Tag Archives: death

Of Hats and Flasks and Hearts Tied Up with String

I heard them before I saw them. A murmured, “Dad, there’s Denise.” It didn’t register. I continued to stare blankly at a rack of men’s crewneck sweatshirts. I was in Target, and my youngest son was shopping. He’d been trying on knitted hats in there for the better part of two decades, maybe three, I don’t know. I’d lost track of time. So. Many. Hats. I felt desolate, saw only darkness. Would’ve shot off a flare if I’d had one handy. It was a bleak and humorless existence. I had to pee, and my feet had swelled from standing so long. I was cursing myself for having never gotten into the habit of sporting a hip flask. Every hat looked the same; I could’ve sworn he was fucking with me. Just as I felt myself slip further into the maw of boredom, I heard them calling my name. Repeatedly. Pulling me back from the point of no return. Dazed, I looked up.

There they were, CAF’s family. It was a shock, and I gasped. Loudly. Embarrassingly. The kind of gasp you see a heroine in a shitty movie do. Oh, why don’t I carry a flask? CAF’s widower and her eldest child were smiling broadly at me. It felt like old times, kind of… Yet, what was this? There, hidden just slightly out of view, was her youngest. There was the boy who was too young to remember the catastrophic Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection in CAF – the event that began the end of her life. This had not been my first time seeing the family. At the end of August, CAF’s widower and her eldest son showed up at a memorial service for a family member of my husband’s. It was kind of them to come, but as I hadn’t expected them nor seen them in years, and as I was at a memorial service, it became too much. I burst into tears and ran outside. My sons were quickly behind me, making sure all was well. It wasn’t, and I felt fragile, like my heart, badly tied up with string, just had its knot come undone.

This time was different. It was friendlier, happier, and because her youngest boy was there. He didn’t remember me, and most likely no longer remembers his mother – but oh! how darling he was! His face, so like hers – only in miniature. I asked if I could hug him. His father said yes; the boy remained quiet but gave me a gentle squeeze back – more out of politeness than anything else. He was painfully shy, as anyone would be who’s lived through what he has. He didn’t look at me accusatorially, none of them did. I suppose it’s just me. All I felt was guilt; the self-whispers of “murderer” and “killer” going round in my head. Her children never denounced me – never pointed at me and asked, “WHY DID YOU KILL OUR MOTHER?! WHY?!”

I’m sure it was later explained to the wee one that I was his mother’s closest friend. That I was the there the day she passed, the one who held her hand as she died. Hopefully it was not explained that I had to be the one to convince his father to pull life support…

Seeing CAF’s husband is getting easier, and I’m glad her eldest boy remembered me. I still haven’t seen her daughter, who supposedly looks and acts just like CAF. I don’t know whether she’d remember me. They are a beautiful family, and I’m glad to see them happy. I hope at some point to put this all behind me, but for now, it’s just pain and self-recrimination. Whether my part in this all was “merciful” or not, it left its mark – one I’ll never heal from.

Last night as I decorated the interior of my house for the holidays, I came across several Christmas pieces CAF had given me over the years. Strangely, 3 of them are angels. I cry every year…

Ho, ho, fucking ho.

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Ushering Ants

The other day I came up the hall to find a line of ants marching at eye-level on the wall in the foyer. As there is neither food nor water in the foyer, I found this interesting. They came in under the front door, crawled up the closet, moseyed around the corner to some shelves, turned around and left. This went on for a day or two – with me cautioning my family to “Watch out for the ants! Don’t lean on the wall, you might squash one!” This was met with the usual “Uh huh.”

One night as I came up the hall, I stopped and watched their journey. Something about the procession was soothing – the way the ones coming greeted those who were leaving. My husband walked up behind me and muttered, “Would you like me to get you an ant farm? Then you can watch them all the time – and they won’t be loose – in our house.”

It didn’t bother me that the ants were loose, because I knew they’d do what ants always do – leave. There was no reason to be alarmed or kill them – and it was certainly not an infestation. It was only about 20 of the wee fellows – coming and going.

