A year ago yesterday we lost my 12-year-old niece, Elizabeth. It was right after Easter, and four days before she was supposed to turn 13. Her death was sudden, unexpected, life-altering, hole-in-your-heart making and most of all, wrong. My sister, my family--we'll never get over it.
To this day Elizabeth's death leaves us with more questions than answers. The Phone Call replays in my head over and over; my dad calmly, quietly, sadly, telling me that she was gone. I just wanted him to stop talking. Take. It. Back. She had suffocated to death. We have no way of knowing if it was on purpose or a horrible accident. It appears she may have been playing The Choking Game. We know she went to bed and when my sister went to wake her up in the morning, it was too late.
Things hadn't been easy for her. She had been through a lot in her twelve years. Because of this she could be tough, resistant, and sometimes hard to get close to. But she had a whole other side to her as well. A precious side. She was a 12-year-old girl. She was all that came with that. She had had ups and downs; dreams and challenges. She liked boys and hated math. She sang, she danced, she cooked and she made babies laugh. She dyed her hair, read Twilight and acted out Mama Mia. She loved texting and ran with her dog. She would lie in bed and make up elaborate stories with her mom that would last hours, sometime go on for days. She was more. She was a 12-year-old girl on the verge of realizing all she could become.
I saw a lot of myself in Elizabeth, at her age, and would tell her this often. It's a tough age to be for a lot of us. I remember that awkward stage very well, where you don't quite fit into your skin yet. It doesn't matter how nice you are, how smart you are, how talented; it's more about how your hair grows, if your teeth are straight, what brand of jeans you wear and where you live, that defines your immediate future at that point. Like Elizabeth, I was really independent at her age. Due to circumstances, I was "older" than my age, taking on responsibilities and worries that I wasn't mature enough to handle. I knew she struggled. She had moved around a lot and had a hard time fitting in at school. She was outcast and picked on frequently. It affected her grades and she would act out. It was a lot for her to take, and we who loved her, were constantly looking for answers. We would encourage her to push through, keep her head up and that it would get better. We promised her it would.
I will always refer to 7th grade as the worst time of my life. I had just moved to a new town, started a new school and days before school started, my mom died. Pretty much from the first day, I was picked on by an 8th grade girl. She was gorgeous. She was popular. She was mean. I think she had heard that I said her boyfriend was cute. I was a mouse compared to her. Invisible. Totally not a threat, but every single day she would threaten to "kick my ass" after school. Every day. I had never had anyone hate me like that, or threaten to hurt me. It was a shocking, horrible place to be. I hated everything about my life that year. I don't think I even properly grieved for the loss of my mother, because I was so consumed with this girl. I would lose sleep and get physically sick before school in the morning. I failed classes. It killed my confidence and made me feel extremely shut out and alone. I got to the point where I wanted her to beat me up, just to get it over with. She never did. She never touched me, physically. After that year, she moved on to high school and, I got my life back. But that year was bad. That experience stayed with me all my life and that was one girl. I can't imagine having to deal with this for years, as Elizabeth had.
I always thought that "episode" was sort of a rite of passage in my life. I was well into adulthood, before I even told my parents about it. I can't imagine this being my entire childhood and adolescence, and the different person it would have molded me into. It fills me up with guilt to go there and think about what Elizabeth must have been going through all that time--that away from the love of her family, that is what she knew. We did a lot, but there is that nagging feeling that we should have done more. We were her protectors. It was our job to see through walls at night, erase pain, predict the future and take the monsters down. It's heartbreaking to fail at such an important job.
I will never get over losing her. She is supposed to be here, telling her mom what kind of cake she wants for her 14th birthday this week. She is supposed to be putting off math homework to talk on the phone to her best friend about her latest crush, planning hair do's and outfits. She is supposed to be here, playing hide and seek with her cousins and showing them how to do cartwheels on grandma's trampoline. She is supposed to be here snuggled up on the couch with her mom and Aunt Caren watching Dancing with the Stars. She is supposed to be here, looking me in the eye and having me tell her she's not allowed to be taller than me, and her shooting back, "Too late, Auntie." She's supposed to be here.
**Please read about The Choking Game. We had no idea it even existed before this. It's serious and it's an epidemic. Be vigilant. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/ChokingGame/