Life Care Center family celebrates life in the face of loss

In funerals, the focus is often towards the deceased person’s life and celebrating what they had accomplished rather than the passing itself. For those in their later years, birthdays can often carry the same kind of weight, but angled just a bit differently.

The oldest resident at Life Care Center of Elizabethton, Jewel Brister, will turn 103 this Sunday, March 17.

Sharron Kwaitkowski, her daughter, said the birthday celebration is an event as many family members as possible attend.

“My son lives out of the state,” Kwaitkowski said. “We are trying to work around his schedule so he can make it.”

Brister has moved in and out of East Tennessee for most of her life, but came to permanently reside in Elizabethton in 2010 in order to be closer to the rest of the immediate family.

“She kept coming back to live near her granddaughter,” she said.

Kwaitkowski’s daughter, Renya Austin, said the celebration is bittersweet.

“It is a double-edged sword,” Austin said. “It is amazing she has lived this long, but we know she missed Grandpa.”

Brister’s husband died in 2001, a loss Kwaitkowski said affected her mother deeply.

Both she and Austin described Brister’s marriage as full of love.

“They went through World War II,” Austin said. “They were so strong together. They had the kind of relationship we should all strive for.”

When Brister’s husband died, Kwaitkowski said Brister clung to her in response.

“Mom was an only child,” Kwaitkowski said. “When Grandpa passed, she felt like it was her responsibility to take care of me.”

The family gathers every year to celebrate Brister’s birthday, each one carrying the possibility of being the last.

“We know it may not happen next year,” Austin said. “We are going to miss her.”

Kwaitkowski said seeing her mother keep going all these years can be tough.

“She is a strong-willed person,” she said. “She does not want to leave me.”

In spite of that determination, they both said they felt Brister truly wants to see her husband again.

“She is grasping for Grandpa,” Austin said. “They had a true love.”

The occasion is not meant to be a somber one, however. A birthday is a birthday, and Kwaitkowski said the date is worthy of genuine celebration.

“It is a milestone for her,” she said. “Each year is valued more than the year before.”

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