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Remembering my sister Carol Horton on what would have been her 71st birthday
The stuff of 'what might have been'
September 14, 2023
I write this column on what would have been my sister Carol Horton’s 71st birthday. I use the term ‘would have been’ because she died in late July of 1974 at the age of 21—a few weeks shy of turning 22.
The cause of her death was liver failure, with that vital organ finally shutting down. She had been infected with a form of hepatitis in seventh grade, came close to dying, but recovered enough to resume a regular life—although she took steroids which turned her from a skinny girl into a more plump one. However, despite the medication and appearance of being healthy, the damage had apparently been such that it eventually worsened and proved fatal.
I’m a little over a year older and like a lot of siblings, we did our share of quarreling and picking on each other while we were growing up. But that ended with her initial disease after I’d done my regular baiting one evening, trying to get a rise from her, and my mother took me aside and read me the riot act, explaining the seriousness of her condition and the need for of us to do all we could aid in her recovery.
By high school we had became close friends—and drew even closer after each of us had graduated from Fowlerville and both of use ended up living in Lansing. She was my biggest fan in my attempts to become a writer and supported my various political activities.
Still, she was not a satellite orbiting yours truly and my activities. She carved out her own niche. In high school she was elected as a class officer, belonged to school clubs including the Girls Athletic Association, and worked at Drs. Hauer & Higby as an office aide.
After high school she roomed with three other young ladies who were schoolmates in a south Lansing apartment and then re-located to a couple of other places during the next few years.
When I returned to Michigan after a brief and ill-fated stay in San Francisco, getting off the plane in late November of 1972, she and her then boyfriend were at the airport to greet me. As she did on other occasions, she let me stay at her place until I could get my own lodging.
At the time of her death, she was engaged to a fellow a few years older. He was from Fowlerville and had a couple of young daughters from a previous marriage. Her focus was on them and the future that they were looking forward to sharing. I had moved to Traverse City earlier that spring and, while learning that she had returned to the hospital, was not initially aware that her condition had taken a downward turn.
I’ve written of this episode, her death and my reaction, in the essay ‘The Long Crossing’ so I won’t go over the details again.
A memorial scholarship was established in her memory, with a graduating senior from Fowlerville being selected each year. Grandma Horton, a retired school teacher, did the presentation at the Senior Honors Night for over ten years. Then she informed me that I’d be taking over. That was in the mid-1980s and I continued the tradition until finally I decided that, as a memorial, it had run its course. While understandably none of the students at the assembly would have remembered her, neither did their parents. Had she lived, Carol would have been a contemporary of the high schoolers’ grandparents. So after 30 years I presented the final one and moved on.
My wife and I decorate her gravesite each spring, prior to Memorial Day, along with other family members buried at this location in the cemetery. She lies next to our father Verlyn, who passed away in 1967.
The life and times we shared together as kids and then as young adults has become more and more a collage of faded memories. I’ve, of course, had the opportunity to experience the past 49 years, with all the ‘ups and downs’ and ‘over and around,’ been married, have had a son and two step-daughters, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.
Part of the ‘downs’ has been the loss of two of the grandsons.
There’s also been the long career in the newspaper business (still going on) and of writing my commentaries and personal essays. I’d like to think her faith in me—demonstrated when my aspiration was mainly ‘a wish and a prayer’—has proven to be justified. But then her loyalty and devotion was such that she would have backed me even if I’d fallen flat on my face and needed to pursue some other course of action. She always had my back. . . as I hope I had hers.
Alas, such speculation is a moot point. She never made it to 22, never got to be married and become a mother, never got the chance to enjoy a long and fruitful life.
For her, as for the multitude of others who’s lives were cut short, it’s the stuff of conjecture.
So instead I’ll remember my sister Carol on this day that she would have turned 71. The memories of long ago returning like a parade of ghosts, a few tears of sadness moisten the eye, and only sentiment and regret are left to take the place of the candles on the cake of ‘what might have been.’
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Steve Horton is a mid-Michigan journalist and editor-publisher of the ‘Fowlerville News & Views’— a weekly newspaper.