There were four of them. Four girls, but Vanessa was always the smallest.
My daughter Ali and my oldest niece Christina were born in 1995 – just two months apart. Immediately inseparable. Both had blonde hair. Both were calm, logical, book-reading girls. When they were small, people used to think they were twins.
My stepdaughter Tori and my youngest niece Vanessa were born four months apart from each other. They were both two years younger than their big sisters. They were so very much alike. Both were brunettes. Both were girly-girls. They loved to sing and dance and shop and drive their big sisters crazy. Together, the girls were my Fantastic Four.
My youngest niece Vanessa was always tiny. I even called her my “small fry”. She may have been small in size, but she was big on personality with a big, beautiful smile to match.
Pictured above: L-R on the rocks: Daughter Ali, Niece Vanessa, Niece Christina,
Pictured on the Right: In the back, daughter Ali, Niece Christina. In the front, Niece Vanessa, Son Joe, Stepdaughter Tori.
The girls have grown up together. From diapers to driver’s licenses – always together. I look through my photos and see picture after picture of them smiling, playing, laughing. Family vacations to Disney, Universal Studios, Holiday World.
Pictured above: Stepdaughter Tori, Daughter Ali, Niece Christina, Niece Vanessa. Son Joe in the front
Pictured to the right, Ali, Vanessa, Christina
We’ve always been close. We’ve always lived near each other. My brother and my niece’s mother divorced when the girls were five and three, but I stayed close to the girls and their mom. The truth is, I couldn’t bear the thought of not being close to them. We all lived in Arizona. When I moved to Illinois in 2000, my nieces and their mom followed soon after. Together again.
In 2012, my husband and I moved our family to Florida. We didn’t feel bad. The girls were getting older. They were busy with their teenage lives. The oldest girls – Christina and Alison – were going to be seniors. Soon they would be off to college. It was time for us to relocate.
Christina and Ali graduated high school last year – May 2013. Christina was old enough to drive, and last summer my nieces drove down to see us (and the beach). The girls were together again. They took an overnight road trip to the Wild Adventures amusement park four hours away. They went to the mall and the beach. They were teenagers being teenagers. Two 18 yr old and two 16 yr old girls. I wanted them to have this time together. Life after high school and college changes everything. People get married. They move away. Life pulls even the closest people apart. I wanted them to have one more good summer vacation before the older girls went to college. We didn’t know then that it would be the last time we would see Vanessa.
Pictured above: The girls at the Wild Adventures Theme Park June 2013. Vanessa, Tori, Christina, Ali
To the right: Selfie in the car June 2013: Christina, Tori, Ali, and Vanessa
At the beach they made a crazy sand castle and put their intials on it: CAVV. They took turns posing with it. Below is Vanessa and their castle.
Sunday, September 29th, was just like any other day. It was just after six in the morning. I was on my way to the hospital to go to work when I got the call. Vanessa’s mom said she needed me to come right away. Vanessa had fallen and hit her head. It didn’t look good. They had life-flighted her to Kosair’s Children’s Hospital but she wasn’t responding. Could I come now? I called in to work and turned the car around. I stopped long enough to pick up my daughter Ali. My husband stayed home to watch the boys. My stepdaughter was in Tennessee with her mom. There was no way she could come with us. On the way from Florida to Kentucky, phone calls kept coming in. I spoke with the nurse taking care of my niece. Pieces of information filtered through: pupils fixed and dilated. Aneurysm. Hypoxic brain injury. I am a nurse. I knew these terms. I knew what they meant but I couldn’t process them. I just needed to get there.
We drove all day and made it to the hospital late that night. The prognosis wasn’t good. She didn’t fall and hit her head. She collapsed because an aneurysm in her brain burst. She told her mom goodbye, walked out her front door and collapsed. A neighbor started CPR almost immediately and they took her to the local hospital. At first, they thought there was hope so she was life-flighted to Kosairs, but there was nothing that could be done. It was already too late. Her brain was already too damaged. The team of doctors had pronounced her brain dead that afternoon. In order for her to be officially brain dead, the doctors would do a second test the next day. If she failed those tests, she would be considered brain dead – legally dead. Dead? I couldn’t even process that word. Look at her there. She looks perfect. Dead? no. No. NO. NO!!
