My sister Lisa died of a broken heart. She never got over losing our father—or feeling like she couldn’t measure up. I’m afraid we—her family—didn’t make it any easier for her. Many of us judged her, when we had no right. Especially when we didn’t even try to help her.
When Dad died in April 1999, Lisa was lost. A daddy’s girl from the get-go, Lisa was our father’s favorite. Back when it was just the two of us, 12 years before our three siblings came along. I was the quiet reader. Lisa was the lively doer. No doubt she epitomized our globe-trotting, pilot father’s own adventure-seeking spirit.
By the time she died last Friday, Dec. 27, Lisa had experiences in her short 47 years that some of us never get in a lifetime. Her adventures began when she ran right through mud puddles as a child, explored forests on Berry’s Mountain, climbed to the tops of rocks during our mushroom picking days, and later, as an adult, dove into the ocean at South Padre Island, in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Lisa also rode horseback in Texas, traveled cross-country many times (and I’m sure she also took the wheel of those big rigs, even if her husband’s trucker logbooks didn’t quite reflect that). Lisa drag raced her black Mustang at Eldora Speedway in Fairmont, and she learned to speak some Arabic in the Middle East, when she lived in Jordan with our parents during 1979. Lisa kept in touch with a neighbor boy there, who later moved to the United States, for many years. She did this even after 9/11, when much of the country shunned anyone who was a Muslim.
My sister loved taking care of our siblings, especially Elizabeth, as a baby. We hung out together during many a school night at the old Mountaineer Mall. Back then, I was more worried about making sure Mom saved some of that delicious walnut cake that Lums Restaurant served than taking care of a baby. But Lisa didn’t mind pushing Elizabeth up and down the mall corridors or changing her dirty diapers, until our mother’s shift ended each night.
Lisa was tons of fun to be around, and loved spending time with family and friends. She also had an uncanny knack for remembering—and reciting—every joke she ever heard. Even though she could be mouthy, Lisa was also fiercely loyal.
Most important, she didn’t judge others—she just loved them. Which explains why she didn’t hold grudges, and how she could be so forgiving when people mistreated her.
Lisa had health problems from an early age: she was diagnosed with epilepsy, she had a lazy eye and had to wear a black patch over one eye, she was always getting sick, and she had endometriosis so bad that at age 28 Lisa had to have a complete hysterectomy. That ensured she would never have the one thing she’d always wanted, children. I remember going with her to the Grafton doctor’s appointment where her OB/GYN told me, the healthy sister who was pregnant for the fourth time in five years, to give Lisa my unborn child. Even she could see how much Lisa needed a child of her own.
But since she couldn’t, Lisa did the next best thing: she had dogs—poodles and Cocker Spaniels that she treated like her children. I think she’s the first person I remember ever seeing dress up her dog, long before it became a popular trend.
Lisa was a fighter. She didn’t give up. Instead, she set out to find another way. She toyed with the idea of foster parenting. But her husband BJ knew it would be too hard for Lisa to give a child up, as often happens in the foster system. And ultimately, after a 14-year fight, her dreams came to fruition. Lisa found her babies: two beautiful daughters, Destinee (He Young) and Emilee (Kang Hee), in Korea.
I remember the day she became a mother. Our entire family gathered around Lisa in a Nashville, Tenn., airport, as we waited for He Young to arrive from Seoul, Korea. Crossing time zones would have made the journey feel like a 24-hour flight for her. The social worker told Lisa some babies have never seen a white woman, so He Young would either look at her and laugh–or cry.
“Push, Lisa, push,” some family members chanted, laughing as the plane landed. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face when He Young was placed in her arms. She didn’t cry when she saw her mother for the first time.
My two neices are Lisa’s crowning achievement—by adopting them and giving them a home in this country, Destinee and Emilee were given the chance of a life they never could have in their homeland. I am sure of that. For many years, Lisa’s life revolved around them. She planned for them, doted on them, took care of them.
Like she took care of other people she loved, including me. In 1991, after a particularly painful breakup, Lisa she was so worried she drove 60 miles in the middle of the night, to take me home with her. Always a wonderful caretaker, Lisa took care of our father in 1999 when he got so sick from his chemotherapy. She’s the reason I had time to fly from California and spend 11 days with him before he died. Lisa is the reason I got to tell our father goodbye.
