So I’ve known for a long time that I was going to write this post. In fact, I’ve tried to write it more than once and it ends up sitting in my drafts folder, and sooner or later it gets deleted or lost in the shuffle. Not because it is not important, but rather I’ve been trying to figure out how to share my story with you. After you read this, please don’t feel sorry for me. Ya, it was the suckiest event of my life, but I’ve also had some really awesome things happen as well. Because my sister died I became stronger. It’s made me appreciate life a whole lot more. It’s made me appreciate the people in my life. It’s made me act nicer towards others. It’s reminded me to stay in the moment because tomorrow it may be gone. This is my story.
My sister and I were just like normal sisters. Some days we hated each other and some days we loved each other. We grew up in a really small town in Wisconsin and went to parochial school. It was a very simple childhood. Even though she never wanted to follow in my footsteps, she kinda did. She went to the same college as I, and shortly after graduation she too moved to Chicago. This is about the time we became friends again. We didn’t care for each other much during high school.
She majored in drama and shortly after moving to the city, she and some college buddies started at a theatre company. See, it was difficult for unknown actors in a big city. This company was to be a place where college grads from her alma mater could get their feet wet while figuring out the city’s theatre scene. I saw many a play where I wanted to stick hot pokers in my eyes…but there were a few cute ones in the bunch as well. Besides, I didn’t go because I loved theatre, I attended because it supported her. I remember driving her home after one particularly awful play in which she turned to me and said, “Ya, I didn’t expect you to like this one. I’ll have to agree, it was really awful.” I pretty much berated her all the way home and told her she owed me 2 hours of life back for what she just put me through. It was painful.
About 8 years ago, she got engaged to this wonderful, funny dude whom my entire family adored. They had been dating since college and they finally said let’s do this. Shortly after, my boyfriend proposed to me and we started planning our weddings together. Some people might think that we would become battling brides, but we tried hard not to step on each other’s toes. We also had very different tastes, so that helped as well. She went dress shopping with me first and helped me talk mom into buying a dress that was WAAAAAAY out of my price range. She clenched the deal for me. She was having her dress made, but I went dress shopping with her to help her get an idea of what she wanted. It was to be simple with eyelet fabric, but everything we found was so heavy. I finally got her to try on a ball gown and OMG, it looked spectacular on her. She looked like this little 5 foot 2 princess…which, neither of us are really princess material, but that day, she looked stunning! I think that day she fell in love with organza.
It was about this time that we went to lunch together (which we tried to do once a week at least if our schedules allowed). I had just switched jobs and was working about 2 blocks away from her office in the Loop. It was nice to have lunch buddy. One day, she chose this spa-themed sandwich shop where everything had kale or wheatgrass or quinoa and the water was infused with cucumbers or some sort of fancy fruit. We sat down and she said, “So, I’m going to have that heart surgery again.” I believe my exact response was, “Woah, why?”
Quick backstory, when she was like 4 years old, we were at one of those restaurants where they also put on a musical after dinner…must be where the drama thing started. And suddenly she yells, “My heart just stopped!!!” She started to cry. Not because she was in pain, but because she was really scared. My parents immediately got up, and we were on our way to the ER. This is where we learned that she had this tachycardia condition. After testing, doctors found scar tissue near the node in her heart that was causing a rapid heartbeat. This condition caused her to have panic attacks and she had to go on a lot of expensive medication to control everything.
When she was in high school, one surgeon tried to zap it with a laser. He went in laparoscopically and found the tissue, zapped it, but it was too close to that node. He nicked it once and said if he damaged it any further she would have to wear a pacemaker for the remainder of her life. The surgery failed.
So back to my lunch. I was sipping on cucumber water while she explained to me that she had found a new doctor in the city. One who told her that the laser surgery had come leaps and bounds from where it was years ago. This time they could go in with a cold laser and freeze the tissue; therefore avoiding any harm to the node. She was excited to go off of the meds. One because they caused weight gain (not that she was overweight, but it was difficult for her to lose pounds no matter what she ate or how often she exercised) and two because these meds caused birth defects. Now, if you remember, she was getting married. I’m not sure if kids were in the cards for her, but she thought prior to marriage would be the best time to move forward with this procedure. The main med that controlled the tachycardia was also discontinued. This was a huge concern. She had changed from name brand to generic, but what if that generic were to be discontinued as well. Then what?
