Rachel and I have been close friends ever since we met each other at work. Being a good friend of mine, Rachel and I have shared stories of our past. Realizing we had something in common is what helped sprout our relationship. It was hard for me to sit down and ask her to participate in my project because I knew it was hard for her, but she agreed. And at least to say, she was strong through the process. As you continue reading, I hope you enjoy Rachel’s story. It was touching to hear, honorable to write about, and greatly appreciated of her friendship.
“It was totally out of the blue. We never expected anything like that. It was just like any other day.”
On October 31, 2004, in the small neighborhood of Ingram, PA, everything in Rachel’s life changed. Little did she know it would be the last day she would see her brother, Michael. He was 15, too young to be taken from the world, and Rachel being 10, had no idea her world was crashing down. Halloween was never the same. They never really celebrated it after what had happened and now Rachel’s mom hates it. Rachel didn’t celebrate it years for a while; when they were younger they did go trick or treating. Michael was born with a heart problem called Wollf-Parkinson-White, a heart condition where there is an abnormal extra electrical pathway of the heart. This condition can lead to episodes of rapid heart rate, which he often had.
“I could go on for days.” Rachel says about her mom. “She’s my best friend. She’s been with me through everything. I think the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing her was for ten days and it was horrible because I missed her so much. We do everything together; listen to music together, go to Disney together, watch old 70’s TV shows.”
I then remember Rachel telling me a touching story about what her mom told her the one-day when she got home from school. I asked her to tell me it again.
“Her favorite part of the day is whenever she comes home from work and we just relax and watch old 70’s sitcoms together. She got me into awesome stuff at a young age. Like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, old music from the 70’s, and Disney. I remember going through old baby pictures and I would just wear Disney clothes. Everything had Mickey. She’s the method to my madness.”
I then asked Rachel, “Do you think you could ever move out?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think I could be that far from her because she needs me as much as I need her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends. I am her best friend. She’s just really shy.”
Rachel’s mother would try her best to make sure Michael’s blood pressure wouldn’t get too high by making sure he had taken his medicine and was monitoring what he ate. Michael was also diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and hyperactivity at a young age. Rachel’s mother felt responsible for keeping him under her wing and protected. She also felt the same way towards Rachel. She would do anything for them. Rachel’s dad on the other hand, was rarely around. He had been involved with drugs and alcohol since he was young, something that Rachel and Michael knew about, but not to its extent. Rachel never really remembered seeing her parents happy together. They fought a lot and she even remembers an instance when her mom said to her father, “One of these days something is going to happen to one of these kids, and you’re gonna be sorry that you weren’t here.” And sadly, that’s exactly what happened.
“When I was at that age I never realized how horrible he really was because my mom always tried to hide the fact that he was into drugs from me. He always partied. My brother and I knew that he did drugs, but we didn’t know how much it affected our normal lives. He would leave for days at a time and he would come back with no car because he had sold his car to people for drugs. So, he wouldn’t have keys or anything, so he would just be pounding on the door. This happened all the time. After awhile my mom would let him in just to get him to stop. There was instance where my brother let him in and said, ‘Mom don’t stoop to his level. Just let him in.’ He always saw the best in people. He’s a lot like Raven. I think that’s why Raven is my friend.” (Raven being another good friend of ours from school)
Rachel and Michael managed without their father, their mom’s dad being more of a father figure to them. Rachel’s grandfather, or pap, was the one who introduced Michael to cars, which was Michael’s biggest passion. Their grandparents always offered to take Michael and Rachel places. They spent the majority of their weekends at car shows.
“My mom still has all of Michael’s hot wheels. My mom has kept everything of his. But my grandparents would take Michael everywhere on the weekends, which is where he bought most of his car memorabilia. Anything that had to do with wheels like trains and cars. My mom was into cars too, so it’s a family thing. He knew everything about cars. There was an instance when we were sitting on the porch and our neighbor, Katey, asked him how he could watch NASCAR because all they do is drive around in a circle. Then for fun, she asked him to name a car that was all the way down the street. Without missing a beat he named the year, the model, everything. My grandparents called him Corvette. To get his attention, if he wouldn’t respond to Michael they would say Corvette and he would look in that direction.”
I then asked Rachel how her pap was more of a father figure than her actual dad.
