My husband’s baby sister died when she was just 40. Some of the great sadness about her death was that she shouldn’t have died so young. She was told she was at high risk for breast cancer and the doctor wanted her to visit again in a few months. We’ll never know the real details of what the doctor said or didn’t say, but it seems clear that she was advised to return. They didn’t have insurance. That may have been a part of the lack of follow through. She didn’t have the best up-to-date knowledge of medical care and procedures. When she next went to the doctor, the cancer was too far advanced for any treatment.
She was a very sweet, loving, generous woman who had the hardest luck. She struggled through school, but did graduate high school. She married a man who was an alcoholic. When I came into the family, her husband was in jail for 7 more years for killing someone while driving drunk. She had a little boy she was raising on her own, 4 years old.
In one of those strange sets of circumstances, some years later, my brother-in-law was asked by a co-worker if he knew his sister’s husband. He was out of jail, and they had divorced by this time. When he replied yes, the man told him that the ex-husband had been killed the day before, by a drunk driver. Karma? Maybe.
Next, she married a man her mother’s age. He had 5 or 6 kids by several different women. He was a skilled mechanic who never got along with any of his bosses, so he mostly worked out of their own garage. She worked at McDonald’s. They moved around, further and further away from Washington. We wrote letters, made a few phone calls back and forth. Did not have a lot of contact. Their mother missed her so much! Circumstances were just such that they didn’t visit often. We had a couple little family reunions a couple summers in a row. One or two Thanksgivings. Mother and Daughter, the two of them talked and wrote constantly.
We got a phone call one day that my sister-in-law had inoperable breast cancer. They were living in Oregon by this time. Gerry and his brother decided to go visit her as soon as they could make arrangements. It was summer and we were on vacation. That trip was heartbreaking for my husband. He learned then, for the first time, about the earlier visit when she’d been advised to return. They were living in a shack. The floors were dirt floors. Not dirty floors. Dirt floors. We had no idea. Yes, guilt feelings. So many woulda, coulda, shoulda’s.
The next call was in December to tell us she had died. Their mom and step-dad had driven down already. (Actually, their mom had just had heart surgery, so a friend had driven them down to Baker, Oregon.) We got on the phone with my husband’s brother and began making plans. We tried to figure out how to get there by air. We found 2 tickets on one flight, for the brothers, and three on another half a day later for myself, our daughter and our niece. That just seemed way too complicated because we could only fly into Idaho and then would have to rent a car. The guys would have to wait for us to arrive. We decided we would rent a van in Bellingham and drive, easily an 8-10 hour drive, with stops.
Nothing is ever easy in these situations. My brother-in-law’s ex-wife was refusing to let him take their daughter out of state. So, with some highly skilled negotiations, he got her to relent. So, we set off with the stress of all these arrangements. Three adults and two four year old best friend cousins. My brother-in-law was un-employed at the time; he could take off, but of course didn’t have much extra money. My husband and I were teachers. I, in a private school, was given whatever time I needed. My husband had 2 personal leave days. We drove down Saturday, expecting services to be Monday and we’d return home Tuesday.
The drive turned out to be easy enough. The girls were well supplied with new miniature doll house sets, etch-a-sketches, magna-doodles and books. Lots of giggling. For the adults, lots of story telling, childhood memories. We finally arrived in the late evening. We found a motel and got two adjoining rooms – one for the guys so they could stay up and chat, and an adjoining room for me and the girls. For the girls, it was just an adventure and a slumber party.
The next morning, we met up with their mom and step-dad. We heard the story of their sister’s death. She died at home. Her husband, rather than calling the funeral home, called 911. Of course, they tried to resuscitate her. Their mom was there and was so angry that he had called 911. She had to watch her daughter’s chest be cracked. It was, in her view, the worst way to end her daughter’s life!
We then went out to the ‘house’. The guys had described it, but I wasn’t prepared for the awfulness. When she had lived in Seattle, she had had a lovely apartment, beautifully cared for and you could tell that homemaking made her happy. This. Really no words. And then it got worse. Her husband asked the guys and me to come talk to him in a back room, without their mom. We’re thinking he’s about to tell us about the service Monday. No. First he tells us that he’s not going to have the service until Thursday or Friday because people have to have time to get there from Washington. WTF! We just stare at him. I am not taking part in the conversation, leaving it to the guys. They say, “Look! We just drove from the most northern part of Washington. We made it in one day.” Oh, but there’s more.
He then shuffles on his feet, really. Looks down at the ground. Begins to tell us there’s a bit of a problem at the funeral home. They won’t release her body until he pays them. He’s picked out the coffin. He owes the funeral home $6,000 and he doesn’t have that kind of money (no surprise) AND he’s wondering if the guys could pay for the coffin and services. They just tell him that they need to go talk about it and they’ll let him know.
We get back in the van and go back to the motel. Some swearing and fist pounding. Conversation. Seriously, one brother is unemployed. One brother is a teacher, making a teacher’s salary, which may have seemed like millions to the brother-in-law, but in reality of course it wasn’t. What were the options? What the hell? And they don’t want their mother to hear about this!
The guys go back to the house; I stay with the girls. When they tell the brother-in-law that we don’t have that kind of money, we’d have to take out a loan, he tells them, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for thinking about it. I made some calls and I’ve gotten it taken care of.” Uh huh. Of course this just adds to the horrible feelings that are going on – being scammed. Really? In an hour, you just happened to raise the money somewhere else? Okay, that’s how it is. We get it.
The service is now set for Friday. In a cemetery that is apparently where his other family members are buried. Two and half hour drive away from Baker. We settle into the motel, for the week. The girls are still having a grand slumber party. We meet up with my mother-in-law. Go shopping for flower arrangements for the church and for the coffin. Don’t talk to the brother-in-law. Tuesday evening we are all feeling fried and put upon. Decide what we need is a good ice-cream treat. I go to the only store, looking for Hagen Daz. Nope, no such thing. For some reason, this is just unbearable. OH! We had already given up on good coffee. We asked someone where there might be an espresso stand. We were told there was an Exxon station and an Esso station, but no espresso. What’s a latte? Sigh. Funny how it’s the little things that can really set you off, step on your last nerve.
Then of course there’s explaining to an ex-wife why you can’t return your daughter for her time. Lots more detail there, but suffice it to say that he had full custody so she’s pissed that she’s missing her 8 hours. Whatever.
We get to Friday. To no mom should ever have to bury a child. To no one should have had to live like this. To driving to a small town that means nothing to us. To a service we’ve had no say in. And we’re done. We hit the road.
We have been on the road a while when my niece starts crying because her eyes hurt. We pull over, I climb into the back seat and look at her. Well, damn. I know what this is. Pink eye. And we need to get some medicine because she is going to be miserable. AND, our daughter and myself probably will get it because they’ve been sleeping with me, jumping back and forth between the beds and pillows. So, of course, the last thing I want is to be dealing with pink eye. We find a little hospital in a little town and go into the ER to confirm my diagnosis. We get prescriptions for all of us. Seems like a fitting way to end a very shitty week.
We just drive all the way back to Bellevue, taking shifts. We drop off my brother-in-law and niece and head home to turn in the rental and get back to our home. We never hear from the husband again. The situation with our nephew is another story for another time. Suffice it to say, we also only saw him for one meal where he and his girlfriend sat and played hand held video games. Next we saw him at the service. We never heard from him until my mother-in-law died and he wrote and asked if she left him money. He actually sent us a Christmas card last year with no news, just his signature. Sad family dynamics for sure. And, I just have to say, sooooo very different from my family. For that, I am eternally grateful, always, for my siblings and my husband.