I Hate Goodbyes
My sister died today. She was born on October 28, 1942, to our parents, John and Myrtle Peters. Like parents everywhere, they were excited, and could not wait to see their child. However, medical practices were different then, and when our Mother had a hard labor, believing in “letting nature take its course,” her doctor let it go on. When JoAnne was born, her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, shutting off oxygen for some period of time. She was still alive, and in an effort to help, they put her in an oxygen tent. However, that day harmed JoAnne in two ways. First, her brain had been starved of air to the point that she was mentally handicapped. Second, medical science found later that pure oxygen has a very harmful effect on a newborns’ eyes; JoAnne was also visually impaired as a result of the oxygen tent.
Dad was away fighting in World War II when JoAnne was born, and I was told that when he came back, he was unable to have more children. Which was lucky for me, since fifteen years after JoAnne was born, they adopted me.
Growing up, JoAnne was no different in my estimation than anyone else’s older sister would be. She was a pain. Fussing at me, pointing out to our parents that I hadn’t taken my required vegetables as they were passed, preempting the TV to watch Lawrence Welk when there were shows on that were much more appealing to a teenage male. But she was my sister. I loved her, cared about her, and I can say that I was never embarrassed by her at school functions or anywhere else when we were out in public.
I grew up, graduated High School, went to Penn State, found the love of my life, married, got a job, had kids, matured. JoAnne stayed the same. Folks with mental disabilities (or challenges, if you prefer) are people just like any others. Some are nice, some are not. Some are loud, some quiet. Some sweet, some, well, more vinegar. JoAnne was the sweetest person I have ever known. Mentally, she was maybe five years old, but she was always simply a sweetheart. I don’t know how else to say it. Beth said it better than I when she wrote, “She was selfless and taught me much about the inner beauty of individuals by looking beyond the outward appearance and seeing their hearts, the way that God sees and values them.” But as sweet as she was, JoAnne also knew she was not like other people. I remember when my own children were born, JoAnne said, “I hope they don’t grow up different like me.” My heart broke for her.
As my parents aged, they realized that at some point they would not be able to care for JoAnne, so they were able to find a home for her in the L’Arche Community in Erie, PA. L’Arche is an amazing organization started in France by a Catholic priest for the express purpose of caring for the mentally handicapped. And what a home it turned out to be. Absolutely dedicated to their “core members,” the staff (they call themselves assistants) are the most zealous advocates for their charges that one could ask. Each core member lives in a home with a few other core members, and assistants to provide any services needed. With the help of L’Arche, JoAnne travelled, going to Nashville a couple of times, California, Branson, Florida, and she even got a passport and went to France twice. I know I have probably left some out, but you get the idea. They took her bowling during season, and heaven help me if I tried to get her to miss her bowling night. Each core member cooks a weekly meal, helps with laundry, shopping, you name it. The assistants will see that each core member goes to the church service of their choice, if they wish, and JoAnne did. She went to church every week. In other words, she led a “normal” life. And she was happy. She blossomed living in the L’Arche community, and was even sweeter as a result. She could be funny, making cracks (usually at my expense) that never failed to make me laugh. She enjoyed our company, and we enjoyed hers.
Life is as it is, and we didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I would have wished, but I guess that’s the case with most siblings.
JoAnne had been sick for the past couple months, getting better, then worse, into the hospital, getting discharged, and then back in again. She was finally diagnosed with Addison’s disease, and started the necessary medication to treat it. However, last week she wound up back in the hospital, and they simply couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She started slipping, and it has been hard to watch. Her discomfort, and confusion were hard to bear. She started retaining fluids, and she began to shut down. Finally, the only thing left for the hospital to do was to release her to her home, as she had been wanting. Monday evening she was released and went back to her home, with hospice caring for her as needed. As soon as she got home, JoAnne was nearly instantaneously more relaxed and easy. However, each day she continued her decline, and this morning we received the phone call letting us know she was gone. Beth and I went in to see her and say goodbye, smoothing her hair, weeping. We made it through the day, thinking mostly of JoAnne and being sad.
During supper, I was stunned when I realized that this is permanent. I’m not going to hear her voice again. We won’t have her out for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. I’ll never again be able to tease her about her most hated food, sauerkraut, and she will never again remind me, “Don’t forget to shave,” her standard post script when we were saying goodbye after a visit.
My sister is gone now, and I must let her go. I do believe in an afterlife, and I do believe in the saving grace of Christ our King. I believe that JoAnne is whole now, not in pain, not “different,” a perfect soul, created in God’s own image. I believe she has a better understanding of heaven than I ever will in this life. And for her, I could not be happier. As for me, and Beth, and Sarah and Laura, JoAnne’s L’Arche family, our Aunt Phoebe, our cousins and friends, we are the ones left behind. We are the ones that must mourn. And I miss my sister.