by Michelle Greene Wheeler
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I read a magazine article recently which posed the question What was the most life altering day of your life?. It didn’t take me very long to decide that my answer was not as simple as one particular day, thought there had been many that had changed my life for the better or for the worse through the years. Birthdays and births. Milestones and marriages. Triumphs and tragedies.
But no. None of these singular events quite felt like they truly fit the description of most life altering.
Mine was not a singular day, but a span of fifteen years. Years that were altering because of one particular person who was a very central figure in my life during that time.
I can remember the first day I ever saw her. I had been very excited about this first meeting. It was at a backyard picnic in the summer of 1978, and Dad was bringing the lady that he had begun dating to meet the family. Even more importantly to me, she was bringing along her daughter who was my age. The possibility of having a sister had been the subject of many frequent prayers on my part.
In some ways, she was my complete opposite. She was taller than I was, though we were both ten years old at the time. I was pudgy, with sandy colored short hair and green eyes. She on the other hand, had long, dark hair, blue eyes, and was very slender.
We both were two lonely hurting little girls who needed each other more than either of us could have imagined on that humid summer day. And definitely more than Missie would have let herself admit at the time. For even at that tender age, she had built a fortress around herself. She was hoping that this would effectively keep anyone from hurting her ever again.
You see, we had both experienced devastating tragedies in our short lives. For all our differences, this fact made us very much alike. It made us able to understand each other as no one else really could.
In October of 1974, when I was only six years old, my mother had been killed in a terrible automobile accident on her way to work early one morning. I had even seen the accident in much of its gruesome detail from the window of the van that took me to school each morning. Because her car was behind the other, or maybe because it was not yet daylight, I never recognized that it was her car in the accident. Not until later in the day when the principal of my school personally drove me home and my uncle stood to greet me in the driveway.
I dealt with her death with enormous grief. I mourned not only a mother, but also someone who told me that they loved me every day. I never really had that after she was gone, and I was very conscious of that affection missing from my life. It’s not that my father and the rest of my family didn’t love me, but it was more that they were just not the kind of people to make such displays of affection.
In December of that same year, a state away, Missie had forever lost her Father in a brutal act that can only be described as a murder.
Some teenage boys had been scaring his niece who was home alone across the road. Unfortunately, this had not been the first time that this had occurred. In an attempt to protect his family, he went after them. He was a tall man, with an immense presence. He was intending to warn them, for sure. Maybe even to put enough fear into them so that they would leave his family alone for good. But the tables were turned on him, and before he knew it, he was on a backwoods country road with four teenage boys beating him with baseball bats essentially to death. No doctor or machine made by human hands was capable of bringing the life back into his body.
Missie had dealt with her grief with much anger. Anger at the world, it seemed. And who could really blame her?
During those first days and weeks being around each other, we had a wonderful time. The parents would take us out to the movies, out to eat, and to meet more of the extended families. We would have sleep-overs, and spend our time scanning the Sears catalog for all the toys that we’d like to have in the playhouse we were sure to have once we became sisters. Some nights we would giggle and count the kisses our parents were sharing in the hall where they thought they were quietly hidden away from us.
In late September of 1978, our respective parents were married. Needless to say, actually living together took a lot of adjustments. At times the anger would return and Missie would not be quite so sure that she approved of her mother getting remarried after all. There were times when I would become downhearted because I hadn’t fully realized just how much of my Dad’s time I would now be sharing.
Those first few years were certainly rough at times. There were fights over friends. Fights over boys. TV time. Telephone time. Fights over the parents. Fights because of imagined insecurities that we were being treated differently in some minute way. You name it; we probably fought about it at one time or another.
There were times when we fought for each other, too. The only time during my school years that I can remember being sent to the principal’s office is because of an unfortunate lunchroom incident. In sixth grade, three students would stay after lunch and help the ladies who worked in the cafeteria clean up. The kids were scheduled on a rotating basis. My day came, and I was assigned along with a set of twins that Missie and I had played with on the playground, as well as after school. Unfortunately, on this particular day, one of the girls had had a disagreement with Missie earlier that morning. She then took it upon herself to tell me that my sister was a word that cannot be printed in civilized publications. The next thing that I knew, I had taken the broom that I had previously been sweeping with and smacked it across this girl’s head.
Similarly, there was once an incident on our bus ride home one evening when another rider threatened me. I stood up, but before I knew it, Missie had come up from the back of the bus and was standing in front of me letting the offender know in no uncertain terms that they would have to go through her first.
But as much as we fought, we loved, too. We would talk on each other’s behalf to boys. We would devise plans to work one parent over the other. Have late night talks about school, and friends, and how much we missed our parents who were no longer there.
If we had truly been sisters by blood, one would just count all these things as normal sibling behavior. And it was.
Somewhere along the way, we had truly formed the bonds of sisterhood. Though not by blood. Through love. And even after such a rocky and uncertain start.
