It only took 20

As I put my coat on, I was warm with anticipation. I couldn’t wait. Put the mittens on, Grandma Irene said. Do your socks match, she asked.

Like I cared. All I knew was that I was finally on my way, to see my new baby sister. I couldn’t even believe she was real — I’d only heard stories. But Grandpa Pete said she was and he was going to take me to the hospital to see her with my own eyes.

I wasn’t very old — not even in school yet. But I remember it like yesterday. As we drove down the snowy road to Neligh that February day, I grew restless. How long until we get there, I asked.

Grandpa Pete assured me it would only take 20 minutes.

She was real. A real, living, breathing doll that was my first sister. Nancy would look at me with those brown eyes, while she laid on Mom’s white bedspread, and I’d watch her fingers grab onto mine. She was amazing at first — but after a while, she became boring. All she did was poop, and coo, and cry, and sleep. She didn’t do anything. How long would it be before we could actually play together, I’d ask.

My mother assured me it would only take about 20 months.

And she did grow up. Ours was a world of playing make-believe — whether she was my lackey assistant at my pretend newspaper, my patient in the world of doctor, my only student in our fictitious school. We’d dress up in Mom’s clothes, falling over in the pointy heels. We’d run through the pasture, finding these purple/blue flowers that had buds on them (I think they were called “Bluebells,” or something similar), that you could squeeze and they’d make a popping noise. We held the baby chickens under the heat lamp, giggled under the covers at night.

She grew into a lovely young girl and I became a teenager. I taught her the words to all the “cool” songs and we tried to copy the choreography on “American Bandstand” on Saturday mornings. We did each other’s hair and experimented with makeup. And as I moved on, she would lament about the fact she had so long to wait, until she could go to high school, play volleyball “on a real team,” maybe have a boyfriend. And finally, the summer arrived — the summer before she’d don her Pope John Volleyball jacket and all the practice would pay off.

I assured her it would only take about 20 more weeks.

And then came the day when I found myself at a hospital in Omaha where they hurried me inside. My cousin, Julie, was a trauma nurse at that particular hospital, which was fortunate because I was there alone while the rest of the family was still on their way. Why does Nancy look like that, I asked her. Because of the brain trauma, I was informed. Is she unconscious because they just did surgery? No, she’d been that way since they found her at the accident scene. Is she going to die? Yes, she will, I was told, but it could take some time.

Then, suddenly, things started to change, machines started making more sounds. And they told me to talk to her, to hold her hand, this was probably it. As I struggled to say words, I realized there were none. But I watched it, with my own eyes, as her soul literally started to leave her body. The machines kept her lungs going up and down, her heart beating. However, the important part of that wonderful person was literally leaving — it was like God said we could keep the body going for a while, but He was taking the best part of her. And I watched with horrified amazement as a perceived line (visual, yet surreal) moved from her legs to her torso to her face and then . . . it disappeared. And when it was over, all that was truly Nancy was gone — her body didn’t even look the same, she was someone different.

I assure you it only took about 20 seconds.

As I sat in her bedroom, still littered with her clothes, her knee-pads on the floor next to her volleyball shoes, the Aerosmith and Bon Jovi posters fluttering from the ceiling fan, the tears streamed down my face. How can it be, I asked myself. How can it be that my vivacious 15-year-old soul mate wasn’t coming back? How was my heart ever going to heal, I asked my mother. As she held me, sitting on the blankets that still smelled like Nancy’s perfume, she said it would be hard. It will take some time, she said, but someday we’d be able to remember her and laugh without crying, we’d be able to remember all the good times and not the bad.

I assured her it would take 20 years.

And a few hours ago, I wrote a check out for some groceries. I signed my name, wrote in the amount, and asked the cashier what day of the month it was. The young man told me and I froze. As I wrote it down, I could hear my heart beat. As I walked to my van, I marveled at how long ago it all was. And then I realized it had been exactly two decades since the day I said good-bye to my Nancy. I started the van and heard an old song from the 80s – and smiled. I laughed. I giggled, remembering how we’d reenact the video in our utility room. I pictured her silly ponytail that she’d secure to the very top of her head – looking like some sort of Stone Age freak. I grinned, as I remembered her smile and the way her brown eyes would light up when she was plotting a prank.

I smiled. I didn’t cry. I smiled.

There were no more what-ifs, only beautiful memories of what I was so fortunate to have once had.

Wow, I thought. It was true.

It only took 20.

 

 

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