“He would take care of us. We would always go over there when my mom was at work. My grandparents are just so fun to be around. They’re the stereotypical grandparents plus more. Always trying to sneak us money and buying the grandkids little things. Even now; when either of my grandparents see something Disney related at a shop, they will buy it for me. They did the same thing with Mike but with cars. I’m so grateful that they’ve always been there and can’t imagine growing up without their influence.”
They even got their dog, Daisy, at a car show that they had attended.
“We were at a car show. I think we had the Falcon at the time. My mom and I were walking around and we wanted a dog, we’ve been looking. So, we ran into this lady, Sandy, and her husband. We saw Daisy in the guy’s arm cast and she was shaking because she was so scared of the loud noises. She was only a month old. We told her it was the cutest dog and asked where she got it. She said her mom’s dog was having puppies and she would call us when she had them. Months later she said that she gave away all the puppies but we could have the one she had at the car show. Her name was Alexa Marie before we named her Daisy. Her previous owners had to get rid of her though because they owned another dog that was messing with her. Daisy and my brother were close too. Mike loved that dog.”
It was a Sunday, in late October, Halloween to be exact, and Michael was excited for the weekly NASCAR race that was on TV. It was a normal day, beautiful one actually, and Rachel and her mother were on the front porch looking at Disney books to plan their future trip while Michael was inside watching the race. In the middle of the race, Michael went outside to warn his mother that his heart was racing. She told him to relax and figured he was just excited about watching the race. A little while after, Michael came back out and said, “Mom, it’s serious this time.”
“I had a sick feeling in my stomach. When my mom took him in to the bathroom I just thought okay she’s got this, this happens all the time. And then from upstairs I just heard her screaming, so I ran inside.”
The next thing Rachel knew, her mother was screaming to call 911. When Rachel ran inside, Michael was collapsed on the floor. After calling 911, Rachel noted that it had felt like a long time before the ambulance arrived. Rachel’s mother tried to perform CPR, but the results were in vain.
“I remember it perfectly. She was yelling to call 911 so I grabbed the phone and I was freaking out. I never called 911 before so I didn’t know if I had to put 412 first for the area code. My mom just ended up grabbing the phone and doing it because I was in shock. He was wheezing. She then handed the phone to me and started CPR. It wasn’t working. His face was turning blue and she was crying on the phone. It was only ten minutes. We didn’t know for sure if he was gone yet, but we were pretty sure. When the ambulance came they told us to go into the kitchen and my mom just started praying. I don’t even believe in that shit, but I did it anyway. I remember saying to ‘God’ if he allowed Mike to stay that I would be the best sister ever. I said this because the last thing I said to Mike was that I hated him.”
At this time I had to place a hand on Rachel and tell her it was okay because tears started to fill her eyes. I can understand perfectly that exact feeling. I was in the same situation when my dad passed. That’s the worst feeling anyone could have when they lose a loved one. I was there for her and calmed her until she could speak again.
“We were on the porch and I was trying to write a paper for homework. His NASCAR was so damn loud and I remember being frustrated because I couldn’t focus, I told him that I hated when he was around. And that seriously was the last thing I said to him. This thought hit me when I saw him being carried downstairs by the paramedics with a blanket over him. My mom left with him in the ambulance and my aunt and grandparents came over so we could go to the hospital. I was antsy and organizing the Disney books. I think I was stalling because I didn’t want to go to the hospital and find out. Once we had arrived, they took us into a little room and when I walked in, my mom just said he’s gone.”
Michael never did get to see who won the NASCAR race that day. It also left Rachel alone with a relationship that was unfulfilled.
“Losing my brother made me look at other sibling relationships differently as well. I noticed that when my friends would complain about their siblings I would always tell them to appreciate the time that they have with them and not fight. Because you never know.”
Rachel and Michael had a normal sibling relationship, close, but not close enough. Pointless fights happened that were meaningless. But they cared about each other and had each other’s backs. She often finds herself watching old home movies of them if she comes across them. From watching them, she knows that they were closer when they were younger.
“One video that always warms my heart was one when I was a baby and Michael was a toddler. My mother was on the other side of the camera taping us and Mike reached over to give me a hug. When my mom realized that he was unintentionally being a little rough with me, she told him to be careful. To which he stated, ‘but I love her.’ To this day, when I watch that tape, it makes me wish that we were as close as we became older.”
I asked Rachel then if she thought about her and Michael growing up together.
