When you’ve lost a loved one, simple questions during casual small talk can quickly become awkward conversations.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
It’s a simple question that I used to dread being asked and sometimes still do.
I’ll admit that sometimes I have previously answered, “I don’t.”
I said that in an attempt to try to avoid an awkward moment with a stranger where I unintentionally made them feel bad for asking.
The reality is that I did have an older brother with special needs who lived to be 14.
It feels disrespectful to not acknowledge that I had a brother, even though it appears that I grew up like an only child for the majority of my life.
My brother had severe cerebral palsy and he died from pneumonia toward the end of my 6th-grade year.
Pneumonia was a common sickness for my brother and ultimately ended up taking his life.
He couldn’t walk or talk but he could smile, laugh, cry and communicated joy and sadness in his eyes.
My brother had a special feeding tube because it used to take my hours to try to feed him baby food by mouth.
He wasn’t supposed to live 3 days and he lived years beyond what was thought possible.
My brother had to wear diapers and sometimes he would bite his fingers or accidentally yank out his feeding tube because he didn’t have control over his reflexes.
Another Awkward Question About My Family
It’s also very normal for people to ask me about my parents in casual conversation.
I dread it once again because I have to share that my mom died of breast cancer in 2004.
The person immediately feels horrible for asking what should have been a lighthearted question…and I again feel like “Debbie Downer” from SNL.
My mom detected her breast cancer late, partly out of her despising going to the doctors after years of trips to the hospital with my brother.
My mom was not supposed to live until our wedding day but ended up dancing the night away at our reception.
She had two more relapses of cancer. A tumor the size of a golf ball resting on her spinal cord and later the cancer painfully spread into the bones of her right arm.
My Mom with her Grandson
My mom prayed that she would live to see her grandkids and she got to meet one of them.
My oldest was two years old when she died.
When she found out I was pregnant she was so OVERJOYED. She danced around the kitchen in excitement.
I hate that she didn’t get to see the young men they have both become.
So how have the deaths of my family members shaped me?
I’ve experienced death at a young age with all the challenges of my younger years revolving around a special needs sibling…as they should have.
Watching my parents with my brother taught me a lot of sacrifice and unconditional love.
My parents did the best they could in a situation that didn’t come with a training manual.
They tried to spread out the attention between the two of us and partake in “normal family” experiences like going to the zoo, etc, whenever possible.
I was in my late twenties when I lost my mom.
I wish that I could still ask her advice as I progress through different life stages…along with questions about cooking and all things domesticated that I had NO DESIRE to learn growing up.
When you lose someone you love, you grieve not only the person but also all of the moments in life that you won’t get to experience with them.
Time has a different meaning and scarcity after you lose someone you love. The year of firsts is especially hard to navigate.
An Important Conversation in My Mom’s Final Weeks of Life
I remember sitting at my mom’s bedside in the final weeks of her life, asking her if there was anything that she still wanted to do.
She replied with sadness that it was too late.
My mom had always wanted to go to Hawaii but she was too weak.
Trips to the bathroom across the hall took all of her strength and left her in so much pain because of the cancer in her bones.
She knew her time on this earth would be ending soon.
My mom was an art teacher before she had my brother. She made the decision to quit teaching to take care of my brother at home instead of the recommendation of putting him in a home.
Through the years she used art as a stress reliever and creative outlet. She would stay up late in her art room for hours after putting my brother to bed.
She also painted in her final weeks of life before she passed. This time she painted with her less dominate hand because the cancer in her dominate arm was too painful.
Those left handed paintings are an extra special gift that I treasure.
How have the deaths of my family members shaped the way I live?
Having half my family members in heaven has made me want to LIVE!!!!
I don’t want to live with regrets about things that I didn’t try, places I always wanted to explore, things I always wanted to experience.
When I get out of my routine I feel more alive, I feel like apart of me is awakened.
I will not wait for life to pass me by. I’m proactive in seeking out adventure regularly.
It is up to me to experience all I can out of this life before I’m reunited with my family in heaven.
I want to live and love fully without regret.
I’ve witnessed strength in both my mom and brother to face their fears and to love.
Health and Time Aren’t Guaranteed
I’ve observed first hand that life is short and not guaranteed for any certain length of time
I love the quote from Maximus in the movie Gladiator “What we do in this life echoes for eternity.”
Along with many other amazing qualities, my mom had an adventurous spirit.
As I live my life, I feel like she is proudly looking down on me until I see her again.
Both of my family members left this world before they could experience so many things they would have wanted to.
Maybe I am making up for all of us.
The Only Gift of Death
This is why I choose to make memories with the people that I care about every chance I get, unapologetically.
I don’t want to take health or time for granted.
I don’t want to waste days wondering what might have been.
I live with the reminder that life is but a vapor and that I have to make each day count because I’m not guaranteed my next one.
Health and time aren’t guaranteed for anyone.
Their lives have given me the courage to face my fears and live my dreams.
The only gift of death is that it reminds us who and what is really important.