Today, the hardest thing is that I forget. Something amazing will happen or something just silly, and I’ll think, I need to call my sister. I then have to remember: my sister is dead. The process starts over. It’s gotten easier, but will never go away. It’s not always on my mind anymore, and for that I feel guilty.
My older sister Katie died Labor Day Weekend 1996, she was 33. I will always remember that age because the Priest at the funeral kept saying it was the same age that Jesus Christ died and that God must have needed another angel. I realized at that moment, the Catholic Church wasn’t going to be of any help. He’s God, he could have created an Angel, and he didn’t need to take my sister.
Growing up in San Diego California, it was a common thing to venture South of the border, for fun, beaches, underage drinking, fish tacos, or sometimes-just prescriptions. My sister Katie and our stepmother had decided to have a girl’s day out and go wine tasting all through Baja California. Going down to Baja was something my family did frequently, its like New Yorkers going to Connecticut for the day. The big difference is Corona and Tequila is usually involved at every stop. The two of them were planning on driving back across the border, but wisely decided to stay in a hotel and continue to enjoy the rest of the night and liquid refreshments. On the drive down the coast to the Rosorito Hotel, my sister asked to pull over and watch the sunset from the cliffs. My sister Katie had a thing about wanting to see the “Green Flash”. While listening to Jimmy Buffet, my sister and our stepmother watched the beautiful Sunset over the Pacific Ocean just north of Rosorito Mexico. It was a night where the moon was all ready out. My sister turned to look at the moon, lost her footing, and fell off the cliff to her death. Her last image was of a sunset, what she referred to as a stairway to Heaven. Whether it was fate, God wanting an angel, or a drunken accident is irrelevant to me. My big sister was gone, and I would never be the same.
There was so much mythology about my sisters death: She was taking a photograph at the time and didn’t see the edge through the lens, the cliff just gave way, there was a priest on the shore near the rocks where she landed and he gave her last rights, she jumped, she was pushed, there was an autopsy and there was no alcohol in her system, and the Mexican police robbed all her jewelry off her body in the morgue. The uncertainty was driving me crazy. I finally found the right opportunity to ask my stepmother about the last day of my sister’s life because I needed closure and wanted to know. It was now 10 years later and I had to dispel the rumors. I was relieved to know she had an amazing day, was a little tipsy, and that it was just a freak accident. Unfortunately, the part about the body being robbed of all valuables was true. They did at least return her wedding ring when my mom showed up to identify her daughter’s body.
I was fortunate in the sense that I was on very good terms with my sister when she died. My mother and others siblings have different scenarios. Weeks before, Katie had a miscarriage and was obviously devastated. We talked about it and I sent her a card that said something about wishing I was there to give her a hug. Days before she died I received a card from her, with a collie on the front, that said how much she loved me, appreciated my card, and thanked me for the support. It was on my fridge when I received the news. I walked into my tiny studio apartment in Queens NY, and found my partner Jeff sitting solemnly on the couch. He told me he had received a call from my mother that there was an accident and my older sister was in critical condition. I cannot fathom how hard it must have been for him to tell me. I later found out she was dead shortly after impact, and telling Jeff she may have a chance was just an easier way to break the news. I couldn’t fathom how the woman that sent me this card, that was still on my fridge, could be Dead. Nothing made sense. I was in shock. I went down to the local diner at 6am and ordered a Bloody Mary. They had paper placemats with the names of different types of umbrella drinks on it. I learned that morning from reading that paper placement that the word cocktail comes from when they used to put a rooster feather as a garnish in an alcoholic beverage. That is one of the only things I remember from that first 48 hrs.
Katie was the oldest of 5 children in my Irish Catholic family. I was second, so we were the closest in age. She was 9 when I was born, and I loved having a big sister. She was always my solace. I remember when kids in school would say they had an older brother who could beat me up, I would respond that I had an older sister who could drive and she would run them over. We had this amazing communication. We would talk on the phone for hours. When I moved to NY, we would schedule a time; both grab a 6pack, and talk and drink together. My mom used to say that it sounded like we had our own language; we just talked so fast no one else could understand us.
