I believe in Angels. I always have. I always will. I don’t believe in God, or religion, but I do believe in Angels. (Yes Grandma… I am allowed to believe in Angels without believing in God – there are no rules when it comes to faith!)
Today we scattered my sister’s ashes. She is now at peace, in her final resting place. To me she is now an Angel and is with me always. Not a little cherubic winged Angel – they are just pretty little statues. She is a real Angel – a beautiful spirit. And this is her story.
My little sister was born in 1971. She arrived with shiny jet black hair and a touch of jaundice, and Mum always said she looked like a beautiful Japanese doll.
To many of her friends she was Ness and to others Vee. To her son she was just Mumma, but to me she was always Vanessa – the tiny newborn I cuddled at the hospital when Dad sneaked me in. Later she was the little girl I dressed up – curling her hair in rags, dressing her up in a clown suit, or painting her face.
As kids I was stubborn and difficult, my brother was hyperactive and adventurous, but Vanessa was sweet and adorable and did anything for anyone. She followed her big brother everywhere and if he wasn’t feeling brave, she’d do the things he couldn’t. Go on Nessie – crawl under the house! He’d get her to put her fingers in the power socket, or he’d pull the ladder out from under her on the bunk beds. He loved stirring her up and calling her names. They were so close in age and so alike with their scrawny builds and jet black hair, they were like twins. I was quite a few years older and jealous of their closeness. Sometimes they looked at my pale freckly skin and red curly hair then tell me I was adopted – I wondered if it was true.
She would sit on Dad’s knee as he bounced her up and down singing, Horsey Horsey don’t you stop, or he would go on a fishing expedition, looking for rocky outcrops and blowholes in search of the perfect parrot fish. Mum fretted it was too dangerous, but he held Vanessa’s hand and took her anyway.
She adored Mum, who was the ultimate housewife, keeping everything neat and tidy, shined to perfection, and in its place. After making beds each morning, Vanessa would trot along behind, sucking her two fingers, pulling pillows off and throwing them on the floor. On her first day of kindergarten she clung to Mum, kicking and screaming, begging not to go. She fought tooth and nail until the teacher ended up with a kick in the face. Vanessa spent her entire life searching for love and attention – most especially from Mum.
Behind our house was a bush track and Grandma would give mum a break and take the two toddlers for a walk along the track. She would always point out the ducks, the geese or the dogs and I’m sure Vanessa developed her lifelong love of animals from Grandma.
Somewhere around age 12 this sweet little girl lost her way.
The adorable, obedient little girl morphed into an uncontrollable wildling. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it was genetically predetermined, perhaps there was a traumatic event. Perhaps the bout of measles that nearly killed her ruined her brain. In the end it doesn’t matter – inner demons would follow her to the grave.
As a teenager, she had a penchant for skimpy clothing and one neighbour used to call her ‘fried eggs’ when she arrived in a shirt not quite covering everything. With one of her friends she would spend days swimming and skinny dipping. On rainy days they’d run to the bottom of the hill, sit in big puddles with swimming caps on and wait for cars to pass and splash them with mud and water.
She stopped going to school in the seventh grade and found the ‘wrong’ crowd. She got a boyfriend who was several years older. She was difficult, rude, non-compliant. She ran away and was brought back. She screamed like a banshee. I left home, so did my brother.
She moved into a caravan park at about age 14 and at just 16, she fell pregnant. She later told us all the story of sitting alone on a park bench thinking, I’m going to raise this baby and to hell with everyone else. It’s meant to be. Not long after she sent a letter to Mum saying, I am a mother to be. I know you think I’m too young to look after a baby but I’m going to try my hardest to care and love my child as much as I can and be a good mum.
When her son arrived, she loved him to bits. Over 24 years she made a lot of mistakes, but despite the ups and downs, she did the very best she knew how. She adored him. She always said I love you, and despite the tough times, provided a roof over their heads and made a home.
She loved dancing, studied drama, and tried to establish herself in the world of modelling. In her early 20’s she was stunning but those inner demons were coming to the fore and she was heading towards her first major breakdown.
At 21 she had her first suicide attempt.
She’d spent years with bulimia and suffered from anxiety and depression. Self harm was common practice. In the space of six weeks she had about four suicide attempts. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder but always rejected the diagnosis. After several stints in psychiatric facilities, some against her will, her son came to live with my husband and I. He stayed with us nearly two years.
During this time she got her feet on the ground a little. In 1993 she met the love of her life. They traveled around on his yacht – soaking up the sun and showing off her fabulous figure. She became the life of the party and she loved to party. Her son wanted to go home so I sent him back and for seven years they lived together as a pretty happy family unit.
Around 25, Vanessa was introduced to whiskey and within six weeks was totally addicted. Her relationship broke down and she moved away to work as a stripper. She had some great times and found plenty of men willing to give her any sort of bauble.
She moved again and the big decline began. Her drinking was getting heavier – sometimes a bottle of whiskey a day plus wine. Eventually she was drinking around the clock. 11pm. 2am. 5am. 8am. Any and all hours of the day.
