Karen’s Story

Count On Me: A Story of Sisters
by: Deanna Russo

Karen was my little sister, we were just four years apart in age. We both loved music, to this day there are several songs that “strike a chord” and remind me of her. For her high school graduation, I wrote her the lyrics to a song that I thought summed our relationship to a tee.

“Count On Me”
“Count on me through thick and thin,
a friendship that will never end,
when you are weak, I’ll be strong,
helping you to carry on,
count on me, I’ll be there.”

I wrote her the lyrics, surrounded the words with pictures of us and my parents and framed it. She liked it so much that she often would point it out to friends and proudly proclaimed “my sister gave me that”. Even though Karen towered over me at 5’8″, I was still the “big sis”, often looking out for her, driving her around town. We’d do lots of stuff together, from taking part in games of “Uno” to going out to eat, shopping, and to the movies. One of the last movies we saw together was Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. We both loved the music from that film, especially a song called “Part of Your World”. It still brings tears to my eyes.

Things weren’t always picture-perfect. There were times when Karen and I got into arguments – even catfights, but those times were overshadowed by all the good that came out of our relationship. With age comes maturity, and as we grew and matured into young women, we established a bond with each other that could not be broken. That bond was strengthened through phone calls, emails, and even the occasional “Hallmark” cards that we exchanged while Karen was living in the dorms at St. Bonaventure.

Karen was one of those people with a genuine heart and was willing to give advice whenever a friend needed it. She earned the nickname “Caring Karen” in one of her religion classes at school. It was a nickname, but it was also Karen. Many times, she would go out of her way to help girls at the dorm, even loaning them band-aids or cotton balls, from the huge stock that my parents left her with. They could have hung a sign on Karen’s dorm room “Robinson Dorm Store”. The girls knew if they were in desperate need for something, they could always turn to Karen. She was always there when her friends needed a shoulder to cry on. I received an email saying “my friend’s having a bad day, I’m going to cheer her up.” She was always looking out for those closest to her.

In early March of 1998, Karen was home visiting friends and family while on spring break from school. The night before, I had stopped over to my parents’ house for the weekly “laundry night” and dinner. I can remember the four of us sitting in the living room, watching TV, chatting about Karen’s school and my work. I had a sense of true contentment. We had no idea what was to come – just 24 hours later, just how our lives would drastically change forever, and the emptiness that would forever be left because of someone’s bad choice.

That Friday evening, while I was working on my resume at my apartment, my sister Karen was preparing for a night out with friends. After all, she was headed back to school in just a couple days, and there were a lot of people she had to catch up with before she went back to school. Karen had planted herself right by the phone, anxiously anticipating a call back. So when I called the house to ask my mother a trivial question about my resume, I was the last person Karen wanted to hear from. She answered the phone and I said “Hi, can I talk to Mom?” She replied, “Oh, it’s just you!” We both laughed. I had no idea, no clue that it would be the last time I would talk to her. If I had known it would be my last opportunity to hear her voice, I would have told her how much I loved her and cherished her, and how my life wouldn’t be the same without her.

Karen buffed and painted her fingernails just perfectly before heading out, and she did get that long-awaited phone call. Her friend Katie picked her up at my parents’ house. The two girls had a lot of catching up to do, since it was the first time they had seen each other in months. At the mall, the girls picked up a pair of three-foot tall stuffed bunnies on display for Easter, and began dancing with them, twirling them around the store, the bunnies were their perfect dance partners. My parents were also out for the night to see a movie, and they bumped into the girls at the mall. When my parents reminded Karen about the usual curfew, Karen eased their minds by telling them not to worry, she’d be home on time. Instead of coming home to find Karen safe, they came home to a blinking light on the answering machine.

Later that evening, Katie’s parents had asked the girls to pick up Katie’s grandmother from her home, just about 15 minutes away. Katie was driving. They were driving down a two-lane street in South Buffalo, when another car came speeding at them. Police say the driver was traveling 55 in a 30 MPH zone. That driver crossed over the double-yellow line, and Katie couldn’t move her car out of the way quick enough. He hit Katie’s car head-on. Not only was he speeding, but he was drinking and driving.

