December 09, 2018

Born To Die, A Christmas Gift

December 10, 1957, my dead sister was born. She'd be 61 now, and each year she is a part of my Christmas Advent—as surely as the Christ Child of so long ago. For it was her life and death that put me in the front row seat with a view into eternity and first-hand experience with the grace of God.

Heather Wilbee, Christmas 1959
She’d been born to die, Heather, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. The year, 1957. Me, six. My mother returned from the hospital without my baby sister. My father explained. Heather had been born with a hole in heart and was not expected to live. He lifted me into my high yellow chair for supper and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and five, me in the middle, I stared into the night and at our reflections in the large window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad cornered off some mashed potatoes. "Eat this much and you can be excused.

“Leave her be,” said my mother and I burst into tears.

But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. She stayed with us for three years and how we loved her, my other sisters and I.

Wilbee sisters, 1961
The first eighteen months of her life we only knew her through hushed whispers and the occasional trip home. But when Mum and Dad brought her home for good—after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip—one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.

Heather Wilbee, 1960
For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands just about raw with Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching the butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers, hung from a coat hanger. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with. When I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d smile a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”

Heather Wilbee 1960
She blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.

When she gave a Heather a bath out by the clothesline, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue  skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.

Heather's shoesBy two-and-a-half she'd learned how to pull herself up despite the doctors' prediction, and could walk by holding onto our fingers in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. At eight years old and seeing her shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once when Aunt Grace was visiting she got it backwards. What a hullabaloo. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and prayed that the upset wouldn't stop Heather's fragile heart. After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into place and put properly to bed. Jamie Boy had to have his bird cage draped and the counter wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.”

The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.

Linda and Heather Wilbee 1961
She spent her third and final Christmas with us at home. We decorated our tree with her butterflies and I kept an eye on her, thrilled to see her open her stocking and smile with each surprise.

One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor. I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. Dad was sitting on the edge of the bed with Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. Put too close, she’d panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in June 1961
He motioned that I sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. Mum paced at the end of the bed. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.

Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. I reminded God of all the other times he'd saved her. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid.

She was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.


He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.

“She didn’t die.”

“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.

She died two months later while I slept.

Did it hurt to die?

Portrait picture of Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in 1961
“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left in her hospital bed, needles sticking out of her, alone under the plastic canopy and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? 

God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic. I did not know where to find the scattered shards.

Over the years I've stumbled across them, finding her in my own suffering and finding, too, assurance that God gives us grace in the hard times. And so while I've spent my life missing my sister, I've never once regretted her birth. I'm so grateful she was ours, that our parents saw fit to allow me—and my others sisters—our eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of compromised life. A baby born to die, yes, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. But a gift of life, too. 

Wilbee family 1961.

Heather Wilbee's grave marker
Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless us, Everyone!

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