Editor’s Note: This article was originally composed September 15, 2011.
There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all.1
For the last few days, I have been thinking about the deaths of my parents and daughter and thought I might write a bit about it. At times, this writing will likely seem broken up, disconnected …… but I write as a think…. I think my words are more genuine unedited
It is an interesting and frustrating process watching someone grow old. My mother died at only 54 years of age, so I did not go through the process of watching her age. In her instance, it was more a process of watching her wither away to nothing over the course of about 6 years.
It was an interesting time for me for many ways as my father and sister would not even use the word “cancer” opting instead to say “the c word” on those occasions when they could not avoid the subject. I do not think that either of them really discussed death with my mother and I think in many ways that created a vacuum within her that was thrust upon me to fill. I know whenever I would come home to visit; my mother and I would stay up for hours talking about death and dying in general and her death and dying in specific.
When the cancer came back a second time, it killed my mother in about 5 days – but she lived those days on her own terms laughing and joking and reminiscing and taking in visitors. The night before she died she dictated her obituary to me, promising to haunt me forever if I misspelled a word or allowed a comma splice to be published in the listing……
The final morning of her life she woke from her usual morphine haze the most clear headed she had been for some time. My father and she were talking, saying their goodbyes. As is typical of men, my father spent a lot of time whimpering about how he failed her as a husband, did not do this or that for her good enough, did not take her to see Europe, etc. etc. My mother sort of coughed to catch his attention and then his eye and declared: “Warde, I am dying here. Do you think I can get a word in edgewise?”. I thought I would die laughing.
With dad it was a much longer process and one which seemed to entail him falling to pieces gradually over the years. There was the near total loss of hearing, which made calling difficult and later on next to impossible at it would just rile him up and lead to a rant on the other end of the phone against the phone – doctors – the hearing aid manufacturing industry – his girlfriend – anything…… There was the quadruple heart bypass. There was the 20+ years of Mylo Dysplasia. There was Leukemia….. Pneumonia….. a right temporal lobe stroke….. a broken hip…… ongoing vision problems….. a growth in one eye….
And unlike many others who mellow with age, my dad’s rough edges became more pronounced over the years. He became needy much in the way young teenage boys can be. He was grouchy, moody, depressed, angry…….. Enjoyed an occasional manic fiesta, but not very often.
It seemed in many ways that my father and I switched roles over the years with me having to step in with father/son talks, but taking the starring role more and more as time passed by.
Two years ago he finally succumbed to it all and died, in my opinion out of sheer belligerence. There was no actual reason for him to die. He was undergoing treatments for leukemia and simply refused to participate in his treatment plan to the extent he quit eating, drinking and doing any form of exercise. Essentially he lay in bed and starved himself into double pneumonia, fell and broke his hip eventually due to weakness, went to sleep, and died in that sleep a couple of days later.
Five years ago this July death came to my doorstep as well, this time in the body of my 6 hours old daughter, Airiana. It had been a completely normal pregnancy with all the usual monitoring and testing. Apparently, her placenta started breaking down a few days before Kimberly went into labor and she suffered a series of minor heart attacks as a result. Then when Kimberly went into labor it put too much stress on an already overtaxed heart and it quit beating.
It is amazing how quickly your life can shift from a moment of pure joy and amazement to one of complete meltdown and fear. Doctors came in and I had about 5-10 seconds to consult with Kimberly to insure we had her consent for an emergency C-section. And sure, you could say it was a ridiculous question for me to ask under the circumstances – what mother would deny her unborn child a procedure that could save his or her life. However, we had an agreement that if anything happened I would serve as her advocate in all medical decisions.
So anyway, they whisked her out of the room and down the hallway for that surgery which in turn led to probably the worst 20 minutes of my life. As we were in a birthing ward the staff there was accustomed to receiving life, not seeing it slip away and there was a certain buzz, anxiety in the air. I will never forget one nurse pretty much had a meltdown. I kept asking if the baby was okay and if Kimberly was okay and eventually she blurted out “there is nothing alright with that baby” out of sheer stress and frustration (or so I imagine).
She never would really look Kimberly or me much in the eye after that, I assume out of feelings of guilt. It is ironic sometimes how situations evolve and in the end, it was me that counseled her about her shame instead of her helping me through my loss.
As everything was unfolding I could not get any answers as to the status with Airiana nor with Kim and that was nerve wracking to say the least. I remember feeling a sense of absolute terror over the prospect of losing both Airiana and Kimberly the same day and to this day I feel a bit ashamed because as all this was going on I asked myself if I had to make a choice – which one I would let go of – and I clearly wanted Kimberly to live if I could only have one of them. And of course, that is what ended up happening. ** Mental note: remember to add this to future guilt**
Mind you, Kimberly and I had our ups and downs in our relationship, but we did love each other tremendously and were great partners when together. We would never have done anything major, or made a significant decision without consulting the other. So the situation became rather problematic at some point as I started getting pressured by first one doctor, then two, then two plus our regular doctor throughout that situation, and then that committee with the addition of the hospital social worker.
I was insane with fear, terror and utterly confused and they seemed to be asking me to make a life and death decision regarding Airiana. At the time I simply could not understand what they were telling me – it was too incomprehensible at the time. And kept telling them I would not make any such decision without Kimberly. They kept the pressure on saying she was still unconscious from the surgery but that a decision had to be made.
Finally one of the specialists made a statement that could permeate the fog, one I could readily understand. He stated simply that “this is not a medical decision” and I finally understood that what they were telling me was that no matter what, they could not save Airiana’s life. The decision I finally understood had to be made was simply do they transfer her to another hospital with more sophisticated equipment to hook up to her to allow her to live longer, or did I want her to die with me. Of course that was a “no-brainer” – but again, I was not going to do anything without Kimberly’s consent and I drew my line in the sand…. and eventually like with me, they finally understood what I was demanding and took me into the recovery room to see her.