About a month later, surgery day arrived. My mom had driven down to be along with her. The boy drove down from the burbs and we met her, her fiance Adam, and my mom at Eddie Bauer on Michigan Ave. She wanted to eat dinner at some Italian restaurant, but she didn’t make reservations. The boy was all irritated because he had already found parking once we found out we couldn’t get a table for hours, and I was bitching at her about who doesn’t make reservations and not being very nice at all. We finally stumble upon buca di beppo, got a table, and ordered. I kept joking that this was her “last supper” because she couldn’t eat anything after midnight. Little did I know this really was the last meal we’d have together.
After dinner, we parted ways. I woke up the next morning for work like I do everyday. My mom took a cab from Northwestern Hospital to the Loop to have lunch with me at Goodwin’s. I think she was itching to move around a bit. My sister was still in surgery, but Adam was with her. While we were standing in line he called my mom. She was out of surgery 3 hours earlier than expected. She was groggy but awake and feeling well. The surgery was a success. They had frozen that piece of scar tissue and she would now be med-free. I think my mom told every worker behind the counter in the sandwich shop. They were all looking at us like we were nuts. While we sat at that little table munching on wrap sammies, we kept saying, wow, I can’t believe she is out of surgery already! Unbelievable! Now she can start her life! We were both so happy for her.
She stayed at Northwestern for EKGs and every test came back with positive results. She was allowed to return home at about 10 PM. I remember calling my mom asking how she was doing and she said, “Well, I think she is a bit weepy. Mainly because she doesn’t have that feeling in her heart anymore. It’s gone.” It had to be such an unfamiliar feeling for her. I can’t even imagine. I think she was more or less, overjoyed.
Later, the following day, she came down with a fever. This was not good. She called her doctor who told her to keep an eye on it for the next 24 hours, and if it didn’t go away, she was to go straight to the emergency room. Well, it didn’t go away. She called me that Sunday evening and explained to me what was happening. They had admitted her. I remained calm on the phone but when I got off, I remember dropping to the floor and sitting on the bottom stair of our townhome. I was crying uncontrollably, sobbing, saying, “She is going to die. I just know it. I can feel it in my bones. My sister is going to die.” The boy was hugging me saying she was in the hospital, the safest place she could be. She was going to be just fine. All she had was a simple fever. I was overreacting.
She stayed there from Sunday evening to Thursday morning. They did an array of tests on her. Checked her for a blood infection. Everything. They found nothing. The fever had subsided. I texted with her a bit but received most of my info from my mom who had spoken to her. Everything was fine. She was resting. I kept telling myself that I should go over there and visit her. I had just given her a copy of CS Wedding, and we wanted to go through it together. Unfortunately, I was in one of the busiest times of my life with work. When I could get home, I left the city immediately to grab a train. I didn’t go see her. She was only a 5-minute cab ride away from me, and I was too busy. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.
Thursday afternoon I was in a meeting for a new business pitch. If we got this, it was going to be HUGE for the company I was working for. The meeting ended right before I needed to catch my train home. The message light was blinking on my phone. I quickly punched in the PIN for voicemail, and it was my sister. She sounded sooooo happy! She said, “I GET TO GO HOME! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! I GET TO GO HOME! They are releasing me now. The infection they thought was in my blood was just a cross-over from the initial prick. It was nothing. Nothing is wrong with me! YEAH! I GET TO GO HOME! I love you. Talk to you later.” I know this verbatim because I think I listened to this message 739 times.
I was almost home to suburbia when Adam called me. He sounded scared. Panicked.
He said, “Where are you? I need you to come back down to the city immediately. Your sister is in ICU.”
Utterly confused, I said, “Dude, what are you talking about? She just left me a message saying she was getting released.”
He said, “No, she is in ICU. I don’t know what is going on. No one will tell me anything except she is being taken to X-Ray. She has a blood clot.”
I don’t understand. She said she was fine. All the tests came back fine??? My heart sunk.
Now, I’ve known people who have had blood clots before. I know they are nothing to mess with, but usually, that means some heparin and observation. I guess when I think of a blood clot, I think like the size of a quarter, right? I panicked and got off my train immediately…2 stops too early. I called the boy and told him I need him to come to get me and take me to the city. He kept asking me why I got off where I did, and I just kept saying, “I don’t know, I panicked! Just come get me! I need to get back downtown!” I called my 2 best friends. Kristin was the first to pick up. She told me how her older brother had one in his arm and not to worry.
