By Lois Weiner
Once I expressed anger to someone about having spent so much of my life caring for members of my family of origin, including my sister Jane, who had been blinded in the hospital in 1950 from a procedure meant to save lives of premature babies. The person tried to help by saying life’s not fair, that we have to play the hand we’re dealt. That made me even angrier, because I felt unsupported. But as I considered the idea of being a dealt a hand (something we can’t control) and then playing the hand we’re dealt, (which we can have some power to do), I realized Jane had been dealt a far more terrible hand than anyone in my family, and yet she had played it with remarkable courage.
Jane yearned most of her life to have what she believed came with being sighted, what her twin brother, her oldest sister, and I had: a job and a life in which she was independent, companionship and love. Remembering the many ways her efforts were undercut, her defeats in attaining so many things we take for granted, has made grieving for her very painful. What has helped me counter this sense of loss and unfairness is recalling how fiercely she struggled for a rich life, how she played that rotten hand.
Jane had a remarkable ability to locate people and services for support. She was an early member of the National Federation of the Blind, a civil rights organization that took the lead in changing laws and attitudes about the blind. In her thirties she moved from our hometown Wilmington Delaware to Cincinnati with the help of a social service agency she had identified. She was a complete stranger, with no friends or family on whom to rely. She worked full-time packing boxes for a company that made cooking supplies, maintaining her own apartment, doing all the cooking, shopping, and bill-paying. Carrying on the family culture of being “foodies,” she arranged for a cab to take her to a deli that sold her favorite foods unavailable in the local supermarket, many of them from our childhood. Often the cab didn’t arrive or she was cheated by the driver. That didn’t keep her from trying it again.
She had an infectious vitality and was generous with her praise, love, and possessions. She adored music and sang for many years with the Sweet Adelaides. She attended summer camp in the Pocono mountains, where she learned to ride horses.
As many know who have responsibility for family who land up in institutions, as did Jane when she was only 62, the cards are stacked against patients’ being treated with the respectful, loving care they deserve, as well as our ability to protect them, even when we push, push, push and then push more. Jane died from congestive heart failure on Nov. 25, 2021 after months of pain in the Cincinnati nursing home that had been her home for a decade.
What most mediates my sorrow is recalling the love I felt for her and the love and support I know she felt from me. I feel so fortunate she and I had the chance to fight together for her dignity and the care she deserved, and I feel solace from memories of my having found ways to bring her pleasures that would be small to many but were huge to her, like food treats from our childhood.
She was a heroine and didn’t know it. Her life inspires me about the human capacity to bring happiness to others. Jane never forgot the power to make others joyful, even as she struggled constantly against barriers to realizing her dreams, hopes, and potential.
Lois Weiner is a retired professor of education who writes widely about education, politics, and teacher unionism. Her sister Jane inspired her life-long commitment to social justice and equal educational opportunity for all children.