I can’t remember when we stopped using the word “stepsister”. When someone would ask, we would always just smile and say, “We’re sisters”. In the history of time, I doubt that there ever were two sisters who were closer or who cared more for each other than we two. Mom used to say that our relationship was an even closer one than that she shared with her own sisters, and maybe that was true. Unlike most, we could remember a time when we weren't in each other's lives and that, I believe, caused us to appreciate the simple fact that we did have one another.
The day that Missie married is one of my favorite memories. It was a bright and promising June day in 1990. Everything was in place and the ceremony had been rehearsed to perfection. Already in my Maid of Honor dress, Missie asked me to help her with her hair. I stood behind her, looking at her in her beautiful dress, with her veil lying beside her. There was a glow on her face, and her eyes were twinkling, and suddenly I realized something.
We were no longer to be those “Greene girls”. No more would we be Mom’s “M&M’s”. And whenever I needed her, as I so often did, it was not going to be as simple as going into the next room. And I began to cry.
She smiled as she turned around to me and asked, “Shell, why are YOU crying? I’m the one getting married!”
My heart filled with dread as I explained, “I’m afraid I’m losing you!”. She half laughed and said, “Michelle, you will never lose me.”
And she was right. For the next three years, we baby-sat each other’s kids, worked together, attended church together, and spoke if only by phone most every day.
Then it came. The horrible news that Missie had a hole in her heart that needed to be repaired immediately. The doctors throughout our youth had told us that she had a slight murmur, but that she would probably grow out of it. How wrong those doctor’s prognosis had proved to be. Here she was, twenty-five years old, with two small boys at home, facing the uncertainty of such a risky operation.
She did not seem to be nervous about it all. And she had a way about her that could calm others in the center of a tornado. She seemed so at ease when we talked about it, and she assured me that everything was going to be fine. And I believed her. Perhaps blindly, but I believed her. We talked about my taking a day off work to be at the hospital or stay with her boys, but she told me no. She knew that I had just recently started a new job, and she thought that it was going to bring great things for me. She didn’t want me to miss a day of work. “Everything will be fine!”, she assured me again. I told her that I loved her, and she replied, “I love you, too, Shell”.
And that was it. Those were the last words I ever heard her speak. She died, after several failed attempts to stop the hemorrhaging, and being wheeled from the operating room to recovery and back again.
I am not ashamed to say that I did not take the news well. I was certain that there must be some mistake. It simply could not be true. I screamed. I sobbed. I fell on my knees and asked God to take me instead.
At the funeral, I shook uncontrollably. And I prayed as I stared at the small head of her oldest son sitting in front of me. Nineteen years later, and her boys were going to be forced to live through the same sort of circumstances that she and I had lived through in 1974. They too were losing a parent at a very early age. They were even younger than we had been. Would they even remember her as time went by?
Thirteen years have passed since that somber November day, and I still miss her unbelievably. There are still days when the tears flow. Still people, places or things that will bring her face or her voice back to me within an instant.
There have been so many things that she has missed in these past years that I wish she could have seen. My daughter who she loved so much is like her in so many ways. She shares the same interests, the same tall slender figure, even the feel of her hands. Its hard to believe that they were not related by blood. That would have pleased her a great deal. And my son. She never got to see my son. She would have loved him so much. And I think that she would have laughed hysterically to know that I ended up marrying a big redheaded guy just like she did.
Then there’s her boys. They’re taller than me now. She would be so proud of what handsome and wonderful her boys have turned out to be. They will be men of their own all too soon.
No, the most life altering event that ever occurred in my life was not the day that I met Missie, nor the day the she died. It was both of those days and every single day in between them.
You see, for fifteen years I had a best friend who loved me unconditionally. She knew all that I had ever done. She knew everyone that I had known. She knew all my loves and all my might have beens. And she prayed constantly about where my life would lead. She was my strongest ally and my most honest critic. She was everything that you could ask for in a sister. And I thank God often that she was mine, even if only for a time.
For fifteen years, I had a sister. And she was absolutely right. I will never lose her. She will be with me always.
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Michelle, this is one of the best stories I have ever read. Please do try to get it in Reader's Digest or some good magazine. I will be glad to post it to my web site, www.dustonthebible.com, if you would like. I cannot post every good writing, but I think this one would be appreciated tremendously by my visitors. God bless you.
Michelle, I now have this on www.dustonthebible.com per your permission. Thanks.
If Reader's Digest or some other major publisher doesn't see this, well, that to me would be a crime. I've read many, many articles here at FW, countless hours of my time are spent here. I have to say that this story plumbed my heart to a depth none of the others have. Clean it up for just a few grammatical missteps and rearrange the paragraphs. I wouldn't change the order or the words, necessarily, but I would make some adjustments. Only one time did I notice an overuse of word and that was in the lunch room scene, where "lunch" was used more than it needed to be. FYI, I know that Discipleship Journal accepts queries/articles from first timers...clean this up and then send them a query e-mail. If a story like this can touch my otherwise stoic heart; you'll have thousands in tears. They'll be missing Missie with you.
Advice taken- changes made. I hope you all like this updated version!