5 PM rush hour traffic in Chicago could not have been heavier that day. I think I could have crawled on my hands and knees faster. We inched towards the city and finally arrived at Northwestern Hospital. I looked up at the building and thought to myself, “Your sister is in there somewhere, and she is going to be okay.” I was told to go to the Galter Pavilion and check-in at the front desk. They’d be expecting me and would escort me upstairs. That seemed weird, but then again, so did everything at this point. How would they know who I was, and why were they expecting me? Just how bad was this situation.
A very nice woman was there within seconds, introduced herself (which went in one ear and out the other), and said come with me. We went up the elevator. She explained my sister had a blood clot, and they had taken her to x-ray (this to me meant she was awake and coherent, right?). This woman was wearing purple scrubs and was talking a lot of doctor mumbo jumbo. I finally looked at her and said, “Okay. Well, it’s not like she’s going to die, is it?” She gave me a look of bewilderment like didn’t you just hear the words coming out of my mouth. Her face was grave. She just looked down and kinda shook her head. Apparently, only the boy noticed that her name tag read “CHAPLAIN”.
She walked us into a little room (by the way, if you are ever unfortunate enough to be in such a situation, you NEVER want to be escorted to the little room…it’s a sucky room where you hear really sucky information). Adam was already there seated on a small sofa. He had his hands in his head and a young woman doctor was holding him, crying. All I could make out thru the sobbing was “I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so, so sorry! I didn’t know!” Little did I realize, this was the doctor who had been caring for her the last 4 days.
My sister’s surgeon had also just arrived, and he asked me to sit down. He rolled one of those low office doctor chairs over to face me and pushed up his sleeves. He looked right and me and started moving his lips, but couldn’t process anything. He kept saying, “Do you understand?” I nodded. I tried concentrating harder, but it was like I was having this out-of-body experience. He said something about signing documents for approvals of this and that. I nodded. The young woman doctor next to Adam was now crying harder. I stared at them, but suddenly remembered this surgeon sitting on front of me, and his words began to sink in. He was holding his hands out like he was holding a large watermelon saying, “You’re sister had 2 massive, MASSIVE blood clots in her lungs. We gave her clot busters to destroy them. We are unsure of how long she was lying there. She was found blue and unresponsive. She was taken to x-ray to scan for more clots, but in the elevator, she coded again and again. I’m terribly sorry. She is still alive and we are trying everything we can to save her. They are cleaning her up now and you can see her in a few minutes. You need to call your parents and ask them to come back down.”
I had just learned that my one and only sister had collapsed from a double pulmonary embolism. She was alone in her room with her discharge papers in her hands. They had said she was fine.
I didn’t even know where to begin. He left the room. I looked at the young woman doctor sitting next to Adam. She had finally stopped sobbing and was sitting on the sofa across from me, staring at me sheepishly. We were still in the little room. I was angry. I had no idea who she was and this sad little soul was going to be the recipient of my wrath right now, this very instance. “HOW DARE YOU!” I screamed. “How dare you be so rude when someone who has no clue as to what is happening to their sister acts the way you are acting! GET OUT! I don’t know who you are, but get the hell out of this room! NOW!”
It was me, the boy, and Adam alone in the little room sitting in a giant mess. What were we going to do? My mom and dad were getting ready for a party back home. A party with their closest friends who all had kids who were my closest friends. Everyone was going to know within seconds. I had to call my parents and tell them their baby might die tonight. And that is exactly what I did. I kept apologizing, saying I was so sorry I had to tell them this news. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
The surgeon returned to the room. He said she was ready if we wanted to see her. I nodded, got up, and suddenly had this overwhelming feeling of sickness. I asked for the nearest bathroom and thank god it was only around the corner. I got sick. I washed my hands 12 times because I didn’t want to get my little sister any sicker than she already was. Dumb, yes, but this is where my head was at. I splashed some water on my pale white face and gained whatever composure I could muster. I walked back out and said I was ready, walked around the curtain, and there she was. I took a deep breath. She didn’t look like herself. I walked to her bedside. She was pale. Her face and her body were very puffy. She had a tube in her mouth and it was taped shut, but this tip of her tongue was sticking out. I wanted to push it back in. It looked dry. She had a tube in the side of her neck and a tiny speck of blood by her ear…I wondered why. I pushed the hair out of her face…it was so soft, but her face was very, very cold. Her eyes were shut. She was resting. She didn’t look like she was in pain.
