My sister died unexpectedly but peacefully in her sleep sometime New Year’s Day morning. As far as her caregivers – my other sister and her husband – knew, she was not ill, and yet she quietly made her way out of this life and into the next on a schedule only God knows. She was 69.
Patty wasn’t known to many. As a child, she was diagnosed as mentally retarded, back when that was a common phrase for special needs children.
From the moment I got it that she was different from other children, I thought of her as an angel waiting to make her way back to heaven. She is there now, of that I have no doubt.
When she was little, my parents did everything to help her, to get an answer for how they could make her normal. We had little in the way of money, but they spent what they could on countless trips to doctors in search of answers. The trip to a children’s hospital in Hot Springs, NM (Truth or Consequences), was the last straw for my dad. When they came out after the visit, my mother was in tears, hugging Patty and rocking her. My older brother and I sat in the back seat of the car, listening to her sobs. “No more,” my dad said. “We can’t do this anymore!” We knew enough about our dad to know he was furious, even though he didn’t raise his voice.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that someone – a doctor or administrator at the hospital – told my parents that children like my sister shouldn’t be allowed to live. It caused too much suffering for the family. My parents loved my sister as much as they loved each of us. She was not disposable because she was different. No wonder my mom wept and my dad was angry.
Patty was a walker and talker. She had boundless energy. My parents stopped taking her out to church or to the store when it was clear her behavior couldn’t be managed. As she grew into an adult, it became necessary for her to have a medication plan, or she wouldn’t sleep.
She could be really funny. She loved the song Silent Night, and would pester my dad to sing it. Now, the family pretty much agreed my dad was no singer, but after she bugged him enough he would belt out the quintessential Christmas song with all his heart. Patty would clap her hands over her ears and say, “Don’t sing, Daddy, don’t sing! You’re hurting my ears!” and then laugh, her bright blue eyes like twin suns sparkling with delight.
Patty made us better people. Because of her we grew up to be less judgmental, more compassionate, kind, and forgiving. We learned the importance of accepting people as they are, warts and all. Do we live those lessons all the time? Probably not, but we are not angels. Patty was and is.
In memory of my sister, Patricia Louise Conkle. I love you. And thank you to my sister Melissa and her husband, Fred, for taking good care of her for these many years.