For those of you who know me, the fact I allowed the ants to come and go as they pleased will not surprise you. For those who don’t know me, I’ll explain. I’m vegetarian. I kill nothing. I’m kind and compassionate to everything — even people who hurt me and (as I’m told) “don’t deserve kindness or compassion… or your friendship – because they’re playing games with you, they’re cowardly, and they’re an asshole.” 

Today I woke to find 3 ants aimlessly wandering the kitchen tiles. These I had to usher out. Not for my sake, mind you, but theirs. That’s a dangerous place to wander – a lot more risk of being smashed than when they’re eye-level on a wall. I didn’t want that on my conscience. I put each of them outside to join a line of ants marching by my rose and wisteria bushes. There was much antennae-waving before they got in line and crawled up the branches with the rest of their cohorts. It made me smile, that welcoming back into the fold – like old friends reuniting.

I often find beauty and smiles in places others don’t. But lately I’ve not seen a lot of beauty or smiles. And lately I’m the ant wandering out in the open on the kitchen tiles – exposed, vulnerable – with people and forces coming along trying to smash me. The past few weeks have been especially hard. The day after my return from a glorious birthday trip to NYC, we unexpectedly lost a family member. It was devastating – and it fell to me to tell my children and husband. The grief overwhelmed. To add to this, the following week, I had to put our beloved dog down. She had been part of our family since 1997. This was all so much death – so much grief, in so short a time. I needed to unplug and get away from people – especially those who didn’t have my best interests at heart. I needed to talk to real friends – old friends – the ones who’d always be with me, no matter what. These friends hurt when I hurt – and I’m hurting now. They’ve been kind enough to get behind me, trying to usher me on, and when I rise slowly to the surface again, I know I’ll be greeted with much antennae-waving by them. I’m blessed.

Waiting.

It was 7 years ago today that I took her life. In so many ways it seems like it was just yesterday. I can practically smell the sterilized hospital. Hear the click of shoes, the hum of voices. Feel the resignation in the room. I still have the lump in my throat and the heavy weight on my heart. The heart is such a weak little organ, after all.

I know exactly where I was at this moment that day. What I was doing. Can retrace my steps from the moment I woke up. It’s funny because usually I’m such a dumbass, I can’t remember what I had for dinner the night before, if I had anything. But that day, and my actions, and their effect are indelibly etched in my brain. The doctors buzzed about. The nurses swarmed. And I waited. Waited for the end to come. Waited for yet another thing to make me feel like a piece of shit.

I seem to wait for things a lot – I’ve realized that in the last 7 years. I have done a bit of growing. I know I spend far too much time dwelling on the past. But I also spend too much time waiting.

I wait for people – even ones not worth waiting for.

I wait for literary agents to respond to queries about my manuscript.

I wait for my sudden longings to put fingers to keyboard or brush to canvas and create. 

I wait for calls, texts, emails.

I wait at traffic lights.

I wait for the dermatologist to tell me I have skin cancer. Again.

I wait to catch a glimpse of my sweet boy on campus before he spots me and heads to my car.

I wait for my eldest to come home from college, so I can hold him close and see him tucked safely in bed at night.

But today I only wait for that fateful hour to start, where I can count down the 38 minutes it took for me to watch my friend die. How unlucky was she at the end – alone, but for me in the room? We waited together.

Heart Fail-her

When I met her in high school, she was the freckled girl with the broad smile and convertible red Mercedes – always fun and lively. I had no idea that before my 40th birthday, I’d take her life.

In school she was a grade younger than me. We met when my friend Wendy brought her into our fold. It was a wild night, one Millicent and I both remember… CAF, as I’ll call her, handled our teen girl craziness with aplomb.

After high school, when most of my friends went away to college, CAF and I remained in San Diego to study. We hung out quite a bit and, one fateful night, met the two men we’d eventually marry. They were best friends. This could, on occasion, be a real pain in the ass.

Five years before CAF gave birth to her first child, I had mine. CAF and her husband were (for the most part) supportive of this change in group dynamics.

Three months after CAF became pregnant with her first child, I became pregnant with my second. It was nice to go through it together. CAF went on to have two more children. It was shortly after the birth of her third that our lives were forever altered.

