My sister Janet arrived on July 6, 1954, the first of what would become a brood of eight children born to Leonard and Anna Nelson. Janet swiftly adopted the attitude that she was in charge of the rest of us kids due to the fact that she was the eldest, even though she was only two minutes older than her twin, Jane.
Janet had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. She could absorb all the information contained in a dense, scholarly textbook in an astonishingly short amount of time. As an adult, it was common for Janet to read a paperback novel in less than a day.
Janet assumed the role of mother hen to her younger siblings. Blessed with a keen intellect, Janet was forever teaching us about the world that we inhabit. She had a wide-ranging sense of humor and a boisterous, infectious laugh.
The medical field was Janet’s greatest passion, so it wasn’t a surprise when she enrolled at Nettleton College and became a licensed practical nurse. Janet would continue her education over the years until she became a registered nurse.
After college, Janet moved to North Platte, Nebraska, where she worked for many years for a private practice physician. During her sojourn in Nebraska, Janet met and married Andrew, and our clan of Norwegians had to learn how to spell and pronounce Sokolowski.
While their marriage didn’t last, it did have one outstanding outcome. Janet often said that her son, Adam, was the best thing that ever happened to her. Like his mother, Adam was blessed with a dynamic mind. His effervescent sense of humor would rival that of a professional standup comic.
Shortly after our father died, Janet moved back home to our family dairy farm. She was a great comfort to our mother during that difficult time. Adam became like a brother to our sons and I gained a pint-size hired man. Janet took a job as an operating room nurse at a local hospital, continuing her role as mother hen and teacher.
One summer, Janet and my wife decided to take the three boys on a weekend getaway to Lake Okoboji. When they stopped to examine a roadside attraction, one of the boys climbed a sign, fell off, and cut his leg. A little bleeding and a lot of crying ensued.
But my wife had Band-Aids in her purse, and Janet had loads of medical expertise. The lad was quickly repaired and their weekend resumed.
Some years later, my wife wept tears of pride on the day that Adam graduated from college and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army. Like his mother, Adam chose to become a nurse.
I don’t recall exactly when Janet was diagnosed with diabetes. Her life took on a new focus, one that involved frequent finger pricks and blood sugar levels.
But the disease exacted its inexorable toll. Janet nearly died after suffering a major stroke. She developed renal failure and received a transplanted kidney from our brother Kevin. Blood vessels in her eyes leaked and robbed her of her sight and, eventually, her independence.
Janet went into an assisted living facility. In an odd twist of fate, she ended up rooming with our mother, who will be 90 in October.
I think that diabetes simply wore Janet down. She gradually became more and more withdrawn and less and less communicative. During the month that followed her birthday, Janet lost an alarming amount of weight and was placed in hospice care.
Our mother was at Janet’s side during her last moments. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only two of my sisters were allowed to be with Mom and Janet. Adam, who is stationed at Bethesda, Maryland, called. They put the phone to Janet’s ear and Adam and his wife and their four children sent their love.
Then, as my sisters and our mom held her hand, Janet quietly and peacefully slipped away.
One of my favorite photos of Janet was taken when she was perhaps 10 years old. A neighbor’s father had died, so neighborhood farmers organized a corn cultivating bee to help out during that difficult time. A photographer from the Volga Tribune happened by and immortalized the image of Janet cultivating corn with our John Deere B.
Janet sits upright on the tractor seat, exuding the confidence of an eldest child, looking dapper in her straw fedora. You can see the self-assured and intelligent young woman she would soon become.
Janet’s final gift was to donate her remains to the USD Sanford School of Medicine. Thanks to her generosity, Janet will continue to teach and to lead for years to come.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at workman.com/products/dear-county-agent-guy.