The Last Weekend by my Sister, Emily S. McIllwain

***Over the years, my parents and I have written about my brother, Daniel. Now it’s my sister’s turn. I’m so happy to share with you her heart and experience. Today marks 14 years without him. I cannot believe it has been that long. Oh we miss him dearly.***

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Have you felt the tug of the Spirit, nudging you as only The One Who Created You could – as if a string was tied from inside your soul to an unidentified outward location? Have you heard the silent whisper of His voice, beckoning to you to go this way or that, to make one choice or the other? There was a time in my life when I was not really listening…no, I was having too much fun living for myself. But I will thank God for the rest of my days for not giving up on me, for not going silent, and for His persistence one autumn day in particular, for carrying out one very special plan.

I was in my second year of law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and clerking for a large firm (large by Arkansas standards, anyway). I was also in a long distance relationship with my now-husband, Jonathan, and most weekends were spent traveling the hour-and-a-half distance to visit him (or vice versa) in his hometown, Russellville, Arkansas.

On that particular Friday in October, the managing partner of the firm – a.k.a. my boss – asked me to deliver a document to a town located halfway between Fayetteville and my hometown of Harrison. I had already planned a little road trip across the state for the weekend, driving to Russellville before heading to see my sister perform in a play in Jonesboro, on the east side of the state. With this new assignment, I decided instead to go through Harrison first. That is when I gave my brother a call.

Let me tell you a little bit about my big brother, Daniel Matthew Sprott. He was born on July 12, 1977, at Doctors Hospital in Little Rock, a short drive from where we lived in Brinkley. He was the firstborn in my family, and my parents were over-the-moon excited to become parents. There were no signs of problems during the pregnancy, but he suffered a skull fracture during birth and was immediately taken to a different hospital. The fracture was an early indicator of a rare medical condition.

He was a medical mystery, surviving, by his own count, “30 plus” surgeries. He could walk short distances but mostly used one crutch or his Quickie wheelchair. Doctors made surgical attempts to straighten his legs, but none significantly helped. There is a picture of the two of us after one of those surgeries; in it he is in his wheelchair, legs straight out in front of him in full casts, a big grin on his face, smiling down at me – a baby of about 6 months old – laying happily between his broken legs.

That was him: Daniel had the best attitude. I honestly cannot remember him ever complaining about the hand he was dealt. Now, do I remember him complaining about me being in his way in front of the television, or about me being an annoying little sister? Sure! But never once did I hear him play the victim.

He was always making people laugh, and people in Brinkley and then Harrison – where we moved when he was in the 4th grade – loved him, accepted him, and treated him no differently than they would anyone else. It was when we traveled out of town that I noticed a difference. Even as a young child, I can recall situations where kids would say something about “that weird looking boy”, like “what is wrong with him?” It hurt me to my core. He would smile back at the little kids who stared, oftentimes making a funny face at them to get them to relax and understand that he was not some sort of monster.

As he got older, the physical pain he endured was perhaps joined by emotional pain, as his friends started getting married, having children, advancing their careers, etc… He had a good job – working at our dad’s small law practice – and had countless friends. In fact, Daniel was the best man in several weddings and godfather of many children. Looking back, I see how he was also in a state of physical decline. Were we in denial? Were we in such a state of self-centered oblivion that we failed to even notice? Or were we to realize from the very beginning that he was an extra-special, unique gift from our God the Creator, and that each and every day we had with him was a treasure? Looking back, I know the answer.

On that gorgeous fall day in October 2006, the start of a weekend that I had high hopes for, I felt a tug, and I called my brother. He was not working that afternoon; my parents were in South Carolina under obligation of my father’s role as President of the Arkansas Bar Association. I could tell that Daniel was on the computer when he answered. I boldly told him my plan, and asked him to pack a bag and be ready for me in about an hour and a half. He was not used to taking orders from his little sister, five years his junior. (He was, in fact, used to taking orders from his other little sister, Sarah, only 13 months his junior and of a much more dominant personality-type!)

As I alluded earlier, I was not exactly listening to or living for the Lord much back then. I had just turned 23 and was completely occupied with law school and the roller-coaster ride of a long distance romance. The fact that I was even willing to drive out of my way to pick him up shows divine intervention! It could not have been anything other than the Holy Spirit that spoke through me, and when Daniel came up with a few excuses as to why he could not go, I knew I could not take no for an answer. I stood my ground and said “We are going to do this. We are going to go watch our sister perform a big role on the stage together. You are coming with me and that is that!”  He finally gave in but only after he negotiated one bribe: Before I picked him up, I must go through Kentucky Fried Chicken and get him three Chicken Snacker Sandwiches.  My goodness he was a hoot!

