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The Sibling Connection
Experiencing the Death of a Sibling as a College Student

           It was 3:00 in the morning and I was in a semi-drowsy state tossing and turning on the stiff waiting room couch, not really sleeping, but certainly not awake. I had gone back to my apartment that night around ten o'clock, but my Dad called and told me that I better come back. We were in for another rough couple of days. By that point, I was used to missing class and work. I had hardly moved into my apartment even though I technically lived there for a month. St. Luke's Hospital had become my home. I was unconscious from a month's exhaustion, but one slight touch caused me to jump and I was instantly alert. My shoes were on my feet in mere seconds, and I ran down the hallway after my parents to the ICU. It was her bad time of the night. She always had problems at 3:00 in the morning. I don't even remember who woke me up, I don't remember who was with me, and I don't remember how fast it all happened. All I know is that someone said to me, "Melissa, wake up, Michele is going."

           To this day, those words ring in my ear every time I close my eyes now. The events that followed are burned in my memory, and I can't even think of one moment without reliving them all in a flood of emotion. I was instantly next to her. I grabbed her hand, and held on so tight. I don't know how much time passed, but I looked up and suddenly there were 20 members of my family surrounding her bed in the Intensive Care Unit. My Dad was at the foot of her bed, too caught up with emotion to even stand. My Mom was on Michele's other side, holding on and telling her everything is all right. Sr. Lucy, the saint who came to be my savior throughout the entire two weeks Michele was in the Intensive Care Unit, was holding me up while I took in everything that was going on around me. She told me to just listen to the music on the radio playing above Michele's head. "I Will Remember You" by Sarah McLachlan was melodically telling the story of what was about to happen. I suddenly noticed my Mom looking at me with the question in her eyes that neither of us wanted to answer. I knew she didn't want to say it. "Michele, you do what you have to do. We will be okay." It took me a minute to realize what I was saying, but I noticed my Mom had joined in. It became our chant. We knew Michele would fight knowing we were not ready to let go. That was how she was. Even though she was sedated, we could tell she was fighting so hard to hold on for us. My Mom quickly looked up in mid-sentence, and pointed out the single tear streaming down Michele's cheek.

           "Michele, we will be okay," and she let go.

           She was my little sister. Michele was my life companion. She was my little servant, my playmate, and my rock. She was only 18, and had lived a fuller life than I could ever begin to imagine. I was proud, jealous, and amazed by her- what sister wouldn't be? I had just helped her pack for her first year at St. Louis University. I had just helped her figure out what classes she was going to drop so she would have time to recover from what we thought would be a short hospital stay. I had just talked to her about taking care of herself, but all she wanted to know was how everyone else was doing. I just joked with her about everything from her medically induced weight gain to her disgusting hospital food and fashionable gown. She was the girl I brought a Cheetah print cowboy hat to wear so her therapy walk around the hall would be in style. She played My Little Ponies with me, made up plays in the basement with me, and she was my movie companion and sports critic. She was the only one I could ever count on to be there. She was supposed to be my friend forever.

            Michele died on September 25, 2000, from a disease called Lupus. Her immune system would essentially attack her body as if it were a foreign agent. She had been in and out of the hospital all summer, but she never viewed her disease as a devastating life occurrence. She took it all in as a learning experience and a time to fight. She wanted to be a doctor specializing in autoimmune diseases and nothing was about to get in the way of that. She never thought Lupus was a barrier, just a burden. Michele had just gotten back from Italy in May, where she was volunteering at the Vatican for three weeks as her senior service project. Michele knew when she got back that she had Lupus. When she was 13, she had her spleen removed because it was destroying her platelets and was warned then, that she would most likely develop Lupus later on in her life. She knew that her swollen joints, fatigue, and heart condition were the indications that it had finally come. Even her hospital stays were nothing new or alarming; she was just frustrated that the disease had caught up with her, and was going to be around for the rest of her life. She just didn't know how short her life was going to be.

           Despite four months of rollercoaster emotions, hospital visits, and new diagnoses, Michele continued to push onward. She was determined to attend all of her high school graduation parties, and go on vacation with the family in Florida, and she even went on a float trip with me despite my parents' fears. She certainly was going to move into her dorm room at SLU and go to college. Michele had dreams to become a doctor and help others just like her. She even had a job lined up with SLU hospital to work in Lupus research. Michele had never been so excited, but was hurdling so many obstacles to get there. She couldn't pack her own bags, she couldn't decorate her dorm room, and she certainly couldn't climb up into her own loftbed. She was just too weak. All summer we struggled back and forth between celebrations when she was feeling well, and devastation when she would have to go into the hospital again. My small family unit of six was seeing something slip away, but none of us were strong enough to see how much we were about to lose.

