Losing My Father and Sister Far Too Soon Changed the Way I Both Live and Work

As a nurse, I’ve used my up-close and personal experience with death as a guide to understanding and helping my patients.
Avatar:
Jennifer Bradley
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
974
As a nurse, I’ve used my up-close and personal experience with death as a guide to understanding and helping my patients.

After about two hours of crying, praying, and searching our own souls for answers, my family and I had finally gotten news on Daddy’s condition. He had sustained two gunshot wounds to the back of his head and two to his upper back. His medical team said it was too much for him to survive, and the high level of alcohol found in his blood did not help his situation.

At that moment, my inner-self seemed to break away from my body. I had to tell my father how much he was needed — for Momma and for my 13-year-old sister, Tuwanna. But even more than them, for me. I needed badly to get back there to that hospital room and tell Daddy how sorry I was for the argument we had just hours earlier. I wanted to give him a kiss, hug him, and just tell him how much I loved him. I tried to run, but my knees disobeyed.

I'd never known pain so immense.

I made myself ill trying to figure out what had led up to that horrible July night — what had gone wrong that had caused a life-long friend to become the enemy in a matter of minutes. I replayed the months before in my mind and zoomed in on an unsolicited letter Momma had received from a well-known psychic back in February. 

“If five months exceed this date, I will not be able to help you,” she had written. 

Although our religious beliefs didn’t mesh with psychics, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if? What if we had answered the letter as the psychic had requested, could she had put up a roadblock in this collision course? What if Daddy had come home before he had taken the first drink of the last night of his life? Would his life have been spared? These questions and several others had taken root in my mind.

Life without Daddy was hard for all of us, and to keep from losing ourselves in the midst of losing him, each of us latched on to idiosyncrasies that allowed us to try savoring what was left of his presence. For me, it was some of the fragrances that had helped comprise the essence of my childhood. The aroma of Brute cologne and Pall Mall cigarettes was buried deep down in his clothing and bedding. Daddy's hardhat still lay on the dresser where he had left it. I placed my face in it and inhaled big and deep, with each breath I seemed to capture little pieces of him. 

Our house seemed to have taken on Daddy’s personality. Sometimes, if I listened closely, I could hear him‑getting ready for work, dressing and walking around me.

As if it hadn’t wreaked enough havoc, death didn’t stop there. It continued to rear its ugly head in my circle of loved ones for years to come, each time delivering its hardest blow. But nothing in this world could have prepared me for the loss of my beloved, precious Tuwanna. 

Me, left, and my sister Tuwanna.

Me, left, and my sister Tuwanna.

This time, death had beaten me so black-and-blue that I felt unrecognizable. My family and I found ourselves back in a familiar state of hopelessness, helplessness, and confusion, this time magnified. 

How did a woman so young, healthy, and vibrant vanish before my very eyes? I had merely driven her to have a simple knee surgery that morning, unaware that it would be her final destination. I cursed death, and I questioned God. I even pondered the purpose of my own existence. But as soul-shattering as the blow was, I knew I had to find some way to get up and fight. 

I begged the same God — the one I had previously questioned — for strength and courage to get up off the ground like I knew Tuwanna would have. The sister I had known didn’t lie down and die for anybody, not even for death itself. Death's only defense was to subdue her in her sleep; if she had been awake, the battle wouldn’t have been half as easy.

Losing Daddy at the tender age of 15, I didn’t totally understand death and its lasting sting. The loss of Tuwanna nearly three decades later, as devastating as it was, helped deepen my understanding of loss, suffering and the grieving process, and I've found that my father’s and sister's lives and deaths were both pivotal in my journey to becoming a woman and a professional nurse

I’ve used my up-close and personal experience with death as a guide to understanding and helping my patients through some of the most difficult times of their lives. My familiarity with loss has served as a daily reminder of what it’s like being on the other end of care: the confusion, the heartache that can’t be soothed, and the immense loneliness that seemed to take over. I’ve sat on the sides of beds, wiped tears and cried with and for my patients' families, listened to their stories, and shared a few of my own. I’ve embraced, held hands with and prayed for my patients' serenity and understanding. I’ve carried it — I know how substantial the burden.

I never made it to Daddy's bedside that night to say how sorry I was about our fight. The guilt and regret I felt nibbled at my core well into adulthood. But as the days kept coming and going and adding years to my life, I began to revisit something my father had instilled in me long ago: the act of forgiveness — not only for the man who took Daddy from us, but for myself as well. 

The loss of Tuwanna stirred different emotions in me than that of my father. It gave me a profound appreciation for life and hope thereafter. The love she had for life and God was so rich and colorful that it's seen vividly in the lives of her children every day. Her presence in my small world made it much more meaningful. I thank God for allowing us to exist together and for blessing me with the opportunity of knowing someone like my sister.

The line between life and death is so fine and fragile, and it doesn’t take much for one to cross it. Daddy used to say that death walks with a man all the days of his life. As much as it is the "last enemy," I guess that also makes death a part of our life design. Each breath I take I view as a privilege, because it may soon be revoked. 

The journey of life is so strange. We walk through it gathering clues here and there, but never totally solving life’s mysteries. At the end of it all, we’re left with a memoir of memories, lessons, and blessings.