This is Judy’s story as told by Irena Kaci. Our Opening Our Hearts stories are based on people’s real-life experiences. By sharing these experiences publicly, we hope to help our readers feel less alone in their grief and, ultimately, to aid them in their healing process. In this story, Judy tells the story of her sister Linda’s death during peak Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, and of Judy’s grief being compounded by distance.
I was born in the small town of Carol, Iowa, and am one of six children. We were a real “Brady Bunch” family, composed of three boys and three girls. Linda Kay, my youngest sister, was a full five years younger than myself, and the age gap kept us in our corners until we grew into more surefooted adults. But once we discovered each other, she was easily my closest sibling.
Growing up, there were little fights and tensions for sure. For instance, I’m old enough that my parents did spank me from time to time. But by the time Linda was born, they had developed a whole new philosophy of parenting. As a direct result of that new and improved philosophy, Linda was never spanked, which we all obviously resented.
Linda was a July 4th baby, and my dad, who was a real kidder, had a running joke. He’d come home and he’d say: “Kids, they’ve got the flags up for Linda again this year.” Linda always laughed at that.
I thought she was so pretty. She had these beautiful dark eyes and this long dark hair and the combination of the two was just striking. Once, when we used to share a room, I was looking at her body in her pajamas or whatever she was wearing, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, our bodies are the same!” It’s such a significant memory for me because it had this startling effect of being a kind of bonding moment. Like this intimacy of sharing the same shape was tangible proof of our genetic closeness, and it made me feel like we were permanently connected.
In a family as large as ours was there were times when someone felt left out, and that certainly happened to Linda. There were so many siblings and people coming and going, we all used to kind of clump here and there with whoever was in our age range. I know she grew up feeling a little jealous of my other sister and me. Once, at an event, I neglected to acknowledge Linda and she said something to me about it. She made a comment along the lines of, “It’s always Judy and Pat this… Judy and Pat that…” I remember reassuring her that she was absolutely as much one of us, one of the three sisters. That it would always be the three of us. And I tried really hard to make sure that she didn’t feel left out from our circle again.
She would chime in with a joke and we would all be in tears with laughter.
Linda was funny. She was quiet and unassuming in some ways, but every once in a while when she’d come out of her shell, she would chime in with a joke and we would all be in tears with laughter. She had great comedic timing and enviable delivery.
I think we discovered each other fully when we ended up choosing to attend the same college. She came in as a first-year during my senior year, and I was so pleased. I loved that. It gave me a chance to discover her adult self, how smart and how interesting she was. After that, my closeness with Linda never really waned.
Around 2010 Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and a lot of treatment, but she came out the other end. She survived. So that’s how I saw her, as a survivor. And then in 2015, she felt a new lump. She didn’t tell us a lot about it, but when she went to the doctor, the doctor found that the cancer had metastasized. There were lumps all over.
So that’s how I saw her, as a survivor.
For four years, Linda continued her treatment. I’m honestly not even sure what the treatment was since Linda was so fiercely private; she just didn’t share that with anyone. Her husband knew, of course. But even her children didn’t know for a long time, and her husband was not allowed to tell us.
Finally, sometime in 2018 or 2019, we were all planning a reunion at Linda’s place in Florida, and that’s when I first learned that the cancer had returned. She told all of us before the trip because she knew we were going to visit and see her so she had to get ahead of it. Yet even after she shared the diagnoses, she did not elaborate and she didn’t like to talk about it. It took me a while to work out that this wasn’t going to be beatable. Occasionally we’d hear ‘good’ news about the treatment, but it was always temporary and there was never any sense that the treatment would end.
After we learned about the cancer, I became much more proactive about calling and Facetiming with her; it was so distressing to think of losing her. Once 2020 rolled around and we were all in lockdown, it became even more important to remain in contact over Facetime. So I would do double-date Facetime calls, with her and her husband together with me and my husband.
One day, she had a seizure and fell. She was taken to the hospital, where we learned she had broken her arm and that the cancer had spread to her brain. Once we learned that, things started to move a lot faster. She was sent home for hospice care.
Linda was sure she was ready to go and wanted to make sure that she didn’t receive any kind of life-extending medication. She stayed at home with her three children and their families. They took care to be around her as much as possible because they all just adored their mother. Linda was easy to love; it’s what made the relationship feel so safe to me. She knew how to be steadfast in her love and affection and she taught everyone how to love unconditionally.
“I understand Judy, don’t worry. You are always in my heart.”
The last time I talked to Linda, I apologized to her for not being able to travel to see her. She simply said, “I understand Judy, don’t worry. You are always in my heart.” I hold onto those words now, and they bring me so much peace.
During that last year of her life, we started referring to each other by our full names. I called her Linda Kay and she called me Judith Ann. We’d never done that before and no one else in the family referred to us that way. It was the last special tradition we had together.
Linda died in September of 2020, in Spirit Lake, Iowa. She stayed more or less in the area where we grew up and ended up in this town with the funniest name: Spirit Lake.
I held a small “service” for her in our backyard.
I think the hardest part for me is not having gotten to be there with her in person at the end; the pandemic took that away from me. I was living the farthest away from her and my doctor definitely advised me against travel. It wouldn’t have been easy even if I had decided to ignore his orders. It was just a hard time in the world, and I think there was a lot of confusion on my end about just how dire the situation was for Linda. Sometimes I used to get angry at her for having kept it from me for as long as she did. And it did make me feel a little bit better to get mad at her, because anger can mimic intimacy. But anger is an unsustainable strategy when dealing with grief. Sometimes I felt immensely guilty for not taking that risk, for not eschewing all medical advice in service of sisterhood. But that too, is an exhausting strategy.
I held a small “service” for her in our backyard. I served her favorite treats — popcorn and root-beer floats.
The fact is that I was overwhelmed with how much my whole body wanted to be there with Linda. The longing was visceral, and losing her from a distance was awful. In lieu of an in-person memorial, I held a small “service” for her in our backyard. I served her favorite treats — popcorn and root-beer floats. Linda loved them both and had popcorn almost every night during her life. I know Linda Kay would’ve loved that. I felt it so keenly that it was almost like having some part of her there with me.
She lived to be 73 years old, and she died comfortably and at home. Her beloved husband and kids were there with her. The story goes that they had moved away from Linda’s hospital bed to talk about what happens when you die, and then one of them walked over to where Linda was lying, and discovered that Linda had died. I can completely picture the event in my mind. I always wonder if dying is at all like falling asleep; I know she must’ve found that so comforting, to hear the chatting voices of loved ones as she drifted away.
I still talk to Linda in my heart. I feel close to her and still love her. Death does not diminish that at all. She’s the first of my siblings to die, which feels like its own kind of loss. I didn’t get to be present for her physically, but she was on my mind the whole time.
This summer I am finally planning to take a trip down to where she is buried, in Spirit, Iowa, to be with her to finish the incomplete sentence that is my longing to see her one last time.