taken her, I took the bracelet off of my wrist and gave it to Doug. As we were hugging and crying he leaned down (he's 6-foot-5) and whispered the most amazing thing into my ear.

"Joni really loved you."

No matter how long I live I will never forget those words. Because in the end, that is what we are here for! So that we can be loved by others with all of their heart and all of their soul. To have someone in your life so important that losing them leaves a void in you that will never be filled.

This is one of the last pictures that I had taken with her, when we visited in October. I am on the far right (of course), my mom is in the front and Joni is sitting with Doug and next to Matt and Kevin. Notice how Joni and Doug are holding hands. They loved each other so much, and had the kind of marriage I hope to have too. They were special together.

I have a void that will never be filled. It's still hard to believe that she is gone, and I can't tell you how many times in the last three years I've reached to the phone to call her about something, or just wondered how she would've handed a situation. Since then I've tried to be kinder to people, I've tried to love people harder and I've tried to be a more compassionate person. I've tried to live much of my life in the same way she did, because while she wasn't perfect, there was an integrity, a passion and a peace that just existed in her that is inspiring.

I was lucky enough that I was asked to write her obituary. You can read it here if you would like. I've had the honor of writing the obituaries for both my dad and sister, and I consider both of them some of the most inspired writing I've ever done.

If you've gotten this far, thanks for reading about my sister. My words don't even scratch the surface of who she was, but I hope you have an idea of why I think she is so special. I still feel her love every day, and her inspiration drives me through a lot of tough times. I'm so, so fortunate that I had her in my life. I miss her so much, but her spirit lives on in anyone that was lucky enough to know her.

I miss her so much.

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