I remember that scene like it happened today and I have played it out many times over the years. It was a big rather empty room with a bed in the middle towards one side with Kimberly in it. When we opened the door it took her a minute, but then she turned to me and looked at me, slowly approaching from the far side of the room. I will never forget the look in her eyes, almost hungry, desperate and looking to me for help – salvation that was not to be.
With that sad, frightened look on her face in almost a whisper she softly asked “is Airiana alright? Is everything okay?” I simply replied “No. There is nothing that is okay.”
About six hours later Airiana died in my arms, very much as my mother had nearly fifteen years before.
I remember those six hours acutely and the irony of it all was crystal clear, even at the time for with my mother, I sat there for hours listening to her labored breathing….. listening to her struggle for each and every breath…. Listening to her breathing tapering off…. Then listening as she struggled for one more breath and how then her breathing would return stronger for an couple of minutes and then repeat the cycle of grinding to a momentary halt. And sitting there alone with her for hours, my thoughts, my hopes, my dreams, and my prayers were of death – release – an end to those many years of suffering and not only for my mother but for all of us who loved her. In contrast, knowing that Airiana’s brain activity had been reduced to basic brain stem functioning (barely enough to sustain breathing and heartbeat and even then for only 6 hours) my hopes and prayers were for life….. for that momentary fluttering of the eyelids followed by consciousness, hope, life…..
In holding my dying daughter, I also relived holding my mother as she too died all those years ago in my arms. You know how they tell you that at the moment of your dying your senses become heightened? Well that also happens when you are next to death. All the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions are intensified to the point they become painful. And through it all I felt echoes of myself in another hospital bed, of my dying mother in my eyes and ears, in the back of my throat, in my arms and in my mind, my spirit, my heart. At the moment it seemed I was captured in 2 separate and distinct points in time – both of them characterized by death, disappointment, regret and suffering.
It was simply an overwhelming and exhausting experience and one that I suspect I will never fully heal from. But you know, that is part of the dance of life and if we choose life over the alternatives. In the end we must learn to embrace life’s irony, its suffering, its pain.
In the end we live in a world defined by contrast and were there not suffering along the way, joy would have no meaning. Or so that is what I often tell myself….
Over the passing of the years, for some reason I have felt it necessary to blame myself for how things turned out. Here I was with the two most important women of my life dying in my arms. And of course I had to ask why.
My mother had all the classic signs of cancer, I think there were ten or twelve of them on all the brochures available at the time. Mom had every single one of them, yet she kept getting a diagnosis from her doctor(s) of a spastic colon brought on by stress. Now mind you, my mother was a brilliant woman – no intellectual slouch – and I rather suspect she knew all along she had cancer and simply took the path of least resistance and listened to the doctor(s) who told her what she wanted to hear instead of what she needed to know. I bitched at her a bit, but like her I think that in the final analysis I did not really want the truth either. ** Mental note: mission accomplished – mother’s death is my fault**
Fast forward about fifteen years to about six or seven days before Airiana’s birth. Kimberly was forty-three and having one’s placenta break down early was rather common for late pregnancies – so she had all the tests done with no hitch, no problems detected.
Airiana was born and died on Friday, July 14th of 2006. On about Tuesday or Wednesday of that week something shifted in the pregnancy – Airiana quit moving. Frightened Kimberly came to me and asked what to do. (Mind you, for whatever insane reason we opted not to do any of the testing for Down’s syndrome or any of those other common afflictions children of older parents are subjected to on a rapidly increasing set of odds stacked against them.)
I had been living up until then with a certain level of fear anxiety and concern over who or what might come out of Kimberly when the day arrived. I was content to love and take care of our daughter, no matter her condition – but as with any parent there was an almost electric sense of anxiety ever present stinging the air around me.
So, when Kimberly presented to me this new fear – I simply turned it aside, opting to ignore it. In the end I advised that we wait until the next day and see what happens, that I was sure things would be okay. I have replayed those tapes over and over again and there is no doubt in my mind that at that moment, I knew in my heart the story would not have a happy ending. But out of frustration, fear and selfishness I decided to do nothing. The next morning Airiana began moving again, so to my relief we did not have to return to any unpleasantries until a few days later when I found myself holding a dying baby – yet asking the lords of the universe why! ** Mental note: new mission accomplished –Airiana’s death is my fault**
So anyway, on my good days I miss them both. On my less than good days I blame myself. And to an extent I blame myself for my father’s passing because I damn well knew at the time that he did not respond in a positive way to his girlfriend and my sister pushing on him, trying to get him to eat, drink, exercise…. I have no doubt that had I come home, I could have forced him to eat, drink exercise, cooperate….. ** Mental note: mission accomplished – all the suffering in the world is my fault**
With my mother, we set up an endowment in her name at the Rare Books Collection at the UNT Library and her eulogy is online2. Every once in a while when I am missing her, or simply want to beat myself up some more – I go and reread those words and cry like a big baby. It took me about ten years to really cry for my mother and in many ways I have yet to let out that one big cry of release for Airiana. With dad’s passing only a couple of years past, this month, I am pretty much still in denial although there is this ever present sense of loneliness and isolation that lives within me ever reminding me that I am alone – I have no real family any more as me and my sister have not really spoken for years.
Most of the time life is good. I would characterize my life as a happy one in the overall balance and as being filled with many moments of joy – enough that I feel my sorrow is balanced out……. And I have great love in my heart and wonderful people to love. In the end who could really ask for more?
1. Lyrics from “In My Life,” composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, performed by The Beatles.