There were so many tubes running to various beeping machinery, bags of fluid, under her blanket and into her body. A nurse was placing this weird mylar blanket under her hospital blankets. I peeked underneath. I don’t know who was standing next to me or what happened next. I know I told her she needed to pull through all of this, and if anyone was strong enough to do it, it was her. I carefully held her hand as to not move any tubing or harm her. It was cold and lifeless. I’m not sure how long I stood there, but eventually, I turned around. I had tears streaming down my face. There was a large team of people in white coats staring at me. I noticed blood on a few of them. I assumed them to be the ones who tried to save her. I looked at one with pleading eyes and quietly whispered, “Please, just fix her. She’s my only sister.” They all stared at me while I walked back to the room. I turned the corner and put my head down. This was not good.
After I saw her I knew my parents had to get to the city immediately, but when I called, they hadn’t even left the house. I tried to convey the urgency…didn’t they understand how bad this was? This was no time to pick out outfits! Get in a car and start DRIVING! NOW! It wasn’t until afterward that they told me they already knew she was going to die. In fact, they didn’t even think to rush. It was too late. They knew there was nothing they could do. I don’t know what went on in that house after I hung up the phone. Now that I have children of my own, I can’t even imagine. But it seemed like forever before they embarked on the longest 3-hour drive to Chicago.
We took turns standing by her bedside. I tried to give Adam space but didn’t want to leave her. I can remember sitting in a chair, Adam next to her holding her hand, and 2 doctors walking in. They lifted an eyelid and shined a flashlight. They did it to the other side. They looked at each other and shook their heads. No one could tell us how long she was unresponsive. All we were told is that they found her. What does that even mean? They found her? A nurse changed one of the various bags of fluid dripping into my sister.
After what seemed like an eternity, mom and dad arrived. I watched them absorb the room, the bags, the tubes, their daughter. It was awful. I think by this time my brain had turned to autopilot. I looked at them, hugged them, told them I was sorry and said something trite about a parent not having to go through this with their daughter. Do you know those things that people say to each other in movies when trying to console? I could hear the woman in the room next to us yelling that she was in pain. A nurse changed another bag. I finally noticed a table set up near the bed. It must have had 30 bags of various fluids on it. As soon as one was filled, another was empty.
My phone started buzzing like crazy. People wanted to know what was happening. My friends, her friends, my parents friends. Did they make it yet? How was my sister? Any news? Both Kristin and Weslee called…my 2 best friends since childhood. They said they were coming down. I said no. It was a 3-hour long drive and they both had young children. Please don’t come down. There is nothing you can do. You have families you need to be with.
Now, I’m normally not a church-going person, but I suddenly had this overwhelming urge to locate the hospital chapel. The boy went with me. It had this overwhelming beautiful room. Stain glass to the ceiling. I felt small as I sat in the wooden pew. We were alone. I prayed. I prayed hard. I prayed quietly. I prayed out loud. I asked God to take me instead. I explained to him that out of the 2 of us, she was the nicer one. She was the better person. I was the bitchy one. Take me…please God. Why is this happening to our family? Just let her be okay…please?
We went back to ICU. I tried to get some sleep in that small room. I laid down on the floor. A nurse handed me a pillow. I closed my eyes. Suddenly, over the speakers came to a voice yelling, “Code blue! Code blue!” A team of doctors ran in the opposite direction from my sister’s room. Not her, someone else, thank God, please be okay random person, go back to sleep. I lay there listening to my heart pound from the excitement that just happened and saw a red feather on the pillow. A big fluffy one like from a feather boa…it was bright spankin’ red. I thought it was weird and flicked it away…closed my eyes. It must have been about 4 AM when I woke again. This time, a black feather was on my pillow. Again, I didn’t think much about it, got up, and walked to her room. Around the corner, I saw my dad holding her hand. He was humming, “It’s a Small World” to her.
See, they had taken us to Disneyland when we were small. My sister loved the “It’s a Small World” ride. I liked “Pirates of the Caribbean”. My parents split us up…me with my mom riding Pirates, my dad with my sister riding Small World. They said they must have taken us through 20 times that day. Over and over and over again. I started to help him sing. Tears were in his eyes.
