When the doctor in the emergency room asked Dad, “How long has your daughter been drinking?”, it broke his heart and it made him mad. “You don’t know this girl,” he said. “You don’t know my daughter.”
After Jilly died on July 3, 2014, Dad and I talked on the phone nearly every day for weeks. I swear we were going through the stages of grief together—on the phone—crying and laughing and trying to understand, which was the hardest part.
We talked through the facts, though we knew nothing could have been different. Jilly had been fourteen when our mom died; she was sixteen when Dad married a wonderful woman who had four teenagers. Jill was thrust into a new blended family at a critical time. “She got lost,” I told Dad, “but it was nobody’s fault.”
My sister and I weren’t alike except when we cooked together, danced to Motown, or shared stories about the father we adored. But as we got older, we started talking about the hard stuff: my cancer, her lousy husband, her drinking, her anxiety and mine. Jilly knew all my secrets and I knew hers.
At the very end of June, Dad called to tell me that Jill had collapsed. She was unconscious, hooked up to every kind of machine in the I.C.U. She had stopped drinking to raise her boy, but he was gone from the house now, Jill had lost her job, and she had chronic arthritis pain from falls and broken bones. She drank to self-medicate.
I arrived at the hospital the next day and our family huddled. As gently as possible, I explained how Jill felt about all these heroic interventions. “She wanted a big tattoo on her chest: DO NOT RESUSCITATE. Believe me, she would hate this; she would not want this.
It was the last thing I could do for my little sister and I had to do it. All her organs were in failure; there was no hope.
And so after a sad few days (trust me when I say this process is not easy), and after my nephew and I sang to her—the only time her eyes raced back and forth—Jill’s only child asked to be left alone with his mother. The complete life support was stopped and our girl died.
Now Christmas is here. Dad will turn ninety on Christmas Day. Jill and I had a plan for a lively party. We were working up a song. We had menus. Now I’m working on menus with my husband, which is great but isn’t the same.
What will we do? Dad is taking the train up to Portland to be with us. I’ve arranged to sing with some neighborhood kids. I’ll introduce Dad to the tree we’ve named Jill, a small beautiful Japanese Maple, planted in October.
Jilly loved life. She was a comic; she was an imperfect human being and everybody loved her. Dad and I know this all too well. So it’s simple really: we’ll celebrate her life. We’ll sing.