Ten years, today. Has it already been ten years? It seems like a lifetime ago that after years of struggling with severe disabilities and hours in the hospital fighting for each breath, winter turned to spring and Amanda flew away.
She was my little sister and most people don’t know that when I was 17 I watched her die. Declaring that to you is not meant to be an attempt at shock and awe but really a helpful confirmation for myself that the experience was as traumatic as it sounds. Death is ugly, really awful, and the tears still come easily when I transport myself back to that day. But the grief is complex as her life wasn’t very lovely either.
Generally I don’t share much about my sister with others, let alone talk about that terrible day. It’s just not something that typically comes up in conversation. Even when there is opportunity to talk about her, I often avoid it. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable and rare is the person who is able to look pain and grief like that in the face and engage rather than retreat. And honestly, it gets old when you uncover deep wounds like that for others to see only to have them pull away for fear of feeling sympathy pain, or pour salt on it with well meaning but unhelpful responses. Over the years I eventually learned that I can’t expect people to understand what we went through. While I’ve appreciated the empathy and support our family received, only our family of five really knew what it was like to live with Amanda and then to watch her go.
However, today is the 10-year anniversary of Amanda’s death and I feel compelled to voice something: something about her life, about her death, about my grief, and about hope. After all, I counsel people week after week encouraging them to grapple with these things, so why shouldn’t I?
When Amanda entered the world our lives turned upside down. For those who don’t know the story, she struggled her whole life with severe mental and physical disabilities. Even as an 11 year old her mental and physical development never exceeded what you would expect of a 6-9 month old infant and she had constant health complications. She had to have breathing treatments, was fed by a tube in her stomach, and had countless appointments with doctors, nurses and therapists. The care she demanded meant our family couldn’t do much outside the home together even down to the smallest thing like attending church at the same time. But Dad and Mom made sure none of us other 3 kids were overlooked and somehow I still saw Mom or Dad on the sidelines at my games or in the audience at recitals. We had to be vigilant about bringing germs into the house to protect her from catching something that would attack her fragile immune system. Those things were hard, but the worst part was that we couldn’t connect with Amanda relationally. You know how your little sister, or child, lights up when you walk in the room because of the bond that there is between you? Amanda didn’t do that. There was no indication she even knew I was her sister (or that her Mom was Mom, or Dad was Dad). So yes, I had a sister, but it wasn’t like what most people think of or what big sisters dream about.
We did know how to make her laugh. My most fond memories are of the times when I would exclaim, “boo!”, and watch her face transform into a big grin as her mouth emptied her sweet laugh. I can still see her and almost hear her chuckle and then if you kept repeating it over and over she would get to laughing so hard that we had to stop to let her catch her breath. Those were happy times.
One of her favorite toys was a “Woody” doll that was sadly bootless to reduce the risk of injury if she accidentally whacked you with him while swinging him around with the strength of her 11 year old arm! She also loved her slinky, but not because of the tricks she could do with it. She would get it so mangled and twisted together there was no repairing it but she seemed to like it that way.
And Amanda had long dark beautiful hair, which we wished could be styled to hang down around her face, but was pulled into a ponytail to avoid getting drenched by the drool that she tended to baptize things in. Maybe someday in heaven rather than trying to get away from me she’ll sit in front of me completely content and let me brush her hair. And then we’ll switch and she’ll brush mine.
But on March 20th, 2002 there was no laughter, no toys, and her hair was pulled back for the last time with a hair tie from my wrist. It was an agonizing day as we waited to see if God would miraculously restore life that had been slipping away, or if He would call her to Himself permanently. We sang Jesus Loves Me, we held her, and we tried not to be angry with God about the suffering. And then shortly after midnight, on the first day of spring, I’ll never forget when my dad finally said, “she’s gone”.
It breaks my heart most when I consider what my incredible parents went through in those hours. It brings me to tears to think about the absolute turmoil they endured as they watched their sweet daughter suffer and die. They fought for 11 years to keep her alive and then they had to let go and it was over.
And while I didn’t plan to wrap this up in a nice package, I can’t help but think of how much that was a picture of what God the Father endured. He knows their pain intimately because He watched His Son die, and he DID have the power to stop it. More than that, God the Father caught every tear, Amanda’s and ours. He is not a God who is separate from our pain but enters into it with us. Yet in the same moment He was comforting our hearts, He welcomed a daughter, their daughter, my sister, into new life with no more pain, no more sorrow. We can’t help but imagine that He wrapped His arms around her now perfect little body as she entered His presence.