The boy had driven back home to sleep since the little room was quite crowded. Upon his return, he walked into my sister’s room and told me how he just kept looking at all the cars sitting in traffic. Thousands of people sitting on the Kennedy driving to their mindless jobs, singing to random songs on the radio. None of them had any idea of the pain that was ripping our hearts apart. None of them knew the grave condition of my sister and the seriousness of our situation. Today was just like any other day. I still think of his comment to me as I sit in traffic. What if the person next to me is having this sort of day?
The night shift doctor walked into the room. He wanted to speak to the family. We were escorted to a much larger room this time. A conference room table in the center with an overhead projector and pull-down screen. Okay, he has a plan. He knows how to fix this. But the projector was off. He started out by recapping everything we’d already known. He said, “This is not going to get any better. We have done everything we can. There are no signs of life…there have been no improvements. She is being kept alive by bags and machines. You need to decide how long you want to continue this process. Her organs have started to shut down.” The news did not come as a shock, but reality had set in. A decision needed to be made. The doctor looked at my dad. I’m not sure why my father referred the question to me.
I asked, “So there is no way she is going to wake up?”
He replied, “No, I don’t think so.”
“If this was your sister, what would you do, knowing what you know?”
“I’d let her go. Even if she did wake up, this state of life would be unbearable. We do not know how long her brain was deprived of oxygen.”
“My decision is to let her go, but only if everyone else agrees. If anyone disagrees, you will keep caring for her.”
We went around the table, one by one. Everyone agreed. It was time. They said once they removed everything, they were unsure how long the process of complete organ shut down would take. We knew that they had a group analyze her body since she was an organ donor. At least something of hers could live on. Help someone else out, but nothing could be saved. Every organ, even her eyes, was too damaged by the trauma she had suffered. It solidified our decision.
We waited for her to pass. Kristin and Weslee, my 2 best friends since childhood, drove the 3 hours down to Chicago to be with me. To support me in this shitty situation. They didn’t listen to me when I asked them to stay home. I was glad they didn’t. When the time finally came, we were called into her room. We all held hands and the Chaplains (the same from the day before and a new one) said some kind words and a few prayers. They stated the time of death. We said one last goodbye and that was it. One last breath and Adam holding her hand, she was gone.
The boy drove me home from the hospital. I felt guilty for being somewhat relieved that part was over. I knew I had a long road of pain ahead of me, but the unknown was now very much reality. On the Kennedy in front of IKEA, my phone started to buzz and a white feather danced in front of my face. The air conditioning blowing it around and around. I tried to catch it, but couldn’t. I put that call to voicemail. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
I relived that night over and over. I had seen too much and that vision of her lying in her hospital bed with that tiny speck of blood on her ear was ingrained in my head. I didn’t sleep for months. I just lay there wide awake because if I closed my eyes, I could see her…lying there…helpless. I was guilt-ridden for not visiting her one last time. How could I have been too busy? Really? Too busy?
I’ve only had one dream that I can remember where she appeared to me. It was vivid. The most vivid dream I’ve ever had. It was short. I woke up immediately afterward. She was helped into a room by someone else I knew; her arm slung over their shoulder. I was sitting on a sofa, and she stood in front of me. She had beams of light radiating from her body. I squinted. It was almost so bright I could hardly look at her…like trying to stare into the sky on a sunny day. I hugged her hard and asked her why she left me. Why did she go? She smiled and said, “I had to. I did it for you.” I told her I didn’t understand, but she said she had to say goodbye. She was helped out of the home I was sitting in. That was the first and only time she came to me. Every night I ask her to come back. If she has, I do not remember.
The person who phoned me in the car…well, he phoned me again shortly after I returned to work. It was a couple of weeks after my sister passed. He had heard the news and told me about his dad’s passing. He said, “My sister would find feathers lying about the house. She kept them in a jar on her mantle.” To this day, I still find white feathers. Sometimes they are stuck to my son’s pajamas or in my daughter’s hair when they wake. The boy vacuumed the entire house and found one on top of the vacuum cleaner after he turned around. I find them on the train. On my walk to the station. In my car. If you’ve noticed my logo, you’ll see it. It may be just a coincidence, but these little white feathers give me comfort. Knowing she is all around me. Every day, every minute of my life.