I was at the office. I worked full-time back then. I was Director of Administration for a real estate development firm here in San Diego. The call came through from my husband saying CAF was in the hospital. She’d had a heart attack. As CAF was a year and a half younger than me, I had a hard time believing this. She was 33. She’d been taken to the hospital closest to her house. I rushed there and heard the impossible news: Not only had she suffered a heart attack but the hospital (once they’d harvested her artery) realized they were way out of their league. They needed to ship her to a hospital that specialized in her type of rare cases. Rare cases?! We were baffled.

It turns out CAF suffered what is called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, a rare condition that occurs after the birth of several children. This was three months after the birth of her last child. All arteries leading to the entire left side of her heart were shredded. She had also suffered a stroke.

She was flown to a sister hospital, which was unable to do more than poke at her. They, too, were out of their league. Next she was flown downtown. We all drove down separately, a somber, disbelieving group. After many hours, they came out to tell us that they’d put CAF into a medically induced coma. They would put an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) in to replace the left side of her heart. We could go in and see her if we wished. I waited until her husband had already left the room before I went in. CAF was suddenly the Bionic Woman, lying there with a metal rod sticking out of her head, and her entire chest cavity cut open, covered only by what appeared to be Saran Wrap. This image still haunts me. I saw the inner workings of the human body. I wish I could forget it.

Because she was a strong woman, she came through that all right and was put on the heart transplant list. In the years she had with us post-LVAD, she learned to adapt to life with the heavy outer battery pack strapped to her waist. The thing weighed 4 pounds and the power cord went in through a hole in her side. We always had to carry a spare battery when we left the house in case of emergencies. At night CAF was plugged into a power source, not the batteries. CAF forever wore the scars of her trauma, a slice from her neck all the way down to her left foot. When I’d remark on how brave or strong she was, she’d say she was just grateful to be able to raise her children, to get to know her baby and have him know his mommy…

The rhythmic ‘whoosh whoosh whoosh’ of her blood being pumped by the LVAD was jarring at first but then became a pleasant aspect of life with CAF. We made plans to celebrate our 40th birthdays in Paris. Just us two. It was something to cling to. CAF was a brilliant interior decorator and her house was always ready for Architectural Digest. Whereas mine looked like a bomb had exploded… Sometimes she’d remark upon this but not with as much frequency as she had before her LVAD. Perhaps we both realized what was important?

CAF and I routinely hung out, as usual. Dinners, drinks, movies, shopping. If it wasn’t just us, it was my family of four and her family of five. This would be the last time my husband and I would share similar friends.

One day years later, the call came that CAF had been put in hospital with severe pain. When I called to check up on her, she said she had been in pain and feverish for a few weeks but waited until her insurance could cover it before going into the hospital. She couldn’t afford to go sooner… By then, her appendix had burst, blowing away a good part of her intestines. This was indeed a setback. Her pain and fever increased. They loaded her up on antibiotics to make sure bacteria wouldn’t affect her heart. After testing the appendix, they found something alarming: it was riddled with cancer. She couldn’t catch a break. They needed to take her off the heart transplant list now that she had this disease. It had spread to her lymph nodes and, as such, she would now be incapable of taking the immunosuppressant necessary to prepare her for a transplant. Had she taken the medicine, the cancer would have run riot. As it was, the cancer was a wait-and-see measure. This particular kind goes away when the affected host organ is removed. And so it did.

It was several years later that CAF suffered a massive stroke. She was wheelchair bound and needed to learn to speak and eat all over again. She would grow frustrated, as you can imagine, yet still had a twinkle in her eye when we’d sit and watch movies together. She was still in there. She lost energy quickly, however, and I guess I didn’t want to think that another stroke was imminent. Months later, it came.

There were no more cognitive moments for CAF. She’d suffered this stroke while asleep. It was one of her children who’d found her. CAF had always doted on her children. That it was one of them who discovered her makes the story that much more brutal. Every day for weeks (maybe a month? maybe more?), I’d go down to the hospital, Red Bull in hand, and sit for hours at her bedside. Sometimes her husband was there, sometimes he’d just left. When we’d pass, he was always positive. He believed each day that CAF had blinked in response to something he’d said or squeezed his hand. This always puzzled me as I never got responses. Never.