“I know we would be really close. It just sucks because he loved cars so much and he never got to drive one and that bothers me a lot. But another video I remember was one my mom took and she even said, ‘I’m going to send this into Funniest Home Videos.’ He was just the funniest damn kid. He always made me laugh. We were in the bathroom and he was taking a bath, I was in my pink Power Rangers onesie just standing there. He had bubbles all over him and he made a beard and I was hysterical. Still as we got older he always made me laugh. I know if he were still here he would still be that funny big brother that I would turn to. He would have taught me how to drive, go to shows together; car and music shows.”
The unexpected death of Michael left Rachel’s family dumbfounded. The majority of her family fell into depression and was all later diagnosed, Rachel being one of them. She still struggles with it today.
“We all still have it. I was at home constantly. I didn’t want to leave my mom’s side.”
Rachel’s mother, father, pap, and herself took it the worst. They were all put on medication for depression and all had their own way of coping. Rachel’s mother felt like she was responsible and it hurt Rachel to see that. Her mom felt like it was her job to make sure that her kids were safe.
“After Michael died I remember her saying things like, ‘I should have made him eat better, and I could have prevented this.’ I never witnessed my mom so defeated.”
Rachel said her mom would sleep all day and wish to never wake up, she didn’t want to deal with life and accept the fact that she would never see her son again. Her mother later saw a therapist, who helped her, but it didn’t for Rachel. It was suggested, but Rachel didn’t want to talk about it at the time. To Rachel, depression was a rut and she wanted to escape, but on her own. Talking to a therapist about her feelings wasn’t going to do it for her. Depression felt like a never-ending dark tunnel for her, the glimpse of light at the very end was so far away. She knew she could reach it; she just had to figure out how. She kept her mourning to herself and tried not to get upset in front of anyone. Her family thought she was strong, but inside she was a mess.
“Just yesterday my mom said this. She still blames herself to this day. She had a vitamin in her hand and she was giving Daisy a biscuit and a couple hours later she realized the vitamin was in Daisy’s bowl. She comes in and says, ‘Rachel what if that’s what happened when I gave Mike food. What if I had a pill in my hand and it fell in there.’ I told her she couldn’t think like that. It was ten years ago. They would have found that in the autopsy.”
I asked Rachel how her pap took it all when Michael passed.
“I know Mike was the favorite grandchild (she says this with a huge smile and small laugh). They just had so much in common. My brother had to write a paper on his hero and he wrote about my pap. Pap would cry a lot. He obviously knew of the close bond between him and Mike and he figured that he would die before him. So my pap used to tell my brother that whenever he was gone, ‘if you see a car with one headlight that’s me saying hi to you.’ I remember one day my pap was driving my mom and I home one night and we were all crying in the car about Mike. Not long after a car went past us with one headlight out. Every time I see it I think it’s him. Actually the first time I went to his grave with a friend on New Year’s Day 2014 I saw one on the drive home.”
Her father took the wrong path in the mourning process unfortunately. He spiraled into a heavier addiction with drugs and alcohol, which led to destruction. This decision he made tore Rachel’s family apart even more and Rachel herself had to grow up right then and there. Being a ten year old, that’s not easy to go through, but what Rachel’s father did to them was even harder to fathom. Rachel and her mother were returning home from their vacation to Disney World the next year after Michael’s death. Something that was hard for them since they often went with Michael, but they enjoyed their time there, remembering him.
“We’re at the Pittsburgh airport. This was how shitty this day was going to be. We call my grandma and tell her we needed picked up. She goes, ‘Rachel, I’m sorry, but your hamsters dead.’ Because we didn’t even trust my dad enough to watch Daisy, so my grandparents would watch her and my hamster. I was crying. His name was Elmo. He bit my grandma, had a heart attack, and died (the whole time she’s telling me this part we are dying laughing). It’s really funny now. I guess my hamster was sleeping and she put her hand in the cage and he bit her. My cousin was there and said that Elmo was clinging to my gram’s finger and she wacked him against the cage. They put him in the freezer too.”
On the drive home her gram told them they had been robbed. Rachel’s mom said, “Oh I know this has something to do with him.” When they returned home their father claimed that they had been robbed. Their house electronics and valuables were all gone. All of Michael’s video games and belongings were gone, even the tape recorder that held the last VCR tape of Michael that was ever filmed.
“That bothers the hell out of me because I’m sure they were recent. At the age we were, we hated getting our pictures taken. It was to the point our mom would sneak up on us and take our photos because we just didn’t like our photos captured. My mom took it the worst. Those were memories we’ll never get back. Someone else has it, who knows if they watched it, they could have thrown it away. My brother also had a camouflage wallet and he had a few bucks in it and that was even gone. My mom would have never spent it.”