I think brain death is the absolute worse death possible really. It makes you feel so helpless. I’m a nurse and even with all of my nursing knowledge I could not seem to believe what the nurses and doctors were telling us. I’d look at her little chest rising and falling and her heartbeat on the monitor. I would hold her hand. She was so warm. But they kept saying “she’s gone.” In my head, I knew it was the respirator that was making her breathe still, but… I just could not convince my heart that she wasn’t sleeping. I can remember kissing her on the forehead and her mom saying “You’ll wake her up…” and cutting herself off and crying as she caught herself. We all wanted her to just wake up. Please. Please. just. wake. up. Vanessa. Please. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She never did.
The next day, October 1st, the doctors tested her again. She failed their tests for the second and final time. They declared her dead via “brain death”. It was official. They were so nonchalant. We were so heartbroken. Dead. But..she’s so warm. Not a scratch on her. We were reeling. They were saying she was already gone, but looking at her lying there, it didn’t feel like she was gone. Even though we didn’t want to, we knew in our hearts they were right. The brain does not heal.
Vanessa had only had her license for only a couple weeks, but she had agreed to organ donation. We wanted to honor her wishes. Two days later, she became an organ donor.
The hardest thing – the thing I still struggle with – is knowing that in order to honor her wish to be an organ donor, we could not turn off life support. Her heart would beat and her lungs would breathe until the transplant team took her organs. It felt like we were sending her into the operating room to die even though they had officially pronounced her ‘dead’ the day before. We honored her wish, but it hurt so much to not see her take her last breath. To not be there and hold her hand. It felt like we were sending her into the OR to die alone. I don’t think anyone can understand how that feels. I know her gift will help others avoid the grief we are going through now and I don’t regret it. It just hurts.
The organ donation people were very nice. They made fingerprint necklaces for us with paint and clay. They put her handprint on canvas for us. This is what we have now. Memories and photographs. Fingerprint necklaces and handprint canvases. It just isn’t enough. ❤
Pictured above: Vanessa’s handprint on canvas-my daughter Ali painted the scene around it.
Pictured to the right: A collage of pictures of Vanessa.
Vanessa was well-loved. She baked crazy cupcakes and brought them to school. She played soccer. She swam. Because she was so small, they called her Baby V. After she passed, her classmates at William Henry Harrison High School in Evansville, IN wanted to do something to honor her. They decorated an overpass with the words”We R Vanessa Strong.” They knew she loved Marvel’s Avenger’s and made “Vanessa’s Avenger’s” shirts. Without being asked to, they sold the shirts to help raise money for her services and medical care. They sold out of the first batch of shirts within the first few hours.
At the first football game after she passed, the stands were filled with fans wearing Vanessa’s shirts. Even the opposing team – Castle High School – filled their stands with Vanessa’s shirts. So much love.
Pictured above: Vanessa’s High School: William Henry Harrison High School
I think about those words “Vanessa Strong” and it makes me smile. I think about her tiny little frame. Her great big smile. Her silly faces. Her fun-loving attitude. Her laughter. Vanessa Strong? I don’t know. Vanessa Spunky. Vanessa Enchanting. Vanessa OhNoShe’sNotSingingAtTheTopOfHerLungsAgain. Vanessa WhatDidYouPutInThoseCupcakesNow? But I would have never thought Vanessa Strong. That’s what we are. That’s all we can be now. Strong.
We love you small fry and we miss you. Every day. ❤
Pictured above: Stepdaughter Tori and daughter Ali in their Vanessa’s Avengers/Vanessa Strong shirts.
If my story has touched your heart, please take a few seconds to comment. ❤
You have the power to change lives. Register to be an organ donor at your local Department of Motor Vehicle or here –> at Donate Life