The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Elizabeth, and she was frantic. "Sue had a heart attack!"
WHAT?! I panicked. I had seen her only a month before! I tried to get details, but my sister was too upset. I immediately called my parent's house and my father told me it wasn't a heart attack. Sue had been found unresponsive in her bed but was now in the hospital being monitored. He seemed hopeful, so I went back to sleep, relieved that it wasn't a heart attack and that she was definitely in the right place. I knew, though, when the phone rang at five am that she was gone.
My husband answered and I closed my eyes. I walked into the living room. He said the words. "Your sister passed away." I broke down and hugged him. Then, I instantly thought of my mother. She had to be devastated. I needed to go to her. She would need me to be strong. I was.
The next several days were a blur, as we traveled west to be with my sister's husband and three kids. We were all in shock. The kids were young, aged seven to fifteen. I felt helpless in my attempts to console them, but I was grateful for the time we had spent together over that past year. It was unusual for me to have the opportunity to visit with them more than once every year or two, and that year I made three trips.
I was there to witness a notable decline in Sue's health. She was in a lot of pain and obviously depressed. She insisted on forging through her housework past midnight, and would sleep during the day, often until noon. One day I found her laying face down and sideways across her bed. This was not normal.
The sparkle in her eyes had disappeared and she engaged in conversation less and less. I begged her to rest and helped her any way I could, but she was driven and stubborn (ingrained family traits) and her house had to be perfect. Elizabeth would remark about how Sue's cleaning obsession reached unhealthy levels when she resorted to wall washing. You could eat every one of her four course meals from the floors. Her home was her castle and she took pride in keeping it beautiful. It was her greatest desire to make her guests feel comfortable and welcomed.
In all of her efforts to care for everyone else, though, she never took care of herself. It was heartbreaking to watch her suffer in silence. During my last visit, I caught her crying in her bedroom while listening to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me." I asked what was wrong but she wouldn't talk. Looking back, I'm not sure I ever actually saw her really break down. It was usually a single tear or two accompanied by a far away stare.
There is no more helpless a feeling than not being able to reach someone when you sense they are in trouble. I saw that same vacant look in Elizabeth's eyes before she died. The look of utter exhaustion and emptiness. It was as if the body was present but the will had checked out. That's what hopelessness looks like, and it is utterly terrifying.
Ultimately, Sue's death was determined accidental. At the time, reading that word in the report was a comfort. Now, after recent events, that determination has become more of a question. One day it will be clarified, and until then, I will rest in the knowing that her energetic presence is still alive and well and very, very near.
R Jade McAuliffe-
Author and advocate; believer in things unseen.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break."