When I arrived in San Diego after the accident, it was a perfect sunny day. My mood was that of a severe blizzard, yet there wasn’t a cloud in the 72-degree California sky. We had a family meeting about what my sisters’ wishes were. My sister had a benign tumor the year before, and because of that incident all her affairs were in order. She wanted to be cremated and spread in the ocean so she could forever swim with the dolphins. My mom wanted to know our thoughts. She wanted her daughter to be buried so there was a place she could go visit. To my mother’s surprise, she found out that all of her children wanted to be cremated and spread in the ocean. We convinced her in saying that no matter where we were, the Atlantic, Pacific, Hudson, or Liffey, Katie would be there with us. We didn’t have to go to a specific gravesite. Now we all see it is a beautiful thing, but at the time it was really hard for my mom. She realized that raising your kids on the west coast changes many standard traditions. The next item on the docket was from the younger siblings. They suggested there be no alcohol in the house that week. I immediately over ruled that and paid no attention to the suggestion whatsoever. With my poor mom in deep mourning, she needed me to help plan the funeral, and I needed the help of a bottle.
I must admit that helping to arrange the funeral made me feel useful and kept my mind occupied. The music was lovely. It was from the soundtrack of “Stealing Home” by David Foster, and one of the songs was actually called Katie’s theme. I assigned all the family members, who wanted to participate, the readings. I was even able to write some personal prayers that where said by the younger family members. We made a collage of photographs to be placed in the lobby of the church. We let people know we were doing this and it became a great healing process. People would bring their favorite photos of my sister and glue them onto the board. If they wanted the photo returned, I would color Xerox the picture and place that on the board. We were able to laugh and tell stories about her and when the photo was taken. Friends from all moments in her life stopped by the share their memories. We ended up with 2 huge poster size collages that I had framed. It was beautiful. Up until just recently, My Mom had it up in her living room. The flowers, I was told by my mother, are very important. There were so many formalities for the service that I just couldn’t appreciate or be concerned with, but I did what I was told. I designed a large standing bouquet with my siblings, and we each picked a flower that represented us. An expensive alter arrangement with all 4 flowers was made. There were so many flowers delivered that ours completely blended in. I’m glad we did it, but think that there are other and more important things the immediate family should worry about than have the most impressive floral display. My mother however, had a casket arrangement of silver roses created (the lavender ones that were my sisters favorite) that was stunning. That alone would have been classy and sufficient. The church chosen was where we all went elementary school and Sunday mass as children. After my parents got divorced we were shunned from the church, so impressions and pretence were now very important. I have no idea why any of this matters, its not like we live in high society England. It is a small judgmental parish 25 minutes north of Tijuana, but I guess formalities and details must be paid attention too. My next project was to write the eulogy and pretend this wasn’t happening.
The day of the viewing I was running around so much with errands and finishing things that I hadn’t taken the time to realize what was actually going on. My family was all ready there when I arrived. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize that it was an open casket. I assumed that there was extensive head trauma from the fall. I was told her face wasn’t destroyed and that the damage was on the back of her head, which was cracked open. At that moment it hit me the reality and severity of the situation. I honestly hadn’t put it together. In my mind I was preparing for some show, just a fictional script of someone else’s life, not mine. I would wake up and it would be a dream, or she would come back to life and the credits would roll. None of that happened.
My mom is a professional make-up artist and insisted on doing the restoration to my sister’s face. She said she put make-up on her the first time and wanted to do it the last time. That alone shows what strength my mom has. She raised 5 children by herself. Her kid’s were her life, and now one was dead. Her eldest was a corpse that she had just applied MAC cosmetics to. As the rest of my family went up to the coffin to pay their last respects, I sat in the entryway, paralyzed. I was remembering the last time I saw her with so much life. That was the way I wanted to remember her. I refused to go into the chapel and see my beautiful older sister, dead, painted up like a scene from “Six Feet Under.” I kept thinking,” this is not happening, this is not real.” I am the only member of my family that did not see the body. That is one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made. I have bad dreams as it is, and to see a cadaver of someone I adored would have haunted my life forever.