Lisa was so loved, the same man married her twice. My brother-in-law, BJ, never stopped trying to help Lisa—even after they divorced again in 2010. He said Lisa wanted to get to a better place in life. BJ believed she really did want to get her life on track—but she just couldn’t do it. I believe he’s right.
What is it that prevents some of us from having the fortitude to reach our goals? What causes some of us to become addicts, while others of us breeze through life without a worry—compared to someone like Lisa, who spent most of her short life in pain?
Becoming an addict was never part of her plans. I know that for sure. Lisa sustained a work-related injury that led to her prescription painkiller addiction. Lisa lived with chronic pain for most of her life. But the last 10 years were especially difficult. She was hospitalized in early November for an infection, and underwent emergency surgery at Ruby Memorial Hospital. When I saw her there, she said she was tired of being in pain and wouldn’t care if she didn’t wake up from the procedure. Trying to encourage her, I told her if that happened, she would wake up in the resurrection, pain free and healed from all her maladies.
The resurrection is one of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and a basic Bible teaching. At John 5:28, 29 (NWT), we learn that “all those in the memorial tombs will come out,” and at Acts 24:15, “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”
When Jesus went to see his friend Lazarus who had died, the Bible says that Jesus compared death to a deep sleep. Right after that, Jesus woke up Lazarus—even though he had been dead for four days. It’s interesting that when Lazarus woke up he was not in heaven—he was right here on the earth. That is one small example of what Jesus will soon do around the world for all our dead loved ones. And then, like the promise at Isaiah 25:8, Jesus Christ’s Father, Jehovah God, “will swallow up death forever.” This is when the earth will be restored to its original paradise condition.
Like I did, Lisa grew up in a home where we learned about the Bible’s teachings. We learned about a loving God who would never let anyone burn his human children in an eternal hellfire, and who never intended for us to die. Lisa’s faith wasn’t very strong, though, and I always wondered why.
I think I know. Many times, people like Lisa whose entire life has been a struggle, often feel a deep sense of worthlessness at their core. As a result, they can’t reach their goals.
Those feelings of low self-esteem may prevent us from doing what we have every intention of doing—but they do not keep our heavenly Father from loving us. The Bible tells us at Psalms 139:2 and 3 that Jehovah God sees when each of us sits down, and when we get up. There, we learn that he is familiar with all of our ways. And we learn at 1 John 3:1 that God wants to lavish love on every single one of us, his earthly children, in spite of our flaws.
I believe my sister Lisa—like so very many of us—wanted to offer her best to God, but she just didn’t feel worthy. Her heart condemned her, like the Bible says at 1 John 3:21. I say that because when I stood at her hospital bedside in early November and mentioned the Bible’s hope of a resurrection, I saw the look on her face: if she did die, Lisa didn’t think she deserved to wake up from the dead.
I quickly reassured her that some of the worst sinners in the Bible will be resurrected—because it’s a guarantee that a loving God promised his human children. Just because we as imperfect humans don’t think someone is worthy doesn’t make it true.
Jehovah God is the only one who has the right to judge us—and we have no right to judge each other. When I explained that to my sister, I saw her eyes light up, and I sensed she was remembering some of the teachings our mother taught us from the Bible as little girls.
As imperfect humans, as people who make mistake after mistake, we might think we are beyond God’s reach, beyond his love. But that simply isn’t true. Even though our steps falter, God gave up what he loved the most—his perfect son, Jesus Christ—so that we could have a do-over, a second chance, if you will.
People dream of getting a second chance in life—but few realize the Bible teaches that this hope is a reality. It’s called the resurrection. The God of the Bible that Lisa and I both learned about as children is a God of love. As such, I believe he now holds Lisa in his memory.
Like any good father, he’s letting her get a good, long sleep—until it’s time for her to wake up again. When she does, I want to be there to greet her. I hope you’re there to greet her, too. Because I’m sure we’d all like to see the expression on her face when she wakes up on a restored paradise earth and realizes she was, all along, worthy of peace and happiness and success and serenity.
Editor’s note: Berry and another West Virginia author, Geoff Fuller, have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”