My sister-in-law died in Wisconsin last Saturday. Today we buried her in the cemetery within walking distance of my home in Virginia.
Husband returns to the family from quarantine tomorrow. He drove to an assisted living home in Wisconsin the day before Thanksgiving to be with his sister for ten minutes to say goodbye, fully protected in PPE. We knew this would mean no Thanksgiving together and days of self-quarantined separation following.
She died of Covid-19.
Steve held her hand and stroked her forehead. He spoke words that only a protective brother has for a beloved sister at the end of life.
Stories are complex, and theirs is not mine to tell. But I can tell mine.
I met Kris in June, 1987. I was barely sixteen and had my first real boyfriend. He was cute and funny and had the best eyes and smile. He was also shy and blushed easily. I knew he liked me for who I was, and that was important. I was a treasure, not a conquest, and I felt that from him.
Newly allowed to date boys, this was the boy I chose. We dated on Wednesdays and then once on the weekend. This was our weekend time together.
He picked me up in his blue Chevette for a drive around Northern Virginia to whatever adventure we had planned. Maybe the mall, a park, or a subway ride down to Washington, DC. Anything was an adventure as long as we were together with music playing and the windows rolled down.
This was the fun, new, getting to know you more stage of our relationship, and I loved it.
I knew he had two older brothers, but on this particular day he shared about his sister.
I have an older sister, too. She is six years older than me.
She has Down Syndrome.
In this 1987, pre-internet, pre-inclusiveness, pre-awareness of anything different from normal, I had no frame of reference for this disclosure of his, only that my response felt important. I played it cool and listened further.
She lives in a group home in Wisconsin with other kids like her.
Big exhale. Ok. Now I had space to process this foreign, important data. My new, hope to be long-term, boyfriend had thrown me a curveball, but there was time for me to maneuver and get into place to catch it. His sister was far away, hundreds of miles away, and I did not have to engage with her right now.
Wow. That’s awesome.
Would you want to meet her sometime?
This question felt big. Heavy. Loaded. Important. Inside the thought terrified me. But there was time. She was far away in Wisconsin, and I would cross that bridge when it came. I was speeding toward the bridge and had no idea.
Sure! That would be great!
I smiled confidently, eager to see what fun thing we were about to do.
She’s home for summer break now. Do you want to drive over to my house and meet her?
Panic inside. Wait, what? Now? My confidence melted, enthusiasm waned. I knew this was an important moment. I really liked this boy, and he wanted me to meet someone special to him. I had just masked my fear with over-enthusiasm, and to back out would be disingenuous. A quick check of the internal scales brought my continued enthusiastic response.
I hoped the insecurity I felt inside wasn’t registering on my face. I literally had no idea of what to expect. What was a person with Down Syndrome like? How do I act and respond to her?
We entered his suburban, split level house, and I saw his sister, Kris. Jet black hair, bracelets on her wrists, and a grin from ear to ear as Steve introduced me.
Kris, this is Julie.
Hi, Julie! What’s the time?
Steve informed me that this is what she said about going back to school, since her break was two weeks long. It meant she was going back to school in two weeks.
Yes, two weeks. You get to go back to school in two weeks.
I like you, Julie. You’re cute.
You’re cute, too, Kris. I like you.
What’s the time?
I soon learned that What’s the time? was one of her standard questions, though she didn’t have an orientation to time and just lived in the present moment. Any fears I had quickly dispelled as I engaged with this delightful young adult woman who eventually became my sister-in-law.
Tears fill my eyes as I write this. Unexpectedly I am caught off guard by a wave of emotion as I remember younger Julie and younger Kris meeting each other for the first time, not knowing what was ahead for them. I feel their innocence and hope.
My heart aches for all three of the young people in that room.
That’s my brother! You’re cute, Steve. I like you, Julie.
The look on Steve’s face spoke it all. Kris liked me, I liked her, and whatever came next, we had this moment.
Goodbye, Dear Kris. Thank you for introducing me to the beauty of the different in such a gentle, playful way, and for loving your brother so well so that he could love me and our family better. You are so very missed.