They knew it was all a lie and later on her father admitted that he sold everything for drugs. If it weren’t for Rachel’s grandparents taking their dog, Daisy, he would have probably given her away too. After that incident, Rachel’s parents split up and it was only Rachel and her mom. She felt like she was losing everyone.
Rachel’s depression really started to take the full effect when school came around. She fought through middle school, but could only fake a smile for so long. She missed so many days that when she would return people figured she had moved away. She lost many friends due to lack of communication. She had a few, but at the time in her life they didn’t understand what she was going through and didn’t know how to help her. She didn’t care; it didn’t bother her. It was her against the world from then on. She was afraid of getting too attached to people; she didn’t care enough to make new friends. She’d rather be at home with her mom and Daisy, who were always going to be there for her, rather than going through more rejection.
By the time middle school ended, Rachel had been to court a few times because of her illegal absences. She would tell the judge her situation and most of the time they were sympathetic towards her. But one time she had to pay a fine because she had missed too much school. She felt guilty, but part of her didn’t care.
High school wasn’t any different for Rachel. It was actually worse. She knew something needed to change when she noticed that her lack of schooling affected her mom as much as it affected her. Rachel’s mom begged for her to go back, but at that point Rachel just wanted to drop out. Even though Rachel knew she needed to graduate to get anywhere in life, she just wasn’t interested. She would have been the first one in her family to do so.
Months later she was informed from the school that she was in jeopardy of failing tenth grade. It was suggested that she go to an alternative program after school to get caught up. The principal told her it was a last resort because he knew she was a good student. He felt like she wouldn’t fit in with the kids in the program because they were “problem children,” but wanted her to try it for a few months to get back into the school routine. It took weeks of persuading and even a youth advisor to drive her to school and check it out. She finally gave in. It wasn’t like a normal school at all. It took place after the day students left and lasted for four hours.
“There was this woman named Caroline, and another advisor that came to my house to talk to me to try and get me to go to school. They even offered to drive me. Caroline asked me what I liked to do before she dropped me off at school. She took me to a record shop, it’s the first time I’ve been to the Exchange in South Side and I was in love. We just talked and that was her way of coaxing me into going to school.”
The one thing that most motivated Rachel to go to this program wasn’t because she was desperate to pass school, but because she found out that a former student teacher she had in 8th grade English class was teaching English in the program. Ms. Ligouri graduated college a few years prior, when Rachel first met her years before. She even graduated from Rachel’s school district, knowing Rachel’s brother. She was a senior at the time he passed away and knew him. Another reason Rachel liked her. That 8th grade class was by far one of Rachel’s favorite English classes she’s ever had. One of her first assignments for the alternative program English class was to read a book. Since there was no solid curriculum, Ms. Ligouri chose the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher for Rachel to read.
When Rachel read it she felt a personal connection to it, explaining the reason why Ms. Ligouri gave it to her. She knew everything that she had gone through personally and thought it would help. Rachel became very attached to the book within the first chapter. The book is about a girl named Hannah Baker, who committed suicide. Instead of writing a suicide note, she put a collection of 13 cassette tapes in a box and mailed them to her unsuspecting classmates. Each tape focused on one particular person, who resulted in another reason why she had killed herself. The story goes through all sorts of recipients from first kisses, to peeping toms, to jealous classmates.
The tape began with the voice of Hannah Baker saying, “I hope you’re ready because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.” Throughout the tapes, Hannah seemed to be very nonchalant about the whole thing. The finality of her life didn’t faze her. She accepted the death and her decision to kill herself. Rachel doesn’t know why death intrigued her so much after Michael died, but she found her style turning into lots of blacks with punk music. The lyrics related to her after Michael’s death and had more of a meaning than the other music of the 90’s she had listened to growing up. That’s why she felt 13 Reasons Why interested her so much, it was about suicide and that was such a huge part of her life at the time. After reading it, she didn’t want it to be over, ending on a cliffhanger. So, instead of writing a paper on it, Ms. Ligouri asked her to write her own ending. This made her appreciate the book even more and gave her an even greater connection to it. To this day she has read it about three times.
“The first rock album I ever bought was Green Day and later I found out from watching home movies that my brother liked Green Day and blink-182. It turned out at the time that those were my favorite bands. The song Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day is about the death of the singer’s dad and that spoke to me.”
