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Tonight marks the 14th anniversary of the last night that I had a living little sister. It doesn’t seem like 14 years, and her last night on earth was spent in a coma, and far, far, far away from me. She touched a lot of lives and is remembered fondly by so many.

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One year, we held a huge wedding in the backyard of our house in Winnemucca. Teddy Bear and Pinky Cat got married. Teddy still lives with me, safe in a box with his Best Man, Lucky Dog. Pinky Cat went on to live with Deni, and was lost somewhere along the line. Perhaps she died when my sister’s rental burned down. Teddy and Pinky never got divorced, they merely lived separated.

We baked a heart-shaped two-layer cake and frosted it with home-made icing that didn’t mix quite properly, so it was a pink frosting it white powdered sugar polka-dots. The stuffed animals spent their honeymoon in their tree house (pictured).

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When asked by the Mayor of Winnemucca what she would do if she was Chief Winnemucca ( a real historical figure) and all of her people were starving, but someone brought her two chicken eggs, Deni replied, “I’d scramble them and share them with everyone.”

Her family nick-name was “Sam”. When she was very little, there was a back yard baseball game. The neighborhood boys protested that girls could not play. The father in charge looked around and said, “I don’t see any girls. Oh: here’s Tommy, George, and Sam.” Sam was the name that stuck.

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Deni, Terry, Jaci

We never wore shoes, my sister and I. We walked from our house to the public swimming pool across sidewalk, asphalt, dirt, gravel, and railroad ties (the worst!) in 100 degree weather, but we never wore shoes.

My father believed that my sister got a cut on her bare foot and that was where the infection began. Certainly, the era of going barefoot was over after March 3, 2000.

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Terry, Jaci, Sam

It happened quickly. She cut her foot and washed it, then forgot. But it hurt more than usual. And her leg began to throb. and then she was sick to her stomach. She called my dad, a widower by then, and cried that she was “afraid…” She was newly married to her second husband, struggling to raise her three small children, and living in a single wide trailer my dad bought her.

Dad called me on the 2nd of March to tell me that Sam was being rushed to Reno via LifeFlight. She was in a coma already.

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She was not quite 41 years old and trying to get her life straight. She’d been a drug addict, an alcoholic, and she’d done her time in jail. She had four children by different fathers.

When Mom died in 1995, Sam was probably 17 years old emotionally. That’s what chronic alcohol and drug abuse does: arrests your emotional development. She was an alcoholic by the time she was 17.

When Sam died, she was probably 23 emotionally. She was close to Dad, and he mentored her (sometimes begrudgingly) in home repair and keeping a steady job. She wrote me long letters on how she was turning her life around.

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We fought like sisters. We giggled like sisters. She was the brave one who knew no fear; I was the shy one who needed to consider all the risks. She was a talented artist, a loving mother, and a loyal friend. She had a temper to go with those dark brown eyes.

The diagnosis was “necrotizing fasciitis” (Flesh-eating bacteria). It is a deadly form of the Streptococcal bacteria that gains entry through a wound. It can be a pin-prick size of a wound, but if the bacteria is present and there is no immunity, it begins to attack the muscles. It rapidly moves to the organs, and most people who die of it, die of Toxic Shock Syndrome when their organs simply shut down. The lucky ones may end up losing a limb, and a few emerge apparently unscathed (but deeply scarred internally).

My great-grandmother on my father’s side died of a streptococcal infection that attacked her organs. My dad believed it was the same disease, but Grandmother died in 1930 in Salt Lake City and her records were lost. We have only my grandfather’s diary entry to go by, and his description is terribly like what took my little sister down.

Both women died too young to leave small children behind.

I flew down for the funeral. It was a much harder funeral to attend than my mother’s. Mom’s death was slow and agonizing and predictable: emphysema robbed her of her ability to breathe on her own. My sister died pretty much overnight. There was no warning for me, no way to prepare myself emotionally – and then I had to face her orphans!

Chrystal cuddled up with me during the funeral. She was the oldest of the little ones. Her big brother sat on the other side of her, a young man already.

It wasn’t all sad. My brother did the eulogy and he told all the funny stories he could think of. The crowd was tense: nearly everyone who came wore their “colors” – members of an outlaw biker band that had the local city police circling the church in hopes of serving a warrant or two. My brother was still a county deputy. The pastor had never had so many obvious sinners in his church before (it was standing room only). There were childhood friends who came hundreds of miles to say “good-bye”. All the strays my sister had taken in over her short life.