After that, there was a small ceremony at the chapel for close family and friends. The actual funeral was the following morning in the church. Once the casket was closed, I was able to enter the sanctuary and sit in the front row next to my father. As the service began it hit me that I was in a living hell. The priest was talking about how God needed Katie by his side (he pronounced it CAT EEE and I wanted to throw a shoe at him. I thought it so inappropriate to not even know how to pronounce the departed’s name correctly. Gaelic accent or not, it was disrespectful)
Up until this moment I held it together. I was a rock for myself and my mother and siblings. I sat there and felt my body begin to tremble, whether it was rage or grief or fear or sorrow, I cannot say. I can tell you that I was powerless. I began to weep uncontrolably. I remember seeing a movie where a man was screaming in pain on top of a casket and then the casket was put out to sea. The camera followed to coffin out into the ocean, but in the distance you could still hear the man wail in agony. I felt like that man. I was making a scene and could not help it or did I care. I normally would have been embarrassed, but something had a hold of me. The chapel guests were beginning to come up the aisle to pay their last respects and had to walk past me bellowing in the front row. My father helped me up and out of the way and placed me by the string quartet on the side. There, I was able to listen to the music and calm down. I let the melody come in as I breathed out. I had never cried like that before, or since.
I don’t remember much after that. The actual funeral was the next day, and I had to go through it all again. Late that night my younger sister Nicole and I sat in the family room in silence, but together. We drank Ballatore, Katie’s favorite cheap champagne and had our own little séance. We talked to God and he didn’t answer, so we tried to talk directly to Katie ourselves. Katie’s husband said she appeared to him in a dream, and my mom received a sign from her in feathers. We wanted a sign too. We lit a bunch of candles, held hands and prayed to Katie to blow out a candle to show us she was there. Nothing happened. We opened all the windows thinking maybe she would use the wind to show us her presence and blow out the candles, or at least just one. Still nothing happened. I assume I then just passed out.
The next morning is a blur. I went to the church; I was a pallbearer. I was pleased that everything was going well and impressed at the number of people who showed up. Then Eulogy part started, I was to be last. I was so scared that an encore of my hysterics was going to happen. The first man got up there and talked about her wedding. He had a boom box and wanted to play the song that was the bride and groom entrance music from that day. In my conservative catholic church he blared the theme song from the movie “Rocky.” Tradition was now out the window. Before me, my little sister Nicole read from a book called “Sister’s.” It was a gift to her from Katie weeks before she died. This is the moment that my family really fell apart. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was numb. I had no more tears left. It may sound callous, but the show must go on, I had a speech to give, and I wasn’t about to give a bad performance. I had all ready made a fool of myself the night before. I walked up on to that alter, where I was baptized, was an alter boy, made my first holy communion, and watched my now dead sister give her wedding vows, and spoke from my heart.
“There’s never been a moment when Katie wasn’t a part of my life. She was my idol, she was my icon… she was my big sister. She took care of all of her siblings as if they were her own. She changed my diapers. She helped me with my homework, so our handwriting is the same. I tie my shoes left-handed because she taught me how to tie my shoes. She was very instrumental in my childhood. She was beautiful to me; I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t a Charlie’s Angel. I remember every Sunday our parents would go to the Charger game, so we knew that was our day with Katie. We always looked forward to spending the day with her… but I think everyone looked forward to spending time with Katie.
As the years progressed, she was not only my big sister, but she became my best friend. She would call me in the middle of the night just to say “hi” and “I love you.” No distance hampered our relationship. When I was in Phoenix, she was in Phoenix. When I was in Santa Barbara, she was in Santa Barbara. When I was in New York City, she was in New York City. I remember in Phoenix, I was in A Chorus Line, and I sang a number in the show about my sister. Katie sat in the audience telling everyone around her “I’m the sister, I’M the sister!” Katie always let me know she was proud of me. Be it career or lifestyle choices, she always supported me… so much so that she dressed up once as Pete the Dragon so I could sing to her in a local talent show.