The quality of her relationships deteriorated and her last boyfriend bashed her, sliced off part of her ear, and almost killed her. During the ensuing court case he killed himself.
My beautiful nephew witnessed firsthand the horrific decline and abuse of his mother.
Once Vanessa started drinking she couldn’t stop. It was a powerful addiction and she never overcame it. To the very end she had to have whiskey and wine nearby at all times – like a security blanket. She rarely touched them, but panicked when they weren’t at arm’s reach.
Despite a lifetime of depression, anxiety and really memorable fights, she wanted to feel loved and cared for. She had an eternal passion for laughter, for joking, for being hospitable and a friend. She had an awesome sense of humour, right through to her dying day. So many people talked of her big heart, her compassion and her ability to sit and listen, to offer encouragement and compliments to those in need.
I received a call from my nephew in May 2012 to say his mum was in hospital. She was really ill with alcohol-related liver failure but as a non-compliant patient, was itching to go home. She was admitted to hospital for two nights under a guardianship clause. They gave her blood transfusions, an antibiotic drip, potassium, fluids, goodness knows what else, and attempted to drain the abdominal fluid. She couldn’t tolerate the procedure and only 300ml was drained before she begged them to stop. The treatments were enough that eventually she felt well enough to get out of bed and leave hospital without being discharged. She walked out in her pyjamas with three cannulas still attached and came home. She pulled the cannulas out and bled everywhere.
I flew up to spend time with her and set up support services for them both. After years of rarely talking, we started to get to know each other again. Vanessa greeted me at the door and was warm, welcoming and her funny bubbly self. I felt things were going to be okay. I could see her big swollen tummy. Her tiny little frame looked seven months pregnant. She’d named the “baby” Eliza. She had internal bleeding and dreadful pain, so bad she could barely walk. She looked jaundiced and puffy but still my sister. She only ever wore pyjamas, woolly coats and a pink beanie with a woolen tassel.
I was mentally prepared for how she looked. I was mentally prepared for how she behaved. No shocks at all when I arrived in that department. I was not however prepared for the squalid conditions she lived in. A girl who was so fastidiously clean and tidy no coffee cup could remain anywhere but in your hand, or cleaned, dried and put back in the cupboard.
Her home was now filthy. I cannot describe the filth adequately. Two cats went to the toilet everywhere. Years of smoking and no cleaning left walls stained and disgusting. Kitchen and bathroom were feral and the stair banister was dark brown – not the cream it was originally painted. I spent two days scrubbing everything and spent $600 on food, cleaning products, linen, and basic things like pegs, light globes and toilet paper. The first night I slept in a huge bed with a blood stained sheet, hideously stained pillows, a small child size doona and an old woolen blanket covered in grease. I went to bed wearing as many layers of clothing as I could find, used the doona as a sheet, a towel over the pillows and managed a full three hours sleep. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the week ahead.
I felt like I’d descended into hell.
Vanessa had hemorrhoids. They are a common ailment however I have never had any desire – whatsoever – to see one.Her hemorrhoid was large, engorged and bleeding. She thought nobody believed how bad it was so one day I was coerced into looking at her bum to see a hemorrhoid bigger than a grapefruit sticking out of her arse. An image perpetually burned onto my retinas. I promptly bought her a hemorrhoid pillow.
She started getting random bruises and her eyesight was deteriorating. She was exhausted and sleeping all the time. I figured my role was to set up support services for her so when I returned home they wouldn’t be alone and floundering. It was an enormous battle.
I obtained hospital records so her primary care physician could write referrals for home assistance. Never have I met a less compassionate man. He could not have cared less if he actively tried. He didn’t look at Vanessa. He didn’t speak to Vanessa. He didn’t examine Vanessa. He didn’t care about Vanessa. He kept saying, She needs to return to the hospital. She needs to return to the hospital. As far as the doctor was concerned if she wouldn’t go she could die in agony and distress at home. I asked directly, Is she going to die. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Here is the summary I eventually wrote to the palliative care nurses of my personal (non-expert) observations of my 40 year old sister:
- Swollen belly
- Abdominal pain
- Constant diarrhoea – black tarry stools
- Blood seeping from lower lip
- Bleeding from haemorrhoid
- Swollen feet
- Sleeping more and more
- No appetite
- Not eating
- Drinking a little water, sip of orange juice, small amount of whiskey
- Still smoking
Her medical records discussed low platelets, low haemoglobin, enlarged liver, internal bleeding, ascites and varices, and other things I didn’t understand.
SHE WAS VERY SICK!
She slept on a mattress on the garage floor because she was too weak to climb stairs. She was incontinent. She didn’t have the strength to lift her own body weight. She was in pain. As a society we treat animals better.
Finally, Vanessa was categorised as palliative and was eligible for nursing care at home. Those amazing nurses organised for a wheelchair, a hospital bed, a commode and a portable shower for downstairs. She had access to palliative care doctors and social workers who didn’t judge her – just helped her become more comfortable.
