My sister Kelly died alone in the summer time. She lay in a cooler at the hospital’s morgue for well over a week before anyone claimed her body, and was hours away from being incinerated and buried in an unmarked grave. I worked only a few blocks away and at times, would have been a couple hundred feet from her not knowing she had died.
I had returned home to work in my hometown a few years before, but had never reached out. Despite my guilt for not doing so, I was terrified of her knowing I was back and showing up at my workplace in a small town full of stigma, her one remaining arm having tucked her other empty sleeve into her blue jeans, bleach blond spiky hair, yellowed chipped teeth, cracked lips, and a desire for her next hit.
Her world was possessed by demons that inhabited her mind, taunting her into believing she would never be okay, that the world was against her and that she was not loved, even though she was.
I am haunted by glimpses and snapshots into her life – moments where I saw the humanity of her, pained that we could not be close.
Years before, on a visit up to our lake house, I had taken her in on the condition that she could have no alcohol or drugs with her or on her. In my ignorance, I sent her into detox, and she remained in a bedroom the entire week-end never exiting except to request litre after litre of diet coke. She didn’t resurface until it was time to go.
Images I had of us laughing and talking over tea like other sisters would were dashed, and I was left disappointed and confused. What had happened to the sister I once had known?
The truth was we never had such times – I had just imagined we had. Her world was so vastly different from my own, even though we were the closest of my siblings in age.
As a child, I brought trays of food down to her when she lay in bed in her basement bedroom, as I pretended to be her servant and her nurse. She could sneak out of the window down there more easily, so had pleaded with our father to build her a lower level bedroom at the end of our long recreation room, which he had done.
Classmates of mine had told me she was a prostitute even though she was only in grade eight at the time. I didn’t know what that meant even when they described it to me so I shrugged it off and didn’t think any more about it.
As a young teen, she became a runner, although not in the athletic sense – going anywhere and everywhere she could to seek something she could never find: solace and a feeling of being okay. She could not run far enough to escape the insanity that was always there: looming on the surface of her troubled mind and threatening to consume her. She once shared with me that her biggest fear was that someone would call in and have her committed to an “insane asylum.”
I awoke one night to find a tall man at my parent’s kitchen table asking for her hand in marriage. She wasn’t old enough, but my parents heard his pleas to care for her and submitted.
Kelly wore wire rim glasses on her wedding day. I can still see her there, glass lenses tinted dark, a floppy brimmed white sun hat on her head. She seemed happy then; it was a time of new beginnings – on that lawn of her mother-in-law’s in Bruce Mines, a nearby farming community.
My sister was one of the hardest working and talented people I had ever known. For years, she worked as a cook at a fly-in resort, making more loaves of delicious fresh bread, pies and desserts by daybreak than most had made in a lifetime. She inherited my mother’s penchant for creating works of art with yarn and knitting or crochet needles, making countless sweaters, blankets, hats and mittens to help the world be a warmer place for those she loved.
Those needles were exchanged for horrific versions of them years later when Kelly met a drug dealer in the aftermath of her failed marriage and became addicted to heroin and other intravenous drugs. In her desperation to escape her heinous possessors, she laid out my late father’s photos and ID, took out his long-arm gun, and shot her own arm off. Rumours circulated that she did it to prove to her abusive boyfriend who was taunting her about her extreme dependency on drugs (one that he had, ironically, introduced her to and fostered) that she didn’t need to shoot up her other arm because she wouldn’t have one – but others said it had been the result of the firearm having slipped from under her chin when she tried to press down the trigger with her toe.
Even having had her arm removed didn’t stop her from using; the space between her toes her new injection site. I wondered why she insisted on black nylons on the day of our mother’s funeral because she was going to wear sandals. Years later, I realized it was because she was trying to hide the needle marks near her toes.
I wanted to celebrate my sister for who and what she was. When my daughter, Lauren, was three years old, she loved busses. On a visit home, I asked if we could join Kelly on a bus ride around the city. She was honoured to do so. In this public place, I acknowledged knowing my sister.
A visit to Kelly’s apartment on the eve of one of her many moves revealed photos of my daughter lovingly pinned and taped to the wall above her mattress – all ages of her young niece’s life alongside the hand-made drawings we had sent home to her, near her when she slept, carefully affixed above her sleeping head. Discovering this, I stood and quietly wept. Amidst all of my sister’s troubled thoughts and tormented experiences, there had been moments of light, and a love and hope for my young daughter had been the source of some of them.
My sister died of untreated pneumonia that had gone septic. The low life she had been dating and who was listed as her contact did not mention my family to the hospital when they notified him of her death – he only asked if she had cashed her check yet. He wanted to pick up the rest of the money she had on her, but would leave her clothing and other belongings behind.
There was no service for Kelly. She was laid to rest with my parents. Because I could not be there for her in life, I was there for her in death, buying her a grave marker that had her name and dates of birth and passing, along with the words, “Finally Free.”
I hope she is.
Susan Hunter is an author and speaker who now lives in Dawson Creek, B.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.