Submitted by her sister, Amanda Sledz
Rachael hypnotized everyone upon arrival
Adorable, red-haired and cherubic, Rachael effortlessly attracted attention. I listened to her inside my mother’s stomach when I was 3 and my older sister was 4. Rachael was the only reason Dawn and I ever got to enjoy free baked goods. Her curls inspired the women working behind the counter at the bakery to offer her flat sugar cookies stuffed with M&Ms — my older sis and I got some, too, once they realized we were with her.
Both parents were outgunned by Rachael’s wit. She could cut off my mom by simply burping into her hand and blowing it at her, or wagging her finger at her in a parody of parental meltdown.
Rachael was easily adored and even-tempered
Jealousy was inevitable. Initially, my approach to her cuteness and humor was psychological warfare. I’d hide her toys in the back of the closet, aka the toy graveyard. When she asked me where they were, I’d say, “I don’t know. Where do you think they are?”
She retaliated by carving the letter A (for Amanda) into my father’s guitar. My parents thought I had done it, despite the telltale looping scrawl of a 5-year-old. I had to make a case to them like a tiny attorney. To the bitter end, they were reluctant to concede something could be Rachael’s fault — and Rachael just sat there, quiet and blinking underneath her red curls. I would never beat her.
We were a good team
It was more interesting when we worked together, anyway. I wrote songs and poems and plays and then talked her into performing them. Our first and finest production was Hansel and Gretel, with Rachael performing as Hansel and our dog, Pepper, making a special appearance as the hungry birds.
We rehearsed for days and then presented two performances for the family, with her comedic delivery stealing the show. We also sang weepy, desperate, Suzanne Vega-inspired power ballads about dead flowers and nonspecific pain, and pressed the pause button while recording our voices to get slowed-down versions of ’80s classics like “Careless Whisper.”
As a teen, Rachael emerged as oddly good at everything she attempted
She had awards for dozens of perfect scores on calculus tests, earned trophies for every racket sport, wrote with humor and grace, memorized whole books of sports trivia and statistics, and somehow managed to be the extremely rare combination of funny and empathetic.
In high school she joined the literary magazine — since I was the editor and her ride home — and Rachael provided crucial feedback for each submission so that the magazine included only the best. This was the start of her tenure as my editor for life.
Wherever I went, Rachael was along for the ride
No one was more surprised than Rachael that my driver’s license was legal.
In one of my many minor accidents, I was staring down a bus driver to my left when I smashed into a car in front of me. My glasses and shoes popped off, and the frame of the radio ended up around Rachael’s wrist like a bracelet. I rolled out of the car (no shoes, glasses askew) to ask the other driver if he was OK. Instead of responding, he asked for directions to the airport, while Rachael reported she’d also punched a hole in the heating vent. After this event, she started collecting photos of people who fell or got injured and lost their shoes in the process.
Another time, she completely fell apart and unleashed her trademark Rachael cackle: I attempted to pull into the drive-through at Burger King and ended up a full car length away from the speaker. Since reversing would only cause me more problems, I decided to put the car in park, open the door and lean over while shouting my order into the speaker. I asked for a “chocolate shlake” instead of a shake, which unleashed the force of her first guffaw. I lost my grip on the door and fell face first onto the concrete.
As I hand-walked my way up the door and back into the car, Rachael laughed so hard the whole car shook, her face red, tears running down her face, and she kicked her feet while the hapless drive-through worker repeatedly said, “Hello? Hello?” I don’t remember her ever stopping, but I remember tapping out a beat on the car horn to salute the worker who had to deal with us, and then spraying shake all over my windshield.
I’m a better driver now, as an adult, but even after leaving her condo to continue a road trip in 2011, I got a text from her that said, “My driver’s side door and window are broken, and I know it’s because you were here, you walking calamity.”
How drugs became a part of Rachael’s life
Rachael worked at a bookstore — her coworkers said she was a fixture there, like the heart at the center. One day a shelf there started to fall, and when she caught it she hurt her back. The doctor she went to wrote her a prescription for Vicodin that was seemingly bottomless. She would have surgeries, and then more pain killers, get injured, then more painkillers. We’d be on the phone, and she’d report pain for one reason or the other, then reveal how many pain pills she took. Each instance made my jaw drop.
We were best friends until the very end
Over the past few years, we traded text messages for hours late at night, a direct result of her night-owl status and my own chronic insomnia. She suggested that I consider watching her favorite murder shows because, and I quote, “There’s nothing more soothing that partially submerged corpses.” Then we traded texts about what the various cats on the APL website must be thinking, before returning to arguing over which one of us had greater potential to be a character in the next Harmony Korine film.
The last time I saw her
The last time I was in Cleveland, we explored thrift stores with Dawn’s daughters, Rayne and Simone. They selected from the piles of miscellaneous merchandise a gift for aunt Rachael: a sad wooden napkin holder dubbed Burglecut the Duck, which she tried to refuse. When Rachael intentionally left it behind at Dawn’s house, we hatched a plan. At Rachael’s condo, I was lookout while my nieces planted Burglecut under Rachael’s bed blankets. When Rachael walked into her bedroom to discover what was happening, I had my camera ready to capture the exact moment of discovery. It was classic, and she finally accepted Burglecut into her home.
How Rachael died
The day before she died, she went to the doctor because she felt like she had strep throat. The doctor wrote her a prescription for cough syrup with codeine. Rachael had asthma, and codeine causes breathing difficulty.
Rachael took the codeine she was prescribed and woke up hours later unable to breathe. She called 9-1-1, but when she didn’t answer the door, the property manager made calls to try and find another key. I don’t know why they didn’t just break the door down immediately; eventually they did. She was already dead. Her glasses were on the floor in the hallway, implying they fell off as she was getting up, maybe to answer the door. She was 34.
When the police arrived at her apartment, they confiscated a giant bottle of Vicodin (legally prescribed) and a half-full bottle of codeine. We later found a second massive bottle of Vicodin. She seemed to have been prescribed Vicodin for every symptom she had for any disease. My mother is a nurse, so she was also shocked by the codeine, since it’s known for inducing asthma; asthmatics should never be prescribed this drug, ever, and combining it with Vicodin can be deadly.
During her funeral, randomly, one of her friends told a story about how Rachael was known for having a “magic bag” of pain pills that could be distributed in the event of injury, or even a bad day. I was shocked at this story and hated how, in an instant, this became part of her identity. This is not who she was. This is what happened to her.
How Rachael was remembered
Rachael’s funeral was beautiful, with many friends coming forward with detailed stories of her lasting impact — the ways she stepped up to help out virtually everyone in moments of hardship. She kept things close to the chest in a lot of ways and wasn’t the sort to demand acknowledgement for all she offered. But there it was: this great wave of tribute.
I am sad that we’ll never have a slumber party with our nieces, as we imagined, and even more sad about only having one sister. Two sisters doesn’t sound nearly as good as three. And it is even more rare to encounter a person who is truly “good people” to the core — and no one will dispute that Rachael was a truly good person. I’m certain that she’ll still be around in some way, laughing at everything, burping and blowing it at me for writing this, and beaming at every brilliant moment her spirit won’t allow her to miss.
There is not one thing I would say to Rachael
There are many things I say to her all the time. She is a ghost that follows me everywhere.