On January 28, 2023, my sister Debbie passed away at 54 from colon cancer. She fought hard, but the initial diagnosis in February 2022 showed the disease had already metastasized to her liver, lungs, and brain. Our mom always called Debbie bullheaded. Her last eleven months proved it.
I met Debbie in February 1972, shortly after I had turned 10. My parents brought her along when they picked me up from school. They were in adoption proceedings, and the county had them meet Debbie—a foster child approaching her fourth birthday—in a park with a social worker. The getting-to-know-you process was supposed to stretch over several days, but Debbie had jumped in the car, certain she had found her new mom and dad.
I took Debbie’s hand and skipped around the school grounds, introducing her to classmates and teachers. We took her home where she had a pretty bedroom waiting, but she chose the first night to sleep in the lower berth of my bunkbed (I had ridden out the Sylmar earthquake on the top mattress a year earlier). Debbie was eventually comfortable sleeping alone in her own room, an arrangement unfamiliar during her foster home days. Friends and family showered her with toys, dolls, and clothes. I helped our father build a jungle gym for her in our terraced backyard.
In my ministry, I lead a live study series called “Christian Sci-Fi Night with Professor K,” watching classic and current science fiction and discussing from a Christian worldview. A half-century ago, Debbie was my first student. KTLA, an independent TV station in Los Angeles, would run movies in the evening, showing the same film every night for a week. Often, these were Japanese monster movies such as The War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla’s Revenge, and Destroy All Planets starring Godzilla wanna-be Gamera, the giant, fire-breathing turtle. I watched the movies with Debbie, explaining the action and re-enacting the battles with her at playtime.
In 1976, we adopted my brother Paul, and Debbie lived the other side of the experience—the welcoming sibling opening her home and heart to a new family member. In 1980, I graduated high school and flew into “adulthood,” with Debbie and Paul still having years of growing up ahead of them.
Debbie took her own flight into adulthood when she turned 18, getting married in 1986. I wish the following years had been a metaphoric continuation of holding hands and skipping. Instead, there were periods of closeness and estrangement. During a good stretch in the early 1990s, Debbie and I played intense sessions of Mom’s favorite game, Scrabble. Debbie was managing an apartment building with her first husband, and one of her tenants was a Scrabble aficionado who had taught her some winning tips. My sister was a formidable opponent.
Debbie and I were close in her final years. After relocating from California to Minnesota in 2017, I spent a lot of time with her by phone and text. We talked about life and parenting as her two sons entered adolescence. And we played Scrabble online. By this time, Debbie had become a master of the game and routinely trounced me. Mom, who had passed away in 2013, would’ve been proud.
In June 2022, I visited my sister in California during a lull in her illness. I chauffeured her around the San Fernando Valley for errands and doctor appointments. On one excursion, I took her to the Northridge Mall. While I stayed in the food court attending to social media and online teaching, she shopped at a leisurely pace, buying a new pair of comfortable shoes and a scented candle. She said the idyll at the mall was the first time she’d done something for herself in a long while.
Debbie came to know the Lord during her trials. My wife, Anni, studying to be an Assemblies of God pastor, ministered to her. She also reconnected with a co-worker who was a believer and cancer survivor. Debbie’s friend sent baskets filled with scarves and caps to cover chemo hair loss. The baskets also contained devotionals. Debbie enjoyed Christian gift-giving. For Christmas, she sent Anni and me a crystal globe with a 3D cross etched within. The gift sits on the living room shelf next to pictures of our kids and grandson.
Debbie was back in the hospital by year’s end with a stomach perforation from her medicines and a resurgence of her tumors. During our final phone conversations, she fought for the breath to form the words. A day after returning home for hospice care, she was gone.
With this death decades too soon, I’ve changed my expectations of heaven. I plan to see Godzilla marathons and Scrabble boards. And a bullheaded girl who taught me to love whether or not you’re skipping.
Romans 14:8 NLT
If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.