Butch was the big brother in my family. He was the baby brother in his. His oldest sister is 9 years older. He and his other two sisters were all born in 4 years. Both Butch and the sister just before him were born with the roof of their mouth split. She required surgery because hers was so severe. His healed on its own. This meant that their mom had her hands very full. Both of his parents worked full time and his parents were separated for a period while the kids were young.
With everything that was going on, Butch’s oldest sister, like so many first daughters, found herself carrying a lot of the parenting load. He always saw her as more like a mother than just a big sister. She is definitely a safe harbor for me. When Butch was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey and we were driving home from a camping trip while he was on leave, we broke down in Vallejo late at night. She and her husband drove to get us and helped us figure out what to do next. They even survived two of us girls, delirious with exhaustion, repeatedly singing , “Oh Lord, stuck in Vallejo again.” When Butch and I were hit by a drunk driver in Oakland while I was with him in the diesel and I was seriously injured, she and her husband again drove to get us. When we had problems in our marriage and were briefly separated she managed to hold a neutral position, supporting him as his big sister and supporting me as if she was mine. She is a wonderful artist, sharing her talents in patient lessons and amazing gifts. Our granddaughters receive beautiful hand-made heirlooms for birthdays and Christmas. We each knew that no matter what we needed, if it was humanly possible for her to meet that need, she would be there. He worked hard to reciprocate that whenever he could. He grew closer to her over the last ten years. He loved her very much and treasured the friendship they developed. She dropped everything after his heart attack and spent every minute she could with all of us until his death. Her lovely daughter and son-in-law have been there in big and small ways when I needed them every time I asked.
His second sister was sort of Margaret to his Dennis the Menace. They had a love-hate relationship as children. He told the story of running over her feet with his bicycle one summer day. She swiftly whacked him in the back of the head with her coke bottle, dropping him to the street. She casually strolled into the house and announced “I just killed Butch”. Another time they were bickering and torturing one another and she threw her fork at him. It stuck in the wall next to his head. He was a very sound sleeper and could get up to do things quite well without ever waking up. On at least one occasion, he made a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and mistook her head for the toilet. She agreed to be an attendant in our wedding. With only three weeks advanced notice, she took the maid of honor’s dress home and made a matching dress for herself with no pattern. They, too developed a more amicable relationship over the years. She and sister number three participated on a team in the Eppie’s Great Race alongside Butch in the Iron Man Division. She was generous with both of us and would cheerfully do what she could if we needed her. She always wanted to go white water rafting on the Colorado River so she gave him a gift certificate for a rafting trip with her for his birthday one year. He took me along and we had a wonderful adventure together. Despite having serious back problems, she, too, suspended her life and stayed with us for the nearly three weeks keeping vigil between his heart attack and his death.
His youngest sister, just eighteen months his senior, was his co-conspirator when they were young. She called him “little brother” all his life. At one point, Butch, his father, and this sister lived in Auburn with their paternal grandparents while his mom and the older girls lived in San Diego. One afternoon the two kids were “helping” their grandfather clean out the barn. During lunch, he announced that the barn was so much work, he should just skip the cleanup and burn the thing to the ground. Butch and his sister happily granted him his wish, lighting the barn on fire while he finished lunch. Not long after getting her driver’s license, she let Butch drive one night. He lost control and went into someone’s yard, taking out a large section of fence. Not only did she cover for him (and herself), but she paid for the fence. She let us live with her when we returned from Texas and he was not yet employed. When she turned 50 he rode his bicycle to Bakersfield to surprise her for her birthday. Sister number one and her daughter met him on the outskirts of town with a banner to ride through to celebrate his long journey. Whenever he was recuperating from one of his injuries or surgeries he would spend part of the down time visiting her. She is one of the most generous people you could ever meet. Her home is always open, including a fabulous beach house that looks like a spread for Sunset Magazine. After his heart attack, she put all of us up in the Holiday Inn Express across the street from the hospital, saving us a short but perilous commute over the pass between North Carson City and South Reno where we were staying with my brother and his family. She contributed substantially to my financial stability until the life insurance money kicked in. I will always be in her debt.
As we were all meeting together to make decisions, my oldest son said, “I just have one request, mom. We are already losing dad. Please don’t do anything that will cause me to lose my aunts and my grandmother too.” That would have been a terrible loss for all of us.
Becoming us without them means finding our place in our second family on our own. It means continuing family traditions and holiday celebrations that were important to us while they were alive despite the empty chair at those tables too. This second family is potentially one of the best sources of support for us after they are gone. These are people who hold the story of us in their hearts because they are part of that story. They genuinely share our pain. It is their loss too. They will not be among those who will hurry us along in our mourning. Rather, they can walk beside us in a way that few others can. Losing them would be like having another piece of our loved one taken from us. Maintaining those relationships allows us to remember them through the eyes of others who loved them as much as we did. People who knew and loved them all their lives help us remember who they really were instead of an idealized version that ceases to be truly them over time. They can also help us find ourselves again because they know us so well.
When I get lost in feeling like I am invisible now without him, I remember that I was adopted into his family when I was 17 years old and I have a place there for as long as I live.