Please forgive me for the length of this post, and for the sentimental nature of parts of it. I'm trying to work through some grief right now.
I am the youngest of four siblings, and my parents were in their late forties when I was born. Not surprisingly, my siblings are all quite a bit older than me. The two who are closest to me in age are my brother Cleland and sister Lisa, who are 15 and 11 years older than me, respectively. Cleland left home to go to college when I was three, and Lisa followed suit four years later. They both attended UT Austin, and both have lived in Texas ever since their graduations. Because of this, I have been able to see them fairly often throughout my adult life, except, of course, for the years that I lived in Eastern Europe.
But I have one other sister, Mary, whom I have not been able to see very often. She is 22 years older than me. The year I was born, she graduated from college, married, and moved with her new husband to California. Within four years of her marriage, Mary had three children: Thomas in 1969, Allan in 1971, and Laura in 1972. Like all children in our extended family (heh, heh), all three of these children are good-looking, intelligent, and multi-talented! And yes, your math is correct--that means I have a niece who is four years younger than me and nephews who are three and yea, only ONE year younger than me.
Needless to say, with Mary and the kids in California and the rest of our family in Texas, I didn't get to see my nieces and nephews very often. In fact, I barely even remember seeing them at all for the first twelve years of my life, even though I know I must have. One fond memory of them that I do have comes from the summer of 1980, when I was 12. I don't remember exactly why this occurred, but for some reason, Mary asked if she and the kids could come live with us during the summer. So, my parents and I got in the car, made the three-day trip to LA, spent some time there, and came back with Mary and the kids. There were seven of us riding in one car from LA to Houston. Good thing my parents had a Cadillac with a powerful AC at the time!
Mary, Thomas, Allan, and Laura stayed with us nearly the entire summer. During that time, I spent a lot of time with these great kids, who due to their closeness to me in age, became like brothers and a sister to me. We had some wonderful times that I will always cherish. At that time in my life, I was very much into drawing cartoons and comic strips, and I taught Thomas and Allan how to do it. In doing so, I instilled a love for drawing in them that has stuck with both of them to this day. Both of them have had comic strips and other drawings that have been published. I had no idea what I was starting!
When the summer was over, my parents bought Mary and the kids plane tickets, and they flew back to LA. The next time I saw them was four years later. My parents and I went to California that summer (flying this time), and I was able to spend a little time with my nephews and niece, though obviously nowhere near as much time as I had four years earlier. Sadly, I barely remember the time I spent with them. By then, I was 16 and thought I was just too cool to spend time with younger kids like them (and I was not mature enough to know just how stupid and IMmature I was, let alone how important family is).
After we returned that summer, I got busy with school, work, friends, and girls. Then it was college, then work, then marriage, then kids, then life overseas, then more work, and so on and so on.
Since 1984, I've seen Mary perhaps half a dozen times. I saw Thomas once when he came down to Houston about two years ago. I haven't seen Allan or Laura since.
I have just found out that I'll never see Laura again, at least not in this life.
I had exchanged a few emails with her a couple of years after we moved back to Texas from Bosnia. We chatted about family, career, and (of course) faith. Among other things, I learned that she was married and had two boys. Then, as often happens, the conversation trailed off and ended. That was perhaps '03 or '04 at the latest. We never conversed again.
We recently became "friends" on Facebook, but never even exchanged a single message. Of course, I had plans to. I wanted to get caught up again and hopefully to see her sometime in the near future. But life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of such plans. We assume that both we and those whom we love will be around forever. Oh, we know INTELLECTUALLY that we won't, but practically speaking, we usually act as if we are immortal. Or at least I do....
This past Sunday afternoon, I received the following email from Mary:
"I have some rather disturbing news. My beautiful, intelligent, and sweet-natured daughter, Laura, has been diagnosed with a rather advanced cancer. Now we're all optimistic, because while it has spread, only one tumor is dangerous, and there are wonderful new procedures that they can use, and they have formulated a plan of action. There is also the chance that they will send her to one of the best cancer centers in the country, which is in Portland, OR, which is only a couple of hours away. But all of you who know me know that I'm not dependent on allopathy alone; I believe in getting help from the Other Side as well...James, if you could get some of your parishioners to pray for Laura, that too would be greatly appreciated...she's in Sacred Heart Hospital, Eugene, Oregon.
She's in good spirits, and is optimistic, as I am, though Thomas and Allan are very frightened. She still looks beautiful, and her sons give her a reason to keep going. But the family is frightened, as you might know. Those of you who want to do more can go to this website which will give you more details. Allan set it up. Here's the URL: lauralynne72.blogspot.com
Again, I'm upset that she has to go through all this pain and surgery and everything, but she has a million friends who are pulling for her - and again, I'm optimistic. But any help that you might give would be greatly appreciated."
I responded immediately with the following:
"Mary, I'll definitely keep Laura in my prayers. Please keep us posted. If there's any way possible, I'm going to try to go up there sometime and see her in the near future."
Then she sent the following on Monday morning, at which time I was on my way to a conference in Austin (for my job with the school district):
"Dear James - Thank you so much. She has a lot of people pulling and praying for her; she's very well loved. Laura would love to see you, and you'd love meeting her boys. Very, very bright! Almost like little adults - yet with the spontaneity and imagination so typical of our family!
She made it through the surgery, and they finally stopped the bleeding. Last I heard, she was doing very well. Now they are going to do to get rid of the tumors in her head. The way I understand it, only one tumor is incurable, and that's the one on the liver - and they can cut off some of the liver because I THINK the liver regenerates. So please, please keep her in your prayers. So many of my friends are helping out. And I know from experience that it works."
I thought, I'll keep praying, ask others to pray, and try to fly up to see her during the Christmas Holidays. Then this morning, on the last day of the conference, I woke to find this email from Mary:
"Dear James, Laura died at 5:30 AM. We're still in shock. A week ago we were planning a Christmas with her and the boys.
I know that she is in a better place, and that her pain as over, but as my old friend Carol once said, "your body misses that body." I'm trying to hang in there for Allan and Thomas, but it's hard. Parents should never outlive their children.
Love to you and to Jennifer and the girls. Pray for my baby."
Needless to say, I was stunned. It has been a hard day. Even though I hadn't seen Laura in 25 years and hadn't communicated with her in five years, I feel a deep sense of loss.
The lesson I am drawing from this is one that I thought I had learned before. But just when I thought I had gotten my "degree," something like this happens, and I'm right back in my freshman year. The lesson for me (and all of us, although I'm sure that you, dear readers, know this well) is this: Don't assume that your loved ones will be around for all that much longer. Don't assume that you will be able to write that letter, make that phone call, send that email, make that visit, etc, next month or next year. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you, and do whatever it takes to see them every so often. Certainly don't wait 25 years like I did in the case of my dear niece.
Don't worry; I'm not beating myself up about this. You don't need to tell me that there is no way I could have known that Laura had terminal cancer, much less that she would leave this earth only three days after it was discovered. Still, it is inevitable that I feel at least a touch of regret for not having done better about staying in touch with her and getting to know her better. My life is very much the poorer by this neglect. And I cannot help but feel a deep sense of grief over the loss of this beautiful human being.
I love you, Laura, and I will miss you. I will never stop praying for you. May your memory be eternal. May God grant you a place in His Kingdom, and may He comfort those you have left behind, especially your dear boys.