One day as I was leaving, I was waylaid in the corridor by a nurse and the lead cardiologist. They explained the facts: CAF was brain-dead. She wasn’t in there anymore. They’d tried explaining to her husband but he wouldn’t listen. He clung to the belief that he’d have his wife and the mother of his very young children back. According to her medical team, she would never come back, and he needed to pull her life support and move on. Could I please explain that to him? they asked. I said, “No. I’m vegetarian. I don’t even kill ants or gnats.” I wouldn’t be the one to tell him he needed to kill his wife. I wouldn’t tell him he had to kill my friend. They, however, were adamant. I was the only one they could prevail upon, the only one he’d listen to. CAF’s biological family was scattered and didn’t get on with her husband.  They stopped coming after the first day. They knew what we’d failed to acknowledge. There was no coming back. And his family seldom came to the hospital. It was just the two of us every day.

On the agreed upon date, I brought CAF’s husband into the hospital conference room to meet the team of cardiologists, neurosurgeons and neurologists. There they explained the facts to him. He turned to me in a state of denial and I did what needed to be done. He took my advice. I felt like the Grim Reaper.

Days leading up to it, he’d bring the 3 kids in to “Say bye to mommy.” It was horrible to witness. On the 3rd day of this trauma, the head on a ceramic angel sitting on a nearby table fell off of its own accord, rolled across the tabletop and hit the floor. I told him then it was enough. Just pick a damn day and stop bringing the kids in! They’d said their goodbyes. They needn’t be permanently scarred anymore than necessary.

It was decided we wouldn’t let her go on Memorial Day because he’d always remember that. He chose June 1st. We went and picked out her coffin together. We picked out her plot together. It was very near her mom’s…

The day dawned brutally hot. I remember worrying about after school care for my kids as I drove to the hospital. Who’d watch them? I knew I’d be in no shape to care for them. Thankfully I needn’t have worried. Friends and family are exceptionally kind in circumstances such as this. CAF’s husband was there waiting for me along with his mother. No one from CAF’s family was there. The doctors came in, the nurses were unobtrusive. The machine was turned off, stopping the rhythmic ‘whoosh whoosh whoosh’ that had been such a part of our lives for years. It took about two minutes before CAF’s husband fled. The sounds of her body gasping was more than he could bear. His mother ran out to care for him. I continued to sit there, holding her hand and talking to her in my stupid inconsequential way that I’d always done. Blathering away. Saying nothing of import. I told her I was sorry that I’d done this to her. I told her I loved her. And I told her I’d wait a good while in the room after she’d gone so she’d know I was there. When I looked up, I realized even the nurses had fled. I was alone. It took a long time…

I came home, went to my room, drank four beers in rapid succession, and fielded texts and calls from my best friends. By the time Andy phoned, I was fairly incoherent. I get the feeling he’d been rehearsing his comfort speech all day, bless him. It didn’t help but whenever I think of that day, I think of him trying so hard to spare me what I wouldn’t spare myself. What I still haven’t. I think of him standing in the hallway outside a convention in Las Vegas telling me I did a good thing. If anyone could get through to me, it would have been him. It didn’t work. I haven’t been the same since that day, as you can imagine. I refer to it as “The Day I Killed CAF”. I think of it in no other way than I killed her. I convinced her husband to do it and I alone remained to watch her final gasp. I figure when I make it to the other side, the enormity of my transgression will be too great to get me a pardon. I’ll have to come back in my next life as a downtrodden soul… Or perhaps a factory farm animal.

I think I’ve referenced the memorial service for CAF in another blog post on here. It is one of the few times I can honestly say I was proud of myself. There were well over 100 people in attendance at the church, CAF was very loved and respected for not only her interior design work but also for having fought so hard for so long. I stood before them and talked about my friend. I dug my fingernails into my palms to prevent myself from crying, and I concentrated on the lovely caws coming from the crows just outside the door. People still remark on how I stood there tear-free. They’ve no idea how those crows saved me.

