Diary of a Death

By Vanessa Kristovich

in memory of my sister, Samantha Bellusci

February 27, 2006

6:18 :AM

I am sitting at the dining room table with my morning coffee. Soon my ride to work will come, but even though I am already dressed, I don't think that I am fully conscious yet.

It is unusually quiet. I wonder where Samantha is. She is usually up by now. I should hear her in the shower. She should have come down to the kitchen to get her morning coffee. Maybe she left already. Maybe she overslept, or perhaps she doesn't have to go in today.

Perhaps I should go and see if she needs to get ready, but I choose not to go upstairs. I was up very late last night, and I had to get up very early this morning. I can't seem to get my brain started.

There are lights in the driveway, and I assume it is my ride. However, as I run outside, I see that it is a large red van instead of the green car that I am expecting. In my brain-dead state, I have already forgotten my musings about whether or not I should wake up Sam, and even the sight of this van did not restart my thinking processes. So when the driver says he is here for her, I could kick myself.

As I run into the house, I yell to Sam that her bus is here, but she is does not respond. My other sister is just coming out of the bathroom, so she detours into Samantha's room and starts yelling at her to wake up.

Sam does not wake up, so my other sister tries to shake her. She begins to scream, "Oh no! Help! Jimmy! Charles! Sam is stiff and I can't wake her up! I think she's dead!"

The two older boys run into her room. There is a mad rush to look for a pulse and to check her breathing.

"Somebody call 911!" I hear mayhem from my sister's room. Both my other sister and my nephew are crying. Someone is saying "should we do CPR? I know CPR!" Somebody else is saying "No, she's very cold. She's not breathing. I think it's too late."

I grab the phone, run outside and dial the emergency number. "I need and ambulance" I say. "My sister won't wake up and we think she may be dead." I give them the address and her name. They have been here several times for her, and this time the operator recognizes her name. "We'll be right there." She says." She asks a lot of questions. When did we notice? What was the last time we saw her moving? Did we try to revive her? I don't have any of the answers, so I hand the phone to those who are upstairs with her now. My older nephew is not crying because he knows that someone must stay calm. He takes the phone from me and handles the rest of the call.

I take my cell phone out of my purse. I call my job. My friend has not come to pick me up yet, but there is no way that I am leaving now.

The manager of the store where I work comes on the line. "My sister won't wake up. I think she is dead." I tell him.

"What?" he exclaims.

"My sister won't wake up. We think she may have died in the night. We are waiting for the ambulance. I am not coming to work now, and I may not be in at all today." It is just now that The reality of the situation hits me, and my voice cracks on that last sentence as I choke back the tears that are trying to come.

My boss is now sure that he heard me right. "No, of course. Whatever you need," he says. I tell him I'll call later, and the conversation ends.

Just as I hang up my phone, the ambulance pulls up. The two EMTs pull the gurney out of the van. As they walk up to the door, the woman says "Is it Samantha?"

Still too choked up to speak, I nod a little.

"I thought so," she says. "I came and got her last week."

"I think she's dead." My voice is now subdued. I hope they can do something for her, but all I can do now is wait. I let them in the house, and pointed them to the top of the stairs where the others are still sobbing.

Samantha is actually my step sister, and she is quite a bit younger than me. The first time I met her, I was seventeen, and she was only four years old. She was the cute little daughter of my older sister's friend. Even at such a young age, she was the perfect blend of the yin and the yang, black and white, with no gray area. Curly blond hair and an angelic face graced the embodiment of mischief. Samantha's favorite thing at that age was to grab and twist the breasts of whatever woman held her, and then she would giggle with delight.

My sisters and I grew to love Sam and her siblings as though they were our family. We did not know at the time that, when our parents' marriages failed, that my father and her mother would marry and they would become our family for real.

My father adopted them when he remarried, and it was not a difficult transition for me. I was a young woman, and so were my friends. We often took them places with us as a kind of training for the children we would have some day. Samantha was one of the more rambunctious of the children, but we all enjoyed or trips to the zoo or the mall when she came along. She appeared outwardly to be happy. No one could have predicted what her future would be.

7:36 AM

The EMTs go to work immediately. The rest of us are gathered around the dining room table as we wait for news. It is not long in coming. After just minutes, they conclude that she must have been gone for a couple of hours, and they come downstairs to let us know what to expect. Because Samantha attempted suicide just two weeks before, they called the police and the medical examiner. There will have to be an autopsy to determine if she died by her own hand or by natural causes.

