For My Sister On Her Birthday

Today would have been her big day. 46 years old.

Kristi and I weren’t in each other’s lives much the past few years. We got along and talked a couple of times a year and saw each other at Christmas, but not much more than that. Back in college, she used to hang out in my dorm and dance to “Brown Eyed Girl” with my friends.

Now she lived in sunny Florida, I lived 3000 miles away in rainy Seattle, and our lives were very different.

Growing up together in the 80s

When she started getting sick, she didn’t want us to know. She wanted to help everyone else — she refused help for herself. Her own daughter had died the previous Christmas in a terrible car accident. That was the tragedy. She was trying to be strong for the rest of her family.

When she finally did tell us, it was practically too late.

She called me last summer (which was rare) and asked if I would sign her living will, to act as her medical power of attorney if/when she became unable to make medical decisions for herself. For her, it was a confession. Of course I said yes.

I didn’t tell her, but I hung up the phone and cried, and cried, and cried.

The next couple months were a whirlwind. I started trying to figure out how to save her: researching obscure cures, treatment facilities, diets, and medications. When she took a turn for the worse, our entire family flew to Florida to visit her in the hospital. We got her out, took her home, and we all went to dinner at the mall — one of the happier memories.

That week was a turning point. She finally accepted our help. We started her on a new diet, organized her medicine, and put posters on her fridge so she’d know what to do. Her own family helped in every way they could. For once, she became dedicated to the process. She started calling me almost every day.

Her last words to me were “I have to go.”

Two weeks after our visit she was back in the hospital. We knew this would happen, but we hoped she’d bounce back like she’d done a half dozen times before. But she wasn’t doing well. She felt so sick that she couldn’t talk.

“I have to go,” and that was it.

I caught the first available flight and flew the 3000 miles to Florida as fast as I could. I wanted to get her out of the hospital. I thought — against all the odds — that I could fly her to a facility several states away that might be able to save her with an organ transplant.

By the time I landed, she was already in a coma. Walking into her room in intensive care, I saw my name written the whiteboard as her “Person of Authority.” This was one of the last things she told the hospital staff before slipping into unconsciousness.

The next morning, it was obvious on the faces of the doctors and nurses that she wasn’t going to make it. A breathing tube was the only thing keeping her alive. She wasn’t going to wake up.

Less than 24 hours after arriving, I signed the papers and made the terrible decision that she had asked me to make two months earlier. Kristi said she choose me because she thought the decision would be too hard for anyone else to make. Still, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do.

Although I’m in my 40s, I’ve never felt like much of an “adult.” Never owned property, never had children. But that day, I signed a paper that took away another person’s life. It felt like I aged 22 years in that hospital room.

A few hours later, driving back to the hotel, I looked for a place to eat before everything closed. I walked quickly by a patio restaurant with live music — the last thing in the world I wanted at that moment. But then I stopped.

The man on guitar was playing “Brown Eyed Girl.” The most beautiful, soulful version of Brown Eyed Girl I’ve ever heard. Her song. I walked into the restaurant, ordered dinner, and listened to every chord that the guitar player played.

I think Kristi was telling me everything was okay.

Her time was too short. We wanted it to be longer. Even in the end, she was trying to help everyone else.

Happy birthday little sister. You are loved, and we miss you.