I was the oldest of three sisters in my family. I was born in 1954, my sisters in 1956 and 1958. I was in every way the "big sister." I was outgoing and bossy. Kathy, the middle child, was much more quiet and introverted, and Dawn, the youngest sister, was the center of attention at all times. She was cute and imaginative and funny. Kathy and I used to fight over who Dawn liked the best. Sometimes I would let Dawn sleep with me - I had the biggest bed - so she would like me the best. When she was four, Dawn thought she should have been a boy, and for a while we all had to call her Mike. I am not sure where she got this idea, but it may have been from a dad with three daughters! At the same time she was the one who took dance lessons, and had already been in a recital - with a very pink and sparkly costume.
Dawn died when she was five years old. She was a healthy, happy girl up to the time she died of pneumonia. She had started kindergarten at Parkwood School, and she loved it. Being the youngest, I am sure she felt like she had waited a long time! It was the Thursday before Easter, March 26, 1964, and the school year was almost over. Dawn had bronchitis, and had been home from school for a few days. She was sitting on the turquoise couch in the living room. She had on her worn flannel pajamas, the ones with the pink roses on them. Dinner was ready.
We lived with my mom and dad, both of them worked. My mom was a registered nurse, and my dad worked in the traffic division of a big corporation. We were all there for dinner, and my mom had fixed spaghetti. We always ate dinner in the dining room, and often we filled our plates and carried them to our places. This was one of those nights. Dawn was a little unsteady with her plate of spaghetti and as she walked into the dining room the whole thing slid off her plate onto the gold carpet. There was a kerfuffle and the mess was cleaned up. After dinner Dawn returned to the couch and seemed to be having more trouble breathing. My mom watched her closely for a short time, and then decided to take her to the emergency room. Dawn was 5, Kathy 7, and I was 9. My mom and dad took her to Borgess Hospital, the same emergency room in which my mom worked. Our neighbor came to stay iwth us, and eventually we went to bed.
I woke up when it was still dark. I heard voices talking downstairs, which seemed like a very odd thing in our house late at night. Our bedrooms were upstairs, reached by an enclosed staircase that had a door at the bottom. I woke Kathy up, and the two of us snuck down the stairs to try to hear what was going on. Of course, it wasn't the first time we had done this! When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we pushed the door open a little. We were so surprised to see that our grandpa and uncle were there, sitting around the dining room table, talking with our mom and dad. This was so out of the ordinary.
We were spotted, and our mom came and got us. We sat on that turquoise couch, and she told us that Dawn had died. Dawn had died? This did not make sense. What?
Most of what happened after that is a blur of relatives, food, friends, and tears.
What also happened after that changed my outlook on life. My mother would not let us wear black to Dawn's funeral. She told us that Dawn was in heaven, she was an angel, and that was wonderful. We should celebrate her life. She told us that being sad was only being sad for ourselves, that we should look outside ourselves for the good. Dawn was always a real presence in my mom's life. She didn't talk about it a lot, but if the subject came up, our mom told us that Dawn is just always with her. We followed my mom's coping with this tragedy in the way students follow their favorite teacher. We noticed everything. We noticed that her faith in God - which had always been important - became more important. She kept a brave face, and my sister and I never felt deserted by her. She valued us.
Through my life these lessons have come back to me so many times. Grief is for ourselves, and we should look outside for the joy. Put on your brave face and deal with your problems. Never ignore the joy that is right in front of you.