My sister was 47 years old when she died. I was 46. No one prepares you for what the loss of a sibling does to you, how it feels. Most people my age have never experienced it. But I can tell you, it's big, unlike anything else I've ever endured.
Our last name is Quint, which, in German, means "five." And we lived up to it: We were the "five Quints." In order: Jim, Janet, Joyce, Jennifer and Jerry (that alliteration thing must have been popular at the time because my mom had three siblings who did the same thing with their kids). I was the middle, number three.
The three eldest of us grew up tight, being only 12 months or so apart each. In that grouping, I was the youngest. It would be almost three more years before my little sister came along.
Until Janet was four, she could hang with us, little mini hoodlums, running the little town in Iowa where we lived (at least that's how I remember it, don't ruin it for me). Not a fence or stoplight to be found, where calling in for dinner meant, literally, standing on the front porch and yelling our names.
Janet got sick right after turning four. We didn't know it at the time, but it was full onset juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Bad medical advice and delays in getting help meant that she would be crippled for the rest of her life. Because of the steroids the doctors prescribed when she was young, she only grew to be 4'9". I'm a full foot taller. She didn't get to play or run or "hang" anymore. Instead, she kind of hobbled, her wrists and knees and hips swollen and misshapen. Her life became one of medications, hospitals and doctor visits. And pain. I remember she chewed aspirin—chewed it, no water—because she just took so much of it, as it was all she had for any type of relief.
When I was 18, I left Iowa for California. Janet got a place in the city a few miles from our home and had a roommate. While I believe she relished that freedom—she never learned to drive a car or ride a bike—it was difficult. So much of what she needed had to be done for her. In her new group of friends, she started to drink and smoke, and generally not take good care of herself.
Still, she was a helluva fighter. She had, in her 20s and 30s, survived pneumonia, meningitis, encephalitis, emergency gallbladder surgery, had her last rites read twice and still battled on. She was tough.
But even a cat with nine lives eventually uses them all up. When I got the call that she was in the hospital with a cold that turned into a second bout of pneumonia, I figured I'd just call the next day. But, by then, she was intubated, her vitals were crashing and they didn't know what was going on. She was moved to another hospital and put into a medical coma. I believed she'd survive. She always had.
It was Saturday, March 1, 2008, a beautiful morning in Colorado where I now live. Mom had called; Janet's color was better and the fever had broke. She had turned the corner. They were going to bring her out of the coma today. I went with my kids for a hike to take advantage of the springlike day. Mom said that no news is good news.
About 10:30 that night, my cell phone rang and I saw it was my younger sister's number. I said "Hey!" optimistically, assuming it was just an update on Janet's condition.
"She's gone." It's all my brother-in-law could get out before his voice cracked. It was only 10 days ago that she went to the doctor with a bad cough. What? How? I was completely stunned.
"They started to bring her out of the coma when one of her lungs collapsed and then they re-inflated the lung and as they were doing that, her other lung collapsed and her heart gave out and she died," he said without taking a breath.
They say that when you lose a parent, you lose a part of your past, and when you lose a child you lose part of your future. But when you lose a sibling, you lose your past, present and future. Suddenly we weren't the "five Quints" anymore. So much of our identity is attached to our birth order—our place in line in our family—and now that was forever altered.
Your family is the first and most important club you'll ever belong to and when you lose a piece of it, it feels like losing a piece of yourself.
It's been 10 years and Janet's absence still weighs heavy upon us all. Every holiday, her birthday, every family get-together is incomplete. Photos remind us of not only who she was, but who we were with her. We've all silently agreed to always save her spot. And never forget.