Katie and Jimmie came to visit me in New York last winter. On a particular rainy night she stopped in the middle of the street, despite the cabs, and started singing. She jumped up and down in puddles, splashed us with water, and swung from the lampposts… Singing in the Rain. Katie made a promise to me that she would see me perform on Broadway. That winter was my first performance ever on Broadway, and she was there – dressed to the nines, smiling like only Katie could smile. She never broke a promise. I thank her for that. That was the last time I saw her.
When the family dog died, I was very young and didn’t understand. Our parents told us Admiral was in heaven chasing seagulls on the beach. Well, here’s to Katie, who will forever be Singing in the Rain.”
After the funeral I helped carry the coffin out in the procession and led it to the hearse. We had trouble getting it into the back and as we were trying to push it in I swear I could her the body bang against the side. The moments were just getting more miserable. I believe we were all too weak with grief and had no strength left to lift the coffin. As directed by my mom, I then stood at the church door to greet all the guests. I listened to people I would never see again give their condolences. I shook hands and nodded my head to hundreds while inside I was wishing I were completely drunk and on a plane back to New York.
The Reception was at the house where I was babysat as a kid. I hated the house then and hated it more now, but it had the biggest backyard to accommodate the entire congregation. I sat there drinking everything I could get my hands on and watched folks laughing, catching up, and acting like it was social hour in homeroom. I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs,” My older sister is dead and all of you are acting like nothing has happened! I hate you all!” I was a problem drinker to begin with, and now the floodgates were open. I never needed a reason to drink, but now I had one. What could anyone say? They couldn’t and wouldn’t dare say a thing. I needed to repress my feelings and alcohol worked wonders. Looking back, I think it was best that I had a beer in my hand; it probably kept me from punching things and people. I wanted everyone to shut up and leave me alone. I appreciated the support, but had enough. If I heard one more person say I am sorry for your loss I would scream. Words would not bring her back. That week, all of the focus was on my sister’s husband, poor Jimmie, a widower at such a young age. Well, he remarried and got a life insurance payment. He started a new life and family and moved away. I haven’t heard from him in years despite my efforts. He said he would always be close to me because I was “family.” Another example of just words. He was able to get a new wife; I can never get a new big sister. Looking back, I see how much anger was present. Instead of acting out and expressing my rage, I put on my famous family fake smile, and suppressed all negative emotions. Time heals everything? No, time makes it fade. It will never completely heal.
When I arrived home in New York City, I received a wonderful supportive hug from my partner, and then he said that I received another phone call. The show I recently workshoped was going to Broadway. The next year of my life was booked. Taking time to grieve was not on my docket, and so I didn’t. My career was just beginning and I needed to focus. I scheduled a week vacation to be alone, and figured that would be enough time to grieve and then move on.
I went to Ireland for a week and cried through every pub, castle, and Celtic cemetery. Besides that week, the months leading up to my new job are a complete blur. To say that I was numb is an understatement. I went to work, went to the liquor store, and went home. Ireland was magnificent. I thought of my sister the whole time, my fallen Irish Colleen. I kissed the Blarney stone, went to the Guinness factory, said a prayer in every Cathedral I could find, and ended each night with many a pint. I long for the time I can return to the motherland not in a state of mourning. I visited historic sites, museums and music halls, and hoped the hole in my heart would be filled. When I returned home I expected to be miraculously healed. Like an addict, I needed instant gratification. This is not what I encountered. Nothing had changed. I still felt empty and alone. I did not want to feel anything. I knew from books and talks that I had to work through the pain, but I had no idea how to do this. Instead I compartmentalized my feelings and got on with my life.