Thus began the weekend I will never forget.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

F R I D A Y

I completed my simple job delivery, then drove the winding scenic road I had traveled hundreds of times – U.S. 412 – to my hometown. I obligingly drove through K.F.C. before heading to the home my family had moved into nearly twenty years prior. I found Daniel downstairs, grumbling a little but mostly in good spirits with a little bitty overnight bag he had packed, ready to go. He was a little concerned about Annabelle Lee (“Annie”), our black Labrador Retriever we had given my dad when I was in the 10th grade. My parents had left Daniel in charge of her, so his concern was valid. I was on a mission; there was only one option: “Let’s get her in the Jeep then.” We all piled into “Hogger” – my red 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee – and headed down Scenic 7 South toward Russellville.

Jonathan had only recently moved back to his hometown after graduating with his MBA from the U of A, so he happened to be living with his parents at the time. There were countless parts of this journey that I consider special, but this first stop was priceless. My future in-laws spent time with and got to know Daniel that weekend. Jonathan, who I would marry less than two years later, spent quality time with him. Here is another sweet memory I have from that night and another example of Daniel’s giant heart: my in-laws do not particularly love dogs, so Annie stayed outside in the yard in a kennel far from the house. Annie was mainly an indoor dog at this point, so Daniel stayed out there with her a long time to comfort her and make her feel safe, and loved.

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S A T U R D A Y

The next morning, we left Russellville for Jonesboro. That meant we would be driving through Conway. Growing up, one of my brother’s best friends was our cousin Adam. His sister Laura lives close to Conway and has a horse farm and barn animals. Daniel, in his easy-going, slow-paced way, asked if we could stop and see if she was home. He was never in a hurry to get anywhere! It exasperated us all at times, but what a great way to live! I again felt that prodding from the inside, and Instead of worrying about the clock, agreed that it was a great idea. She was delighted to see us – especially delighted to see Daniel – and even let me ride one of her beloved horses!  

While I was riding, Daniel took some pictures with his flip phone (this was one year before the iPhone took over). I remember how he smiled, watching me ride, even though it was something he was not able to do. I remember thinking about how I was being selfish; he probably was not having any fun just watching. But that was the thing that made Daniel special; he was always content, no matter the circumstances. Maybe it was because of his circumstances, but he had a mental fortitude unrivaled.  

We left our cousin’s house happy and with sun-kissed cheeks. The Tour of Daniel’s Goodbye had one final leg: Jonesboro.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My sister Sarah is only 13 months younger than Daniel; they were practically twins! He was always so proud of her, and then of me too when I came along four years after Sarah. She and her husband have three beautiful babies, and the youngest is Daniel’s namesake.  In October 2006, they had been married four years and had recently suffered a miscarriage. Our hearts were particularly tender toward her at that time.  

Daniel requested that we get to Jonesboro in time to get her some flowers before her play. Since neither of us knew any better – or knew the town of Jonesboro any better! – we ended up at a Walgreens. We managed to find some type of flowers there and lucky for us also some gummy worms, which we both shared an affinity for.  

By this point, I did have to rush him along a bit because it was almost time for the show to begin! Sarah had saved us two center seats on the very front row of the Forum Theater in downtown Jonesboro. Sarah was playing Shelby in Steel Magnolias! She had minored in drama in college and this was her second lead role in the community theatre.

Daniel and I were mesmerized the entire show – I remember looking over at him and I could see on his flip phone that he was texting Sarah-something about being “fallible”, which is embarrassing to admit, but I had to look up the definition later (he was always surprising me with his wit and wisdom!). She showed me later what the text had said: “Who are you and what did you do with my fallible sister?” He had also configured a rose on that text. What a sweet comment from a proud big brother. I do believe he even wiped a tear or two during the show. That is how proud he was of her.

I love the memory of us sitting on the front row of that little old theatre watching Sarah do what she loves. To this day, when I see, hear or say the word “fallible/infallible”, I think of my big brother, and how he taught it to me. He taught me so, so much.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I love my brother-in-law, but it just so happens that he was out of town that weekend, so it was just the three of us. We had the time of our lives. We listened to music, Sarah and I danced, and the three of us talked late into the night. I remember a conversation Daniel and I had outside that night on their back deck. For some reason, I had been questioning if he still believed. Because of that conversation, I know that he is in heaven with Jesus His Savior. His, Yours, and Mine. What a gift. What a comfort that was to ponder after his death…knowing that it was not really the end. We would see him again.  

