The photo above is of my only sister, Marilyn Diane Hobbs, with my dad, taken when Marilyn was five months old. Marilyn was 19 months older than me, and we were so very close. But life seldom turns out the way anyone expects, and in the case of my sister, that was to be especially true.
In February of 1959, when I was just 13 months old, my sister was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic) leukemia. In that era, leukemia was always a death sentence. No one came out the other side…no one.
My parents’ Christmas card from the year (1956) that my sister was born.
Marilyn’s first professional portrait, age five months.
Christmas 1957, the month before I was born. I had that table and chairs set up until my teens.
Marilyn and I, Christmas 1958. She was 2 1/2, I was 11 months old.
Christmas 1959. Marilyn was 3 1/2, and I was just 23 months old.
A great deal of my first three years was spent without Marilyn, as she was hospitalized so many times. In those days, there really wasn’t much that could be done to help leukemia patients, but my parents tried everything. They even managed to raise the funds for my mom to drive with Marilyn, from our home in North Battleford, Saskatchewan (Canada) to a cancer treatment clinic (that was later closed by the FDA) in Dallas, Texas. That clinic was treating patients with a combination of chemotherapy, which was fairly untested as of yet, along with Hoxsie Tonic (I may have spelled that wrong). The clinic and doctors were branded as charlatans and quacks, even though their treatment made a huge difference.
One of the saddest days of my life happened in my early twenties, when I realized that I could no longer remember the sound of my sister’s voice. I cried, and I cried, because I was so afraid I was going to lose all my memories of her. Of course, I was only just over three when she died.
Most of my memories of Marilyn are just fragments. I can remember her building a “fort” in the living room, using the cushions from the couch, and getting mad at me, because when I crawled in there, I knocked the cushions down. She cried (we were very young), and my mom explained to me that Marilyn was ill, and that she did still love me, very, very much. Yes, I really do remember that.
I also remember waking up one night, I must have been about 2 1/2, in the bedroom we shared, right off the kitchen in our house. My dad was holding a basin under Marilyn’s nose, necessary to capture the copious amounts of blood pouring from her face. Nose bleeds are a common occurrence in people with leukemia. I know from what I was told later on, growing up, that Marilyn had to be taken to the ER many times for cauterization of her nose, so bad were her nose bleeds.
I don’t really remember the day Marilyn died. After all, again, I was only three. But later on, my mom told me she, my dad, and myself, were all sitting at the dinner table at noon, and she and my dad were talking about going to the funeral parlor. Three-year-old Jan piped up, saying, “Funeral home! That’s where peoples go when they gets died.” (Where did I learn that? Heaven only knows) My mom later told me that she explained that Marilyn had died, and my face just fell. She tried to tell me that Marilyn wanted me to have all of her clothes, and all of her toys, but still I remained crestfallen. Then she told me, “And honey, Marilyn is not sick anymore, and she doesn’t have any more pain,” and finally, I smiled.
My mom felt that I was too young to attend Marilyn’s funeral. In retrospect, years later, she recognized that she should have taken me. Even though I had been told that my sister, my best friend, the only person who could ever tell me what to do – and I would do it – while smiling (!), was gone, it wasn’t until Christmas of 1963, over 2 1/2 years later, that I finally realized Marilyn was never coming home.
The death of a child often causes the breakup of a marriage, and although I will never know if that’s what caused the failure of my parents’ marriage, they broke up in the early spring of 1966. The death of a child often leads to horrible survivor guilt for the remaining child/children, and that was definitely true for me. For years I wondered if my parents would have been happier if it was me who died, and Marilyn who survived. Not because anyone planted that idea in my head, but simply because that is the way a child’s mind works.
This is one of my favorite photos of Marilyn and myself. The reason is because you can see just how protective of me she was, and I’m certain there was no place in the world where I felt more secure than in my sister’s arms.
April is my least favorite month. It was in April that I learned my father had cancer, and 25 days later (still in April) that he died. April is the month when my sister died too. I try, every year, to turn April happy by remembering the good things about my lost family members. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, not so much.
After my mother’s death in 2005, I paid the funeral home which handled my mom’s remains to get the permits, to drive 500 miles north to my hometown in Canada, and to disinter my sister’s remains, so that they could be buried in the same grave site as my mom’s ashes, in Minot, North Dakota. I felt that it was the last gift I could give both my sister, and my mom, allowing them to spend eternity next to one another.
One final story about my sister. A few weeks before her death, when she was in the hospital, Marilyn asked our mom, “Mum, am I going to die?” Now, my mom’s first thought was, “I’m going to kill those doctors and nurses,” but she responded with something along the lines of “I don’t know honey.” She tried to explain that no one knew, but Marilyn looked her in the eye, saying, “No! Mum, I AM going to die, but I don’t want you to be sad, becasue I will be with Jesus.” Even though my parents were extremely poor at the time of my sister’s death, they paid for a gorgeous little headstone, not much larger than a sheet of typing paper. Here is that headstone, which is now gracing Marilyn’s final resting place, beside her “Mum.”