Terry played the song that he said best exemplified Deni’s short life on earth, a life she embraced fully.

It brought the house down.

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I get sad when I think about the good times we had together, the bad times we shared through letters, and when I watch Deni’s kids struggle to grow up. Sam wasn’t successful by business standards, but she remains an icon of fierce loyalty and love for the hundreds whose lives were touched by hers.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥Lovin’ Denise♥♥♥♥♥♥♥
Fourteen years.

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It has been a rough weekend emotionally. Well, a rough week: three memorial services between the 24th of February and the first of March. That’s three too many – one of the sorrows of living is having to go to memorials and funerals. I boycotted such services for a while after my little sister died – too hard on my emotionally. But I thought I could handle this.

Wrong.

The first memorial service was for an expected death: the man had a brain tumor and lived much longer than expected. His death was a mercy. But the memorial service was really strange. There was no eulogy. His brother got up and thanked everyone for coming, but the only activities were a luncheon and a slide show of photos from the man’s life, and a guitarist who played some non-descript music for a background. That was it. You could put together a scrap book page of him for the parents. But that was it. It was almost as if he never lived, but he did. I felt very sad about the service: there was no hope.

Saturday, we had back to back memorial services for men who committed suicide. The first was an 85 year old man, Lutheran by denomination, who took his life the Sunday we were at the first service. It was a small memorial, but he was well loved by his family, the old truck drivers he used to work with and the mechanics he used to work with. Don bought his tools from this man, way back when. The eulogy was well spoken, memories were shared, and the music was beautiful. They had a male soloist who sang “How Great Thou Art”, “Amazing Grace”, and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

We went from that service to the last. This one was the hardest on me, personally: it was held at the church my husband left about six years ago. I followed him about two years later, mostly because it was darn hard to go to the church where we had served as a team and have people ask about him constantly. I just started going back after this suicide – the man was a very dear friend and member of the church. He sat in an aisle seat on the aisle I ushered on, or my husband ushered on. When my husband left the church, he was an incredible support to me (as a man: his wife really embraced me and loved me through that difficult time). Same age as my husband: fifty.

I don’t know why he felt he had to take his life. He was married to the love of his life, his high school sweetheart, and they have three beautiful adult children, one in-law, and a grandson. To all appearances, life was beautiful for him. But somewhere in his soul, the voice of depression was talking, and it’s a very strong voice. I’ve heard that voice and I’ve wanted to listen to it — oh, to die would be so simple

It was a very beautiful service. The eulogy was long. The eldest daughter gave her own eulogy, which was touching and pointed. His siblings, including his twin brother, gave a eulogy. His siblings-in-law brought humor to the occasion (laughter is a form of grieving and is very healing: what wise siblings-in-law to know that and utilize that). The music: “It Is Well With My Soul” and “This House is a House of Restoration”. Actually, I’m not sure of the title of that song, only the lyrics: This house shall be called/a house of restoration…

The service concluded when a kilt-clad Scotsman (the deceased was a Campbell), played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes while marching through the sanctuary and out into the foyer, where the music faded as we prayed.

I would like to say that was all it was about: the memorial services and our fragile existence. Neither one of the services for the suicides brought up despair: they were only about hope and eternity and the love of God. All my life, I have been told suicides go to hell, and I questioned that because I can’t find in the Bible where Judas went to hell – only that Jesus loved him and gave him a job to do (betray him). Peter betrayed Jesus, too. Now, I have two influences in my life die as a result of suicide and their pastors, separately and independently, spoke about the loving arms of Jesus and the hope we have in Him, and how these men are now in Heaven, rejoicing with the saints.

That still isn’t my point. After everything, as we broke up the party and started toward the doors, I stopped to say goodbye to my beloved friend who is now the senior pastor’s wife. She and her husband have been faithful to that ministry since we met, almost 20 years ago. We have been best friends throughout that time and even during the time that I disappeared and joined the church-less. This suicide prompted me to rethink my reasons for not attending this church, and I have decided to return there. But someone said something and we found ourselves looking at each other and bawling – not about our friend who died, but about the past four years when my friend took the helm of the church and I wasn’t there to support her. Well, I was: I prayed for her and she knows that.

I am not certain I can put into words what I felt – what I know we both felt. I have come full circle. This woman remains my best friend. We have been through some seasons and then some, and our friendship has remained. It’s the sort of friendship that survives the refiner’s fire.

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