You always hear about other families tragically loosing loved ones, but you just never think it will happen to your family. This is my story.
It was August 10th, 2000 and I was a nineteen year old, eager to discover the world. Three months prior, I had flown out of Australia to begin working on cruise ships, leaving behind my parents and three younger sisters. I worked six, twelve hour days per week in the spa onboard and that particular day was my day off. The ship was in Ketchikan, Alaska and I was ashore, enjoying my day of freedom; I sent an email back home via the internet cafe (in those days there was no internet onboard), had some lunch, did a little shopping, and then I sent all of my left over savings from that month back to Australia (as I was saving for a car). I literally had just 2 US dollars left in my wallet, but it didn’t bother me, as I was headed straight back to the ship anyway and didn’t plan to go ashore again before my next pay day.
Upon arriving back to the ship late in the afternoon, feeling happy and relaxed after my day in the fresh Alaskan air, I was approached by a fellow crew member who informed me that the front office had been trying to get a hold of me all day as a family member had been calling the ship, trying to reach me. To call a ship was no easy feat! My heart sank. I knew that something terribly bad had happened back home. I immediately assumed that poppa (my grandfather) must have passed away. I had no money to buy a ship phone card so the purser, sensing the situation, gave me a 20 dollar phone card. I took it back to my cabin and dialed my parent’s phone number with a terrible feeling of dread.
Dad answered and the conversation went as follows;
Me: “Hi dad, its Kristen”
Dad: “Thanks for calling back” – His weak, broken voice worried me further..
Me: “What has happened?”
Dad: “During the night, your sister started to get a terrible headache. In the morning, we rushed her to the hospital, but….there is no easy way to tell you this…Caylee died today”
Me: “Dad!, don’t joke about things like that!!” – he was always joking and playing tricks on us kids. This can’t be real I thought. She’s only 14! He must be playing another one of his silly tricks..
Dad: “Do you really think I would joke about something like that!!?” – His voice strong and serious.
This was the point where I realized he was telling me the truth and I could no longer control myself. I let out a wail and cried, no, no, no, no…!!! I was hysterical and could no longer speak. In the midst of my uncontrollable sobbing, dad managed to get me to pass the phone onto my cabin mate who was standing beside me. As dad was asking her to look after me, I dropped to the ground and broke. My whole world and heart broke at that exact moment.
The rest of that evening is still a blur. I don’t remember all that much, except that through the night I was constantly waking up with nightmares, then realizing that it wasn’t a nightmare, it had actually happened, then crying myself back to sleep. This happened over and over again until finally it was morning.
My employer had been notified and had booked flights for me to go home. We were in the middle of Alaska, so flying home the same day I had received the news was simply not possible. It was on the 11th that I began my long journey home from Sitka to Anchorage, Anchorage to Seattle (staying the night in a hotel in Seattle), then the day after, Seattle to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Sydney, Sydney to Melbourne. All alone. Hugging my stuffed Alaskan husky teddy ever so tightly and trying to cry as quietly as possible on the planes. My wonderful colleagues were aware that I had just posted all of my cash home. So before I left, they went around the entire ship collecting donations from crew members to ensure that I could pay for taxis, etc and get home as comfortably as possible. I will never forget how thoughtful and generous they all were.
After a long.. oh very long.. journey home, I made it back the night before Caylee’s funeral. It was a funeral where we celebrated her life, rather than mourn her death and it was a beautiful service attended by thousands of community members. Once the church was full, the people spilled out onto the foregrounds of the church by the entrance and listened via a speaker. Afterwards, as we left the church in our car, all students from her school stood and lined either side of the road we drove out along. She would be missed by so, so many.
It was determined that she died of Meningococcal Meningitis, a bacterial form of meningitis that causes an infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. She had gone to bed the night before, after doing her homework, feeling completely fine. By 8:00am she was unconscious. That afternoon my parents and two other sisters had to watch in despair as the doctors turned off her life support machine. At this point, I was still oblivious to what had happened as it had been so difficult to contact me.
My family members and I all dealt with our grief in different ways; Some of us wanted to talk about her all the time, for some of us that was just too painful. For many years I could not even speak her name without crying. I cried a lot. I also felt terribly guilty for not being there by her bed with the rest of my family in her final hours. Now, sixteen years later, although my heart still aches and I still miss her every day, I can talk about her without crying and I can smile when I think of the great memories I have of her.
My daughter now sleeps with the fluffy alaskan husky and one day, I will explain to her just how important that husky was to me during that long journey back home.