I can’t believe it’s been over three years already. Sometimes I forget she’s gone.
Debbie and I were born in the latter half of the 1960s. For most of our childhood we lived next door to each other. She and her family lived with my Grandma in my great grandparents’ home. My family, my mom, brother, and me, rented the downstairs of a two-family home next door. My mom and her mom are sisters.
Debbie and I were super close. We were born about a year apart. I am the older cousin, born in October 1966. She was born in October, 1967. Our births were both a bit unexpected in our families. Maybe that is why we were always in our own world? We had a lot of typical things in common. Barbie dolls. Jumping rope. Writing with chalk on the driveway. Watching Sesame Street.
But for as much as we had in common, there were bigger things we did not share. Debbie was daring. I was not. She was not afraid to do anything or saying anything. Even when, at a young age, she was diagnosed with Diabetes, she didn’t let it slow her down. She was a thin, wispy girl who was full of life. I was full of what if. She did bravely what I did hesitantly.
Here’s an example. Like most kids, I was desperate to learn how to ride a bike. Debbie was always far ahead of me when it came to trying something new like riding a bike. It was taking me longer to reach that goal. What if I fell? What if I got hurt? Most people had given up trying to teach me. Not Deb. She never gave up. We worked together on this for days. Then one warm day, she let go and I didn’t notice. I just kept going. To Debbie, my never learning to ride a bike was not an option. I can still see that huge grin of hers with that slight gap between her two front teeth. “Come on. Try again.”
Living so close to each other really allowed us to be more like sisters than cousins. We always wanted to be together. We fought like sisters and our moms would separate us. Then we’d be sad until we could play together again. The summers in the 70s were the best. We didn’t have video games and didn’t stay indoors watching television during the day. Everything we did was outside. I remember running through our two yards with our older siblings having water fights. Our moms were always worried we’d get in the way of the older kids and get hurt. That never happened. Well, I did step on a bee once. That hurt.
Things started to change in 1979 when my mom died. I moved from one side of the city to the other. We spent as many weekends together as we could. But that never replaced having her right next door. Our relationship began to change. We saw each other fewer weekends. We attended different schools. We developed other friendships. We didn’t care less for each other. But we were in circumstances out of our control.
Our lives were changing even more as we entered into young adulthood. Debbie married at 19. Her marriage was sometimes physically and always verbally abusive. It was on again-off again for the rest of her life. During those years my life was changing too. My daughter was born in 1988. As we moved forward in our different directions, sometimes years would pass and we would lose touch with each other. But then, one day, one of us would reach out. And it always felt like no time had passed at all. We’d reunite to catch up on what we’ve been missing in the other’s life.
Debbie’s Diabetes, coupled with many bad decisions she had made, began to wear down her body in her 30s. She had open heart surgery twice before she was in her early 40s. Yet, she continued to smoke cigarettes. The disease took the sight of one of her eyes. She struggled terribly with circulation issues. The issues with her husband’s verbal abuse wore her down emotionally and mentally. She was the first truly hopeless person I had ever known. I tried to combat the hopelessness with telling her about God. I wanted her to know how much He loved her and that she wasn’t alone. We prayed together. I suggested scripture that would comfort her when she was alone. She never felt worthy. Then something else happened. Her mother died. Debbie was crushed.
I thought things might be headed in a better direction when she was accepted as a dialysis candidate for her kidneys that were also failing. Originally she was denied because her heart was weak. I was so hopeful when the doctors decided to move forward with dialysis.
Three years ago, the final blow hit. She was just released, again, from a hospital stay and was recovering at her friend’s house. She complained to the hospital that the arm they put the new port in for her dialysis didn’t feel right. Her fingers were really cold. This was on Friday. They promised to look at it Monday. But the clot wasn’t waiting until then. Early Saturday morning she dropped to the floor in her friend’s kitchen and died on the way to the hospital. She was only 44 years old.
When I look back through the years I notice a subtle shift that started almost 20 years ago. Debbie started to feel weak and scared. I was the one feeling stronger. And in the end, it was me that had the role of encourager.
Few days pass now that I don’t think of my cousin, my friend, Debbie. I miss her terribly. I am confident that she is in Heaven with the other many loved ones my family has lost. When I get to Heaven, I will find her. And I will tell her what a wonderful blessing it was to be Debbie’s cousin.