Sunday March 7, 2004
The next morning our family friend drove Jason and I and her two daughters (my friends) back to the hospital early in the morning. It was a Sunday and we arrived just in time to say goodbye to Julie before her heart monitor beeps went to a flat line.
I held her stiff bloated hand one last time. I kissed her bloated, ashen face one last time, telling myself it really was her face — the fiery, stubborn, life-filled face I knew.
And then we all looked at each other and I went around the room, hugging everyone in turn. Some of our pastors were there with us, but the other pastors were all at church as it was a Sunday morning. Within the hour, they’d be announcing that Julie O’Hanlon Karabats had passed away unexpectedly. I’m told that people would gasp and cry, and whisper things about her being too young. And they would be right. She’d turned 21 three days before.
My mom and dad and Julie’s husband stayed in the room with her body while I went out into the hallways. I and my friends, the girls who’d come with us that morning, walked through the halls of the sterile hospital singing church songs and holding hands like the church-raised children we were.
We leave the hospital and the sun infuriates me. What is it thinking, shining so brightly, so cheery and warm? If the skies rained, it would make our grief poetic.
We get home and I go down the hall to my bedroom that I’ve shared with Julie until she moved out three years before. The walls still have the paint and wall paper that’s been on them since before I was born. I still have the bunk beds in there. The whole house seems foreign, wrong, like we’re trespassing.
As I go to my room, I pass the door to my parents’ bedroom. It’s open and I see my dad balled up on the bed, in the fetal position, crying, weeping, saying through gargled breaths, “Her birthday cake is still on the counter… her birthday cake…”
It’s the first time I’ve seen my dad cry.
Eventually, after crying in my room that I’d shared with her for so long, I go to the kitchen, and I see he’s right. There it is. Birthday cake with light blue candles, on the counter partly eaten, covered in plastic wrap. We’d celebrated her birthday that past Wednesday night when she was in town for church worship band practice. That was the last time I’d seen her alive and well.
And it’s too much, so I go outside and climb our old climbing tree — a mulberry tree whose bark has been worn smooth in each place we’d step on our way up it’s large trunk. All three of us siblings had been climbing it since we could walk. I climb higher than normal, as high as I can, until I feel alone, and high, and far away. And I look down on those worn, smooth patches of bark and I see my childhood — hours of climbing trees and building forts and swinging, and jumping out of trees, and jumping off of swings, and picking blackberries from those bushes just over there — and I yell as loud as I can.
That’s the last of it, I know. My childhood is over. “I will remember this as the day I grew up,” I say softly to myself through a tightening throat as tears fall on the tree branch beneath me. I know I’m being dramatic. Trying to bring some poetry to my pain. But it’s the only thing I can say. It’s the only thought I can formulate. And it feels true at the time.
12 years later, it still feels true.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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