I was going to write tonight about the moment Laney asked me about Santa Claus because it was one of those rare, sparkling parental moments where I felt like I handled it just right. Those come along, what? once? maybe twice in life?
But instead I think it's time I wrote about my sister-in-law because I have things I want to say about Debbie and things I want to say to Debbie's children; my beautiful nieces, my handsome nephew.
Debbie is a hero of mine. She taught me so much about how to be a mother.
I told her that the last time I saw her which will likely be the last time I ever see her. I cried. I lost control. But I'm glad I told her how much she's meant to me. This is hard to write. Let me go back a little.
I was nervous the first time I met Don's family all those years ago. But Debbie (always and definitely the head-sibling-in-charge of the Westhoff clan) only ever expected me to love her brother and be willing to be family. That was it and I was in. And I was so glad to be in.
Debbie's house: Debbie's house is good food and ready conversation, comfortable places to sit and lots of laughter. Debbie's house is warm. It may have bordered on magnificent at Christmas, but it was always cozy. It always felt like home.
I spent a lot of time in that house, sitting in comfortable chairs and watching her be the kind of mother I wanted to be. The kind of mother who delighted in her children, who let them grow up and be independent but she always, always, had their backs. One of the first stories I heard was about Kelly, Debbie's eldest, and how she got frostbite from a time when she was a toddler and the car died and Debbie had to carry her through a snowstorm back to the farm. Kelly just wrapped her arms around her mother and held on even when the mitten fell off. Debbie is a mother you can hold onto. She was so strong. And everything around her was so warm.
Another time, years later, I was visiting and Laney had just leapt off my lap, post-snuggle. I told Debbie how sad I was that one day Laney would stop wanting to hug and snuggle me. And Debbie just smiled and said, "Oh, you'd be surprised." And then, hours later, Debbie gently called my name from another couch. Her youngest, who must have been 17 or 18 then, was snuggled up next to Debbie, her head on her mother's shoulder. Debbie tilted her head to Beth and smiled at me, "See," she said, "It doesn't go away."
This was such a small moment, but I never forgot it. I never forgot that simple kindness; the graceful way she remembered me in that tender moment. The way she loves her children. The way they love her.
I lost my own father too young too. He was a lot like Debbie. He made things around him warm and comfortable and he let me grow up without feeling abandoned to adulthood. And I remember how shattered I was when he died. I am shattered now knowing that Debbie is leaving us. And my heart is broken because I know the loss her children face.
But I also know, just like Don wrote today, that at least we got to have her. At least, for a while, we got to warm ourselves in Debbie's heart and humor and her kindness.
I am so grateful to have had her for a sister. I am so sad she's leaving us.