On my sister’s 21st birthday, I visited her at the Cook County Jail. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t been so annoyed to see her there. If only I had known that this would be her last birthday on earth, and how deeply I would miss her.
After twenty years, I still want to call and share stories with her. I still want to hug her. And for her to tell me things are going to be okay.
Colleen struggled with drinking. She also struggled with driving after drinking. This led to a judge deciding she must spend thirty days behind bars. It also meant that she also had to spend her last birthday and her last Thanksgiving in jail.
Like my sister, I got a DUI when I was twenty. And I also spent time in the Cook County jail. So, when she was jailed, I should have been more sympathetic. It’s not that I couldn’t empathize; I just chose not to. Instead, I was annoyed about visiting her there.
At that time, I was one year sober. Sitting on the other side of bulletproof glass, phones pressed to our ears, I wondered why she couldn’t be more like me. Why couldn’t she get her shit together like I had? Why was I wishing my little sister a happy 21st in this terrible place? I didn’t want to be there. And I didn’t want her to be there, either.
But sitting there, seeing her face through the thick glass, I realized how much I missed her. This was no way for anyone to spend a milestone birthday.
We joked and laughed through the glass. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to be sitting next to her at Benihana, or eating tacos, anything but being here and listening to her talk about the people she was locked up with.
When I left, I was even more annoyed with her. Not only for being there, but for making me miss her.
I had no idea that I would yearn to talk to her, even through glass, just one more time.
It’s been so many years since she died, and all I can do is speak to a void. To a person who isn’t there. There is no glass. There are no stories to share. There is nothing to be annoyed by. There’s nothing at all. And yet that nothingness is large. It takes up time and space, and its silence pierces the loudest noise.
Colleen was a force. She was street smart and book smart. She was tough and defiant, with a strong sense of loyalty to the people she loved and the animals around her. We were three-and-a-half years apart. I was older, but she was the big sister in so many ways. I tried to break the rules, but I was bad at it. She would scold me and tell me to get my shit together.
There was a ferocity to her love. She got that from our dad, a way of loving that is unshakable. It’s not overbearing or intense, but it is unflinching. Nothing could break her commitment to loving people, even when those people fucked up. Like our dad, she always acted on her love, and supported the people she loved. And she did whatever it took to make sure that everyone she loved was taken care of. It’s a way of loving that I’ve never seen in anyone except them, my dad and my sister. They had a way of loving that I wish we were all capable of offering.
My love was flappable. It flinched.
So yes, I was there to support her on her birthday, but I was also irritated, and wanted less and less to be part of her life.
She was out of jail before Christmas. She asked that my gift to her be a hat. I couldn’t find the one she wanted, but I didn’t put much effort into it. Since I couldn’t find the hat, I didn’t get her anything. I was able to go through the trouble of getting my boyfriend a puppy for Christmas, but I couldn’t find it in me to get my sister a hat.
Before I got sober, Colleen chastised me for my drinking. She implored me to get help. She was annoyed. She was frustrated. She was there every day. And every time I drank so much that I had to be hospitalized, she visited me. She made sure I was okay. When I was in jail, she was the one who bailed me out and took me home. And when I got sober, she cheered me on. She celebrated my sobriety and all that it brought me. And the whole time, she was struggling with addiction herself. Instead of offering her support and compassion, It was frustrating and infuriating. Instead of acknowledging that she could be hurting or suffering, I was angry at her for being a hypocrite.
If I had stepped up for her the way she had stepped up for me, she might still be alive.
I wouldn’t even get her a hat. If I had, I would at least have that hat today. The puppy passed away a few years ago. I married the boyfriend, but now we’re in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. I wish Colleen were here for that. I wish I had her hat. I could wear it to summon her spirit. To summon her fight. To summon her love. To know she is still with me. But I was too petty.
I still wear the shirt I stole from her after she died. The one she would never let me borrow. I stole it from her all the time when she was alive. And she would get angry when she discovered me wearing it. It was her favorite. But it was my favorite, too! She’d yell at me for stretching it out with my boobs. I couldn’t justify my actions, so I told her to get over it.
