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Goodbye, Crystal

I only have one sibling, a sister named Crystal who is six years older than I am. We have never been particularly close, maybe because of our age difference but more likely because we have are just different - have always had different interests, different friends, made different choices in life. We have never had a bad relationship - never had long periods of anger or purposely avoiding talking to each other - but as we have become adults it would not be unusual for us to go weeks or even months without talking. We simply weren't active in each other's lives.

My sister made some bad decisions in her life, as we all have. I'm not sure where she'd consider she really started to go in a wrong direction, but she always was hard-headed and determined no matter what our parents, grandparents, or anyone else would try to tell her to do. She had a baby in her senior year of high school, she married a guy (not the baby's father) the next year so he could get out of jail faster, she became addicted to things that led her to miss a lot of work and lose her employment, which led her to stealing and committing fraud, ultimately leading to her being incarcerated for three years at the Rockville Indiana women's prison, where I visited her several times, and I picked her up on her release date in the fall of 2003.

In recent years, alcoholism took over her life. She would have some good periods, but interspersed with very low, low periods of darkness. Her health suffered and a couple of years ago she became so ill that doctors said her liver was barely functioning and that if she were to drink or even take Tylenol, she would die. She would stay sober for a little while - she did stints at a couple of in-patient programs but chose not to continue with them after release - but would have relapses, too.

In the last six months of her life, she was homeless. She had been living with her daughter, but there was a lot of fighting and it was just not a good situation for anyone - too small of a house, too much emotional baggage, not a good environment for her grandson to be seeing all that fighting - so she moved out. She bounced around from friend to boyfriend to different friend to different boyfriend, probably sometimes sleeping in her car for all I know. In May she called crying, begging me for money for gas. She was so ashamed to be asking me, her little sister, for help. I met her in a grocery store parking lot and gave her $40. She cried. I told her to think of it as an early birthday gift - her birthday was coming up on June 1st anyway. She asked if we'd picked out a name for the new baby coming and I said we didn't yet because we were letting the gender be a surprise.

I saw her again on labor day at our mom's house and we chatted a little bit. She seemed to be doing okay.

On October 19, I got a text from my mom that she was going to the hospital. Crystal's current boyfriend, Ray, had taken her into the ER because she had not gotten out of bed in three days. A little later mom texted that I needed to come down to the hospital because it looked "very serious." So, I went right away. She had been put into the Trauma ICU unit. Her kidneys had stopped functioning. Her liver function was almost nothing. Her blood pressure was dangerously low. Doctors explained all of this to me and my parents. They said they could treat her - they could put her on 24 hour dialysis, give her medicine to increase her blood pressure, give her antibiotics for the infection throughout her body. So they did all that. She was coherent sometimes, and less coherent other times. She was in pain but they could not give her medication for the pain because it would counteract the other things, such as making her blood pressure go too low.
Dad and Crystal in the ICU room

me at a most unflattering angle with Crystal and Herbert, her bear

Since my parents divorced thirteen years ago, I rarely have them both in the same place with me. I asked Dave to take a photo of me with them. I wish I'd thought to get one of us with Crystal but it just didn't occur to me until later. (He's a graphic designer, maybe he can photoshop her in here?)

holding her tiny, jaundiced hand
One evening before I left the hospital, she said to me, "I'm so sorry. I know I really messed up bad. I'm sorry." I said, "No, there's no reason to be sorry now. I just love you and that's all that matters." She said she loved me too. I kissed her face. I told her to sleep good. She said, "You sleep good, too."

Crystal and mom. Crystal is making cranky face. She kept getting mad about all the tubes and things running into her arms and neck.

Mom and Crystal

Hanging out on Friday, October 21, just us gals

her stepdaughter, Lindsay, visiting (our stepdad Bill in the background)

Many other people came to visit - Uncle Terry (pictured), Aunt Sue & our cousin Karen, her daughter Chelsea, her ex-husband Mike, other aunts and uncles and family friends, some while I was there and some while I was not there.

As the days passed, it became apparent she was not going to improve. They were giving her the maximum doses of all the medications and she was either staying the same or even getting worse depending on what body system you were measuring. She gained over 30 pounds in fluid in just a couple of days. The damage done to her organs from the alcohol abuse could not be undone by medications and machines. It was too late.

Essentially every doctor had this same news. Crystal's longtime family doctor came in and talked with her several times. He explained the severity and what would happen if they were to turn off the medicines and machines. She told him she understood and it was what she wanted. She had even gotten Do Not Resuscitate tattooed over her heart. The doctors left the decision up to us, her family, as to when to remove everything. They did not make us feel rushed at all, but were clear in what they were saying. 

