Monday, 3 August 2015

Lessons from My Sister's Life

Linda Young, 1944-2015
My sister passed away yesterday. 

"She'll probably outlive us all," my brother used to say. That didn't happen. But she lived far longer than anyone, including her doctors, expected. Linda taught us that life doesn't always end in happy ever after. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, she never got her 15 minutes of fame. But she left an enduring legacy for me and the rest of my family. She was a survivor who showed us how to keep on keeping on. These are the lessons I take from her life:

  1. We are all living; we are all dying. Choose life. Linda was 32 and immersed in her nursing career when she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an auto-immune disease of the skin. Death, it seemed, was imminent. She left her job, gave away all her possessions, and waited to die. She eventually gave up waiting: not only did she not die, she lived on for another 38 years. I doubt she ever took death seriously again. She sailed through a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in her 50s and just did what she always did: living one day at a time. May we all do the same.
  2. Focus on small pleasures. My sister was the queen of small pleasures. A resolute mall walker, she stumped up and down the length of the mall, first with her cane and later with a walker. She went out for Sunday lunch, with white tablecloth and flowers. She decorated cakes. She was an aficionada of cooking shows. She enrolled in contests and won. Her life was made up of such little moments. They were important to her. And in the end, that's all that counts.
  3. Creativity does not have to mean great art. My sister used to colour long before it became trendy for adults. I think one of the many reasons she sought out children was because it gave her a socially acceptable reason to colour. Linda crocheted until the time when her disease finally froze her hands into place. She painted by number and framed her work. Then there were those cakes. Her art gave joy to others in the very smallest and most endearing of ways.
  4. Concentrate on the young. My sister was there for us when we returned to Canada from Colombia. Broke and uncertain how to start over, we moved in with her and my widowed mother. While Mark and I struggled with putting our life back together, she focused on our kids. She coloured with them, read them books, took them to the candy store, picked them up from school. Ariana, for whom she is one of the most important people in life, calls her "my Linda." Julian and his aunt spent hours together, singing the theme song from Postman Pat. When Daniel broke his leg and was in traction for two months, depressed and in pain, she came to the hospital every day with books and games. When he stopped eating, she smuggled in Big Macs, their illicit aroma wafting down the hall. Linda never lost her delight in wee ones: she remembered their birthdays and laughed at their jokes. The great lesson from her life is that time invested in small children is never wasted. My children will pass down the songs that Linda sang to them. They will tell the same silly jokes to their own kids. Linda had no children of her own, but her legacy will live on in the life of every child she touched.
  5. Refuse to see life in terms of success and failure. From the world's perspective, my sister's life might not be viewed as a great success. There will be no New York Times obituary or Wikipedia profile. She gave no thought to such things, choosing instead to focus on the things she could still do. She sent funny cards to people on their birthdays. She showed up at their funerals. She returned library books on time. She drove old ladies to church. Not an impressive list perhaps, but as people reacted to news of her death, the two words that appeared over and over were "kind" and "thoughtful." It's something we should all strive for.
  6. Don't worry too much about what other people think. Linda lived her own life; she held firmly to her own opinions and was prepared to defend them. She was often infuriating and she wasn't always easy to live with. She didn't care. In fact, I think she slept pretty soundly at night. Stick to your guns.
  7. Don't be defined by the things you loseLinda lost a great deal in life. Her professional career ended early. Disease robbed her of one of her greatest passions: long-distance swimming. An accident on a curb outside Tim Hortons signaled the end of daily treks with her walker. But she could still clip local news stories out of the newspaper and send them to far-flung relatives. Scornful of the Easter Bunny, she would spend hours tracking down an "Easter Chicken" card for an incredulous niece or nephew. She taught us that a single life -- even one lived from a chair -- can have a great impact. Life changes. Change with it.
  8. Value the record keeper in your familyOurs was a big family that shrank to a small one. The multitude of cousins moved away. Divorce caused painful ruptures. But not for Linda. Though her world shrank, her connections did not. She sat in the middle of a vast family network, as the one common link among us all. When I wanted to remember who was related to whom, I asked Linda. When I wanted to calculate the age of one of our far-off family members, I called her. When I couldn't remember the ingredients of a family recipe, she was the one I turned to. She remembered all the words to the funny songs my dad sang. The last time I spoke to her, she reminded me of the time she took me to Disneyland as a little girl, when I insisted on eating hamburgers at every meal. She recalled the exact years of family trips and the names of those who succumbed to the Hong Kong flu. I guess it's up to the rest of us now. We owe it to her. 

Beyond a headstone, there won't be many physical reminders of Linda's life. She didn't dream of changing the world. But change the world she did: she made it a better place for those she loved. Linda's life shows us, her family, that there is grace in keeping on. Rest in peace, Sister.

About me

Susan Young de Biagi

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products. 
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"Susan Biagi has woven a marvelously intuitive tale … at once beautiful and harsh, observing the simple and dangerous lives of cultures interacting on the threshold of new world history." 
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