It was while I was sorting her belongings that I found the shirt. And I took it. For keeps. Maybe it was a little sentimental. But really, I took it because she couldn’t stop me. The whole point of sibling rivalry is to win, even if you have to win dirty. I decided that, by dying, she had forfeited the shirt. I won the shirt fair and square.
I also took her boots. For eleven years, I wore them whenever I could. Brown stretch faux-suede knee-high boots.
Ten years after Colleen died, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The weekend before I had the surgery to remove my stomach, I went out of town to give a talk at a conference. That weekend was the last time I would eat normally for the rest of my life. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and stress. I needed my sister. I needed her standing next to me, to give me a pep talk through my stage fright. To remind me of what to say if my mind went blank. I needed her to tell me I would outlive my tumor. I needed her to tell me I would survive because my kids needed me. Kids she never met. Kids who have only seen her in pictures, but who grew up snuggling against her t-shirt. I couldn’t have her, but I had her boots and her shirt. And they were enough. They had to be.
I lost 100 pounds that year after the surgery. The boots no longer fit. They had been stretched around my calves for eleven years, and during this time my calves and the rest of me grew bigger than Colleen’s. The cotton t-shirt stretched thin as I put on weight through depression and pregnancy. The elastic in the boots broke down to accommodate the growth of my frame. But without a stomach, weight evaporated off my body. My calves shrank until they were too small to keep the boots on, and the t-shirt became a nightgown. She was mad at me for stretching her clothes when she was alive; she would have been livid to see what I had done to them after she died.
I remember when Colleen bought those boots. They were never meant to last more than one fall or winter. But I needed them to. They had to. I made them last.
These days, I’ve put together an impressive boot collection. Boots worth thousands of dollars a pair. Hell, boots worth thousands of dollars for each boot. Knee-high boots. Thigh-high boots. Ankle Boots. Tom Ford. Saint Laurent. Christian Louboutin. And I still have Colleen’s old boots in my closet. I can’t wear them. But they’re my most valued pair.
And I still don’t have a hat. The last Christmas present she ever asked for. A hat doesn’t get stretched out as a depressed woman gains weight while mourning the death of her sister. A hat doesn’t become too big or too small for a head. Because heads stay the same size. But I don’t have a hat. Because I never got her one.
Colleen and my second child, Bug, are similar souls. Bug is defiant and bold. Outgoing. Creative and brilliant. Bug has all of Colleen’s fight, having faced death at least a dozen times since almost dying at birth and spending a week in the NICU. Over the years, we’ve spent weeks of our lives in PICUs, fighting anaphylaxis and asthma. I’ve administered countless Epipens and inhalers while praying the ambulances showed up on time.
Colleen died eight years before Bug was born, but Bug would regale me with stories of walks they’d taken together, how they were best friends, and how Colleen was the best aunt. And Bug would talk about how sad it was when Colleen died because they couldn’t walk together anymore.
“Squeeze my hand if you need to,” I tell my kids when they’re scared. When they’re getting shots. When they’re hurting. It works.
Bug has squeezed my hand while falling unconscious, unable to breathe. And I’ve held that little hand as tightly as I could until hospital staff brought my child back to life.
I know squeezing my hand isn’t magic. It can’t save anyone. If it could, Colleen would still be alive.
Colleen was in the ICU after she was hit by an SUV in front of my parents’ house. When she came out of surgery, the neurosurgeon told us she was brain dead. He couldn’t do anything for her. No one could.
My aunts and uncles, my parents, cousins, Colleen’s friends, her boyfriend and my then-fiance stood around her ICU bed. I sat beside her, defeated, and held her hand.
I let go for a moment while a nurse changed her gown, exposing my sister’s breasts to everyone in the room. My uncles turned away and looked at my aunts. Her friends looked at each other. I glanced around the room, watching everyone avert their gazes. We had nowhere to go. Nowhere to give her privacy or dignity. All we could do was wait for the nurse to finish. She did, and I held Colleen’s hand again.
We watched the doctor turn off the machines that were helping her to breathe.
And then we waited. Numb and disoriented.
We watched a blip on a monitor move and beep as her heart would beat. We watched her chest as she fought to breathe on her own.
