I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, haunted by dreams of her. This Thanksgiving will mark the 10th anniversary of her death. Her name was Angie and she was my oldest sister.
She died the Friday after Thanksgiving, so late in the evening it may have been early Saturday morning. I’m not sure of the exact time, but I remember saying good night to her around 9:30pm. We were both visiting my parents for the holiday. She lived about an hour away. I had flown in from out of state.
A few hours later, Angie died on my parent’s living room floor while we watched in horror. I remember screaming and medics giving CPR and an ambulance with no sound, no lights on. They wouldn’t tell us, but I knew she was dead before we left the driveway.
She was 51 when she died, four years younger than my current age. No one expected her to die that day. She wasn’t terminally ill. There was no accident or car wreck. But she had been feeling poorly for many months, her body worn down by various afflictions. She battled an addiction to opiods for several years. She had an aneurysm near her heart that doctors were watching. They claimed it wasn’t large enough to risk operating, but they were wrong. The aneurysm is what killed her. It ruptured and her heart split in two.
I hadn’t planned on being there for Thanksgiving. My husband was in the middle of an implementation and had to work all weekend. I didn’t like the idea of being apart from him over the holiday, but he convinced me to go. I also hesitated because my relationship with my mother was strained. I expected it would be stressful being around her, but I decided to go see Angie. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw her. What I do know is the Holy Spirit directed me there.
My parents raised three girls. Angie was the oldest and I am the youngest. Because Angie was six years older, I wasn’t as close to her growing up. She was the glamorous older sister, slightly out of reach. I watched her life unfold through different events, some of them tumultuous. A marriage at 18, a child, then a divorce. A period of partying and wild behavior. Another short marriage to an abusive, alcoholic/addict. A few boyfriends. Girlfriends who went clubbing with her.
Then in her late 20s, Angie paused. She met a man at work named Mike, a strong Christian. He seemed to anchor her. They married, bought a house and had two children. Mike became stepfather to her oldest son. They joined a church.
Mike was the first person to share the gospel with me, even though I didn’t want to hear it then. However, when I was ready about a year later, he was the one I called. He prayed with me over the phone and led me to the Lord. It was the single most important event of my life. Even though we have no relationship now, I will always be grateful to Mike for leading me to Jesus.
Angie and Mike invited me to Bible study at their house. A few couples joined us every week. We’d sit at the dining room table, pray and read scripture. We’d talk about what we read and how it related to our lives. Even in the early weeks sitting with mostly strangers, I felt a sense of peace and belonging there I had never experienced. It was my first time “fellowshipping” with other Christians and it was powerful. There was an intimacy to our conversation that cut through any pretense. We were stripped bare of the façade we presented to the world. We openly shared our fears, struggles and mistakes. I heard myself saying things I’d never told anyone, and I was not embarrassed. I felt loved by everyone. Most of all, I felt loved by the Lord.
Many times I’ve thought back to those days and tried to understand when it went wrong, why it went wrong. Angie was a Christian, but something led her away from God. Her life was derailed. When she died, she was deeply sad and lonely. We were in almost daily contact by email or phone. I remember how troubled she sounded. There was a hopelessness to her messages, a despair so profound it reached through my computer and grabbed me.
She also didn’t feel well physically, although multiple doctors failed to pinpoint the issue. When I saw her that Thanksgiving, she didn’t look well. Her face was bloated. In one of the photos I took that weekend, she appeared to have shrunk. We were about the same height but I towered over her. Angie was slumped over, her face puffy and her eyes—her beautiful blue eyes—dull.
About a year ago and nine years after Angie’s death, I was searching my email for something and one of her messages popped up. I have a backlog of email but was startled to see my sister’s name. I read the message and then found myself searching for more, even while I was filled with grief. I kept reading through the pain because I desperately wanted to know what had happened to my sister.
The answer wasn’t there. I doubt I’ll ever find it, but I remember when things took a downward turn. It was around 2001. Angie and Mike were living in North Dakota. She had a good job and seemed to be doing well. Then one day she told me she’d hurt her back at work and needed surgery. After the surgery, I called to see how she was doing. She said she was all right but in a lot of pain. Something sounded off in her voice and I got a bad feeling. “Watch out for those pain meds,” I said. “I’ve heard they are very addictive.”
This was several years before the opiod crisis. I’m not sure what compelled me to warn her. Perhaps it was our family history of alcoholism and addiction. Virtually all my mother’s seven siblings were alcoholics, as were my paternal uncle and grandfather.
My parents drank alcoholically throughout my childhood. Although my mother quit drinking when I was in college, she traded alcohol for prescription drugs.
Angie began experimenting with drugs in her early teens. Because my sisters and I were ACAs (Adult Children of Alcoholics), we were prone to addiction, codependency or both. As the ACA literature states, “We either become alcoholics, marry them or both.”
Alcoholism cut a destructive path through our childhood years. Our parents were not emotionally available, so we had to take care of ourselves. We were children so we didn’t do the best job, and each of us developed harmful coping behaviors. Angie fell in with the druggie crowd, married at 18, and later struggled with relationships and addiction. I spent my 20s and 30s in chaos and began a slow burn that eventually led to my own drinking problem. My middle sister was also affected by our troubled upbringing.
In fact, all of us sought approval from others. To put it simply, we were seeking the love we didn’t get at home. And because of this, we’ve all struggled to accept even mild criticism. In my case, I’d have an immediate, emotional response. It was like my mother’s angry voice was ringing in my years. I felt attacked, and my body would respond with classic fight or flight symptoms. I’ve seen similar behavior from both my sisters.
After that phone call with Angie in the early 2000s, she began to fade away. Her emails became vague, her phone calls infrequent. My parents also didn’t hear from her much. I tried to chalk it up to distance—she was in North Dakota the rest of us were in Georgia and North Carolina—and her tendency to be a loner. But I knew something wasn’t right, and then one day my mother called and said Angie was at my parents’ house in Georgia. She had abruptly left her husband and children, ostensibly over financial issues, but really because of her drug addiction. Mike kicked her out.
Thus began Angie’s descent into addiction, tumult and despair. Mike divorced her and gained full custody of the children. Angie lost one job, then another, and moved multiple times. She never regained her footing. Although she was employed when she died, she was dependent on my parents for financial help. She and my mother had a dysfunctional relationship, secretly exchanging drugs and covering for each other.
A few months ago I listened to a sermon by Charles Stanley, one of my favorite preachers. He said when believers go astray, the Lord will seek to pull us back to him. We may succumb to sin for a long time, but the Lord doesn’t forget his children. He will apply pressure—a heavy burden on our conscience, a health crisis, job loss or other trials.
The good shepherd is faithful. He’ll always go back for his sheep. He never gives up on us. If we continue to resist him, then he may decide our time on earth is finished. I believe that’s what happened to Angie. The Lord knew everything that was happening to my lovely sister. He never took his eyes off her. Her knew her pain, her loneliness and her sorrow. He loved her so much he decided to end her struggle on November 27, 2009. He took her by the hand and brought her home.
I miss her, but I know one day I’ll see her again. She’ll be standing next to Jesus, smiling, her eyes shining royal blue. She will be radiant.
The Lord is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18