Wednesday, June 4, 2008

7 years ago today

If I live to be 100, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the telephone call I received at 9:15 am on June 4, 2001. “Looks like you’re going to have to come to Kansas City after all. Kathy’s killed herself.” The words stunned me. I had been sleeping a bit later because I’d gotten home late on Sunday evening from a weekend out of town but at those words I fell out of bed and was instantly awake.

I was filled with regret because I had spoken with Kathy the night before. She was “scheduled” for her first round of chemotherapy and a heart cath first thing Monday morning. Little did I know that her schedule did not include these procedures, but she had been meticulously planning her death and funeral for several weeks.

I have many regrets from that weekend. I was sitting at a service station on MO Hwy 71, just a few hours out of Kansas City. Up the road a bit, turning left at the intersection of KS Hwy 54 would take me back home. I was so close, so close, to not turning. To this day I can’t fathom why I did not just go straight.

I wasn’t working and my family didn’t really “need” me at home (two grown children and only one left at home, a teenager capable of fending for himself) so it would have been only a minor inconvenience to the for me to not go straight home.

Kathy had only told the family two weeks earlier that she had terminal cancer of the lungs, throat, and larynx. She was going to “try” the treatments the doctor wanted but because of a heart issue, he wanted to do a heart cath first. We spent Memorial Day weekend helping her get her house in order, get things that needed to be shredded taken care of, and sorting a lot of mail and documents. My youngest sister got her into her lawyer’s office for a quick will, “just in case” the unthinkable happened.

I had mentioned to Kathy when I had her on the phone that I wanted to come to KC since I knew she was going into the hospital the next day. I told her that since I was free for the summer I would spend a lot of time with her, taking her to doctors and being with her while she was sick. She said that was very nice of me but to not come yet as she didn’t have a need for a nursemaid at that time. I have wondered ever since if I had just shown up at her door what she would have done. Send me home? Not let me in? If she had let me in I would have known she was planning something because of the organization of her things, all the notes she had attached to everything, and the meticulous attention to detail she had taken (she had her funeral clothes hanging in the bedroom doorway, completely accessorized, and her funeral music cassette on the table).

If I had shown up, would she have delayed the inevitable, or done it sooner? Of course, we’ll never know but we do know she never had an appointment at the hospital; my guess is that she would have felt pressured to do it sooner.

My sister was such an amazing person and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. There have been times when I’ve wanted to pick up the phone to give her a call and stopped just short of reaching for the phone.

She was 49 when she died, much too young to leave this world and those who loved her. The year I was 49 I wondered how she felt knowing that she’d never see 50. I wondered if my mother would worry that I wouldn’t make it to 50 also.

Kathy had no idea she was loved by so many people and the impact she made on the lives of those people. Her funeral was standing room only. Her pallbearers, high school students from her German class, unashamedly cried during the service and while they were carrying her casket. She had taught at the same school long enough that she had taught the children of former students. Both generations were deeply affected by the loss.

Her memorial table was filled to overflowing with things we had brought in to commemorate her life and give honor to the things she had accomplished. She accomplished more in 49 years than a lot of people would be able to manage in two lifetimes.

She left very detailed letters to us and explained her reasoning. As a Christian, she knew that suicide was wrong. But also as a Christian, she believed that God had spoken to her on more than one occasion, telling her that she was not going to survive any treatment option; if she wanted to take the short route home, He was waiting for her. How can I not believe we will be reunited in heaven one day?

My oldest brother is not one to openly show emotion. Stoic, as the oldest, he’s always felt like he’s had to be the strong one. I had created Kathy an account on one of the yearbook sites and it had a contact email address. My brother found her, why I don’t know, and sent her an email. I was so stunned to open her email inbox after her funeral to find “You didn’t give me a chance to say good-bye.” Of course, I cried as I’m sure he cried when he wrote it. He felt he’d failed in not protecting her.

She’d had an abusive marriage for nearly 25 years. We did not find out the extent of the abuse until after her death. At the funeral home, my brother saw my ex-BIL’s car. He walked up to it and told him to leave, including the comment, “If I’d have known what you were doing to my sister all those years we wouldn’t be having her funeral today. We would have already had yours.” We all know that she lost the will to fight and go on because of her life with him and she had been on a path of self-destruction for years with cigarettes – chain smoking as many as 2-3 packs a day.

A physician friend of another sister said after the funeral that he believed the cancer had spread to Kathy’s brain and that she was very near being confined to bed. He didn’t expect her to survive the summer, even with treatment. Although I still wish she had let us love her and take care of her during her final battle, I know that she went out with dignity and grace – taking charge of her life one last time. She didn’t want our parents to be burdened by watching her slowly die. Her own former in-laws had lost a child to cancer in 1984, and he was only 27. They were much younger then than my parents were in 2001 and she said it nearly killed them to watch him waste away and die. She thought she was sparing us all the heartache of the inevitable.

She left us with a lot of questions and unfulfilled wishes instead.

To my beautiful, amazing sister: I miss you terribly – your laugh, your smile, your infectious wit. You were such an inspiration to me to do better and to achieve more. I wish you could see your new grandson; he looks just like his daddy. You would have been an amazingly wonderful grandmother. I love you and I’ll see you again one day.

1 comment:

Debra W said...

Thank you so much for the very kind comment that you left for me on my blog. Even though it has been eleven months since the day that my brother died, the pain is still extremely raw. I think what makes it so much worse is that my SIL has cut us out of my nieces(ages 5 and 10) lives and we were very close with them before my brothers passing. She is refusing to allow us to have any contact with them and I know that they need us terribly. It has forced us to have to make some very difficult decisions, but I must fight for my nieces and what I know my brother would absolutely want.

I read this post about the loss of your beloved sister and all I can say is how very sorry I am. Your sister was a very brave soul. She understood what she would be facing and she chose a different path. I am not Christian(I'm Jewish.), but I do know that both of our religions believe in "free-will". God gave your sister free-will and she made a decision based upon that. How can anyone believe that God would be eternally angry because your sister chose not to go through hell on Earth? I refuse to believe that. Not only do I believe that your sister will be waiting for you in heaven someday, but I also believe that she is watching over you now. She did what she needed to do and her decision was very informed and well-thought out. I am sure that she is where she is meant to be and that she is happy and free of any of the pain(both physical and emotional) that she experienced throughout her lifetime.

I know that there is a lot of guilt and what-if's connected to untimely death. I carry so many, myself. But, as you know, we cannot change the past as much as we would like to. We can only learn to love even harder and to cherish the time that we have with others even more.

Thanks again for sharing your experience and words of support.