It always starts with a simple question – a question we all ask when we are making small talk. “Do you have any siblings?” That is where the lying starts.
I respond with something along the lines of “nope, just me,” or “nah, I was a spoiled only child,” but I am not telling the truth.
For 15 years of my life I had a sister. Today is the twenty first anniversary of Heather passing away. It’s not that I didn’t love my sister – I still love my sister. It’s really hard to explain, but I will try. I am going to spill a lot of things, that I have never told anyone, about how I have handled her passing. I just feel like I need to get this out. If anything, this is mostly for me, but I thought sharing might help someone else who is grieving. Only a handful of people know these things: my wife, my family, and my best friends who have seen me battle with her passing and have stuck with me.
As most of you know, I am an Iowa State fan. I bleed cardinal and gold, but it hasn’t always been easy. Inside of Jack Trice Stadium on November 8th 1997, my sister died. I will detail the day and the days and years after, but if we are being honest, my memory of that time is spotty at best. I didn’t block it out, it just isn’t there when I search for it. I just remember bits and pieces.
We were tailgating in the concrete lots by the fence and the student section stairs on the east side of the stadium. This was 1997, so you could park just about anywhere. Iowa State was playing Colorado – I do remember that much. I can’t tell you who won, but I can tell you my entire mom’s side of the family was there for the game, and we had seats in the Colorado fans’ section on the west side. Good seats, way down in front.
Now, this is where my point of view as a 15-year-old and 20 years of fuzziness comes in. I remember, as we were walking down the stairs towards our seats, I saw someone in a red coat fall to the ground while walking down the steps. I thought it was my mom because my mom and my sister were wearing matching coats. I remember being told I needed to go sit with my aunts and cousins because something had happened. I don’t know how long I sat in the bleachers while the game was happening, but it felt like years. This was in a time before cell phones, so to find me, my name was called over the PA system and I was told to meet my grandfather at the gate. I later found out my sister had a blood clot in her leg, and there was nothing that could have been done. The doctor said if she had been in the hospital waiting room it would not have mattered.
There are things as a person you will never forget. I will never forget walking into an office at the Mary Greeley Medical Center. As soon as I walked in, my mom started crying out, “they took my baby, little girl!” Next thing I know, I am in a bathroom dry heaving over a toilet.
Flash forward to me walking my dog outside because I couldn’t handle being in the hospital. The last memory I have of that day is me, sitting on a curb with my dachshund, while grandpa watched me from a short distance.
Over the next few days, while my parents handled funeral responsibilities, I stayed in my room. I didn’t leave that space. I watched the Rocky series on VHS tapes, over and over again. You know the one I am talking about, with Stalone of the side of the box and the American flag behind it. I would watch one through five before starting them over again. I would have to skip the part in Rocky 3 where Mickey dies. I think this is one of the reasons why I think the third Rocky is one of the worst. I didn’t cry. It would be years before I cried over anything. My parents would ask me if I had cried, and I would lie.
This happened when I was 15 – two months into my freshman year of high school. You know how friendships are awkward at that time period? Throw in your buddy losing a sibling and it gets worse. My friends didn’t know how to talk to me, and I didn’t know how to talk to them. I refused to miss any school days unless I had to, for fear of having to take semester tests. (If you missed more than two school days you would be forced to take them, and they affected your grade, miss less than that and you could take them voluntarily.)
Only one of my friends came to the visitation, and I am forever grateful. He was the starting middle linebacker on our football team, and visitation fell on the same day as the end of the season banquet. He was set to get his letter for football. This was a big deal at our high school. He missed that banquet to come be with me. He never asked me, he just showed up and sat next to me the whole time. We later went on to be best men in each other’s weddings.
I have completely scrubbed from my memory any detail of the funeral itself. I just remember sitting in family friend’s huge conversion van waiting to go to the cemetery. This was another friend, not the one I listed above. He was the only friend of mine to come to the funeral. Which is fine. As I said, early teen years are hard enough without your buddy’s sister passing away.
To say I went into a shell would be a understatement. Most of you know me now as Ted Flint. The guy who is always happy, hyper, ready to meet new people and do new things. I was not that man yet. I had a bowl cut, and glasses with transition lenses that took up most of my face. I had few friends because I grew up in a small community where everyone knew everything. So I was hard to approach.
Before my sophomore year, I had a friend who was moving away agree to be my locker partner so that I could have a locker to myself. I think I did this to limit how much I talked to people. I basically lived in books. It took me meeting a woman, (my cousin’s girlfriend’s mother if we are being accurate) to break out of my funk. The summer before my junior year she convinced me to dye my hair, be more outgoing, not to worry about what others were thinking, and to just be myself. I owe a ton to that woman – more than I could ever tell her. My junior year I was homecoming king, and made many more friends who are still friends to this day. I don’t know where I would have ended up without her pushing me. But I know it wouldn’t have been here.
I said above that I didn’t cry for years. I told myself that I didn’t need to make things harder for my parents by making them deal with my sadness. They never asked for me to hold it in, I took it upon myself. I remember exactly when and why the tears finally came though. It was the summer before my senior year, during the fair.
The fair was a big deal in my family. My dad had instilled a drive in us to win the showmanship trophy in the swine show. It was incredibly hard to do, and no one had done it in our family. The night before the show, my last chance to win, my mom got sick. (Don’t worry she was fine, she is still around to this day being a great mom and awesome grandma.) That night, Dad rushed her to the hospital in pain. Then they sent her to another hospital, further away, to figure out why she was hurting so much.
We would come to find out it was kidney stones. But that night, I came home from hanging at the fair to a voicemail on the answering machine. Remember this is before cell phones. It was my dad saying “Mom is in the hospital, and we don’t know what it is yet. I will call you after the show tomorrow. Your uncle can help you.” The show happened to be on my sister’s birthday. This voicemail broke me. I cried for I don’t know how long that night. Went to bed in an empty house. The next morning I won the Senior Showmanship trophy, and I had to celebrate alone because my dad and mom were still in the hospital. Yes I had friends, uncles and cousins there, but it just wasn’t the same. It may sound like I am complaining, but these events made me into the man I am today.
Fast forward a few years to my time at Iowa State. I tell people I am an only child because telling a new person your sister died changes how they talk to you. They treat you with kid gloves, or sometimes just find a reason to leave the conversation. So I learned how to lie about it. Hell, I still do it today when people ask because I just don’t like talking about it much.
The thing with losing someone that close to you is that people can’t relate unless they’ve experienced something similar. You will always feel pain, and it never goes away. It might fade, but any time, on any random day, it will hit you like a ton of bricks.
During my eight years in Ames, i spent six living with one friend. He would mark the dates on July 14th and November 8th on a calendar – or I assumed he did. He would make sure those dates would be full of activities. Sober ones. Drinking on those days would bring out the worst of me. Until I moved in with him, those dates would lead to some major self-destructive behavior on my part. He took it upon himself to make sure I wasn’t alone, or wasn’t just sitting idle. He would get my other friends involved. All day disc golf games, road trips, etc. He is the closest thing to a brother I have. We might not be blood, but we might as well be.
Circling back to my sister passing away at Jack Trice. For years I wouldn’t go on the west side of the stadium. I refused to. Many amazing memories of mine in the stadium are a tad spoiled by the fact that my sister passed away over there. During the Seneca run, a good chunk of my brain was thinking about Heather. During the tornado game, all I could think about was how my sister passed away the last time I saw Colorado at Jack Trice.
During the first game I took my future wife to I wondered how to tell her what happened there. Hell, when we walked to our seats, (The Steele Jantz UNI game) we had to walk right past the stairs she fell on. That was the first time I walked on that side of the stadium since it happened. Just in the past six or so years have I been able to sit on that side of the stadium. Last year, during the West Virginia game, I am pretty sure we sat in the section we were in when she fell.
I don’t know why I decided to type this up. I think I just needed people to know about an event that has shaped who I am. I don’t want people to treat me any different. I am the same person that you have always known. So please don’t treat me any different then you always have. Even now, 20 years later, at least one day before or on November 8th. it hits me that she is gone, and I am again worthless. Lashing out at the people who love me. I turn into a jerk (haha yes, more a jerk then I normally am).
I wish I could tell memories about us growing up together, but I just don’t have any. I know we had good times, but when I search my memory there is just nothing there. I joke with my my friends that I have early memory loss, but we will see. I am sorry if this piece made you sad, I just wanted to write it down. Rest assured, I will be back to being your normal happy Ted soon.