One week ago today was the worst day of my entire life. One week ago today I lost my sister, my friend. Candace was only 21 when she died very suddenly from multiple organ failure as a result of septicemia. It still doesn’t feel real. I don’t think it ever will.
We’ve always been the Fabulous Filler Five. We’ve been close, even from far away. We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve fought with and for each other. We’ve been through thick and thin. We’ve loved and we’ve forgiven and we’ve struggled and we’ve survived together. Together.
It’s hard to believe it was only 8 days ago, my life was normal and happy and I had just gotten home from brunch with Steve and the girls. My mom called to tell me she had taken Candace to the emergency room and that she was weak and incoherent. I asked her to keep me updated and got to work on our remodeling project. A few hours later my step-dad called to tell me I needed to come as soon as possible. I packed up myself and the girls and got on the road within an hour. They were telling me she had pneumonia and septicemia (a blood infection) and that her kidneys weren’t functioning. Through all of this I heard that she was sick, but that she was going to make it. Young people can always beat this kind of stuff. I drove seven hours in the pitch black that seldom-traveled winter roads provide, still unable to think of anything but her making it, her surviving. She is, after all, a survivor. If you know Candace, you wouldn’t believe she could ever die. She just wouldn’t let it happen. She’s a fighter like you can’t imagine. She has been in dark places before, and she has always, always pushed through. I just couldn’t think this wouldn’t be another one of those times. She’s tough. Really tough. Nothing defeats her.
I arrived in my hometown around midnight, put the girls down to sleep in the guestroom at my mom’s house and went to the hospital. It was a while before I could see her, but when I finally did, I knew things were bad. Just walking into the room I could tell she was very, very sick. A sick that is hard to describe in words. She was sedated and pumped full of fluids as they were trying to get her kidneys to start doing their job. “If she survives the night,” the doctors told us, “we’ll consider transfering her for dialysis in the morning.” I had no idea how big of an if that was. I took her hand and told her she could beat this. I felt sure it would be like one of those romantic scenes in a movie when someone swoops in and saves the day with their brave declarations.
A few hours later, her kidneys still weren’t functioning. She coded and they brought her back. The doctor came in to level with us. He kept saying she was very sick. They had cultured her blood a few hours ago and it was already growing bacteria (which meant the level of infection was extremely high – this kind of thing is pretty unheard of in bacteria culturing). Eventually he said what we couldn’t bear to think ourselves, “If anyone needs to be here, you need to call them right now.” My aunt was there with my brother, me, my mom and my step-dad, Dennis. We called my other sisters, Jaci and Georgia and my dad. They arrived just in time.
The scene that ensued is purely horrible to remember. And the words I could use to recount it would never tell the whole story. The infection spread to her heart and it ceased to be able to function. They tried reviving her several times. I had to watch from outside the ICU, where all I could see was the reflection of the heart monitor. I had figured out during the first code that a blinking red light was her heartbeat, and if it was accompanied by a steady blue light, she was breathing. But as we stood there, my brother and sisters and I, clinging to each other and crying and hoping and praying, I could see that the red light was steady and the blue light was gone. I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell myself. My brother, Chad, led us all in singing “Amazing Grace,” barely utterable through the tears.
At some point they must have decided to stop trying to revive her, and a nurse came to let us into the room. Her room collapsed into wails of disbelief and deep pain. We hugged her. We held each other. We tried to remember every little thing we would soon want to forget, her face in her last moments, our cries of anguish, her green nail polish. Before long my sisters and brother and I were collapsed in a trembling heap. And right there, on the floor of the ICU, amongst a quivering mass of limbs and broken sobs and unutterable disbelief, five became four. An angel with broken wings got new ones. One pain ended and many more began.
It was many surreal hours later that I came into the room my daughters were sleeping in to try and get some sleep myself. Their breathing echoed through the room as soft as a purr and as loud as a freight train. And my heart broke anew. My mother’s voice resounding in my mind as I could hear her desperate cry, “My baby is dying.” The sobs that broke from a depth of pain previously unknown. The utter devasastation. Being a mother myself, I could imagine that cry coming from my own being, over a child who had come from my own body. And my soul ached anew, for me, who lost a sister, for my mother who lost a child. For the breathing that pounded on, and for the breaths that were no more.
She was finally at peace, and we were left with our questions. With our lack of understanding. With our hopes shattered. And our dreams changing shape.
One of the many difficult parts of the week that followed was the task of packing up her life. It was almost unbearable to clean out her apartment and box up her things. It was nearly impossible to find the words to so quickly sum up her too-short life for the obituary. And sorting through the pictures for the slideshow at her memorial seemed so awfully insignificant in comparison to the vibrant life they were meant to encapsulate. How could some boxes contain all that was left? How could a few words describe the life she had? How could mere pictures demonstrate what she meant to us.
It seems too cruel to have her life concluded this way. In boxes, in words. But I force myself to remember that this is not the conclusion. I look around and see the many hearts and lives she touched and I am moved to see that she lives on in some way in each of us. Her legacy is her kindness, her grace and the beauty that made a lasting and immeasurable impact on our lives.
She lives on because of the many people throughout our community who have reached out in compassion, just as she would have. She lives on in every smile at every happy memory. And every tear shed in sadness because she left us too soon.
We have been overwhelmed by the kindness expressed by everyone around us, and we are grateful. Grateful for the thoughts and prayers and phone calls and text messages and food and flowers. But mostly grateful for those who remember with us. That you will not let our sweet sister, daughter, friend be forgotten. Grateful you add to the meaning and significance of her life by telling your stories of how she touched you. How she moved you.
Candace was a wonderful friend, who also happened to be my sister. We may have had our sisterly moments of disagreement, but I always admired her tenacity and the vivacious way in which she went around and conquered anything she set her mind to. She was fearless. And she never gave up. Even when it seemed ridiculous not to give up. She pressed on.
And she was always so cool. The life of the party. Everyone’s friend. She provided shelter for strays and friends and anyone who needed her. I had to learn from her how to be cool, because it came so naturally to her. But she was also smart and diligent and persistent, if not pretty stubborn. She was constantly working towards her goals, yet she never hesitated to stop what she was doing to lend a helping hand. She never blinked when she was needed, but extended herself in grace and kindness. She was very thoughtful, and even taught me to open my eyes beyond my own circumstances to see how I could love and bless others around me.
Personally, one of the times I have felt most loved in my entire life was when she planned a surprise birthday party for me the year I turned fifteen. Everything from the guestlist to the menu was perfectly thought of as something she knew I would like. She was only 13 when she noticed and cared for these many details about me that I was barely conscious of myself. Her generous heart of love floored me then, and it continued to amaze me. I still strive to be as thoughtful, caring and unselfish as she was as a young girl, and throughout her life.
Candace, I love you. I admire you. I am thankful for the 21 years I had with you as my sister and for the innumberable ways you have taught me to love and to care and to keep persevering through the most difficult and seemingly insurmountable situations. You will live on in my heart as I try to become more thoughtful and kind as you were. I will tell my daughters about you every time they sing, “My Girl.” I will be thankful for the gift you were to me and to our family and your many, many friends. I will be strong because you were strong and I won’t let anything stand in my way, just as you have shown me a thousand times. I will always hold you close in my heart and look forward to being with you again before too long. I love you always.
Often this rose seems the most beautiful and important here on earth.
But the Lord picks only what He needs, and the beautiful rose adorns his altar in heaven.