There was a scene in the book, after the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide where it took place in her old homeroom. Her desk was empty and the students had remorse, finally they felt guilty. After she was judged and picked apart, they felt sorry. And that made Rachel think about her brother. How did his fellow students take the news of him being gone? Did they feel guilty? Did they wish they never bullied him? It was no shock to Rachel that Michael got bullied at school. He was loud and suffered from OCD. People would yell at him on the bus for singing, so much that the bus driver ended up burning him a CD of ACDC to get him to stop. After Michael died, did they feel the same way Hannah’s classmates felt? There was a situation a few years ago when Rachel and her mother were walking home form the grocery store and they ran into a former classmate of Michael’s.
Rachel’s mom approached her and asked, “Are you Cici?” When the girl confirmed Rachel’s mom thanked her for writing a poem about Rachel’s brother in the yearbook for him the year he would have graduated. Cici then told them how he was a great kid and whenever kids picked on him she always stood up for him. It took Rachel’s mom by surprise when she said that. It was hard for her mom to hear that her son was being bullied at school. They didn’t know the extent of it because it never fazed Michael, and if it did, he never talked about it.
“As soon as she walked away my mom started crying.”
The fact that Michael never got to graduate high school, learn to drive, go to college, start a family, or any other normal tasks that people take for granted every day is hard for Rachel to take in. Rachel’s mom hasn’t been to Michael’s grave since his funeral and probably never will. The first time Rachel had been to his grave was ten years later, in 2014. She’s wanted to go but it’s a long walk from her house.
When Rachel’s cousin passed away last year she noticed that her dad was doing better in a way. He would go to his sister’s house all the time to check on her. Rachel was proud of him for doing that. She believes they are working things out slowly. She would like to be a little more bonded with him than now, but they’ll never be the same. Part of her doesn’t care, but then part of her knows she should care. Rachel’s mom is still struggling with depression. Recently it has been pretty bad. Just little things will get to her. So, Rachel picked up dinner and went home to spend time with her.
Daisy is still a huge part of Rachel’s life. She’ll be 14 in April. She’s been through a lot with Rachel and her family. Rachel even hides and tries to scare Daisy – even though she calls it “hide and seek.” Rachel says she can be an asshole sometimes, but we all know Rachel is so attached to her.
Rachel is attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh now for Entertainment Design currently. She has always been interested in horror movies and how the make up is done, leading her to attend college for the very same thing. She still likes it but she’s not sure it’s what she really expected. Her favorite horror movie is Evil Dead 2. She is now thinking about going into an English major. Working in the Writers’ Center at the Art Institute made her realize how much she loved writing.
In 2014 she went to 26 total music shows. That’s the most she’s been to in her whole life because of her friend Jess. She went to see Yellowcard and the tickets had sold out, so Rachel posted online looking for a ticket. Jess then contacted her and said she had a ticket. From then on they talked and became good friends. She even writes blogs on her show adventures now, recording everything that happens not only for her, but for other people to read.
Rachel got into Disney because of her mom. The first time she went she thought it was beautiful. She loved Mickey Mouse and just the park itself. She’s been to Disney almost 30 times since 1999. Her and her mom have such a solid routine that she wouldn’t want to go to Disney with anyone else but her mom. Peter Pan is Rachel’s favorite character of all time because he never loses his youth. She’s always held onto her childhood and Disney.
Rachel has good days and bad. Recently she’s been on the bad side. She’s not sure if that has to do with finals or her decision of school.
“Depression never really goes away. You just kind of learn to put a fake smile on and go on.”
Rachel knows today that Michael would be by her side at all times. She would do the same for him.
“I’m better now because the people I choose to have around me. I’ve grown to accept the people that will be there for me will stick around and the people that won’t be can just fuck off. I know how to remove people from my life now. I used to get really attached to people because I would rely on other people to make me happy, but now I know what makes me happy. Seriously, I’m in a whole new world. I have people like you, Victoria, and all that, they’re the ones who I’ll go to and not buttholes that don’t care about me.”
Another quote that Rachel likes is from one of her favorite bands: “May I never lose my youth and if I do may I be forgettable.” – Set Your Goals
Thank you Rachel for sharing your story with me. It was a hard time for both of us, you for telling, and me for listening. I am grateful that you were willing to share this past story with the many others out there that had a similar story. Know that you are not alone in this world. You have great friends now and we care about you very much. You’ll always be a great friend of mine and I’m very grateful that I met you when I did. I hope our friendship never dies, just like Peter Pan. Your story will inspire many!