Samantha had been suffering for some time from both physical and mental illness. She had seizures, was suffering from a serious respiratory infection and kidney problems, bipolar disorder and was recovering from chemical addictions. She was trying very hard to overcome her problems, but she was broke and unable to work which made it difficult to find someone to help her. We did what we could. We offered her support and encouragement, but we are not professionals. The help she needed is not readily available to those who cannot pay.

My other sister and her son are holding each other and sobbing out loud. "I'm sorry," she keeps saying. Acutely aware that life has failed Sam, she is feeling guilty. Samantha left her mother's house to try to rehab with us. She had gotten into a program, and as far as we could tell, she was clean. But, you never really know what is going on with someone that is fighting an addiction. Just two weeks before, she had overdosed on her prescription medication, and not knowing if that was the cause of her death left my sister feeling as though she had failed her, too.

Terry's sons try to console her. When it comes to sudden death, there is no fault, no blame, no control. Death is insidious. It stalks us all throughout our lives until it finally succeeds in taking us away from this earth.

I am both profoundly sad and somewhat numb. My eyes look past my sister. I see a cockroach climbing up the wall. "I should kill it. Sam would want me to kill it," I muse. Due to cutbacks in our area, several of the people that live with us were out of work. We all have been suffering financially and could not afford an exterminator. Since her arrival, Sam became our warrior. In her attempt to better her own life, she fought valiantly to improve our lives as well. During the times that she felt "up" she would grab a can of bug spray and fight the cockroach battle "Get out!" she would yell. "Take that! Don't let it get away!" She would attack the insects with a vengeance, and then sit back and laugh. It was both comical and annoying.

Terry decides to call our stepmother to let her know that her daughter passed away. When she gets on the phone, my sister has some trouble telling her what's going on. "Sam's gone," she says.

"What do you mean, she's gone," Rose asks. "Where did she go?"

Terry starts to sob again as she stumbles over the words, "she died. I'm s-s-so s-s-sorry!" She starts to repeat the "I'm sorry" over and over as she cries. I cannot hear what my stepmother is saying on the other end of the line. As they talk to each other, I turn to look out of the window.

My father moved to West Virginia about fifteen years ago. Samantha and her husband bought his house, and I rented the attached apartment from them. Newly married, this was the place that they planned to grow their family. I enjoyed having her living next door.

Sam was very fond of animals. She had two cats and a rotweiler named Bully. One day, as I looked out my kitchen window, I noticed a frog trapped in my windowsill. The frog was hideously deformed, and the sight of its mutated body struck a nerve in me. I wanted it gone, but I was afraid to touch it.

I went next door and got Sam. She was so brave. A little thing like a deformed frog was not going to bother her.

I lived in that apartment for a couple of years, until the loss of my job made it impossible for me to pay my share of the rent. I saw her have two children which she loved tremendously. She seemed happy. Whatever problems she had, she kept them to herself. There was no way to see the difficulties she must have already been having.

Terry hangs up the phone, and the calls began to come. As she talks to each person, I turn toward the window and see the police detective and the coroner's wagon arrive. My father calls to say he left work and was on his way home. He would call when he got there. Some of my cousins call. They are bringing over a cold cut platter and some rolls to help us care for the visitors that we were bound to have. (This is a very helpful and very welcomed family tradition.) Several of Sam's friends and relatives call. We give them the news, and the overwhelming response is, "You're kidding, right? This is not funny!" This is followed by shock and dismay when we convince them that this is the truth.

The police detectives ask a lot of questions. They are trying to determine when she was last seen alive. They want to know what drugs she was taking and what her health was like.

My brothers call from Maryland. They expect to be here by noon.

It is about 9:30 AM. The medical examiner has prepared her body for transport. She explains where the body will be taken and what the procedures for claiming the body will be. I have watched shows like Law and Order and CSI many times. I expect them to carry her down gently on a stretcher in a nice vinyl zipper bag. I expect them to be respectful and subdued, mournful even, just like on TV.

But things are not like they are on TV. To them, this is just another day's work. As they carry her down, they are talking as usual. My sister admonishes them to be quiet. She has a seven year old autistic son who is still sleeping in a nearby room. Afraid that he cannot understand, she doesn't want them to wake him. She doesn't want him to see his aunt like this.