A few hours earlier, this man stopped at a gas station to fill up. The worker noticed that something wasn’t right, he knew this man wasn’t 100% sober. So he called police, and the driver was given a breathalyzer test. He blew a .04, which is under the legal limit of .08, but he had prior DWI convictions, and was driving without a license or registration. In a matter of hours, this man got bonded out of jail, got his car back, stopped to drink more at a local bar, and came barreling down the street that Katie and Karen were driving on. He slammed into Katie’s car. Police and emergency crews rushed to the scene and pulled Karen’s body from the wreckage. They rushed Karen to the closest hospital, and got her heart started three times. My mother and I think that was Karen’s way of saying to the world “I’m not ready to die yet, I’m only 18, I have so much more life to live!” But it wasn’t her choice. The drunk driver made the choice to drink, drive, and play games with innocent lives on the road with him. Karen died almost instantly. That night, my parents returned home from a movie, and instead of finding their youngest daughter in her room listening to music as she often did, they came back to that message on their answering machine. It was a nurse from the hospital saying “It’s urgent, get here quick!”

When my phone rang at 12:22am, I knew something was wrong. I just started thinking, if I get there, hold her hand and tell her everything’s going to be OK, then it will. Just let me get to her. Karen had been in a car accident a few months before, a close call with another girlfriend. They even joked how the EMT who helped them was so cute, obviously it wasn’t serious, just bumps and bruises.

This time things were different. My then boyfriend, now husband, Jason and I got to the hospital first. We were immediately ushered past dozens of police officers. It was a sea of dark blue jackets. I didn’t even think twice about them. I knew something was wrong, but it couldn’t be related to Karen, somebody else, maybe a shooting or a stabbing, but not Karen, just let me get to her and give her a hug. Instead of taking us to Karen’s room, we followed the nurse to a small waiting room. My head was spinning by this point. “Where’s Karen?” “Why didn’t they take us right to her?” I didn’t understand. The minutes it took for my parents to arrive at the hospital felt like hours. When my parents sat down, a dark-haired police sergeant with a mustache walked into the room. I remember the mustache, because all I can remember is watching his mouth when he said the words, “There was an accident and Karen didn’t make it”. What? “Karen didn’t make it”? That’s how he summed up my sister’s short life. Those words will ring in my ears forever. I let out such a scream. It shocked all of us. So this news was so earthshaking. Through the tears, my mom started making phone calls to grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends. Family came to the hospital to support us. My mother just kept shaking her head and saying, “We just saw her – you must have the wrong person – we just saw her!” We all had to see to believe. My aunt, mom, and I held hands when we walked into Karen’s room. There she was, still hooked up to all the machines, but instead of being greeted by a smile from the blond-haired, blue-eyed young woman we were used to, there she lay in the hospital bed, pale white. We asked why she was still hooked up to all the machines, and the nurses told us that they couldn’t remove the tubes until the coroner came. Coroner??? Karen should be here. Why is this happening? Soon after my parents got the news, another woman came to them inquiring about organ donation. Karen would have wanted that, they thought, so they donated the organs that were salvageable. We found out later, that several people were helped by the organ donations. However, the crash destroyed Karen’s heart, liver, and kidneys. With one bad decision, a drunk driver ruined Karen.

One of the last photos taken of the Kwiatkowski family before the tragedy.

Having to pick out a casket and bury their youngest child was the hardest thing my parents did. No parent should ever have to bury his or her child. 2,500 people came out to the wake and funeral. People that we hadn’t seen in years, friends from my elementary school, came to offer hugs and emotional support. At least two buses made the trip from St. Bonaventure. Karen was just a freshman, and yet she left an impact on so many people, so many lives. Police actually directed traffic on the road the funeral home was on, because of the back-ups. When an officer came into the funeral home at the end of the night, we thought something was wrong, after all, police had just told us Karen died, so we immediately thought this officer was also coming to relay bad news. Instead he walked toward Karen, knelt down, and said a prayer. As he walked out, he told us that he wanted to see the young woman that touched so many people.

The man behind the wheel of the car that slammed into Katie’s that night was arrested, pleaded guilty in court, and was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison. We were in court for every minute of that process, and we’ve appeared in front of the parole board to relive that night. There’s been no “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”. It’s hard to forgive someone who doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. He was released from jail in June of 2008 and I was speaking to a group of teens at a local high school when he was released.

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