Had she lived, my big sister would have been celebrating her 70th birthday today. Had the car in which she was riding left a little earlier or a little later, it would not have collided as it did that balmy Sunday night in August. But because she was there, and because two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, she never celebrated her 18th birthday or any day after it.
Timing had always been a little off for her. She was born when our father was thousands of miles away in the Pacific, serving as a machinist mate third class in the Navy. Our mother had gone to live with her parents temporarily so that she would be closer to the hospital when the time came. But when she awoke during the night and announced the baby was coming, she was told she was wrong — the baby wasn't due for another couple of weeks. But she knew she was right. She had delivered two babies in the previous three years, both boys, and she knew what labor pains felt like. Her first daughter came quickly and early.
A year later, when Daddy returned home from the Navy, he came in the middle of the night, having taken a train to Hamlet, a railroad terminal 45 miles away, and then a taxi on the final leg of his long journey back home. He couldn't abide the hours of waiting for the next train to get him closer to home. Mother took him into the bedroom for his first look at his daughter, who immediately raised up her hands to greet him with a hug.
Long after the shock of an untimely death, we are struck at certain dates with thoughts what might have been. When my sister's high school friends married, Mother could not help but think of the wedding she would never attend. When her other children graduated high school and college, there was that shadow of graduations never to be seen. I thought of my sister on her 40th birthday as I became more aware of my own aging and of how she cared for me when I was a toddler. I wondered how our relationship would have matured or changed.
Today I wonder what she would have been like as an older woman with children and grandchildren of her own, of the advice she might have given me as I raised my own children. I regret that she never met the woman I married or held my babies.
I even wonder whether she would still be alive, if she had managed to miss that two-lane stretch of highway 52 years ago. Our brother died at age 70. Our younger sister died at 61.
These encounters with death make me more and more grateful for the years I've had and for the years I hope for but can never be sure of.