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A Letter to My Late Sister on Our Shared Birthday

Although forty years have gone by, I fondly remember the birthdays we shared and am sad there have been so many without you

By Judy Haveson

Dear Celia,

Happy Birthday! I can't believe you would now be sixty-five, and I am now fifty-eight. Yet another birthday we were robbed of reveling in together. It's hard for me to visualize what you'd look like at sixty-five. You will forever be etched in my brain as a beautiful twenty-five-year-old woman full of life and promise. And unlike me, you'll always have eternal youth.

An old photo of two young girls standing in front of two birthday cakes. Next Avenue, sisters
Judy and her sister Celia celebrating a birthday together when they were young  |  Credit: Judy Haveson

As I celebrated this year, I thought about being born on your seventh birthday. I realized sharing the spotlight with a baby sister was not the highlight for you that year. I believe you enjoyed receiving your Charmin' Chatty Cathy doll more. I'll admit, through the years, I had moments of not wanting to share my birthday with you either. But you and I were blessed to have our birthday bond us forever.

At nineteen, I couldn't fathom not having you in my life. At fifty-eight, I still have a hard time with this reality.

The memory of our last birthday party is so vivid. It was one of the toughest of my life, knowing it would be the last time you and I would celebrate our special day in person. I decided to give up my birthday so you could enjoy the day all to yourself. I could celebrate any old day, but August 17, 1983, should be all about you. And just like the protective big sister you were, you told me emphatically — NO. You were always so bossy.

Our Last Birthday Together

But celebrate we did — you, dying of cancer, lying in a hospital bed surrounded by balloons, party hats, endless visitors, and too many cakes and sweets. And me, never leaving your side.

That birthday celebration often creeps into my mind; it was so surreal. I laid in your bed with you, and we spent hours discussing the tsunami heading our way. At nineteen, I couldn't fathom not having you in my life. At fifty-eight, I still have a hard time with this reality.

It always astonished me how you were the one who would soon meet her fate, yet your concern centered on how Mama, Daddy, and I would be once you were gone. Even with death at your doorstep, your selflessness never ceased to amaze me.

Sharing the memories of all our joint celebrations brought happiness to both of us. Laughing about Mama's passionate cake baking skills rivaling Julia Child, even though her real hero was Betty Crocker. We were never short on having fun during our celebrations, especially our friendly sister competition on whose birthday gift was the best.

I thought long and hard about your birthday present that year. I knew I had to up my game and make my gift special, especially knowing you would have so little time to enjoy whatever I selected. I chose a framed picture of the two of us. I knew it would bring you happiness and that it would bring me solace once you were gone. To this day, it sits by my bedside.

You wrote how honored you were to be my big sister and how much you would always love me.

Your present to me that year was simple but perfect, a shaky, hand-written note. You wrote how honored you were to be my big sister and how much you would always love me. You said never to stop being who I am and always to make you proud. I only pray I've fulfilled these promises. We talked about some deep stuff that day, like if you were afraid to die and what our plans were after you passed away. It still haunts me.

I'm forever grateful for how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to share my thoughts and fears — and say "Happy Birthday" to you one last time.

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There are so many things I miss about us. Our gossip sessions, dance parties, listening to records and endless shopping adventures rank high. Also, how I could always make you laugh until you almost wet your pants. And, on more than one occasion, I succeeded. Hey, what else are little sisters for?

The Life Events You Missed

My anger and grief towards the many experiences you and I would never share were evident through the years. High on the list was seeing me finally get married to a wonderful man who cooks, so I never had to learn. And to think people thought you were the "smart" sister.

I've mostly let my anger and sadness go and stopped dwelling on your not being here.

But the one life event I will never get over is you not knowing your nephew. He is the most remarkable son, and oh, how much you would love him. Like so many experiences in my life, he didn't come easy, but he was well worth the wait.

I've mostly let my anger and sadness go and stopped dwelling on your not being here. Full disclosure: It took years of therapy to help me. I've tried to focus on doing what you asked me to —living my best life and more — probably a little more than you could have imagined, but hey, you were the faultless daughter, not me.

True confession: I always wanted to be like you. And not just your 5'10" height. You were beautiful, intelligent, kind, loyal, successful, and ambitious, albeit super klutzy. At least you weren't perfect. You will always remain my role model, hero, inspiration, guiding light, and most of all — my angel in heaven watching over me.

It's hard to describe the pain I experience every year on our birthday, knowing another year has passed and you aren't here to celebrate by my side. But you've never strayed from my thoughts, and your voice of reason remained in my head for every significant decision I made through the years.

I've never fully understood why you were taken from me at such a young age. Still, I have spent my life trying to make you proud because I will always be proud to have been your little sister. As with every birthday, your memory remains in my heart, and you will always look twenty-five years old in my mind. Don't worry; I had two slices of cake. I love and miss you every day.

Judy Haveson
Judy Haveson is a writer living in New York. Her debut memoir, "Laugh Cry Rewind" will be released on September 28, 2022. To pre-order click here and connect with Judy on her website, Instagram or Twitter. Read More
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