Also that night, Sarah and I – separately, without the other even knowing! – watched him sleep, which is something we would not normally do. God took our hands and led us into the room where he was sleeping, and told us to look at him, because He knew that the next time we would look at him like that, he would not wake up. That is just jaw-dropping to me still to think about, because what a crazy-stalker-strange thing to do! Who does that? And why? If not for God leading us to do it, stirring our hearts to feel the need, the impulse to do this otherwise abnormal thing, we would not have that memory of his peaceful, restful sleep. That memory of his face, his body, his hands, in restful slumber. Thank you, Lord.

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S U N D A Y

Sundays. A day of the week that looking back to my college and law school years feels dreary and sad. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps because it signified the end of the weekend and the beginning of the school week, which then meant long classes and endless quizzes, essays and exams. Perhaps because I had stayed up way too late the night before at a sorority/fraternity function. Or maybe, perhaps, because at that point in my life I was not in the joy-giving habit of Sunday-morning church-going, a habit I was raised with and knew deep down was best for my soul.

That Sunday was the dreariest of all. Not atmospherically, though I have no recollection of the weather at all that day (of course it IS a gray day when I picture it all in my mind). I dropped him off, at the home we all grew up in. The house was empty and dark because my parents would not return from their trip until the following day. I watched him get into his wheelchair down by the basement door. He turned around and waved goodbye, giving me a toothless grin before I drove off down the alley and then back to Fayetteville. I will never forget that image…and I hope I never do.

Life resumed to what was normal back then. Busy and hectic, but otherwise, we had a carefree, painless existence.

Four days later, on Thursday, October 19, 2006, my Daddy called at 8:01 a.m. to tell me that Daniel passed away in his sleep; his heart had stopped beating sometime in the night. He was 29 years old.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It took me a few days, but the realization of how, and when, and that that trip miraculously came to be slowly encompassed my being like the hand of God holding me. With that realization came a peace to fight any doubt that may exist, of knowing that God is with us, guiding us, and that we must listen when He calls.

After fourteen years without my brother, God is still revealing the beautiful, loving ways He prepared and held us before, during, and after that weekend. God orchestrated the entire trip. He had me take Daniel on somewhat of a farewell tour, to see people who had been a big part of his past, and to see people who would mean a lot to his family in the future. He worked it out where everyone could say goodbye to him: it was one last time for every one to be blessed by him and by his good nature.

God gave me the magical gift of TIME with my brother. Time spent with him in the car, with no cell phone service, where we were forced to talk to each other, to make memories, not knowing then that we were saying goodbye. And He gave me the gift of knowing where Daniel is now, and that I will see him again, and he will have a perfect body, and be able to run and do all those things he was not able to do on earth, all of the things he had to sit and watch the rest of us do.

I thank God for nudging me to make the call, to take the trip. Even though it hurt SO MUCH to lose him that day, I know that God is with him now. And I will see my brother again.

My sister Emily ♥️
She is a wife, a stay at home mom and lawyer who has a love for reading, writing, learning and growing. A self proclaimed empath, she loves deeply and well. She is funny and fun, sincere and silly, a little klutzy but full of grace. She loves days spent with family- laughing, playing, RV-ing, or swimming. You can usually find her curled up somewhere with her nose in a book and a cat on her lap.

12 thoughts on “The Last Weekend by my Sister, Emily S. McIllwain

  1. Wow! Emily you brought tears to our eyes. We loved reading your story. We have so many wonderful memories of Daniel. The memory you shared with us today is so wonderful and full of Gods Love. your whole family are so special to our family. Thank you for sharing! God placed Daniel with a pretty special family!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a sweet and tender story about your brother. We are blessed to know we will see all of our people that we love again. I wish I had known him. He sounds like a wonderful big brother❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah- What a beautiful tribute! I feel like I almost know Daniel myself! I didn’t know that is who your son is named after, but what an honor to be blessed with his name! I know you treasure these precious memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ❤️Emily’s story. So touching, Daniel’s grin, one that is stamped in your ❤️ the first time you met him. As I read her story, I wiped tears of JOY knowing you will all be United🙏🏻 in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great job Emily! What perfect timing. Woke up to the notification on Jim’s phone. Then just finished reading it. Wonderfully written with your deep caring love and wit in life and about your very unique brother. And Sarah. I loved your last sentence about where Emily can be found. Haha. Love y’all. 14 years. It seems like a short forever. Love you all, Moma

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A precious memory of a true “God story!” This story and Daniel still speaks to all who know it, especially Daniel’s nephews and nieces. Tell it to them often! Though painful this morning, thank you for reminding me, too. Love, Dad

    Liked by 1 person

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