Below is an excerpt from my book. This is definitely not all my book is about, but 10 years later it is still healing to write about this day that so utterly changed the course of my life. Some things have been altered to be understood as a standalone story.
SEPTEMBER 5, 2008
“She knew I loved her, right?” my big brother Greg asked as we rushed down the hall. “I assume you guys know I love you.”
“Yes, she knew,” I said.
The truth was I wasn’t always sure Greg loved me since he wasn’t really what you would call emotionally demonstrative. It felt good to hear him say it.
We were coming from our sister Julie’s hospital room where she had been in a coma after having an aneurysm a week earlier. We were running to the waiting room to tell our oldest brother Dave that we were about to take Julie off life support. Julie was a month shy of her 52nd birthday.
My blackberry buzzed with a text message. I’m getting on the plane now.
I had forgotten my ex-boyfriend Steve was heading to Cincinnati for his pre-planned yearly birthday trip to see my sister. Even though we were long broken up, he and my sister were still best friends.
We’ll see you soon I texted back. I slipped the phone back into my pocket. I was pretty certain he wouldn’t make it in time to see Julie.
We returned to my big sister’s room a few minutes later and it was packed to capacity. Friends and family had heard the news and shown up. It felt like a party was being held in the sacred ward of dying people. I was proud Julie has so many people who loved her dearly, but I had mixed feelings. Shouldn’t a deathbed be by invitation only?
The immediate family-me, my brothers, Mother, Julie’s husband Stu and her sister-in-law Minette—huddled around the doctors and gave the okay to take her off life support.
“How long will she live once you take her off?” Greg asked.
“Not long. Probably a few hours at most.”
We thanked the doctor as he walked out of the room but I wasn’t sure for what.
I spotted my Aunt Jody and Uncle Dick in the crowd. Aunt Jody had lost two brothers including my father so she understood what I was going through. She grabbed me and held me close. I sat down next to Uncle Dick. We sat staring ahead.
“I was working on my putt stroke last week. It’s all based on rhythm and cadence regardless of the length of the putt.”
He was talking to me about golf. I knew nothing about golf. I found golf boring. I wanted to remind him there was a dying sister in the middle of the room. I supposed he was trying keep my mind off of what was happening as if that was possible.
The nurse walked in and the room instantly became quiet. We all looked at her expectantly. She kept her head down as she went to Julie’s bed. She unhooked my sister from the respirator and other machines. She was serious and professional. I think I had expected her to be apologetic.
I had made so many jokes in my lifetime about “pulling the plug” that I was actually surprised she didn’t literally bend over and pull a plug out of a socket.
The entire room seemed to be holding their breath but nothing dramatic happened. She just laid in front of us still breathing.
Maybe she isn’t going to die after all? Maybe the doctors who were wrong so many times this week were wrong about her dying today. Maybe she could still wake up and be totally normal. We’d buy her all kinds of cool scarfs to wear like Rhoda Morgenstern until her hair grew back where they had operated trying to save her.
“It will take a little bit of time for her body to shut down,” the nurse informed us before walking out.
I decided I didn’t like her.
We all watched and waited.
In this suspended moment of time I felt a rush of pride in my family.
We were a family.
My three brothers and I had a collective history that we shared yet viewed though our own perspectives. But when life became bigger than our own individual egos—when life literally became life and death—the invisible thread that connected us—that would always connect us—pulled us together as one. We came together to make sure that our sister died with dignity.
Julie’s breathing seemed to slow down. I couldn’t tell if she was even breathing anymore but didn’t want to ask or prove myself right. I just stood there watching over her like everyone else. It had only been a few minutes but the nurse already returned. She looked at a monitor next to her bed.
Without looking up she told us.
She turned off the rest of the equipment and a collective wail erupted in the packed room. I sobbed and hugged someone. Then I hugged and cried on someone else. Everyone held and comforted one another as our grief spilled out all over the room. We were messy and we were loud. I saw a wet blur of sad faces all around me. In the middle of everything I saw my brother Paul standing next to Mother and her holding his hand. The expression on their sad faces made me feel helpless and drowning. Minette began to wretch and dry heave. I noted to myself that I would have to tease her about it later.
Time passed. It was sometime late on a Friday afternoon.
People slowly began to filter out.
My sister’s body laid in the bed with my mother sitting in her wheelchair next to it holding her hand. I was relieved that the struggle was over for my sister.
I texted Steve. Julie died. I’m sorry.
I texted a friend. Julie died. Please let everyone know.
Paul finally wheeled Mother out and I was left alone with my sister’s body.
I bent over and kissed her hands, her arms, her check and her forehead.
“I love you so much Julie.”
I was aware that kissing my sister now that she was dead didn’t feel as strange as it would have if she were alive. If she were alive, she would look over at me and ask me what the fuck I was doing.
I walked to the doorway and turned around one more time. This was the last time I would ever be able to look at her and I didn’t want it to ever end.
I walked past the hospital staff as they went busily about their work without looking up even though they must have heard our keening and sobbing. Death was part of their everyday—even my sister’s death.
I sat in the back seat on the drive home holding the picture of Julie and me in New York that had been on the table next to her hospital bed. At the stop light, I looked out and saw an ugly woman in the driver’s seat of the car next to us.
Why didn’t she die instead of my beautiful sister?