The next couple years became about ”what I should say?” When I meet someone new and they ask me how many siblings I have, do I say four? What if they ask more details? Do I say I have two brothers and two sisters and leave it at that? When they ask what they do or where do they live, do I say one is dead? In my experience when I say my sister fell off a cliff to her death, the conversation halts. They are more uncomfortable with it than I am. I am used to it, but it shocks another person. It is part of my being, something I deal with everyday. To someone else, it is out of a movie. When I watch a movie and I see someone fall to their deaths and blood spatters everywhere, I have a guttural reaction. An audience sees it as gore and special effects, I look at it like, “is that how it happened? “ One doesn’t realize how many people fall to their death in the cinema, until it becomes personal.
I have considered saying nothing to a new person in my life; it’s nobody’s business anyway. If I do become close to someone, its inevitable I have to tell him or her. How do I sugar coat it? I tried just saying that I have two brothers and one sister and leave it at that. I then feel awful that I have forgotten her and I am disrespecting her memory. It has become a delicate dance, like doing a foxtrot to a waltz, something that will never feel right.
I stopped even talking about it to my friends and partner because I thought they were sick of hearing about it. My family rarely brought if up because it was a sensitive subject. I had an Uncle who refused to say her name and would get angry at the sound of it. He even refused people to call my Cousin Caitlyn, Cate, because it reminded him of her. Semantics became very important. I preferred to say my sister passed away. My mom barked at me once that,” she did not pass away, she died!!!” What I could say, and to whom, was difficult. I just wanted to talk about her. Eventually I realized I would need a therapist (or several).
I was exhausted from hearing that “everything happens for a reason”. I wanted them to tell me what the reason was. I wanted to say,” Okay, in your own words tell me the reason my family is dealing with this horrible tragedy. Go on, I’m all ears.” If it truly was God’s plan, I wanted it explained. My God is not a punishing God, and yet I felt incarcerated. If it was fate, then there were no stars aligned in my life. I was sick and tired of empty phrases and unanswered questions. I figured if I said nothing, I got nothing in response.
My Mom would constantly speak of more signs in the form of feathers, since my sister was now an Angel. They would appear in her car with the windows rolled up, on her bed, or on her sleeve. She told me to look and I would see them too. I told her I see dead pigeons all over the streets of the New York City and I refused to think that a diseased feather in a Times Square gutter was a message from my sister. My pillows were down, so there were always feathers on my floor. I realized that everyone must grieve differently. I was on great terms at the time of her death. I wanted a sign, but maybe I didn’t need a sign. My Mom needed it. She needed to know that she was still present. Everyone’s process was different; it wasn’t my place to judge. If my mom saw feathers, brilliant, I didn’t. That didn’t make me out of touch, just realistic.
Being so far from the family, I was left out of a lot of the grieving process. Katie’s ashes were spread out into the ocean so she could forever swim with the Dolphins. I was told about it after it had all ready happened. This wasn’t intentional; I wasn’t on their mind. Being the only family member not in San Diego, and 3000 miles away, I was alone and out of the loop. I had to find my own way. Why would they invite me when it was so obvious I couldn’t come? Still, my feelings were hurt. On the other hand, I don’t think I would have done well in a house where everywhere I looked there were photo collages, candles, memorials, and alters. My first visit home, the house felt like a morgue to me. In hindsight, it was better for me to be away.
The first Christmas home was something I had to do. It was an act of solidarity. I needed to be with family. Before I signed a new contract, it was a requirement that I would have the holiday off. It ended up being a 48-hour trip that was rushed, overwhelming, and extremely emotional. It was worth it and the right decision. I can say that the death of my sister really made me appreciate my living siblings so much more. It brought us closer. Over the years we really notice that an extra effort is paid. We know the reason but don’t acknowledge and seldom discuss it.
In the first year I began to have dreadful nightmares about death. The most frightening one, which was recurring, was one where my younger sister Nicole was trapped in an airtight glass box. It was much like the one you see in Sleeping Beauty, but my sister was alive and trying to get out. I watched her struggle inside as I tried to find a way to open in. I watched my little sister slowly start to suffocate to death. I had this dream several times, and it was not black and white. I distinctly recall my sisters face turn blue as I witness her die.