It was quiet. The rain fell hard outside, but we couldn’t hear it. It was the same rain that, hours earlier, had poured onto an SUV’s windshield. The driver said he couldn’t see Colleen.
The rain fell harder through the night as her life faded from the world. But we couldn’t hear it. All we could hear was the beeping heart monitor and ourselves. Our pleas to one another for hope. Our questions about what time it was, or where the bathroom was, or whether it was too early to call into work. Our terrified breaths.
Colleen was unrecognizable. Her whole body was swollen. I stared at her face, distorted, puffed and bruised. She’d always hated her large front teeth, and a few weeks earlier she’d finally gotten them fixed. For the first time in her life, she loved her smile. For the last weeks of her life, she was able to love her own smile. Both of her lips were fat and propped open by a breathing tube. I wanted to close her mouth for her. I didn’t want everyone to see her bare and bloodied gums. Her smile was gone forever.
She couldn’t smile with a tube in her mouth. She couldn’t smile after her teeth scattered across the wet asphalt as her body fell, lifeless, onto the street. She couldn’t smile while her head lay in a puddle of winter rain and her own blood.
She couldn’t smile because brain- dead girls don’t smile.
I held her hand. I knew she wasn’t coming back. But I still tried to bargain with her, and with God, and with myself. I promised that if she woke up, I would throw the greatest belated birthday party for her. And I would never steal her clothes ever again. And I would buy her the hat.
Then her chest stopped moving. The blip stopped blipping.
We’d been dreading this moment for hours, knowing it was imminent.
I’d been holding her hand, hoping to comfort her through her final moments. We’d been surrounding her ICU bed so she would go while surrounded by love. We’d been bracing ourselves, preparing ourselves, waiting for what couldn’t be reversed and couldn’t be stopped. But still, it felt sudden and unexpected. I watched the night play out in front of me, slow and cruel, but it blindsided me anyway.
I couldn’t lose my sister. This body in front of me barely resembled my sister. This couldn’t be how she would go.
I couldn’t breathe. The room didn’t feel real. I wailed and pressed my face into her hand.
And then, as I sobbed into her palm, her chest began to move.
And the monitor beeped and the blip moved as her heart began to beat.
Just like that, she was back!
I gasped and squeezed her hand. I sobbed more, but this time I sobbed with joy. It was a blessing. She was back.
God heard us. He heard my prayers and promises. God gave Colleen back to us.
“That happens sometimes,” the doctor explained in a tone that sounded strangely apologetic and sad.
I nodded. I was witnessing it. Sometimes, a miracle happens.
He didn’t have time to clarify. It became clear on its own. Sometimes, moments after a person dies, the body reflexively takes a last breath and the heart beats for a second.
Colleen’s heart stopped. Her chest fell still and I fell numb.
And then she squeezed my hand. I squeezed back.
Colleen squeezed my hand when she stopped breathing. Bug would do the same. Doctors would be able to save my child, but not my sister.
Bug would come back.
Bug is still here.
Squeezing my hand can’t save anyone. It’s not magic.
Giving her my hand was the last act of love between me and my sister. And in our final, most helpless moment together, she let me know that it mattered. The last words she ever said weren’t spoken, they were squeezed into my hand. She said she knew I was there. She said she loved me. She said goodbye.
I didn’t want to be there. But she was my sister. And it was her last night on earth. If I had known she wasn’t going to live to see morning, I would have done more. I would have been more generous. I would have called her just to tell her that I loved her. I would have celebrated her life every day that she was alive. But I didn’t.
On my sister’s 21st birthday, I visited her at the Cook County Jail. I was annoyed that I had to see her there. I didn’t know that it was her last birthday. I didn’t know how deeply I would miss her.
And on her 41st birthday, I’m still not used to her being gone. So, I finally bought the hat.
Chicago-based professional dream girl, E.B. Cotenord, is a sex worker, writer and the host of The eXXXistential Podcast. Her creative endeavors serve as explorations into her experiences navigating society as a current sex worker and recovering addict. E.B is a single mother raising a 15 year old boy and 12 year old non-binary child as well as 4 michievious rabbits. She seeks to help humanize marginalized communities by writing about her life as an adult entertainer and suburban mom in recovery. She can be found on Twitter @ebcotenord.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash