I sat on a leather chair as a man with steady hands injected ink into my skin with a
buzzing needle. The ideas of “forever” or “expensive” or “angry parents” were the last
things on my mind. Instead, my thoughts drifted. The pain was not minimal, but I
couldn’t keep my focus on it, regardless.
The song “Stairway to Heaven” was playing softly in the back of my mind. Not the
original version, but instead a piano version that my younger sister, Lissa, was learning
how to play. She had grabbed it out of box of sheet music as I packed it in my silver SUV
before I left to move to my new apartment in Kalamazoo. She cried, my mom sobbed,
and my dad checked the tires on my car before I said goodbye.
As she dug through my music box, she chose the piece I had perfected the least to
learn on her own,and she traded it for a silver locket with the word “sister” engraved on
the front of it with a picture of the two of us inside. After months of counting down the
minutes until I could move into my own place and away from my parents, I finally lost it
and cried with my family, as well.
The tattoo artist finally asked me the question that most tattoo artists ask their clients
to distract them from the pain: “What does this tattoo mean to you?”
-------------------My sister’s smile and huge, brown eyes, along with perfectly shaped eyebrows, have
always been her trademarks. Since the day she was born, I’ve been overprotective and
overbearing, mostly because I knew that she would grow up to be beautiful, and for
some reason, even at eight years old, I understood that pretty girls could put up with a
lot of annoyance as men started to notice them. (This wasn’t out of experience—I
expected, and still expect, that Lissa will constantly have more attractive men hitting on
her than I ever will.)
Although the day that Lissa was born always will be one of the best days of my life,
something could have made the day brighter for our whole family: Lissa was born with
severe pneumonia. All I knew about the term was that the illness could be terminal, and
that was enough to scare a young girl that finally had the little sister she had always
dreamed of. The first time I saw her, I fell in love, and the IV’s, machines, and medicine
made me anxious: I remember feeling that I could make her better myself without the
medical terminology floating around the room. My father kept me calm, and within a
few days, she was home. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, we returned to the hospital
with my little sister due to a cough that I hoped I’d never have to hear again after she
had returned home again from that visit.
Pneumonia in infants as young as my sister was is referred to as “neonatal
pneumonia.” Within the first 24 hours of life, this lung disease can develop, and can very
often lead to death. The severity of the illness was apparent by the way the doctors and
nurses power walked around the room and kept checking her temperature.
The hospital visits were common, and it turned into an event that I was used to:
someone from the school’s office came down to my classroom, handed me a yellow slip
of paper, and told me to pack up my books because my dad would be picking me up
from class to take me to the hospital. On a specific night in February, when my sister
was nearly two months old, I was taken out of class once again. Upon arriving at the
hospital, I saw my sister lying in a crib that sat in a dark room. She cried, and I hated
hearing it. But as I walked closer to her crib, she saw me, and her tears slowly faded
A strange, plastic fish mask was strapped to her face, making her look as though she
had a fish face, as she breathed in a smelly, thick, white vapor coming from a neon green
machine attached to the mask. The fish wasn’t funny, and I remember being far from
amused. Lissa needed to breathe “a special kind of air,” as my mother called it, in order
to get her lungs working properly. The mask was definitely there to comfort my five year
old brother and I, rather than the little girl suffering.She coughed enough times within
the few minutes I had entered the room to be entirely out of breath by the time I took
my winter gear off. I couldn’t hide my fear, and soon I asked if I could be taken back to
my religion class. And I hated my religion class.
As my sister got older, her breathing problems lessened. The trips to the hospital
became less and less frequent, but the disgusting fish mask still sat on our nightstand in
our tiny, shared room. The problem that she would more than likely end up with would
be severe asthma throughout her life. Often times, when a young child has experienced
wheezing or coughing during infancy that has been viral-induced, that child may be at
increased risk for developing asthma later in their life. The respiratory syncytial virus
(RSV), which is was the cause of my sister’s pneumonia at a young age, is often linked to
asthma that is fully developed by the time they reach the age of ten years old.
With this being said, my sister developed asthma. The medicine helped more often
than not, and weirdly shaped inhalers sat around our small duplex that kept her healthy.
Her problems seemed to diminish, and we never thought of her as “the girl with
respiratory problems,” or anything of that sort. She leads an incredibly normal life, and
runs a faster mile than I do.
I had just gotten off the phone with a current love affair around 11:00 PM on a warm,
spring night during my sophomore year of high school. I spent at least an hour shuffling
through my iPod and listening to strange songs that I had never heard before (since they
were mass-downloaded off the internet in the form of long-winded discographies). I
couldn’t sleep, and I knew there was a reason why. My mother and I had the same
intuition, causing us to be incredibly sleepless (and often times, physically sick) when
something is about to go wrong. I tossed, turned, and eventually fell asleep, convincing
myself that midnight was too late for someone who wakes up at 6:00 AM to go to sleep.
Around 2:00 AM, I was jolted awake. It felt as though a strong dosage of Adderall had
finally kicked in. I found myself shuffling through unheard songs, yet again. As Blind
Melon’s song “Soul One” started playing through my headphones, I promised myself
that as soon as the song ended, I would shuffle to the kitchen, grab a glass of water, and
force myself to sleep, again.
As Shannon Hoon sang the last few verses of the song, I prepared to put a shirt on
and make my water run. But as soon as the song ended, I was shocked to hear a
relatively soft thump outside my door. With a strong fear of armed robbers making their
way into my home, I opened my door slowly.
I immediately saw Lissa unconscious on the ground, almost twitching. As I ran to
wake my mother, I saw my sister begin to vomit and attempt to cry. My entire body
shook visibly as I panted and tried to keep myself from fainting alongside of her.
Thankfully, my mother’s room was right outside of Lissa’s, and I was able to wake her
up with a piercing scream.
As my mom ran towards my sister and sat her upright, I fumbled with an old corded
phone until I finally dialed the emergency number. I sobbed and stuttered at a
seemingly frustrated 911 dispatcher that kept asking for my address. Within a few
minutes, but what seemed like an hour that had gone by, my sister was awake, breathing
heavily, and crying on the floor. I handed the phone to my mother and started to clean
my sister up a bit. We took her to the hospital that night.
My sister had become unable to breath in her sleep, and somehow ended up
sleepwalking simultaneously. Her lack of breath caused her to get sick, and, not being
completely aware of her actions, she had choked and fainted in the hallway after she had
gotten up. She kept telling us that she had come into both of our rooms and tried to
wake us up. The doctor said it may have been part of a dream she was having. Whatever
the official diagnosis of her confusion was, it left us equally as confused.
Once we returned home, I sat awake for the rest of the night in awe. For some reason,
I had been awake when my sister stopped breathing in the hallway. And for some
reason, the timing was perfect. I couldn’t understand why everything had worked out so
perfectly, and I couldn’t blame it on being “psychic,” as I used to think I was based on an
aforementioned decent intuition. I became religious for approximately two weeks.
The day after, when I had gotten home from school after an entirely sleepless night,
my mom greeted me with a strange “hero” compliment, and I started getting random
phone calls from her friends.
“You saved her life!”
“A girl just knows when her sister needs help.”
“Thankfully you woke up.”
But these were less of compliments to me, and more of an intrusion on my (and, most
importantly, my sister’s), personal life. I politely accepted the awkward “good going”
I spent the next few days ridden with anxious and barely sleeping. Every hour
throughout the night, I would wake up and check on Lissa. My parents weren’t checking
on her as though she had a recent concussion the way I was, but I couldn’t help myself. I
would put my hand in front of her face to make sure she was breathing. And finally, on
the third day, I couldn’t take myself to school out of sheer exhaustion. My parents
became reasonably concerned, and my dad dragged me to a local breakfast diner to clear
my fogged head.
Over a plate of soggy toast and squishy cantaloupe, I cried, explaining to my father
that I had never felt so responsible for someone’s life before, and that it was
overwhelming me. I cried about the helpless state I saw my sister in. I cried in fear that
it would happen again and no one would wake up the second time around. And I cried
because I hadn’t slept in three days. As my dad dragged his bacon back and forth
through the puddle of grease on his plate, he explained the idea of everything happening
for a reason to me. This was something that he strongly believed in and, as well as
something that I continuously overlooked. He calmed me down, and I ended my
dramatic pity party.
As we walked back to the car after flattening a few crumpled dollar bills for our
waitress’ tip, my father brought the popular topic back up.
“So, did hearing her fall down wake you up, or what?”
“I was actually already awake.”
“You hadn’t fallen asleep?”
“I had. Then a song woke me up.”
After a minute of silence, he said, “Can I hear it? The song?”
I played it. The song flowed through my dad’s car speakers, and he smiled. Love and
relief took over my mindset, and I thanked God for the first time in years. On the ride
home, I played the song twice, and never wanted to stop hearing it.
But to the tattoo artist, I simply said, “it’s for my sister.” And when I stood up and
looked at my left side in the mirror after he had wiped blood off of the letters, the script
sat beautifully on my tan skin, and the words “Soul One” would forever remind me that
everything happens for a reason, and that a sister’s intuition could be one of the greatest
ones. As I sent a picture of my newest body art to Lissa, the song “Stairway to Heaven”
played on the tattoo parlor’s radio. And as I walked out the door, I received a phone call
from her, crying, saying “I can’t believe you actually did that.”