Today would have been my little sister Beth’s 38th birthday. However, a pain pill addiction morphed into a heroin addiction, which led to her death at way too young of an age.
Before heroin, Beth drove a nice car and had a steady paycheck. She was a single mom for years and did the best she could. After she paid rent and bills, she still managed to buy cute clothes. By the time she died the nice car was long gone, totaled by her second husband one day while he was high on who knows what. It was eventually replaced by a 19-year old Toyota Camry that she proceeded to wreck one way or another. It was one more accident away from being totaled by the time she died. The cute clothes were a thing of the past.
To be honest, I had not had much contact with Beth during what would be the final 18 months or so of her life. She wasn’t at too many family functions. We lived in the same town, less than 3 miles apart, but rarely interacted.
One day after work I needed to swing through the grocery and pick something up for dinner. But I saw her car in the parking lot and kept driving. I didn’t want to run into her in the grocery. I didn’t know what to expect from her.
She cut ties with me and others – going so far as blocking me on social media (and then sending friend requests later). Her social life was next to nil from what I’ve pieced together. That behavior was very unlike Beth. She was a people person and always ready for the next party. She loved hanging out with her friends. But heroin changes a person. And she chose that high, time and again.
Sobriety was something that she didn’t maintain very well – pain pills and then heroin became priorities in her life. Those needs surpassed her abilities to work or take care of her only daughter. The lies she told to maintain a “clean” image grew more and more outlandish. The anger I felt toward her led me to justify avoiding her and yes, judging her. The guilt I have from that feels crippling at times. I like to think I’m very open minded – live and let live. But my sister was addicted to heroin and I didn’t do a damn thing about it.
I talked about doing an intervention. But that’s as far as I got. Just the talk. Again, my anger toward her had me frozen. I kept thinking of all the other times I helped her. I drove her home so many times when she was drunk. I bailed her out of unsafe situations and tried to shield her from people that I thought were bad for her. As we were growing up, I stuck up for her when she needed me. As adults, we were neighbors for a few years. She babysat my kids. We traded books and watched TV, shared clothes, and gave each other advice – as sisters do. Then heroin happened.
When my mother texted me the morning of May 3rd and asked me to call her I knew something bad had happened.
“Is it Grandpa or Beth?” I asked when she answered.
She sighed. “It’s Beth. She’s in a hospital in Michigan. She’s brain dead. An overdose. Alive on machines.”
Within an hour, I had made arrangements for my girls to be taken care of for the weekend. I made the 3-hour drive to Michigan, hoping I would get there in time. There was a DNR order if she coded again. The only thing I remember about that drive is the giant windmills in huge grassy fields on the side of the highway. There seemed to be something symbolic about witnessing those fields filled with sustainable energy devices as I drove toward some little hospital in Michigan, where my sister and Willie, her second husband, were visiting his children for the weekend and she somehow overdosed on drugs that included cocaine and assorted pain pills (but actually not heroin from what we found out later in the doctor's report).
The nurse in Beth’s room gently explained that my sister’s condition. The ventilator she was hooked up to was enabling her to breathe. She’d been having almost constant brain seizures due to the lack of oxygen following the overdose. There wasn’t any hope that she could survive. But the nurse did tell me they believed people in her condition could hear people talk to them. She encouraged us to speak to her and let her know we were there with her.
Beth’s eyes were open but not focused, her heart rate fluctuated wildly, her hands were cool to the touch. The nurses did their best to keep the drool wiped off her chin and keep her comfortable despite the ventilator. They repositioned her every once in a while. She wasn’t in a coma, but she wasn’t awake. I think the term is “vegetative state.” It isn’t pretty.
The pain my parents had to endure in that room (and since then) is unimaginable to me. No parent should ever have to lose a child. It goes against the laws of nature. The hospital staff was kind enough to allow my parents, Alli, and myself all the time we wanted with Beth during her last hours. Alli’s quiet strength in the midst of her grief amazed me, but she has always been strong.
I sat on my sister’s bed and cried. I held her hand. I hugged her. I told her how much I loved her. I told her how much I missed her being part of my life. I said all the things I should have said to her while she was still alive. I talked about about memories I would carry with me, confessed my feelings about our recent falling out, told her how much my girls missed “Aunt Bef” being their silly babysitter. I told her I would take care of Alli and watch over her. I told her I loved her. And I would always love her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, over and over. I couldn’t stop the tears. To this day there are times when I still can’t.
My sister died on Sunday, May 4, 2014. I miss her every single day. And I like to believe that she heard me as I talked to her during her last hours – that she heard all of us. I want to believe she knew she was loved.
RIP, little seestor. I hope you are somewhere beautiful, smiling and singing along to “Brown Eyed Girl," celebrating your birthday. I love you and I miss you, every day.