I ran ahead up the stairs of my mother’s house and turned on the oxygen tank as my mother made her arduous climb behind me. She sat on the couch and attached the tube to her nose. I sat in a chair near her. My brother Paul and went into another room.
We fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon.
What else was there to do?
A few hours later I woke up from a deep sleep. Steve had arrived and gathered with others down the block at Julie’s house. I asked Mother if it was okay to head down.
“Of course, honey.” She looked older than I’d ever seen her.
I walked into the door of Julie’s house that wasn’t Julie’s house anymore. Steve was petting her cat and dog. How would her pets understand that she is never coming back?
“Do you have pot?” I asked Paul. He didn’t
“I know Julie has to have some somewhere.” I said.
I looked through her house including the drawers in the back of her closet. There were packets of Nicorette gum everywhere. Julie hadn’t smoked for years but was addicted to Nicorette gum. I wondered if that was what gave her an aneurysm. I found letters and cards and wondered how much you had to respect the privacy of someone who was dead. I found a half-written list and realized that death is a snapshot of where your life stopped. Not everyone gets a neat ending.
Finally, I found a plastic bag full of weed. I grabbed Julie’s pipe and packed it full. I sat on her bed like I had so many times before with her and inhaled deeply. I waited for the feeling of being high that blessedly would numb the pain. I felt nothing. I inhaled deeply again and then again. Nothing. I wondered if the pot was weak or if I was already too numb to get high. I inhaled one more time as Paul walked into the bedroom
“What are you doing?”
“I found some pot but it’s not very strong.”
Paul took the plastic bag from me and sniffed it.
“This is catnip.”
I look at him stunned. We both busted out laughing.
I gave up on getting high but was angry at my sister for not sending me relief from beyond.
I went downstairs and found myself becoming the official greeter as more people showed up at the house.
I stood in the kitchen and hugged Minette.
“That’s weird” she said looking over her shoulder
“Her grocery list on her whiteboard. “Cotton…Lemonade…Garbage Bags…Dog Treats…I didn’t know Julie drank Lemonade.”
“She doesn’t. I do. She made that list for me when I was visiting her last week. I told her I was craving lemonade so she picked it up from the store.”
Another friend of Julie’s walked in and hugged me.
“Wow. Julie drank lemonade?” he said looking over my shoulder at the whiteboard. “I’ve never seen her drink lemonade.”
This continued throughout the afternoon. I was amused that people seemed to think they had discovered some dark secret my sister had been hiding.
I sat down on the front porch with Steve who was still petting Julie’s poor cat. A car pulled up and a neighbor from across the street jumped out and ran over to us.
“How is Julie? I heard she went into the hospital the other day!”
Without missing a beat of petting the cat, Steve calmly answered, “She’s dead.”
I never realized that someone could react to hearing bad news like they had been physically knocked backwards but that that was what I saw this woman do. She must have expected us to say Julie would be back tomorrow and was not ready for this. Even though my sister was the one who died, I stood up and hugged and comforted her.
“Julie was so wonderful,” she said to me. “She was a real hoot.”
As she almost stumbled back to the car I glared at Steve.
“You might want to work on your technique at delivering bad news. You might have started with a little warning like ‘Oh the news isn’t good…’”
Minette came out and sat next to me.
“I wonder why this happened to her. She was so healthy.” I said leaning my head on her shoulder. I had been annoyed all week by people who didn’t know her asking if Julie was overweight or sickly as if they wanted to find a rational explanation for this irrational event.
A thought came to me with a sharp shock. “Do you think it runs in the family?”
“I looked it up,” Minette offered helpfully. “They say you don’t have to worry unless a second sibling dies from one too.”
“Um…you have to worry if you’re the second sibling,” I said.
“Right…I hadn’t thought of that.”
I stood up and suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore.
Before I slipped out the back door, I grabbed Julie’s whiteboard with the lemonade list off the side of her cabinet and brought it with me. I liked that it had her handwriting. I liked that she was thinking about me when she wrote it.
I walked down the block to join Mother. My phone rang.
“Hi, is this Mr. Hoffman?”
I stopped walking. “Yes. Yes.”
“Mr. Hoffman, we have a special offer just for you that I’d like to tell you about…” the male voice said.
For some reason, I didn’t just hang up. It wasn’t this guy’s fault his timing was so bad.
“Yea…um…my sister died this afternoon…”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry,” he said kindly.
“That’s okay,” I said once again comforting a total stranger. “But I can’t really talk…”
As I was about to hang up the phone I heard his voice again.
“Mr. Hoffman…I just wanted to let you know that my sister died two years ago.”
“She did? How is your family now?” I asked. I wasn’t sure why I was talking to this person except that he sounded so kind. The truth was that I couldn’t fathom that my family could ever be put back together after this horrible day. We had to be broken beyond repair.
“It was a rough first year but we are okay now,” he said. “In fact, we are even closer now.”
“Yea, we really are.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.”
From this random call on the darkest day of my life I got my first tiny glimmer of hope.
I hung up and walked up the stairs to my mother’s house. She had the TV on. Paul came in right behind me. None of us said much to each other.
We watched a DVD of Arrested Development and somehow managed to laugh a few times.
Around midnight we turned off the TV and hugged each other goodnight.
We had made it to the end of the first day.