That’s how long it’s been since my younger sister Nancy died on July 28, 2011, after a battle with brain cancer. It took her quickly, really. She was diagnosed early that year, I believe, after collapsing at the school in Washington state where she was a teacher. And from there, it pretty much went from bad to worse. By the time doctors discovered the tumor, there wasn’t much they could do for her. Oh, they tried radiation. Twenty-some sessions. Nancy was scared of them, I think. She refused chemotherapy. Then, an operation to collect a biopsy from the cancerous tumor, to see if perhaps there might be something more that could be done, went wrong, though doctors had said there was risk involved in such a procedure. The result was partial paralysis in her final months.
We drove over often from Idaho to visit her at home and in the Seattle hospital. I spent a few nights at the hospital, as did her other brothers and sisters and her children. She hated being alone, hated waking up alone, hated falling asleep alone. I sat up late a few nights, while she slept, and looked out the window at downtown Seattle and the lights and the traffic and wondered, how the hell did Nancy end up here? Ironically, her youngest daughter had previously been diagnosed with a brain tumor, too. They caught it early, removed it, and Katie recovered and is today fine and about to be married in September. Not the case with Nancy. She was only 49 years old when she died. Just 49. We didn’t get to have that big 50th birthday party so we could tease her about getting old.
She was a year and a half younger than me, so we grew up close. But where I struggled in school, goofed off, skipped homework, and was considered a marginal student, Nancy shined. She studied hard, got good grades and teachers liked her. It was very annoying.
I was the kid who accidentally broke windows at home, stayed up late night watching TV with my brother until our mom yelled at us to get to sleep, once tripped and crashed through a plate glass door at a gym and was routinely pummeled by the nuns who ran the Catholic school I attended.
Nancy cleaned her room, babysat to earn money, went to sleep early and rose early and was a free-throw shooting champion. She was a fine swimmer, too, which came in handy the day I was drowning at Green Lake and in full panic, yelled for help. Yep, Nancy to the rescue. How embarrassing to be towed to safety by my little sister.
Somehow we both wound up at the University of Washington. She did well academically. I didn’t. But we had fun screaming and cheering for our beloved Husky football team on Saturday afternoons at Husky Stadium. And we shared a legendary road trip to Butte, Montana that included a late-night stop at a bar where a relative ended up dancing on a pool table.
While I avoided growing up, she matured. She became a teacher, got married, taught in Germany and traveled around Europe. She was adventurous, fun and outgoing and my biggest cheerleader.
For some reason, while I was often haunted by doubt, she believed in me. She encouraged me and rooted for me. She wanted me to do well and told me I could. As the years passed, we went our separate ways, raised families, settled in different states. But there were phone calls and chats about life and jobs and kids. When we saw each other, she always greeted me with hugs and smiles and a shout, “Billy!” She had a way of making people feel welcome, like you really mattered to her and she really was glad to see you.
When I delivered the eulogy at her funeral, I chuckled when the priest introduced me as, “Nancy’s brother, Bobby.” It lightened the moment, and for that, I was thankful to that priest. Right then, we all needed a reason to laugh. Nancy would have appreciated it.
I don’t know that I’ve ever really fully come to terms with her death or what you’re supposed to do to deal with the death of someone you love. Maybe I’ll see a counselor some day. I don’t speak of her often, and I try not think about her too much. There’s still that empty feeling I would rather just go away. When her husband recently remarried, we didn’t attend the wedding. I’m happy for him, but I couldn’t bring myself to really want to be there for the ceremony and celebration.
But even after her death, Nancy changed my life. She’s one of the reasons I moved to Kauai in 2013 to work at this newspaper. While I had those ever-present doubts about leaving our longtime Idaho home, moving from family and friends and whether I could even do this job, I knew what Nancy would have said had she been around for me to ask her advice: “Get going! You have a chance to live and work on Kauai! What are you waiting for?!” It will be a great adventure! You’re talking about Hawaii! Go man, go! Do it!”
Nancy must be smiling to know that I finally listened to her.
Bill Buley is editor in chief of The Garden Island newspaper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org