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cindywells

I look at this photo of Cindy, Buddha and I on the porch steps of our family’s Maine summer cottage, just moments before we were taking off to head back home in the summer of 1988 and remember how carefree we all were then. I remember how Cindy and I went out one day shopping and bought those hats together.  I remember showing them off to my Dad who said “Kathy, that hat is you” and how Cindy kind of wistfully replied “I want a ‘you hat too’ “.

I remember that year she just wasn’t usual confident chipper self.  She was just weeks shy of turning 30.  She decided when we got home that she needed to work on some things so she joined a self esteem group.  She had been enrolled in that group just a week or two when she met Michael Apelt and everything started spiraling downward, unbeknownst to any of us.  None of us navigated our childhood unscathed.  I’d been in counseling for a few years at that point having suffered a severe anxiety disorder in my twenties so I whole heartedly supported her reaching out for help.

One of the assignments given in that group was they were to ask someone, a loved one, to write a list for them of all the things they loved about them.  Cindy asked me of course.  I wrote this crazy list of deep and superficial things extending in to all the margins in a green marker type pen.  Her therapist, who had to testify at the trial of Cindy’s killers, told me that she’d had them all read their lists out loud in the group. That Cindy was crying so hard she could barely get through it but the therapist kept encouraging her to read it and she did.

Can you possibly know how precious her sharing that with me was?  And is now?  That she was given that assignment and chose me to participate leaving me behind knowing she knew all of the ways I loved her before she died?  In writing no less.

I look at that picture of those steps and it also conjures up a more recent memory having to do with John. In the Fall of 2011 I made my annual trek to Maine to the family cottage.  My Dad had of course flown John in from Illinois where he was still living to join us.  Having John on vacations, until recently, was a mixed bag for all of us.  Sometimes he would function, much of the time he was completely consumed with symptoms and disruptive.  I remember saying to my father before coming that year that I’d like for John to only be there for half of my trip that “I’d like a vacation not consumed with mental illness” for my own sanity.  Now, with all that’s happened, I can’t imagine feeling that way as so much has changed in a short time, but it was the truth in 2011.

That year John was particularly symptomatic.  That means he heard voices constantly, was totally paranoid, couldn’t engage in converation much and mostly sat and talked to his voices and chain smoked.   Where his “smoking section” is is at the base of the steps in that photo.  That vacation he had escalated so dramatically, yelling at us and filled with what’s called “religiosity” talking the Devil, Hell, etc., that my father and I took him to the Psychiatric Emergency room for a shot of Haldol.  We talked about hospitalizing him.  On our vacation.  This is the reality of what we lived with for many years with John.  What he lived with with himself.

I hit some kind of wall that year.  I borrowed one of John’s cigarettes (well, I wasn’t intending to give it back) and went and sat on the front steps facing the ocean and decided to have a cigarette with Cindy.  I sat there, by myself, smoking that cigarette and literally talked to her out loud.  This was a huge breakthrough for me because even thinking of her at the cottage was excruciating even all those years later.  The last place we were all together.  It’s somehow easier to think of making new memories instead of resurrecting the old ones.  At least it was then.

We smoked and we talked and I simply asked for her help dealing with John.  That I was lost and I needed her to help me.  I couldn’t do it alone and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.  I saw a future of care taking both him and our Dad as they both aged and had more needs.  And I just never had anyone at my back.  At least that’s how I felt being single and managing my own life alone for so long.  I was born a middle child.  I wasn’t supposed to be on the front lines.

I have to say I felt somewhat better after that smoke break.

Shortly thereafter I went looking for my Dad and walked out the back steps of the cottage, those steps we are sitting on in the photo, past John who was sitting on the landing smoking, talking to himself as usual.  What happened when I walked past him again is where the stars started to align and where I got my first sign.

I noticed John sitting there turning something over and over in his hands.  I sat down in the chair next to him and asked him “what’s that?”.  What he was holding was a small decopauge plaque.  One that Cindy had made in the 70’s, this being our “summer craft” that year.  He showed it to me and what it said on the front that she had burned in to the wood with my Dad’s wood burning tool.  Emblazoned in this plaque were the words “Take the Valid Choice” with a tiny flower burned next to the words.  It had a sand dollar and shells glued to the front.  Her initials and date was burned on the back.  John kept repeating that phrase over and over “‘take the valid choice’, Kathy, isn’t that funny? Remember how she always used to say that?”.