           My parents came to pick her up after she spent two days in the dorm. They took her straight to St. Luke's where she was admitted for a muscle disorder caused by Lupus. This muscle condition developed into severe weight gain, then seizures that sen t her into the ICU, followed by fluid retention on the lungs that put her on a respirator, and finally the attack spread to every organ in her body and eventually her brain. This all happened in one month. It went from me moving her into her dorm room, to me packing her dorm room back up again, to her predicted rehabilitation until Christmas, to her funeral one week before her 19th birthday. It is still impossible for me to grasp how fast it all went. How fast she came and went.

           Michele was an old soul. She had so much depth to her spirit, so much character in everything she said, and never seemed to take a single second of her healthy life for granted. While living the life of a typical teenager, she was still able to care for four special needs children all under the age of 11. She kept a 4.5 GPA in high school, and had an active social life. She even had the experience of a lifetime when she went to work in Rome for Jubilee 2000. She would never approach any task at hand as ordinary, and was continually pushing herself to prove she could do it. The illnesses of the children she watched included heart murmurs, Attention Deficit Disorder, Leukemia, Cystic Fibrosis, and Autism found all within one family. These were her children and she loved them as if they were her own. Michele saw her love and care for them as a learning experience and a chance to help other children, like her, who are going through health problems. She kept her straight A's while at one point taking five honors courses mainly in math and science with every intention of attending college at SLU and becoming a doctor. She kept a circle of good-natured friends ranging from her core of 8 girlfriends from school, to her 30-year-old manager who saw her as a crazy little sister, and a mature woman with Lupus who became her "second-mom." This rich background and support contributed to the making of an intelligent, soulful, human being that lived to learn and serve. Her trip to Rome was the example of all her qualities coming together. She was with friends having a crazy fun time, in a far off ethereal place, serving others in ways that only a handful of people ever get the chance to do; challenging herself to the end to see if she could live on her own in a foreign country.

           Michele's life and death have challenged my outlook on life and how I will carry out my time on this planet. Looking back on her life, I realize more and more each day that the manner in which she lived her life was the proverbial "right way." She didn't waste a moment; she always did what she wanted to do with her time while never disrespecting a person or a moment of it. She never focused on one thing too much as to lose sight of everything else around her. She was easygoing and would not let the little things get to her. She knew how to have a good time, she knew when to be serious, she knew how to be a good friend, and she also knew how to be a troublemaker. She was a normal human being, but somehow the most knowledgeable creature I know. Since her death, I have come to cherish her personality traits more than I could have ever imagined. The sister I used to get angry with, be jealous of, and goof around with, has become my example of the way a human being should conduct oneself. Everyday I hope to become more and more like her, and I hope to surround myself with people who possess the same qualities, values, and outlook on life. The challenge is regaining my strength to begin that process.

           My sister died over five months ago, and I am just now beginning the grief process. I am just beginning to learn what this experience and this person is going to do to change and influence my life. I am just starting to appreciate how precious life really is, and how important it is to live it to its fullest, which is a saying too easily thrown around. I am just learning about the type of people I need to enrich my life. I am just learning to decipher what is truly important and worth my time. I always thought I was doing the right thing. I have been doing what it takes to be successful and build a life that can be respected and admired, but I am beginning to realize that success and following the expected path is not what this is all about. It is about quality of life. Michele was the most genuine and spirited person I had the privilege of knowing. She was a person I was just getting to know. A person I will always try to emulate.

           Michele was sedated and on the respirator for two weeks. For two days she was slowly brought up from sedation to begin testing her neurological function and breathing capabilities for damage due to the seizures and fluid retention on the lungs. For those two days we were blessed to have the opportunity to talk with her and have her respond back in anyway she could. For those two days she squeezed my hand, opened her eyes, smiled, waved, and spoke with every inch of her body that had enough strength. She showed us that she understood every word that we spoke, and that she knew we were there. My sister even had enough energy to give me the finger. She knew I was her goofy older sister, there to support her, but not strong enough to fully handle this grave situation. She had made jokes about her condition throughout the entire month, and she wasn't about to let up even when she was at her lowest. She wanted to make sure I was all right and let me know that she was still there in the way she has always communicated: through humor.

           I can remember that day when I talked to her for almost 30 minutes straight, with her looking up at me, smiling, crying, responding to my jokes, holding onto my hand so tight. I felt like I could just pick her up and hold on forever. I probably would have if the nurses would let me. I remember that was the last time she was awake. Even then she shined. Michele had grace at every point of her life, and even then she was brightening the hardest situation any of us would ever have to face. Michele has influenced the way I look at situations, people, and my life. I have just begun the grieving process and the reevaluation of how Michele has affected my world. All I can tell you now is that she has changed me forever. She will always be my sister, my friend, my model, my life companion, and now my guardian angel. She continues to shine. Everyday. Forever.

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