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A Promise to My Dying Sister

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

“At the end, life will hold us responsible for all the blessings that we refused to acknowledge.”

― Amit Kalantri

“Your hands are so soft,” my sister Kathleen said quietly as she held mine in hers, her voice kind and gentle.

I was standing next to her lying in the hospital bed hospice had brought to her house. They put the bed in her rec room, a side porch when the house was built in the 1930s. I looked at her tiny frail body huddled for warmth under a pile of blankets while I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Her teenage son’s guitar was leaning on her oxygen tank in the corner, a glaring reminder of the times when the rec room was used for fun and play.

“You can tell me anything, you know,” she told me. I knew what she was saying. Her time was near the end, and like a drop of snow in the ocean, my words would disappear with her. My secrets would be safe.

I didn’t know what to say. How could I explain the past 15 years of drinking in my house alone and hiding from the world? How could I admit I was an alcoholic to her when I still hadn’t admitted it to myself? And what was the point?

It would only distress her.

We talked a while more until she began to tire and I stood to leave. I was halfway through the door when she called out my name. Looking back at her small, frail body struggling to sit up she implored, “Look out for number one, Karen!” “I will Kathleen. I promise.” I said and walked out the door.

My sister died five days later.

After Kathleen’s death, my drinking worsened and when Covid hit a year later, I was home drinking 24/7. I was drinking to numb my feelings of fear and anxiety and welcomed the blackness that took away my pain.

The bottle was my refuge and I was determined to stay inside. but eventually it turned from a refuge to a living hell. One morning, after my morning drink, my body shaking violently. I paced the floors for hours trying to calm down, but couldn't.

There was nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.

I was afraid I was going insane and that this horrible feeling would never end until I ended up dead like my sister.

I wondered frantically: How could this be happening and how had it gotten so bad? How had my life turned into this living hell? And then I thought of Kathleen and wondered why she was the one to die when her life had been so full?

I was destroying my life. I never made myself number one even after promising her..

I decided right then that I either had to change things or die. There was no in-between.

Hearing my sister’s voice in my head urging me on, I went to my husband Barry and asked him to drive me to a detox center near our home in North Jersey. I was going to finally take care of myself. After five days detoxing, the staff at the center recommended rehab for at least 30 days. I went to rehab in Pennsylvania and stayed for 150.

The rehab facility’s program was 12-Step based. I had tried the program a couple of times over the years, but never really gave it a chance. The recovery house I stayed at had us attending nightly meetings on Zoom while Covid raged in the outside world.

It took a couple of weeks before I began to realize I liked the people I was meeting in the rooms and identified with their stories. I liked how happy they were and how hopeful they now felt in sobriety. I wanted what they had and to never go back to the painful “life” I had lived as a drunk.

I never needed to live like that again.

Today, almost a year after I checked into detox, I still attend daily recovery meetings. I exercise in the morning after my prayers and meditation, eat a healthful diet and learn something new every day as I explore, volunteer and try different hobbies -- even playing the drums.

I feel like life is an adventure and full of so many opportunities.

With sobriety I feel alive and healthy. I thank my recovery program and I thank my sister every day for my new and wonderful life.

“Look out for number one,” my sister told me.

I will Kathleen. I promise.

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