Sunday was a day spent at my friend Art's lake house with a few other high school buddies, walking along the beach, downing chili, and watching the Cubs soar while the Bears and Sox flopped. My friend Gary mentioned that he enjoyed the blogs I have written about my family history. He quoted a line I had used in discussing my dad in a blog from two years ago, a piece that had faded from my mind, about looking into a mirror and seeing my father. Gary asked if I had any more family member to write about. I hesitated, and Art said I needed to write about my sister.
I have always been reluctant to write about my late sister, Linda. Maybe it is a feeling that her story didn't belong to me, but rather to her husband or to her two sons. Maybe I thought there is just too much pain involved. But with the exception of my cousin Judy, there is no one alive who knew Linda as a young girl, who remembers some of the early moments. So I have decided to try to honor her, as I have my mom and aunt, my dad, and my father-in-law in previous blogs.
When does a boy first understand he has an older sister, and how important she will be to him as he grows up? I first remember Linda as a flower girl at Cousin Judy's wedding. Was she seven or eight? I just remember being very sleepy as she walked down the aisle, doing an important grown-up thing. It was a few years later that she had first chance to "mother" me during our family's month-long visit to our uncle and grandmother in Switzerland. Mom and Dad were traveling for a week in Austria, and Uncle Herbert really didn't know what to do with his young niece and nephew. Linda made sure that there was food I would eat, that my blistered feet were taken care of, that we had time to swim and play in Lake Thun.
Linda was five years older than me, and because I spent part of my education in a parochial school, we never attended the same school at the same time. But I followed her at a few schools and had her reputation to live up to. I was expected to be well-behaved, courteous, a scholar and a willing volunteer. Mr. Wohlberg, everyone's favorite eighth-grade teacher, and Miss Nee, the freshman algebra teacher, insisted on nothing less from Linda Raff's little brother.
I know Linda had the usual ups and downs in high school. Her four-girl gang would tighten and loosen, sometimes bringing hugs, other times bringing tears. Boys, dating, proms; it all followed as I looked on from one or two maturity levels below. I remember the cramped family drive to deliver her to Northern Illinois University, my uncle's Chevy Impala totally unsuited for transporting six people and the clothes, makeup, and bric-a-brac needed for a seventeen-year-old girl to start university life.
Linda completed college in Chicago. She met Alan while I was busy being a high school over-achiever. Then in the blink of an eye, I was in med school and Linda was married and a teacher. Another blink and I was wed, Linda and Alan had two children, Barb and I had a pair of our own. Through it all, we never lived more than 10 miles apart. We spent so many birthday celebrations and happy holidays together and shared so much sadness over my mother's bad accident and my dad's passing away.
Linda never lost her sweetness and devotion to her family, but something inside her was changing and we had no way of knowing. She was only 46 when pancreatic cancer made its appearance. Alan and the boys did all they could for her, as did some amazing medical teams. We all lost Linda in January of 1999--a special light had flickered and gone.
But the reflection of that light continues, burning strongly in the eyes of her sons. Alan and his wife Yvonne made sure the boys always had a home and special place to be loved, and I hope Barb and I did so as well.
It is what Linda would have asked of us.
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