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8/14/11

One Year Later: A Tribute To Jill

30 years. Said alone, it seems like an incredibly lengthy amount of time. But when applied to someone's life, it's like a blink of an eye. Today marks one year since my sister Jill passed away at just 30 years of age. They say that time heals all wounds, but in reality, the pain and sadness I feel from my sister's passing is just as fresh and omnipresent today as it was the day she passed away. But, this post isn't intended to be about my grief or sorrow. Instead, I thought I'd take this anniversary of her passing to reminisce on Jill's life and the impact she had in her 30 short years.

For those of you blog readers that aren't aware of Jill's story, let me give you a quick summary. (For those of you who are aware, feel free to skip through this paragraph). In February 2000, my sister was in a severe car accident where she hit a semi head-on. The accident left her with severe injuries, including a traumatic brain injury which left her comatose for a long period of time. In the decade between her accident and her passing, Jill had to relearn how to function, period. Talking, walking, basic human tasks, everything. Name a menial daily activity that you take for granted, and she had to learn to do it all over again. Her passing last August was completely unexpected, and happened in her sleep. It was suspected that it may have been related to her brain injury. Jill had experienced several seizures since her accident (which is common for people who suffer brain injuries), and it's very possible that she had a fatal seizure that night.

Jill's 10 years of life preceding her death were incredibly difficult. There's no other way to put it. I had to see my big sister, whom I idolized and looked up to as a youth, go through physical and mental torture to simply be able to live. Countless hours of therapy, multiple surgeries, doctor after doctor after medication after medication. It pained me every day to see what she had to go through just to live what her new version of normal was. But here's the thing: she did it all with a smile. I kid you not. Sure, she had a bad day every now and then, but her attitude throughout her therapy process was absolutely incredible. She approached her development with humility, a sense of humor and genuine determination.

I suppose I should back up a bit and describe Jill before her accident. She was not your typical girly-girl by any means. From a young age, she showed incredible intelligence and constantly strove for academic excellence. She was a proud, t-shirt wearing member of her high school's math club. In college as a science student, she was much more prone to jumping into a lake to collect a specimen than to jump into a keg stand at a party. She was fluent in Spanish and a ridiculously talented pianist. If there was one fault Jill had, it was that she was completely unaware of just how great she was. Whether it was a case of extreme modesty or just a lack of self-awareness, I don't know. But for how talented and smart she was, she was never big-headed or egotistical. In fact, she spent much of her life blending into the background of social scenes and cliques.

For all of these reasons, I grew up with an intense admiration for Jill and who she was. She embraced her "nerddom" and didn't fall victim to outside pressures and influence. She stayed true to who she was and was never apologetic for the things she loved. As I grew up and watched her behavior and attitudes, I tried to model myself after her and never be ashamed of who I was. Jill was a tough 'act' to follow as a kid, because she left a lot to live up to in terms of accomplishments. But as a sibling, she was always a teacher and a friend rather than a taunter or a competitor. Whether it was showing me the secrets of Super Mario Brothers 3 or letting me listen to the Violent Femmes as we rode in her Integra, I cherish every memory I have with Jill, as she was always an open book. I always felt like I was learning something or getting an 'inside glimpse' into her life. Despite our 5 year age difference, she was willing to bond and share with me, and I wish I had thanked her more for that when she was alive.



When her accident occurred, it was absolutely devastating. Her life, as well as our family's, got flipped upside down. Her education and career goals came to a screeching halt. Everything did. But here's the thing about Jill: she perseveres. When she was in her coma, every day was a hope. It was also a fear. It was a question and a worry. Comas aren't like what they show you on TV; people don't just pop out of them, ready to take on the day. It was a slow, gradual process and even when her eyes started to open, the future was still a big, burning question mark. But Jill fought. Slowly, she opened her eyes. Slowly, she began to communicate. Slowly, she spoke again (and in Spanish, nonetheless). She moved limbs, she took steps, she regained her personality and even started playing the piano again (and remembered her old concertos, believe it or not). And here's the amazing part; you might expect most people to become depressed through all this. To have such a promising life, then have it ripped away so suddenly is a horrifying thing.

But something happened to Jill that was on the other end of the spectrum. Jill seemed to gain a newfound sense of increased clarity, compassion and calm. I can honestly say that in the last 10 years of her life, I don't know that I ever heard Jill say a bad word about anyone. She had a new, innate ability to find the good in everyone she met. I hate to use the phrase 'innocence of a child' because I think it belittles her mental capabilities, but there was an air of happiness, trust and joy that was so refreshing. I don't know how she did it. She woke up every day, after experiencing personal tragedy and disaster, and took life on with a beautiful smile. She took a little longer to do things and had missteps and stumbles here and there, but she approached it all with humor and acceptance. Through her surgeries, Jill had a number of metal pieces placed in her skeleton. She used to joke that she was like the bionic woman and how much trouble she has at airport security. She also took a number of medications, and would often joke that she doesn't need to drink because given how all the medications make her feel, adding drunkenness to the mix would be frightening for everybody. I was always astonished that she was able to joke about things that made ME want to cry just knowing that she had to endure them.

Even with her physical and mental setbacks, Jill continued to work hard at everything she did. One of her most recent accomplishments was losing quite a bit of weight. The glow in her face when she would show off her new pants and talk about how much she had lost would always put a smile on my face. I did my best to always remind her that she could do whatever she wanted to do and I would always be there to support her. Considering all she did for me as a kid growing up and trying to figure life out, I owed her that at the very least.

The fact that my beautiful sister had her life cut so short makes my heart hurt constantly. It's not right. It's not fair. It makes me angry that this amazing person who had so much to offer and had such an incredible outlook on life had to leave us. While I'm so happy that she was able to be an Aunt for a short period of time before her passing, it saddens me that she will miss out on so many significant events in Ava's life.

I miss her every day. I'm constantly surrounded by subtle reminders of her and the amazing lessons and legacy that she left behind for us. I can only hope that I live the remainder of my life with the attitude that she had.  And I guess when someone you love is taken away unexpectedly, that's ultimately what you have to do. Use the anger, the sadness, the confusion and frustration, and funnel it into an effort to live your life in honor of the person that left you.

Jill, I promise that I will live the rest of my days in honor of you and the example you set. I love you.




1 comments:

this is such a great post and tribute to jill! :)

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