I was talking with Wendy and Millicent this morning on Facebook about our old fun times. It made me cringe, reminding me of my deed. CAF’s birthday is fast approaching. I never do well this time of year. I need to go visit her grave but the thought of doing so makes me physically sick. And it’s worse because I’m the only one who does visit. Two years after her death, it had to be me that reported to the maintenance crew that her grave had started to slide down the hill due to heavy winter rains. I haven’t been out there in years. I know I should go…

One of the things I’d told CAF as she passed was that I’d make sure her children were all right. I failed her in that as much as I failed her as a friend. Thankfully, my assistance wasn’t needed for more than 3 or 4 months after her death. CAF’s husband met a charming woman with 4 kids and they were married soon after. I like to think CAF played a part in that. The family continues to do well.

My guilt remains.

Here, Take My Shoulder. I Have 2

You know that moment (or moments) in your life when you feel you just can’t take any more bad news or bad luck? You’ve hit the wall? You’ve had enough? You’ve reached your bullshit-threshold? You have actually thought of crotch-punching the next person who smiles at you?

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there – I’m pretty sure. People who haven’t must have an extraordinary amount of patience or good luck; perhaps a combination of both. I don’t even know the meaning of those words. I get road rage and have been known to honk furiously if the person in front of me is too busy fluffing her hair to notice the light’s turned green. MOVE YOUR ASS!

In any event, I’ve had many instances in my life when I just wished the world would swallow me up. When I longed to dig a hole and bury myself – which, actually, is impossible – I’d have to ask for help and I’ve no friends willing to bury me.  That’s what this post is about.

“If you could pick one flaw of mine that you think I should fix, what would it be?” I asked that in a handwritten survey I gave to my closest friends in high school. The only response that has stuck with me all these years came from my friend Annie, who replied with, “You’re too quick to temper.” I don’t remember any of the other ones. Not one. Hers I thought was hilarious. I’m pretty sure I disregarded the rest. I didn’t like to be told I had no self-esteem. Oh, yeah? The sky is blue, the grass is green, blah blah blah. But this? Fantastic. I have a temper? Not just a temper but a QUICK temper. What can I say? 1/2 German + 1/2 Italian = 1 Hothead

At that age I had already developed the habit of wanting to fix certain flaws in my make-up but was unable to figure out just what it was that needed fixing or how to go about doing so. I relied on my friends – and such wonderful friends they are. Over the years, I have witnessed death and dying. I came to a point where I dubbed myself The Grim Reaper. And, like all humans, I have experienced crushing heartache. Yet it was my collection of friends who have repeatedly picked me up, held me aloft, and propelled me forward – as I do for them.

Friendships that we cultivate in our lives are crucial to our emotional (and physical) well-being. I have discussed this before.  It’s healthier to reach out, socialize, lean on the shoulders of ones who love you than to bottle it up and cope on your own. Everyone knows this. Yet sometimes it’s easier to crawl into your shell, dig a hole and hide. I know. I’m the crawler/digger/hider type. My friends new and old? They’re the phoning, emailing, texting, show-up-on-your-doorstep-because-you-ignored-their-calls type, and I love them to bits. They are too marvelous for words.

My point is, if you’re going through something, reach out. Your friends are there and want to help. It is our empathy towards others that makes us astounding beings – this empathy we so conveniently use to put ourselves above the animal kingdom, while overlooking examples of compassion from within it. Every being with a normal sense of compassion wants to ease the suffering of those around it. Sometimes you can’t. All you can do is lend them an ear and some strength. Be there until they can get through the moment, break through the bubble of their misery and realize, outside it, there’s a whole world of possibilities. You never know when one gesture of yours would a difference.

The Clock Stands Still

It was just a little slip of paper – something inserted in a baby shower gift. A note. A poem. The top had a pretty bouquet on it. She had written it, I’m sure, on the spur of the moment and had no real thought that I’d keep it forever in his baby book. She certainly could never know that one day I would use it to eulogize her.

I stood before a packed church, straight as a rail, with a powerful voice and no quavering knees and spoke of my friend. I did so without crying. At the end I read her poem – the one she’d meant as a welcome for my baby born fourteen years earlier.

Isn’t it funny how we keep little things that, after we lose someone, become so important? They’re like nuggets of gold in the stream of our lives. We catch a glimpse of them – these gifts – sitting on bookshelves, mantels, or hanging in our closets, and all of a sudden they take on new meaning. They’re gone. The person who shared such times with us is gone and we’re left with these tokens of a life spent together.

