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'Oh, Fireworks Again': The Grief of Losing My Sister and the Fourth of July

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Oh, fireworks again.

It’s been 22 years since my sister died. She had leukemia. For a long time. It relapsed twice and killed her in 1994. She was 10 years old. There were experimental meds before she died, I guess. There was talk of attempting a bone marrow transplant, I think. It never happened. We were tested, but we failed to match. Failed to match. I was only 13 years old, so I didn’t much understand the treatment plans or how risky these decisions were, how close to death she stayed all those years. I eavesdropped and tried to filter through the strain the grownups let off, what was happening, how bad it was. But I didn’t really know.

My memories are fuzzy. Like Kirsten’s head, for most of those years. From age 3 to 10, she was largely bald. She had a nicely shaped head. She had a big, crooked Cookie Monster smile, so the baldness went well with that. 

I have positive memories of being at the chemo clinic and on the pediatric oncology floor of our favorite hospital. The staff and oncologists loved her, loved us. We used to play in the big “recreational room.” Everyone wore face masks, but that was fine. We made crafts.

She was in the hospital for swaths of time. I’ve been told at one point it was six weeks. I think we celebrated all the holidays there, in-patient, at one point or another. Hospital Thanksgiving turkey is not great.

Kirsten really loved fireworks. They were the highlight of her summer. We have so many beautiful pictures of her gazing up in ecstasy at fireworks above her. So many pictures. Thank God.

Every year, my parents worked hard to get her discharged from the hospital for Fourth of July so she could go to the fireworks. If we were lucky, it worked out. Her blood counts had to hit some magical jackpot number to earn her the right to a normal summer kid night out. Some years she was able to have a BombPop with the rest of us, some years she couldn’t swallow and risked choking, so she just had to watch the fireworks without it.

I have a specific memory of coming home from school one day and finding the thermometer on the kitchen counter, uncapped. I was probably in middle school. I saw it and knew Kirsten would be sick again. That we’d be back to the hospital. My mom may have already taken her. I don’t know what adult greeted me when I made my way through the kitchen and into the house. Was my aunt there? My dad? A grandparent? Was my littlest sister home or had she already been passed off to a family friend for the night? I don’t know. I don’t remember. Maybe it was pneumonia that time. Maybe it was a blood infection.

There were times she was in the isolation rooms and we couldn’t see her much. Those were hard. I don’t know. These memories blend. But I remember the thermometer, sitting on the counter next to the phone with the long curly cord.

I remember getting into our family van after the visitation at the funeral home. There were only four of us. The natural body count, buddy system was busted. We were a family of four, not five. That was strange.

I went to summer camp, as scheduled, a week or two after the funeral. I’m sure it was in an effort to get me out of The Sad House. After dumping our bags on our bunks, we did a team building activity, outside, standing in a big circle. “Tell us your name, where you’re from, how many siblings you have.” I was dumfounded. I had no idea how to answer. Fortunately, they’d sent this grieving girl to camp with some of her longest term bestest friends, and one of them held my hand in that circle and answered for me. I don’t remember what she said, but I was so grateful.

It’s been 22 years since my sister died. I now answer people easily that I have one sister, my living sister. Once I really, really get to know someone, I might tell them this tale, the Kirsten story, but it’s ancient, sad history that I don’t have to tell.

My parents don’t have that luxury. When people ask them about their kids, they’re “disloyal” if they don’t talk about their daughter, Kirsten. And then they’re having to relive the tale again and again, being chronic bummers.

We’ve healed. We have to tell people we’ve healed. It’s been 22 years. We can’t be left in that place of sadness. People need us. We need each other to be functional. We’ve left The Sad House, we’ve gone on with our lives. We’ve grown, we’ve married, we’ve been educated, we;ve gotten and changed jobs, we’ve had our own kids, grandkids.

The years roll on and on, away from the point when our lives intersected Kirsten’s. The fresh reminders of her have faded over the years, grief doesn’t stab us as often as it did at first. We can watch her favorite movies, the ones she knew by heart, with mostly joy now. We can tell happy stories about her life without the black sadness creeping up too much. We can get through our weddings and graduations, births of our babies, wishing she was there, but no longer feeling guilty for celebrating without her.

It’s been 22 years since my sister died.

My parents just started braving fireworks again the past few years. They had avoided them all this time, all these decades, not wanting to see them without her. Not wanting to be reminded of that face, knowing they couldn’t see those lights reflected in that smile. Her enthusiasm for fireworks while she was alive made them poison for her grieving parents after she was dead.

Last year, watching fireworks went great for my parents. No crushing depression followed. Maybe they really are healed, they thought. But this year, it hurt. It stunned them how much it hurt. This weekend they felt them like a big, loud reminder of their big, loud loss. It stirred that deep black pool of pain that they try to keep stagnant, and now they’re reeling.

It’s hard to avoid fireworks. My parents have grandkids now, they have Disney World trips and family gatherings and baseball games and… they’re impossible to totally avoid. Is it best to hide, as they did for so long, or to repeat the exposure until the trigger becomes impotent? I don’t know. Who knows these things?

Fireworks keep showing up, year after year, occasion after occasion, as does the grief. Oh, grief again. Oh, fireworks again.

Originally published: July 4, 2016
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