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A Brother Remembers His Sister

July 5, 2013

I wrote this on January 6, 2013 – a few hours after the passing of my sister. Saturday July 6 will be the six-month anniversary of that terrible day.

For those of you who know me, I’m grieving over the loss of my sister, Michelle, who passed away on the morning of Sunday January 6th at the age of 41. The early indications are that she had a heart attack while she slept, but we’re waiting for the medical examiner’s findings. Michelle was diagnosed as a diabetic when she was nine years old and, like many in her condition, was on a transplant list for a kidney/pancreas. She was temporarily taken off the list, due to heart issues, but was expecting to be back on the list in March.

I’ve spent most of today (1/6) thinking about Michelle, her husband, Mike, and her son, Derek. Mike is a great husband and a hard worker who has done wonders in dealing with Michelle’s illness. Derek, who is a sophomore at our alma mater (Ponaganset High School – Glocester, RI), is an outstanding student and a fantastic hockey player.

My earliest memory of being a big brother occurred around my seventh birthday in 1971, shortly after Michelle was born.  I was walking past my parents’ bedroom, where Michelle’s crib was located. I happened to peer inside the room to see my baby sister and noticed that she was stuck between the crib mattress and the wooden frame, yet didn’t make a sound. I extracted her from the precarious position and placed her gently on the mattress. I kissed her on the forehead and whispered, “I’m your big brother. I’ll always protect you.” I don’t think I ever told my parents about that night.

As siblings can be, along with my brother, we fought like cats and dogs all the time. Sure, we said things we didn’t really mean and would drop a dime on each other to see how much trouble we’d get into. I wasn’t always the angelic brother, but I would drop everything at the drop of a hat to protect her, if necessary. That was my job as a big brother.

I was working at McDonald’s in Johnston, Rhode Island when I was 16 and received a call at work from my mother (something that had never happened before). She told me that Michelle was in the hospital and to come by after work. As good mothers are, she didn’t divulge all the details on the telephone. Upon arriving at the hospital, I was given the news that Michelle was diagnosed with diabetes and was not in good shape. The long drive home that night brought me to God for the first time, asking simply that He watch over my sister and that she could come home soon. Michelle was able to return to our home soon afterwards and, with proper care via her insulin injections, was able to resume a normal childhood.

Being athletic, Michelle wanted to play basketball and, the year before I entered active duty, I coached her basketball team. She was a natural on-court and for the first time, I noticed that Michelle respected me not only as her big brother, but an adult.

Years later, Michelle fell in love with one of my classmates, Mike Merchant, and was married in 1995. I was honored to be included in their wedding party and had never been so proud of her. Two years later, against the advice of her doctors, Michelle gave birth to her son Derek. Mom and baby were healthy (Dad was probably stressed out) and all looked promising.

At my brother’s wedding a few years later, I asked Mike to be my Best Man, as I had proposed to my girlfriend in 2001. Michelle, Mike and Derek, as well as my brother and his son, were all part of our wedding party in 2003. It was the best day of my life and Michelle was stunning in her dress. I treasure that picture.

Eventually, the diabetes took its toll on Michelle and she began dialysis. Shortly afterward, she was put on the waiting list for a transplant. Numerous potential donors, including myself and my brother, were rejected for various reasons. I was so sure that I would be selected, yet I was turned down at the last minute. I was crushed and in tears, yet Michelle’s strength shone through to comfort me.

Heart issues forced Michelle to be taken of the waiting list a couple of times, yet she was confident that she would succeed.

Over the last few weeks, Michelle and I talked nearly every day. I left my job near the end of December and she was the first to console me. Over the past week, she was insistent on me leaving Myrtle Beach, where I have lived since 2004, and return to Rhode Island. Saturday night, she was excited as I told her that I would make the move.

It turned out that Saturday night’s phone call would be the last time we spoke.

I turned my phone off Sunday morning and, after walking my dog, turned it on shortly after noon. I was shocked to see a half-dozen voice mails from family members. At first, I thought something was wrong with my grandmother. She will be 94 next month and has beaten breast cancer and has has a 60+-year victory over lupus.

When I called my parents, my father gave me the bad news that Michelle had passed during the morning.

I have lost friends, three of my grandparents, all but one of my great aunts and uncles and, this past week, an uncle.

As bad as those situations were, nothing prepared me for losing my precious sister.

Michelle was blessed with having strength that I could never possess. As a brother, I could never imagine the depth of pain that I feel today. I knew the pain would be brutal, but it is a pain knowing I wasn’t able to protect her as I promised more than 40 years ago.

I take comfort that Michelle is, now, free of pain and will be with God for all eternity. I pray that He allows Michelle to watch over us and guide us through this difficult time.

God, please comfort Mike and Derek as they have lost the most important person in their lives. I hope He gives comfort to my parents, as no parent should ever have to bury their child. I further ask that He provides care for my brother and his family during this time of grief.

All I ask from God, for me, is to allow me to thank Him. He blessed me by letting me be Michelle’s brother.

 

Michelle: I pledge to honor you, your strength and your memory every day of my life. Your strength inspires me to be a better person. I would gladly give my life to hug you one more time. I miss you.

Michelle Jacqueline Merchant (Juaire)
May 4, 1971 – January 6, 2013
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