My dad and I pretty quickly agreed to removing everything, knowing once they did that they would at least be able to give her morphine. The doctor said "I can give her just enough to keep her lucid or enough that she has no pain but she won't be able to talk." Dad said, knock her out, I don't want her to have any pain. Mom took a little longer getting to that point - and Dad was careful not to pressure her, he said he wanted her to be ready. Later that day, she and I went to the cafeteria for some lunch, and then when we came back up to her room at ICU it was just me, and her, and Crystal. Crystal was asleep and I looked at her face and turned to mom and said, "Mom, she looks like she's in pain." Mom came over, tears streaming down her face and said, "I know, I know it's time. I'm just being selfish. It just hurts to let go." At that moment, Crystal opened her eyes, clear blue and very aware, looked at mom and said, "It's okay. It's okay, Mom." I am so grateful for that moment, because it helps us to know she was ready, it was what she wanted, and she was not afraid. 

dialysis: blood goes in, blood goes out

The nurses moved pretty quickly after that, disconnecting everything and they began giving her morphine every 15-30 minutes. Basically what started to happen was her blood pressure slowly started to decrease. Her breathing became faster to try to rid her body of gases building up in her blood, but the nurses said even if she gasped, she was not in distress, it was just a natural response. 

I had been at the hospital that day, Saturday the 22nd, since 2am. Mom had called me and dad and Bill  at that time because the nurses thought she was going to pass away soon. She rallied later that morning, and it wasn't until mid afternoon that the decision was made to disconnect everything. Around 6pm, the nurses started asking questions about which funeral home to notify... and until that time, I feel I'd done a fairly good job of keeping my stillborn baby PTSD crap at bay. It helped that we were in a completely different hospital (but still hospital smells and sounds are the same everywhere). But funeral home questions - I suddenly couldn't anymore. And I'd driven myself there at 2am but I realized I was way too upset to drive. And I was conflicted, feeling like I needed to be there until the end, but Crystal was sleeping, completely totally sleeping, she didn't know if I was there or not. So I texted Dave and asked him to come. Our friend came over to stay with the kids, and he came to the hospital. 

One of my only regrets from our six hours with Desmond's body is that we didn't take a nap with him, the way you do with newborn babies. In the days and weeks after his burial, I longed to hold the weight of him so much that my arms ached for him. I didn't want to have regrets from my sister's death, so I pulled a chair as close as I could to the side of her hospital bed, and laid my head on her pillow, and my hand over her heart, and just felt it beating and her breathing. Then I just felt I was going to melt or explode or otherwise die, and had to leave. I felt bad leaving my parents there to watch her die, but what could I really do to help? Doctors said it could take hours or days, they had no idea how long. Dave drove me home; we left our car and went back for it the next day. I took sleeping pills and went to bed. When I awoke at 6:30 the next morning, Sunday, I had a text from my dad saying Crystal had passed away at 5:54 a.m. He said they were all going home.

Later on Sunday, I went to both of my parents' homes and collected old photographs to start working on a video and some displays for a memorial service. It was really important to me to be able to put this together for my sister. The last part of her life, her choices robbed her of having much dignity, and it was important to me to give her dignity at the end and to showcase that she was so much more than an alcoholic or a felon. She was a daughter, a sister, a mother, a friend, a talented artist, and a caring person.

The memorial went really well. So many more people came than we'd expected, which was wonderful! Some family members I hadn't seen in years. Some old neighbors from when we grew up on  Morton Avenue came! Our elementary school PE teacher came! He recalled how he used to call her "Crystal Clear." One of our Ex-Mo friends came to help set up, several church friends, my lifelong friend Lisa and her cute baby came from Indianapolis, and lots of my mom's church friends helped with all the food preparation and set up. It was busy and went by fast and I wish I'd had time to talk to more people, but I think it honored her and I felt good about that.

Now that I am smack dab in between horribleness - two weeks since my sister died, two weeks until Desmond's due date - I find it hard to continue normal daily life. Everything is overwhelming to me. It would not be unusual for my sister and I to have gone these two weeks without talking or texting, but it randomly hits me that we will never again do those things (in this life, at least). There will be no more. In some ways it's a comfort to not have to worry about her - she's not with someone who will hurt her, she's not in danger, she's not in pain. She's safe. She got the release she had looked for so long. But it doesn't make it easier to accept my sister died at 44 years old and I'm now an only child, or that I had to see the grief my parents endured in watching that process unfold. It's not natural for children to die before their parents so when it does, it's such a stabbing, intense pain. I don't think our brains are wired to process it. 

I will be glad when this month is over. When Desmond's due date has come and gone. When the year is over might be even better. Except then of course Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the POTUS and our true dystopian future begins.


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