From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

My Best Friend

Not many may know the depths of true sisterly love.

Margaret Courtney

I was always jealous of my big sister, Ellen. She was the pretty one. She was the popular one. She was the friendly and generous one who could do no wrong. I truly believed that “Mom always liked her best.” Did I feel any different than any other kid sister? Probably not. But when she gave my parents their first grandchild, a beautiful blue-eyed, golden-haired girl named Jillian, I was convinced that I could never be as good as she.

From the day she was born, Jillian owned my heart and my thoughts.

I was only an aunt, yet I felt as proud of her as if I were her mother. I never knew that it was possible to care so deeply for another person. The greatest thing about our relationship was that we could enjoy all the pleasures of an aunt-niece friendship without the authoritarian role of parent getting in the way. I loved her and I laughed with her, but I never had to get angry with her for not doing her homework or fighting with her brother. What a smug look I must have had on my face when we were in public together and people assumed that she was my child.

Jillian once said, “You are so cool, Auntie Benita, so different from my mother.” I treasured those words, yet inwardly, I felt guilty that her own mother could not experience the unconditional love that Jillian and I shared. There were no expectations, no demands, no obligations . . . just the pure satisfaction of being together.

When Jillian was an infant, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. My sister greeted the news with resolve and with a strength that was unyielding. At first the CF didn’t have much of an impact on Jillian. Sure, she coughed a lot, but that never stopped her from having a regular childhood, even though everyone assumed that her cough meant she was sick with a cold. There were many times when parents on the playground or in school would chastise Ellen for putting their children in contact with Jillian’s germs. Most times, Ellen would not feel like explaining that the cough came from a lung disease and not the flu.

There were many rocky moments throughout the years. When Jillian did get a cold, it was never simple. Sometimes, oxygen masks were necessary. Other times, hospital stays were involved. Visits to the doctor were almost as frequent as trips to the grocery store. And, oh, those blood tests! Every diagnosis, every doctor’s appointment, every little sneeze seemed to require a blood test that Jillian hated—passionately. She would scream and kick and try to run away. Anything to not have a blood test. No amount of cajoling or bribing could get her to readily submit.

Except for me. If I was there, it was somehow better. She still protested, but not as loudly or as vehemently.

As the illnesses and the accompanying absences from school became more frequent, it became clear that Jillian was not like every other kid. Ellen never wavered in her determination to not give in to the CF. Jillian should not be singled out as needing special attention, as being different. On her good days, Jillian could do whatever little girls do—go to school, play hopscotch or Barbie. Sometimes, she would tire easily, but that did not stop her from being smart, sociable and busy.

As Jillian got older, our relationship got even better. She confided in me things that she would not tell her mother. This made me feel very special.

When I walked into the room, her face would light up and she would yell, “Auntie Benita,” as if just my being there was better than any medicine. I think it might have made Ellen a little jealous. That was okay. In some distorted psychological way, it was my revenge against my older sister just for being an older sister and for always being better than me. Now, I was in a position of strength. I had something that she wanted—her daughter’s confidence.

Childish emotions aside, Jillian was our connection. Ellen and I didn’t have much in common until Jillian came along. Now we saw each other often and spoke on the phone regularly. We were forming an adult relationship and playing a much larger role in each other’s lives. Jillian was the focus of our conversations and attention, as we shared the events of her life together.

And then Jillian’s condition started to deteriorate. Her hospital stays became lengthier and more frequent. It was scary when she was very ill, and we all sat around somberly thinking the worst but not admitting it. No one ever mentioned the inevitable, but in our hearts, we had to accept it as a reality.

I watched my sister grow old and tired before my eyes. The physical and emotional strain was eroding her strength but she never gave up hope. I don’t know how she did it: Looking into Jillian’s eyes knowing that she would never grow to adulthood. Realizing every morning that the end was just a little bit closer, but never giving up hope. Her attitude remained positive, even though there was little reason for optimism. I came to realize that the sister I envied had become my hero.

The only way I can make any sense of Jillian’s death is to believe that things happen for a reason. Ellen wants to know what reason could be important enough to require her child to die. Jillian brought us closer together and forced us to share our happiness, our strength and our sorrow.

A bond was formed far stronger than anything we had ever known. We came to truly love and respect each other. I’m not sure if that would have happened had it not been for Jillian’s life . . . and death. That is certainly not a good enough reason for a child to die, but God works in mysterious ways. All I know is before Jillian was born, I had a big sister. Now, I have a best friend.

Benita Baker

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