Donna Barton with her sister, Gayle

From 1959, 2-year-old Donna Barton with her sister, Gayle.

Submitted photo

My sister Gayle died 10 years ago this week. Cause of death was colon cancer, just like our mother in 2001.

Gayle knew she should’ve gotten a colonoscopy after Mother’s death, but like most people, she was skittish about medical tests and kept putting it off. By the time she was diagnosed, try as the doctors might, they couldn’t save her.

Gayle was 17 when I was born. She got married a couple of years later and her three children were my playmates. One weekend I was visiting their house in Birmingham and all of us kids were outside playing. A neighbor lady asked my nephew, “Is this your cousin?” and I’ll never forget the confused look on her face when he said, “No, ma’am, she’s our aunt.”

During my growing-up years, Gayle was just another authoritative adult in my life, but as I grew older, she became my sister in every sense of the word. We spent hours on the phone, sharing stories about our day and making plans for our weekends together.

She played a sibling rivalry game with my brother and me, often referring to herself as the “pretty sister” — the child our mother liked the best. (“Go ahead, Mother, you can tell them.”)

The night before my wedding, in which she was matron of honor, I couldn’t sleep. She stayed up with me and we talked and laughed so hard we knew we were waking people. We would say “shhh, shhh,” to each other, but that just made us laugh all the more.

Although we were sisters, Gayle and I were opposites in so many ways. I was the organized one who worked within a budget, combing over IRA statements and monitoring investment rates. Gayle was the free spirit who never planned anything in advance. She made no apologies for living paycheck to paycheck, and after she got a month’s worth of bills paid off, she would head to the beach for a weekend getaway. She’d worry about next month, next month.

Gayle worked for the Jefferson County Board of Registrars, a job she thoroughly enjoyed. If you ever had occasion to visit the Bessemer courthouse, she was the woman at a desk near the entrance. She was there to register voters or verify polling places, but everyone mistook her for the information lady.

So many times when she was on the phone with me, she’d interrupt our conversation to say, “Down the hall to your left” or “That courtroom is on the second floor.” Being such a social creature, she loved every minute of it.

When she fell ill, she had several weeks of sick leave saved up and she used it until it was gone, leaving her with no choice but to resign her position. Officially letting go of that job was a very sad day for her.

The week before Gayle died, Steve Jobs unveiled a brand-new product called an iPhone. It hit the market at $600, which back then was ridiculous. Even Tim, my MacGeek of a husband, was rolling his eyes, but I knew he was chomping at the bit to get his hands on one.

The day after Gayle died, Tim and I dropped off food for her family at their home in Hoover. We were heading back to Anniston on Interstate 459, approaching the Summit. I pointed at the exit and said, “You should get off here and go to the Apple store, buy yourself an iPhone.”

He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Gayle would tell you to do it,” I told him, and I meant it. She would have.

Carpe diem.


Whatever you want to call it, Tim buying his first iPhone that day was something for which my impetuous sister would have wholeheartedly approved.

She’d also approve of me and Tim — and you — getting regular colonoscopies. I’ve had four and it’s true what they say. The night before is the worst part. The test itself is a breeze.

If only Gayle had known that.

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at