In the meantime, back at home my dad was in intensive care following his bypass surgery, and neither he nor my grandmother had any idea how ill Vanessa was.
A definition of “Not Fun” would include telling your grandmother and your father, your sister is not just sick – she’s going to die.
I flew home to spend time with them, but didn’t tell Dad how sick she was. He couldn’t visit or speak to her and the nurses advised to not stress him any more.
A few weeks later and my nephew rang to say the doctor had never seen anyone with such a low hemoglobin level and without a transfusion she would soon die. I flew back.
She had deteriorated so much in that time. She was more grey than yellow and could barely walk. In fact most people in her condition wouldn’t walk at all, but there is a will of iron running through the women of our family! We supported her on either side and she would slowly walk from lounge to bed (a short distance!) After about four steps her legs would give out and we had to drag her.
My first night back I didn’t get to bed until 2:15am. At 3:30am (my entire sleep for the evening) she called she needed help to get to the toilet. I optimistically thought, I can do this – there’s nothing of her. We made about six steps before her legs gave way. I managed to drag her the rest of the way. She was on the floor in front of the toilet (let’s not discuss the state of cleanliness or the cat’s food bowls that were knocked over), I picked her up to get on the toilet. Her hat fell in but she still had her pants on so we had to wiggle them off.
I begged and begged and begged, to no avail, to get her set up permanently in one room, with the hospital bed, television and commode. No – we couldn’t do any of that because it wouldn’t look right.
The next night I was up at the ungodly hour of 1:45am. She called out for me again because she couldn’t get to the toilet in time, but while trying to get to there had fallen and cracked her head on the ground. She had a huge egg on the back of her head and there was a small pool of blood on the floor.
She needed help to hold her glass of whiskey and couldn’t light her own cigarette. She barely smoked or drank anymore but couldn’t cope if they weren’t at arms length. A lot of people on their deathbed reach out to loved ones – spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends etc. Vanessa reached out to whiskey and the ashtray.
We started doing shifts sitting with her. My nephew stayed by her side while I slept until 2am. Then I’d sit with her until morning. She could no longer sit up or hold anything without assistance. She was constantly trembling, breathing rapidly and had a really fast heartbeat. She slept most of the time, but periodically woke up and tried to joke with everyone. She apologised endlessly she wasn’t much fun and couldn’t get everyone a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Word got out she didn’t have long left. I wanted to steal a “Visiting Hours” sign as we had a steady stream of crying visitors from 7am to 5pm. They wanted to hold her hand and tell her what a big heart she had, what a good friend she was and how much everyone loved her.
I learned how to empty commodes and draw up syringes and inject stuff into a butterfly clip (I think that’s what it was called… Some kind of cannula thing inserted into her upper arm.) She finally agreed to let me set up the lounge room with the hospital bed in it and the cats took to sleeping at her feet. One of the saddest things I saw was her 24 year old son effortlessly picking his mother up to carry her to the bed.
I rang Dad to say she was close to the end. He was just home from hospital and so happy. I told him the news, he spoke to her at length and said goodbye. He was sobbing. It broke my heart.
One day she said several times she would die that night, and she always liked to get her own way. She slipped into a coma.
I had bought her a guardian angel pin to wear and it came with a message about safe travels and onward journeys. It was on her pyjamas.
As you go off on your journey to see the world anew,
This little angel is given to take special care of you.
So keep her with you always, tucked in a secret place,
She’ll be your guardian angel and always keep you safe.
Vanessa spent 22 hours in a coma. She had bedsores, shallow breathing, low bp, high heart rate, a horrible smell, pneumonia, sepsis and was bright yellow. She passed away at 6pm on Friday 04 July 2012 and her body was donated to science.
I think of her now as being with Mum and my brother Christian. Half the family back together again – Angels all.
It was a privilege and honour to spend time with Vanessa in her last weeks. I have a vivid memory of her playing a music video called Party Rock Anthem. She was more energetic than usual, got out of her chair, cigarette in hand, in her pj’s, slippers, purple woolly jacket and pink beanie, and starting shuffling. She was so thrilled she could still shake it! She had the most beautiful smile on her face. Every time I hear that song I can see her dancing, and me standing in her kitchen holding a tea towel. It was one of the last times I saw her really happy.
After she died, we received a lot of beautiful messages. People from near and far shared how she had a great sense of fun and adventure, and loved swimming and dancing. She was lots of fun, free spirited, cute, beautiful, happy, mischievous, giggling, unique, complex, altogether exciting, a fierce friend, had a beautiful smile, and beautiful eyes, and was fun, loving and bright.
Many others had judged her harshly. Years of smoking, drinking and sun baking turned this once beautiful girl into a hunched cripple. They saw a drunk. A weak person. Someone who fought and swore like a trooper. Someone afraid of doctors and authorities. What they failed to see was the fighter – someone trying to fight inner demons now finally at rest. I remember my sister. Beautiful. Funny. Damaged. Depressed. Loving. Supportive. Exotic. Anxious. Sensitive. Stubborn. Caring. Independent. Gone.