Less than two weeks from today, my family and I will quietly acknowledge the short life of my younger sister, Nadja Kaye Stricker. She was born on April 8, 1954 and died on July 30, 1955 of intussusception, a medical condition that causes a portion of the intestine to telescope within itself. When the condition isn’t diagnosed quickly, a child may suffer sepsis and (when left untreated) death.
It’s almost impossible for me to imagine my sister as an adult celebrating her sixtieth birthday, but every April, I’m reminded of our loss when she died so suddenly. The picture of her at left was taken on Easter Sunday, 1955. We had just celebrated her first birthday two days before Easter. That’s my mom holding her by the hand (and my backside in the background).
Today, children usually don’t die from intussusception. My sister was taken to regular pediatric check-ups and never exhibited any symptoms of distress until the day of her death. Memories of that day are indelibly imprinted on my brain.
It was a hot summer day and few homes in 1955 had air conditioning, certainly not ours. As usual, my brothers and I were playing out in the yard. We had a 50s-era green canvas kiddie pool (like the one at right, though the picture is borrowed from here). Our pool was set up for summer play and most days, we were in and out of it until dinner time came. Any pictures of us in our kiddie pool would have been black and white prints, but we’d have gathered for a snapshot just like the little ones in this color picture did.
On that particular day, my mom and sister were inside the house, and I tend to think (in retrospect) my sister may have been showing signs of fever (infection) because my mom had decided to bathe her. The minute my mom called my older brother to the front door and instructed him to fetch our neighbor (a nurse who worked nights and would be home sleeping), our intuition went on high alert.
Any other time, my little brother and I would’ve been mercilessly ragging on our older brother for his serious infraction of Dad’s rules … crossing our busy street to fetch the neighbor. I think the two of us probably stood with our feet in the kiddie pool, watching older brother look both ways and skitter across the street, up the steps and knock frantically on the storm door. For children who’d never known anything but a quiet, idyllic existence, we were wondering what could possibly have happened to thrust us into bizarro-land. Certainly, it never crossed our minds our baby sister had fallen into a coma and would be dead within hours.
Dead? That wasn’t a concept with which we were familiar. Look at the picture above with our mom and the four of us children all dressed up for Easter. Happy faces full of innocence and joie de vivre. But our world was about to tumble off its axis.
Our dad happened to be out of town that week. As a member of the Missouri Air Guard, he was out of state doing his two weeks of summer camp. My mom didn’t even drive … and her lack of skill with a manual transmission was a significant concern if we happened to be in the back seat! Fortunately, the neighbor/nurse had a vehicle and quickly carried Mother and baby Nadja to the hospital.
Eventually, my dad’s older brother arrived to take the three of us to his house. Before the night was out, our daddy had been airlifted home. With tears in his eyes, he told us our sister was gone.
After all these years, it’s hard for me to weigh the emptiness I felt. I didn’t have a clue what dying was all about. But I understood my daddy’s tears and the obvious grief that covered him like a suffocating shroud. I can’t be sure, but I don’t recall seeing my mom again until the next day. Where was she? Perhaps we’d been put to bed before she came home?
Like most traumatic events a child experiences early in life, my sister’s death had a pivotal effect on all of us. It definitely put a damper on the world my brothers and I shared the rest of that summer. There was a dreadful expectation that another shoe might drop. What would it be, we wondered?
Through it all, our parents encouraged us to have hope, the confidence that we would see our sister again one day and that she was safe in the arms of Jesus. I Thessalonians 4:13-14 says: “… do not grieve … as those who have no hope …” The Scriptures brought deep comfort to us! Also, my dad often sang the Fanny Crosby hymn, Safe In the Arms of Jesus, and I have no doubt the lyrics caused him to remember his departed daughter. (I don’t have a recording of my dad singing, but the link I’ve included above reminds me of his steady tenor voice.)
In God’s perfect time, and as an answer to my specific prayers, another sister came into my life two years later. What a blessing she has been! (That’s another story entirely!)