As mentioned in my introductory post, my first real experience with death came when my sister Carmella died at age thirteen. I was fifteen at the time, and she just so happened to not only be my sister but my best friend in all of the world.
As a bit of background, Carmella (or “Mellie” as we called her) developed asthma when she was six. I remember so well the wheezing, the tight cough, the look of fear on her face as her air passageway would tighten up and wouldn’t allow her to breathe. It was horrible to see. Many times, I ran off crying — screaming — for somebody to help her. Please, God, somebody help my sister! Watching someone you love gasp for breath is horrifying. It’s such a helpless feeling!
She spent so much time in the hospital that all of the personnel knew her by first name and I must say they treated her so good. She was very small for her age — looked more like a seven or eight year old when she was thirteen. “Stunted growth due to the asthma” is what the doctors said.
Mellie received weekly asthma shots from Dr. Greene in Margate City, NJ. I still remember our visits there (for years). We had to wait a long time just to see Dr. Greene, then we had to wait at least 30 minutes after Mellie’s shots to make sure she didn’t have some kind of allergic reaction. Week after week this went on for several years.
As time went on, she became more and more asthmatic — the shots were no longer working, and neither was her inhaler. She went on a steroid — prednisone — and that wasn’t good at all. Little did I know that her heart was damaged from all of the asthma attacks, and she was in critical condition. You have no idea how many times I’ve wished my parents had shared that one piece of information with me!
I didn’t know my little sister was dying! Nobody told me. Instead, she packed a little suitcase (as they were called back in the day), and was sent off to live at the “Betty Bacharach Home by the Sea” in Atlantic City. I still have nightmares about that place — waking up in a cold sweat choking on tears. It was frightening. She went to live there during the week in hopes that the salt air from the ocean would be healing for her asthma. The place was filled with little children in iron lungs from polio. The machines were frightening and I hated it that my sister had to live there. She was little, and she was so afraid, yet she only cried when we had to leave her after a visit. I can’t imagine what must have gone on inside of her young brain. God, I wish my parents had told me what was going on! I was old enough to understand, and I would have been able to talk to my sister about it (her dying).
We had visitation on Saturdays and Sundays — no overnight visits, though. Those were the rules. So, every Saturday my dad got to pick her up and visit her, and my mom got to have her on Sundays. They were divorced at the time.
Mellie left for the Bacharach home in January right after her birthday, and after she left our house was empty — dead. My mom drank heavily and cried all of the time. (I didn’t understand why at the time.) I missed my sister so bad I felt like dying. And, my baby sister (who was only five at the time) had no idea what was going on. She saw a lot of sadness in the house, but nobody explained to her what was going on, either.
The very abbreviated story is this: On a Saturday night in June, there was a Disney movie playing at our local drive-in theater. I begged my mother to take me and my baby sister Ruth to see that movie. We had a big argument that night. My mother screamed at me that she didn’t want to go. She would always call Mellie (every night) and talk to her for an hour. She yelled and yelled that if we went to the movies she’d miss her phone call with Mellie. I yelled back that I didn’t care. I was sick of hearing nothing but “Mellie, Mellie, Mellie”, and I was sick of my mother lying around drinking and crying.
So, my mother gave in and took Ruth and I to the drive-in. When we returned home, two State Policemen were standing on our front porch. My mother drove into the driveway and said without emotion, “Your sister is dead.” I can still hear my mother saying those words. I’ll never, ever forget that moment!
The policemen had been trying to get in touch with both my mother and father that evening, but found neither one home. The Bacharach Home had called — my sister was having a severe asthma attack and had been taken by ambulance to the Atlantic City Hospital where she died as they tried to open her passageway to get air into her lungs.
Alone. She died without family. She was in a hospital struggling to breathe. I’m sure she was so afraid and wondering why my mom and dad weren’t there. When she died, part of me died, too. And, that part of me remains dead. There is a part of my heart that has never recovered from her death, and it never will. And, the guilt — the guilt I’ve had over the years for being the one responsible for us not being home that night to receive the phone call to come to the hospital has been at times a guilt that is hard to explain.
I have never gone to another drive-in movie theater. Ever.
I don’t think my mother ever forgave me for that. I know my father never did. And, I can only pray that Mellie did. Guilt is a terrible part of child loss that many of us have to live with and in time we have to learn how to let go of it. In our next post I’ll share with you some of the things I’ve done over the years to lessen the guilt, and finally to understand that it was time to let go of the guilt. I can tell you it’s been a long, painful, trying process!
It’s still hard to visit my sister’s gravesite. I miss her so much! She was my sister, and sometimes people brush aside how painful losing a sibling is, but I can tell you that siblings suffer from loss, too. We suffer long and hard. And, we feel a lot of the same emotional trauma that parents of child loss feel.
My tears are flowing right now — flowing hard and steady. Sometimes life just really stinks, and child loss is definitely one of those times. We can wish ten million times over that it had never happened, but that doesn’t change anything. We can’t go back and have a second chance. This is it, and it’s darned hard!
Thanks so much for listening. Next time we’ll talk more about the guilt part. I’d love it if you’d join in on the conversation and share a bit of your story, too. Let’s learn together, and support one another through this journey we call child loss!