Honestly, it’s pretty hard to picture her whole, the way that God intended before the world was marred by sin and suffering. It makes me wonder if she’ll remember her life with us. Will she have thoughts and feelings about it that she couldn’t express in her earthly body? Will she talk? I can’t even imagine that. What would her voice sound like? What would she say? Would she call me by name, perhaps even squeal in delight when she sees me? Will I see her walk on her own for the first time or better yet run to envelope me in the sisterly hug I’d always wanted? I’m not sure, but there are lyrics to a song and a special piece of art that we always come back to on these anniversaries which remind us of the hope we have in a God who restores the broken.
The thought of Amanda, now in glory, reminding us…Now I can dance and twirl, just like any other girl, And I can run and play as I laugh the day away. Although you’ll miss me so, I know you’re glad to let me go to a place where I can dance. I know you’re glad that I can dance.
Keep dancing little sister. I can’t wait to see you twirling in heaven and join you in your dance before our Heavenly Father.Love, Erika (Your big sis)
I haven’t forgotten one moment of the time I spent with you guys that day. Thank you for letting me be a part of that – when I wasn’t quite family yet. I’ll never forget giving her her last bath and taking her to the morgue after all of you left. I’ll never forget watching her heart rhythm change to something incompatible with physical life. I’ll never forget the strength your dad displayed speaking at her funeral. when I think of how hard it would be to decide what’s best for Amanda, I am in awe of your parents courage – not just for that hospitalization, but, her whole life! Hugs to you, Erika… I remembered what today was…
Jon and Erika Tello said:
Thanks for remembering Debbie. I’m thankful God put you there for us. I don’t know if it was intentional, but thank you also for asking me for a hair tie to pull up her hair before her bath that day. Somehow the ability to provide that was a comfort to me. And I agree, it’s awesome the way Dad and Mom courageously cared for her and our family throughout her life and in death. Praise God.
hi! Erika and Jon, That was a beautiful tribute to your sister’s memory, and to the fullness of life she now has. Thanks for sharing from such a deep place in your heart. LOVE the picture. Where is it from?
love you guys and prying for you!
Jon and Erika Tello said:
Thanks Kathleen, and you’re welcome.
The picture is a watercolor painting my high school art teacher created based on photographs of Amanda, photos of the dress she wore for the funeral, and the lyrics to the song “Now I Can Dance” that meant so much to us. My Dad, brothers and I gave the painting to my Mom as a gift shortly after her death and it has hung in what was once Amanda’s room ever since. My teacher didn’t claim to be a believer but the art God produced through her certainly ministers to us all.
Appreciate so much your love and prayers!
Jim and Deb Sykora said:
Thank you for sharing your heart, Erika! I remember hearing that beautiful poem at Amanda’s funeral, and I still cry when I read it here. I remember seeing the painting in your family tribute to her in your home. Both the poem and picture are wonderful expressions of the hope we have in Christ that all broken bodies, and minds, will be made whole. This was not only a wonderful tribute to Amanda, but to your wonderful parents. Bless you as you bless others!
I remember when that painting was done…we were in art class together. Doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been 10 years ago. Love ya!
Jon and Erika Tello said:
I know it is hard to believe that was already 10 years ago! What a good class that was during a difficult time. Love you too.
Gwen Embaugh said:
Hi Erika, Was so good for you to be able to share your heart. We too have many memories of precious little Amanda. Many hard ones but some good ones too as she was used by God to teach us many lessons during her time with You (us). You all sacrificed a lot during those days but as you said your Mom mostly but Dad too worked hard to keep things as close to “normal” as she possibly could for the rest of you. Like you said that last day was “the worst day of your “our” lives. The only good thing in it all was we knew that precious Amanda was finally free. Love you much. Grandma and Grandpa
Jon and Erika Tello said:
Thanks Grandma. I know you and the rest of the family loved her very much. Yes, there were definitely some good memories too in spite of the hard ones. Having her certainly did teach us things and while I still can’t clearly see why God chose to allow it all I trust He has His reasons. And like you said, the best part is now she is free of the brokenness she knew here. Love you too!