Now this phrase had become a bit of a joke in our family.  Our Dad, a Psychologist, would always turn decisions back on you when you asked for advice and ask questions back like “which do you think is the valid choice?”.  It drove us nuts as we wanted him to just make a decision and tell us which way to go and he just never did that.  So, probably Cindy, at one point blew out with exasperation something like “can you please just make the valid choice for me?”.  It was hilarious so turned in to a family joke.

I asked John where he got that plaque and he replied “from that shelf above the kitchen door”.  Now that shelf is high.  It’s not something that would normally catch your eye.  It’s something you’d have to be looking up to see.  Moments after my smoke break with Cindy, John was drawn to look up to that shelf, reach up and take that plaque off and go outside with it and show it to me as I passed by.

I knew then and there that Cindy was in the equation.  That she was with us.  That she was going to help me. Help us.

Less than a year from that moment  by John’s 50th birthday, he had disappeared, literally disappeared for weeks on end, not once but twice.  Missing Person reports, police tracking him down and the whole nine yards.  This was new behavior.  Things were just getting worse.

After the second time I broke down on the phone with my father, bawling, telling him I just couldn’t handle it.  I didn’t know how to manage him, how to deal with this and have my own life at the same time.

And what my father replied truly shocked me.  He told me I was entitled to my own life and that he thought I needed to let my brother go.  That he could see the pain this was causing me and that John had to wind his way through this life and if this was the way it was happening for him, I had permission to detach.  To let him go. 

I just broke down that night.  Tears in to my sleep.

And woke up the next morning and called my Dad and said “thank you for the permission Dad but it’s me we’re talking about here.  I can’t do that”.

And then the world opened up for Alfonse.  I got the instructions of what to do and followed them.  He was escorted back in to life by a team of angels who guided me and my decisions/actions every step of the way, who gave him his life back.  I listened.  I took the “valid choice” which really was the only choice and have been guided by them, by Cindy, by our mother, ever since.  More of that story to come later.

Just say that John is beating all the odds and is recovering from Schizophrenia in some kind of “waking up from a coma” sort of way.

And anyone witnessing it is fortunate to know that miracles truly are available on this planet.  And when I say anyone, I mean, especially me.

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One of the many unique similarities my sister shared with Travis Alexander is that she was raised by a Grandmother.  When our mother got sick, my father being in his early 30′s with three children under the age of six, needed help.  He called upon his mother who literally dropped her entire life and moved in with us.  He moved us all from our idyllic life in Florida where we were all born back to Illinois where our mother was from.  We haven’t discussed these things in detail, it’s hard for my dad , but it’s always been my belief that she wanted to come home to die.  Maybe I don’t ask because it’s hard for me to know these things.

My mother spent most of the last months of her life in a hospital in a city 150 miles away from her children.  I remember her coming home for brief periods then going back to Chicago to the hospital.  Children weren’t allowed in the hospital back in the 60’s so my last memories of my mother are standing on the lawn outside holding drawn pictures up for her as she looked out a window high above.

We lived in a huge rented house in the small town of LeRoy where my mother grew up.  My sophisticated Grandmother who’d lived in New York City her whole life was transplanted to a tiny farm town much like a spinoff of Green Acres.    It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

After our mother passed, our beloved Grandmother stayed on and lived with us for five years.  My father was her only child so we all were her life.   Obviously she was with us in the most formative and traumatic years of our lives.  I remember feeling so awkward in second grade that I came home one day and asked her if I could call her “Mom”.  How devastating that question must have been for her.  In those days there just weren’t “single parents”.

When our father remarried about seven years after we lost our mother, our Grandmother moved back to her home in New York.  I remember this being a crushing loss for all of us.  Yet we always stayed close.  We went to visit her every summer and stayed with her for weeks.  As we became adults, Cindy and I traveled all over the place with our “Buddha” as we’d nicknamed her along the way.  She would winter here in Arizona staying with one or the other of us after we’d moved out here.  Then she would head over to Santa Monica for the rest of the Winter and Spring.  Cindy and I visited her every March for her birthday in California in this little quirky hotel she stayed in on the beach.  She would get the adjoining room for us and we all had a blast exploring things like tapings of daytime shows (Cindy ended up as a contestant on The Price is Right one year!), looking for the stars homes and wonderful dinners out all over LA.  We loved our Buddha like an older sister in many ways.  We pampered her and she pampered us.  She had a childlike spirit all the way throughout her life which you can see so clearly in the photo above during one of Cindy’s famous “let’s dress up for no reason” parties.  That photo was taken at Christmas 1987.  The last one we were all together.

