Gifts Never Lost

The shortest lives sometimes leave the deepest impressions

I was used to getting weekly emails from Collie. As the captain of our co-ed soccer team, he’d send out game-time reminders every Thursday, making sure everyone could make it. But the email I received Jan. 20 was different. The subject line simply read: “Maddie.”

Five-year-old Maddie James was a constant at each game, running from playground to sideline, yelling through cupped hands, “Daddy, why don’t you score?” Her oversized glasses, quiet self-possession, and lilting voice made her one of my favorite fans.

In three painful paragraphs, I learned that Collie’s only daughter had an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. Marked by a rapid decrease in motor skills, the disease is frightfully aggressive. There is no cure. Four to six months, the doctors said. Collie wrote: “We are beyond devastated.”

He had no choice but to step down as our captain for the spring season. His primary focus was to make every moment with Maddie count, he explained, and it would take every ounce of his time and energy to do so.

I flashed unexpectedly on an image of my sister 15 years earlier. She was sitting on the beige carpet of our Huntington Beach home, watching “Winnie the Pooh,” eating black olives off her fingertips. Younger by four years, Marisa was born with three congenital heart defects. Like Maddie, she wore glasses too big for her face. What my parents described as “a hole in the heart” made my sister a frail, easy-to-tire child who, at age 10, weighed just 49 pounds. So while my friends and I spent summers walking along the railroad tracks that led to Westminster Mall, or playing street hockey on our cul-de-sac, my sister stayed indoors playing Barbie, watching Disney Channel, and eating canned olives.

For those reasons, and the age difference, Marisa and I weren’t close growing up. I was athletic, competitive, and a perfectionist; Marisa was dreamy, disorganized, and hated sports. Plus, what teenage girl wants her little sister tagging along? When we did invent games to pass the time, she was always the student to my teacher, bagboy to my grocery clerk, secretary to my CEO. I commandeered 60 percent of our lemonade cash and treated her as any older sister treats a younger one—without mercy.

When she was 10, at her annual checkup, the cardiologist told my parents what they feared: Marisa needed open-heart surgery—now. My family went into a controlled panic, touring hospitals in Orange and L.A. counties, confirming the surgeon, asking relatives to donate platelets and to please keep Marisa in their prayers. Everything moved quickly, as if our actions were preordained. We didn’t talk about the possibility of such a serious procedure ending in anything but success.

The surgery was scheduled for April. My parents made the arrangements, and asked me to collect her homework. They filled a suitcase with books and stuffed animals to bring to the hospital. But about the same time my sister was being wheeled into surgery, I was heaving a lumpy soccer bag full of uniforms and extra socks into my friend’s family van, headed for a tournament in San Diego. Despite the gravity of what my sister was about to undergo, the event was an important one. It was decided that I needed to play. “I’ll come see you after, OK?” I’d told Marisa the night before. “I’ll come right after my last game.” She nodded, eyes big behind those ridiculous glasses.

When I finally did arrive—three days later, sunburned, grass-stained, and still in my uniform—I found my sister hooked up to a million tubes, and I started to cry. She looked small and yellow. Her lips were cracked, and dried blood caked her skin. But she was smiling. Later, in the hallway outside the recovery room, Mom told me that after her surgery, the first word out of my sister’s mouth was my name.

Since then, Marisa has become something she’d never been before: precious. More than that, her role in my life began to transform—from nuisance to ally, pest to confidante, and eventually, best friend. We devised a covert language (Onglish) and kept each other’s secrets, conspiring late into the night. After I got my driver’s license, we rode to school each morning in my battered Civic, singing at the top of our lungs, inventing impromptu moves to accompany the lyrics.

We grew even closer when I moved to San Francisco for college, sending each other goofy mix tapes and letters. We started a yearly vacation tradition, just the two of us. Together, we’ve explored London, Rome, Paris, the Dominican Republic, and Miami Beach … experiencing things we still talk about today.

These days, without fail, my sister calls twice a week from her home in San Luis Obispo to recount a funny story or ask if I remember some obscure moment from our childhood. And though we’ve joked many times about how annoying Marisa was as a child, we owe the evolution of our friendship to the consequences of her fragile heart.

Propelled by unbelievable strength and humor, she taught me her own brand of joy. She taught me how to love.

On March 13, roughly two months after diagnosis, Maddie James died quietly at home, her parents, Collie and Kajsa, by her side. The speed of the inevitable dealt a whole new blow. Her family scheduled a memorial for the following Sunday at Heritage Park in Dana Point overlooking the ocean, Maddie’s favorite place. Collie sent another email asking us to remember that the gathering was to be a celebration of Maddie’s life, and to please dress to “invite smiles, not sorrow.”

That day brought dark skies, rain, and vicious winds, but those of us who came to honor Maddie’s life stood out in the gloom as brightly clad clumps, huddled beneath umbrellas. Throughout the service, listening to words such as “happiness,” “bliss,” and “love,” I thought of my now-healthy 25-year-old sister; how, like Maddie, her very presence is a blessing to everyone who knows her. Through his grief, Collie’s face shone, joyous and thankful—because of Maddie. In my memories of Marisa eating olives, or Collie’s memories of Maddie’s dubious sideline encouragement, I realized the people you love can never really be taken away—they are gifts never lost.

Walking back to my car after Maddie’s memorial, I considered the mysterious intermingling of sorrow and joy, happiness and grief. I thought about the special moments that shape us and help make the people we love immortal.

Then I called my sister.

Jennifer Pappas lives in Laguna Hills. This is her first essay for Orange Coast.

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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