On my mantel is a clock that stopped working years ago. I keep it because on the back, written in permanent marker, my friend wrote, “Friends for all of time.” She is gone but the clock stays. I’m sure that’s just a sign I’m far too sentimental (and disorganized!) for my own good. I like the clock. I don’t mind time standing still. If it had, my boy wouldn’t have moved away to college and he’d still be here – trashing the kitchen with his midnight meals. But time doesn’t stand still. It marches on and drags down our jowls until soon our necks resemble turkeys’.

I have a collection of rocks. They began as a gift from my friend Andy. He sent one as a Christmas gift in 1998 and one shortly after. They’re the largest in my collection – more like bricks – and they’re also the most valuable to me.

I have a drawing of an olive from 10th grade typing class. It was drawn by my friend Millicent. She knows I still have it. It’s in a photo album. I have no idea why I kept it. I mean, sure, I like olives, but why I’d have kept that over the masses of horse and shark drawings she’d done since 5th grade, I have no clue. To me, that olive means the world.

I have nearly all my boys’ drawings. Really. I used to have a wall covered entirely from floor to ceiling. They were taped together like wall paper. It was glorious. The drawings are precious.

I have shiny decorative objects and jewelry from Marcia. They glitter and remind me I’ve friends who think I’m sparkly.

I have a lifetime of gifts from my family, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what life’s all about – giving? Your time, your effort, a smile. They end up being memories for those you leave behind. Priceless.

Reach Out and Touch Someone – Really

You know that old expression “A hug is worth a thousand words”? Well, I’m not going to deny it. I can think of many times when I’d been up to my eyeballs listening to words, words, words but never feeling any comfort. Never feeling that real connection that a hug provides. Maybe it was the words that were falling flat, or maybe it was the speaker coming across as being insincere or cold. Either way, a hug always used to work.

After sitting alone in a hospital room and holding a dear friend’s hand as she passed in 2005, I went through a dark phase. It was an ugly time. Watching someone die is painful, especially when they’ve been taken off life support. Their body doesn’t want to let go. So you hold that hand a little tighter, and cry that much harder. I vaguely recall giving her eulogy at the packed church. It’s one of the few times in my life I can say I was proud of myself – I got through my speech without crying. After the service was over, people came up and hugged me, it was then I realized I’m huggable on my terms. Shortly thereafter I became very choosy about doling out hugs. I guess because it all came rushing back. People hugged to comfort me that day, but also because they needed comforting, and I was suddenly all out of that particular commodity. I was very tired.

My children’s hugs were different, and those of my best friends. My dear ones. My “blankies”. Their hugs gave me strength and helped me move on and out of that phase where I tried to box myself up and push away any pain. I’ve gotten really good at “compartmentalizing” over the last few years, something I’d always struggled with. But while I’ve been compartmentalizing and distancing myself from pain, I also realized I was distancing myself from life. I was becoming detached. Whereas that’s all right for a traumatic event like 2005, a sort of coping mechanism to help me continue on with daily chores like moving, getting up, getting the kids off to school, feeding the family, etc., it’s not a permanent way to live life.

Now that I’ve spent so many years detached, it’s the reattaching that seems more difficult. There’s always another, “Oh no!” moment coming along. But life has a way of throwing “Oh no!” moments at us and we just have to be prepared and stand on our own two feet and cope. I began writing the manuscript that’s currently in the hands of my literary agent, Laura Strachan, shortly after the loss of my friend. It helped me cope. It kept my mind occupied. And it has, for years. First it was for defense, then it became my baby. I’ve nursed it for four years now. It’s one of the reasons I’m particularly proud of it and why I couldn’t just let it go when I received rejections. Persistence pays off.

Nowadays I’m back to the touchy, huggy type. I tend to touch people on the arm when I talk to them, and I usually give a quick hug goodbye. I still have my special “blankie” ones, whose hugs are loved and missed the most when I don’t have them. That pain of missing someone though is part of life. Losing loved ones is part of life. But if you’ve merely lost contact or had a disagreement, why not reconnect? Reach out and touch someone – even if it’s only by text. You never know what you’ll find.