She Died Young
My sister Maggie died in 1971, only sixteen years old. If any of us Dawkins kids was to die young, she was the one who could say she had already accomplished lots in terms of making the world a better place. At age sixteen I was still playing cliques and greasers, cutting school and barely staying out of trouble. At age thirteen Maggie was volunteering for McCarthy and saying she was going to be the first woman president of the United States.
Maggie was born with a hole in her heart. As a brand-new-born she got a patch in one of the first open-heart surgeries. The artificial valve she got as a five year-old was one of the first ever. There were many hospital stays in her short life. Yet she always remained happy. No chip on her shoulder. The doctors and nurses said she made everyone on her floor lives better because she was so optimistic, outgoing and cheerful. In 1971 they said her heart had grown full enough to have a full-sized valve and there would be no need for any more operations. It was deemed a success and she was told she could now (finally) fully participate in strenuous activities, like swimming, that previously only her friends could do. She had lots of friends. Everybody liked being with her. The next day though, the valve gave out, and she died swimming.
When I heard the news I was twenty-one and still mostly just into having fun. After crying for hours I decided to re-dedicate my life to live her life too, to work twice as hard making the world a better place, to be the president she wanted to be. In those moments I finally grew up, became honest with myself, faced down my demons to do things just to be popular, and added a serious side to my life. Overnite I’d come a long way from being the seventeen year-old who wanted to rip off the McCarthy bumper sticker that Maggie had put on the family car because the high school friends I wanted to be popular with were making fun of long-hairs and peaceniks. Most of high school I was not my true self yet. I owe Maggie a ton for having found her true self at a much younger age role modeling how to be concerned about other things besides yourself.
It was Maggie and Grandma Rinkema who recruited me to be part of a “Taxi Cab Brigade” that drove stranded McCarthy delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The taxi cab drivers and bus drivers were on strike. Mayor Daley had put the expressway between O’Hare Airport and downtown Chicago under construction, and then arranged to have city vehicles pick up Humphrey delegates, leaving McCarthy delegates stranded. But I was so not into politics I didn’t even think about joining the anti-war protesters in Grant Park. All that changed with Maggie’s dying. By 1972 I was one of the protesters.
As a teenager I went to any length trying to be part of the “in crowd,” succumbing to peer pressure, rarely stopping to consider the consequences of my actions: cut school, smoked cigarets, used fake IDs to rent hotel rooms and leave without paying, even stole a car once. There are plenty of stories here, but mostly too awful to tell. I was just lucky I never got caught. But that’s why we don’t impose the death penalty on people under age 18. The person you are at age 13 or 17 is not always the person you are at age 30 or 40.
In 1968 as a 13 year-old Maggie already knew who she was. There’s a point at which you become a grown-up. Thank God if you find it before you die. Amen, Maggie.
Tomorrow: My Sister Murph
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