The other recurring dream I had was that I was the one that actually killed my older sister Katie. In this dream, there was a big hole in a yard that the next day was to be filled with cement and made into a swimming pool. It was late at night and raining. I took a shovel that was laying in the yard and hit my sister Katie with it over the head. It killed her instantly. I threw her body into the hole and buried her, knowing that early in the morning it would be filled with cement and no one would ever know. Children would be swimming over a corpse. When I would wake up from this dream, it always took me a while to convince myself that it was not real. I felt like a murderer.
By this time, it had been well over a year since the funeral, and I was on my second therapist. In relating this dream, she told me that it represented a death in myself. She believed that I had come to the conclusion that I needed to stop drinking, and that this dream was about killing a part of myself, and it was a part I shared with Katie.
Whether it was true or not, I was not ready to think about it. I was just fine dealing with my life. On the outside I was a success, the inside was still locked away.
“Don’t tell me how to grieve,” was what my mother yelled at me at my grandmother’s funeral. A car had just almost hit her as she was meandering in the street, like a zombie. With this new death, my mother went further into a depression and I didn’t know how to help. My mother then instructed me to have a hot toddy and go console my Nana.” Your Nana just lost her sister, you can’t understand the pain she is in right now.” I realized at that moment my mom had no idea the grief her children had gone through. I knew exactly what my Nana felt like. Unknowingly, that was very hurtful to me. To loose a child is the hardest thing a parent faces, but that doesn’t make loosing a sibling any less.
My life continued to flourish and my denial did as well. In 2001, 9/11 happened, my new Broadway show was a huge flop, and in early 2002, my partner of 10 years finally had enough of my self obsessed alcoholism. I was not participating in reality. I was now alone and unemployed. I hated loss and now here was another one. I realized that before I could actually get over the break-up, I had to take the time to grieve my sister. I was willingly to take the leap. Six years after my sister’s death, I enrolled in a 12-week bereavement course and began a long over due journey. It was late, but it was when I was ready.
The bereavement course was difficult and lovely all at the same time. It was the first of many types of support groups I would attend. The feeling of not being alone in my grief and sorrow is what I valued most. I think that is why I was so interested in this particular writing project. It didn’t matter that I didn’t like a lot of the people in my group and didn’t relate to most of them. What matter was that we all shared the common thread of the loss of a loved one. I most related to those who had tragedies: a plane crash, a heart attack on the Brooklyn Bridge walking home the night of the 2003 NYC Blackout, the car crashes. These people dealt with the shock value that I did. The classes gave me a sense of purpose and I felt like I was being proactive in dealing with my grief. We discussed things like what dates besides the major holidays and birthdates will be difficult and subjects most wouldn’t understand or even want to discuss. We each closed the course with a memory box that had pictures, mementos, and anything special we wanted to put in the box. It was a special moment and really worth it. Looking back I think that besides the fact that I had several drinks before each session, it was very successful.
Today I am 5 years sober and I don’t have anything to numb the pain of my sister’s death. This is better because now I can embrace her memory and be present with my feelings. To get to this point, I did what I had to do. Do I miss her? Yes. Do I forget her? There are moments, yes. Time will not heal this wound completely, but it has made it bearable. It’s a part of my tapestry now. I am a gay, sober, Irish-American male in his late thirties, who came from a broken home and has a dead sister. It is just part of my personal pie chart. It has shaped who I am, what I will become, and a constant reminder of who I was. Today I can choose whether to let this tragedy define me or let it fuel me. It just depends on the day. She will always be with me; a song reminds me of her, lavender roses, a Miller Light Ad, or the smile on my nieces’ face. My older sister lived life to the fullest, and I still want to be like her when I grow up.
On Aug. 28th 2017 it will be 21 years since my sister's death. I am still sober with 11.5 years. Am I all better? No. Will I ever be? Doubt it. Creating this website has eased the suffering, if only a little. Helping others know they are not alone helps me probably more than it helps them. Tell your story, whatever it is. It will change someones life, telling mine has changed mine. Baby steps. Please contribute at firstname.lastname@example.org