The following year Buddha, now living on her own in a condo in Connecticut, had fallen and broken her hip.  She was 87 at that time and other than the hip injury was going strong.

When I flew home, during the hours Cindy had been designated a “missing person” , it had already been decided that for the first time in our lives, our Grandma Buddha would not be with us for Christmas.  She just couldn’t travel.   I arrived home to the four of us- my brother, Dad and stepmother- hoping that word had come in from Cindy during my flight time, to nothing.

I don’t remember much from those hours.  I do know we sat in the same room you see in the photo above – an addition my father had put on the back of the house that housed a huge jacuzzi, plants, a gas fireplace and of course our big Christmas tree.  We sat there, mostly silent, just waiting for anything.  And hoping.  Praying. Desperate.  It was Christmas Eve day 1988.

I do remember at about 2pm or so my father saying “we’d better call Grandma as she’s going to wonder if we don’t call her on Christmas Eve”.  It would have been a couple hours later in the East.  So he and I decided to call her and just act normal, say nothing, not worry her there alone, needlessly.  I don’t know where I mustered up the strength to talk to her like that.  I was 29 years old, panicking, desperate and I had to talk to my Grandma like nothing was wrong.

I remember her being so happy as always to hear from us.  She was completely lucid and clear as always and cheerful.  As Cindy had been ambivalent about coming home for Christmas that year (her murderer we now know was trying to stop those plans as he had his own forming) , Buddha asked me “did Cindy decide to come?”.   I answered “No Grandma she decided she couldn’t make it this year so you see you’re not the only one not here”.

And her response to that is something I’ll never forget. Something she never forgot through the rest of her life.

“Well she called me this morning”she said.

My mind began racing in a million directions yet I had to remain calm and not seem as affected by those words as I was.

“She did?  What did she say Grandma?” I managed to whisper out trying to hide my shock.

As of that morning, Cindy had been missing for over twelve hours and her face was plastered all over the morning news back in Phoenix.

My dear Grandma repliedall I could make out was ‘Hi Buddha!’ and then the phone went dead.  I asked the girl here to call her back for me and I got that German man and I couldn’t understand a word he said”.

My Grandma never had a confused moment in her life.  She knew Cindy and my voices as distinctly as she knew her own.  No one on the face of the Earth referred to her as “Buddha” other than the three of us.  Ever.

Since I was the last one to talk to Grandma that day, I went straight to my Dad with this news.  Of course none of it made sense.  This was before the days of cell phones.  We knew Cindy didn’t have her purse.  It was doubtful she’d had this temporary rehab facility’s number memorized.  Why would she call Grandma if she’d been kidnapped and could make contact with someone? But it was a glimmer of something through all of the silence.  I remember feeling hopeful and full of doubt at the same time.

My father said “well if she’s made some kind of contact, we need to call the police back”.

We found out that day that by the time Buddha had received that phone call, Cindy had been dead for at least fifteen hours.

My Grandma went to her grave thinking her beloved first born granddaughter had made contact with her on that Christmas Eve as she was up there all alone and would need comfort.

I believed it too.  I believe it still.

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This was the last photo taken of my family together.  It was the last time we were together.  It was the last time anyone in my family saw Cindy besides me.  It was the last time she was at our family cottage in Wells Beach Maine. It was the last time we were 5.

This photo was used as our Christmas photo 1988.  Her body was found on Christmas Eve that  year.  People were still receiving this photo, along with a newsy family Christmas letter, after they’d been informed that Cindy was gone.

I don’t remember if my Dad included anything about Cindy having married Michael Apelt, her  murderer, in that Christmas letter.  I don’t ever want to remember that.

This is one of those photos I’m sure every murder victim’s family treasures and is devastated by at the same time.

And yet, we last on.