Samantha Slusak had planned her big sister's wedding for six months, every little detail. She booked the band, decided on the menu. And finally, on Dec. 29, with Sarah standing by her man in the courtyard at St. Petersburg's stately Vinoy hotel, Samantha rode in a wheelchair to her side.
Maid of Honor. Best friend.
The Slusak sisters, 2 1/2 years apart in age, had always been close. They fought, of course, but even when Sarah had been at fault, Samantha would slip an "I'm sorry'' note under her bedroom door, meticulously covered in hearts and rainbows.
In 2005, their bond grew even stronger through tragedy. Samantha, only 16 and one of the state's best junior gymnasts, hit a mat head first and snapped her spine. Sarah felt she would never be able to leave their home in New Port Richey for long. Sam said go, and Sarah attended the University of Alabama. But she sought counseling. She fought the urge to get in the car, to be with her sister.
Sam wouldn't have any of it. She was in good hands with her mom and dad. She wanted her sister to have everything she couldn't.
But last month, she did want something — credit for planning a great wedding. More than 200 guests applauded and joined Sarah in a champagne toast to her sister.
On the dance floor, handsome young men in tuxedoes took turns spinning Sam's wheelchair as she beamed and sang along to her favorite song, Journey's Don't Stop Believin'.
She never had stopped believing she might walk again. She had traveled with her parents, Frank and Cellie Slusak, for treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and at a stem cell clinic in Germany.
She joined with other quadriplegics at special events. She worked out daily on a special exercise bike, 10 miles at a time. She had muscles. She might have been helpless in some circumstances, but she didn't act helpless. She went to concerts and movies, gambled at casinos with her dad, drank beer with her friends.
So it didn't really come as a big surprise to Sarah at the wedding when she learned why Sam hadn't joined her for photos with celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan when he showed up at a hotel bar.
"Where were you?'' Sarah asked.
"On the dance floor, partying,'' Sam answered. "Where else would I be?''
• • •
Frank Slusak quit his job after Sam's accident. Cellie kept teaching profoundly handicapped children at River Ridge High School, only a few blocks from home so she could get there fast in an emergency. For three years, she spent her nights on the floor in Sam's room, on guard against seizures.
In time, Samantha improved. "We had every reason to believe she would live to become an old woman,'' her mother said.
Last Tuesday, Frank took her to a routine neurology appointment in Tampa. She recorded her favorite TV shows from that night, Pretty Little Liars, Deception and The Lying Game, because she knew Frank was going to take her to the Hard Rock Casino where a few weeks earlier they had won $150 playing blackjack. They won another $150.
"We were on a winning streak,'' he said.
All her friends, it seemed, had colds, but Sam felt great.
On Thursday morning, Frank went through his daily routine, waiting until 10:45 to crank up the loud juicer to fix Sam her daily concoction. "Her wake-up call,'' Frank called it. But this time she didn't holler at him to be quiet. Frank went to check on her.
• • •
More than 300 people filled the Michels and Lundquist Funeral Home on Monday. There were no answers as to why Samantha had died in her sleep, only sadness. The same young men and women who had danced so enthusiastically at the wedding returned to say goodbye, one coming all the way from Belgium.
Sarah somehow got through a eulogy in which she recalled her sister after the accident vividly describing an "eternal garden'' with a white light and beautiful flowers as far as the eye could see.
"I'm convinced that God let us keep you here for seven more years to teach people to love deeply, forgive quickly and to live selflessly,'' Sarah wrote. "I know you're in that eternal garden right now and probably running marathons and even sleeping standing up.''
Samantha's friend Melissa Previte reminded the mourners how a boy named Adam Smith had to wait 10 minutes to graduate from River Ridge High in 2007 because he came after Samantha and that's how long the standing ovation lasted.
She told how the Slusaks had given her family tickets to last Friday's Tampa Bay Lightning game against Ottawa. Samantha had been a huge Lightning fan.
When Tampa Bay trailed 4-2 late in the game, people started leaving the stadium. Melissa said her dad predicted the Lightning would come back "for Sam.'' They won, 6-4.
On the ride home, Melissa turned on the radio. She said you wouldn't believe what was playing.
Don't Stop Believin.