Small Words Big Impact

Swallowing hurt. I felt sorry for myself. Tears formed in my eyes as I opened wide for Dr. Kroeplein to look down my throat.

He warned Mom, “Mrs. Altmann, your daughter has a strep infection again. As I told you the last time, strep is nasty. It can damage a person’s heart, if you don’t treat it with penicillin. My advice to you is to have Kathy’s tonsils removed after school lets out this spring. If you don’t, the infection will return repeatedly.”

In a state of shock, I followed Mom out of the doctor’s office. Being unable to properly swallow pills and having to take more penicillin was like signing up for torture. I was convinced that penicillin was the worst-tasting substance in this entire world! Just thinking about it made me gag, which sent off new waves of pain. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was going to need surgery. Surely this was the end of my life!

Already tearful that evening, a huge flood began to flow when Mom told Daddy the doctor had recommended surgery. I dramatically sobbed, “Why did this have to happen to me?”

Ten years older than me, my brother Billy quietly answered, “Why shouldn’t it happen to you? It happens to a lot of people.”

Startled, I turned to stare at him. His statement hadn’t been said in anger or scorn. My brother’s face showed nothing but sympathetic concern. Feeling stunned, I knew he was right. Like everyone else in this world, I would experience pain, fear and disappointment.

My big brother Billy was a huge influence in my life. The occasional small comments that he made to me as I was growing up shaped me. Billy wasn’t big on talking, but the few things he did say were usually to the point, witty or deeply thought-out.

Between my junior and senior year in high school I experienced clinical depression. When I could no longer handle it on my own, I went for psychiatric care. Feeling deeply embarrassed and horrified by the huge stigma of mental illness, I cried to Billy, “I feel so ashamed!”

Billy answered, “If you were diabetic, you’d go to the doctor. How is this any different?”

As our mother aged, I did what I could to keep her at home on the farm where she lived with my bachelor brothers, Billy and Casper. She became blind, didn’t feel well and was very frequently anxious. I visited the farm often to help her. If Billy wasn’t doing field work, he usually found time to come into the house and visit with Mom and me. His quiet way of accepting life was an inspiration.

If Billy took a long afternoon walk or made a lengthy visit with the neighbors, Mom would fuss and worry. Billy’s only comment to me was, “I don’t ever want to be a complainer.” He was true to that vow.

Because Billy didn’t complain, I’m uncertain when his Parkinson’s symptoms began. I’m guessing he was about fifty years old. He fell often, but always popped back up as if nothing had happened.

I always valued Billy’s approval. Several months after I was widowed, I had to patch an old-fashioned porch door at my house. I tapped the hinge bolts out, carried the door to saw horses I’d set up and puttied one of its panels back into place. Billy happened to visit while I was working. His quiet, “You really impress me.” meant so much! I might not have been doing the job the way my late husband would have, but I was taking care of myself and the house.

Billy’s Parkinson’s disease grew worse as the years passed. His falls happened more often. Instead of bouncing back up unharmed, he came back up with cuts, scrapes and bruises. But he never complained or whined about his lot in life. When it was time for him to move into an assisted living home, he went without a murmur of complaint.

My brother Billy died on December 30th, 2017 after hovering between life and death for a full week. His hospice nurse wondered if there was something holding him back. After sitting with him for several hours on his last afternoon, I decided to attend Mass. Before leaving, I leaned over him and said, “Billy, if you want to slip out and go see Jesus while I’m gone, you go right ahead and do that, okay?” Twenty minutes later I received a call saying that he had passed away. Maybe my brother just needed reassurances that his baby sister would be okay.




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