As the stretcher passes by me, I am incensed. The bag is not the neat vinyl I expected. Instead, it looks more like a trash bag. My sister is not trash! No sister of mine will EVER be trash! All of a sudden, the sadness that I have denied up to this moment is channeled into my anger.

In just a few more minutes they are gone. And so is Samantha- forever.

As I look back, I am amazed at how few memories I have of Samantha. After the break up of her marriage, she left New Jersey and followed our dad to West Virginia. From there, her life took her to live in many different states, and I had not seen her for several years.

Sam's grandmother was a diabetic, and her condition eventually caused her to have a stroke that left her paralyzed. Sam returned home to help take care of her. I remember talking to her about the task she had taken on. She spoke about how she often teased her granny by putting things she needed in front of her but just out of her reach. There was a little mischief, and a little chuckling, about this. Somebody who did not know her might have assumed that she was being mean. But Sam was just trying to motivate her to make an effort to improve her condition. We spoke of this. She truly believed that her grandmother could improve if she was willing to reach out for that object. This was a paradox that guided Sam's life. She was always concerned about others, but the way she showed it was often and enigma because she was not at all afraid of provocation.

As the day wears on, the family begins to arrive. The cousins bring food. My brothers arrive from out of state. There is a lot of reminiscing. I remember this. Sam did that. There are a few tears, but the sadness is already beginning to be replaced by the memories as Samantha moves into a new place where she will live on in our lives.

I feel an overwhelming urge to be alone. I retreat to the living room, and all of a sudden I sense the powerful smell of alcohol. I believe it is Sam, using the scent of her beloved vodka to announce her presence. I am incensed. Already angry at her for leaving us, I find this approach insulting. But it has to be her; nobody else in this house has any liquor.

In my anger, I tell her to "go to hell, Samantha." I immediately feel remorse. I don't want her to go to hell. I want her to be on the other side to greet me when I go home. I am angry because of my sadness, and now I am sad because of my anger. It hurts to loose those you love, even if you have drifted apart over the years. "No, don't go to hell, Samantha. Go into the light," I say. And then I add "God, take care of Sam for me, Please."

Thursday, March 2, 2006

6:00 PM

I am on my way to the funeral home. The family has come together from across the United States in order to bid my sister a final farewell.

I am not usually one to attend the family functions, but this is my sister and I feel I must bid her goodbye. I have always been the "black sheep" of the family, so I have not seen many of the people that are here tonight for several years. As I enter the parlor where Sam is laid out, I am greeted by brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom I do not recognize. Still, I am very happy that they are here.

One thing disturbs me, and that is how old we all seem. My heart sinks to my knees at the sight of all the gray hair and wrinkles, because I realize that it will not be long until I am here again. Soon, age will begin to weed out my generation. Soon, those of us that are here today may become the ones that are left behind.

I don't want to dwell on that thought, so I move on to my finals duties. There are many people here; our family is large and diverse. Also, since she was my step sister, there are many people from her blood family that I don't know. We all circle the room, meeting, greeting and offering condolences to one another. I get to meet my youngest brothers' wives for the first time. And I get to become briefly reacquainted with Samantha's children.

There is a little ire here. Sam's divorce was ugly. Her husband remarried shortly after their divorce, and his wife was a rather unpleasant woman. She has been instrumental in keeping Sam's children from visiting me and many other members of my family, yet here she is. I suppose she is here to support the children, but I would like to see inside her head so that I can see her gloating. I can't imagine why she had the bad taste to show up here today. "I could be wrong about her", I tell myself, and I hope that this is true. But for now, the children are the most important thing.

I turn my attention to them. There is nothing I can say or do to fix this. I haven't seen either of them in so long that I can only hope they recognize me. I hug them. I talk quietly to them, and I tell them that they should call our house. I tell that I love them and hope that we do not ever forget each other. They look so much like Sam in some ways; I can see her looking at me through those angelic eyes. Together we cry. Together we share a few moments, a few memories. And then I move on.

Samantha looks peaceful. They did a good job of preparing her for this service, in fact, she looks better tonight than she has in a while. Her makeup is flawless. She looks like she is sleeping. They dressed her in a nice gray suit and wrapped a rosary around her hand. As I stand over her, my heart twists in my chest. I want to touch her, but I can't. I want to hug her, to tell her that I loved her. But that will have to wait for another day.

"I'll see you when I come home," I tell her. "Goodbye, Samantha. Goodbye.."

Copyright 2006 Vanessa Kristovich

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