A Long Time Coming

6 Comments

I have started to type this blog several times over the past few months.  I have started it and erased it several time.  I always have trepidations about writing a blog.  I like to write freestyle and my grammar and punctuation suffer for it.  It is also intimidating and all such a wonderful blogger such as Casey Coombs with from babble.com.  She always writes such a wonderful literature that is disguising itself as a blog post. For similar reasons, Lotus Carroll makesme nervous posting photographs. Her works is transcendent and moving where mine shows a cat or cloud.  To be honest, Casey is the reason I am finally writing this post.

It all started as a simple demand after I posted about my sister on the anniversary of her death back in February – “Thank you. Tell me about the little girl, she’s lovely.” Which was immediately followed by “If you want, sorry. That was pushy.” So what follows is the post I began typing after our conversation.

 

I asked, well told, to share something today. It was something that I shove to the back of my mind on a regular basis. It is something that truly forms the basis of the person that I am today. For better or worse, my faith, my desire to live and my conscious are tied up in a single event and all that followed in the year after it.

I have seen grief in my life – in myself and in others. I have a maternal grandmother that I never met due to cancer. A grandfather I do not remember. An aunt and a grandmother who were there when that grandfather died of a heart attack and weren’t allowed to go to his body in the field fire he was tending. That same aunt lost a life partner to throat cancer. An aunt who miscarried in her own home bathroom when she wasn’t far enough along to know she was pregnant. Three cousins who lost a mother to kidney disease after she had defeated it years before and gone on to get her GED and teach math to other people seeking theirs.

I have three wonderful friends that have lost their mother to cancer and will be spending Mother’s Day spreading her ashes – the ones not in necklaces around their necks. I have internet friends that only saw their daughter’s face in a 3D ultrasound. Others that never got to see that much. Friends who have went through shots and in vitro fertilization unsuccessfully. I have friends that lost their parents to dementia long before they lost them to death. Not every death is the end of a well-lived life.

I have watched children mourn the death of absentee parents. Seen children wax poetic about the laurels of father’s that were never supportive. We never want to speak ill of the dead. Some people even find praise for Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein in the way their dictatorial, murderous ways kept order in their countries. Death and illness, who’s here and who’s not, how we live with this hanging over us. These are the conversations we never want to have. One of the many ways I’ve been a smug idiot in my life was by disparaging the use of euphemisms for death and dying. I thought it was weak. Who would do that? Now I have been rendered barely able to utter the words “death” or “dying” for several years like the thing itself was powerless if I didn’t invoke it. But it wields power whether spoken or not.

By not speaking of my sister’s death, I have not removed the sting of it. By not telling the tale of her final journey I have done a disservice to her wonderful spirit and being. Casey’s simple demand was a much needed prompt.

My sister. Was your basic ginger. Feisty, fun and full of energy. She was dad’s shadow. Our pastor noted that she was just laying down and not running one day. Offhand he said she must not feel good. A week later, after an incident where he vomited all over the floor at school, she went to the pediatrician. He told mom and dad to take her straight to Kosair’s Children’s Hospital in Louisville: a room will be waiting. No hoops, paperwork or anything. They were expected. Her biggest concern was that the principal and teacher would be upset that she threw up.

She had leukemia. “The good kind” if you were going to have it the doctors said. She was outfitted with a port and was fed through it and took her medicine through it. They were able to draw blood through it to keep from sticking her. The local hospital couldn’t use it. So she got stuck here to do blood counts. Finally one of the lab techs from here took his own time to go and learn how to use the port. Angela had that effect on people.

Her muscles atrophied and she went blind in her right eye. The other eye wouldn’t’ open. There was a teacher at the hospital that came with homework for her. When her eyes were so bad and she was drawn up, he came to visit one day and was about to leave. Angela said “aren’t we going to do math today” He said I didn’t bring anything i didn’t think you would be able to do it. She had a dry erase board to write on. He wrote problems and she would raise her eyelid with her withered hand and do them.

Wish upon a Star sent us to Disney. I was technically too old to go so she told them she didn’t want to go if we all didn’t go. They made a way for me to go. We were granted access to all the corporate lounge areas, sent to the front of all the lines and treated like royalty. Regardless of what people might say about my friend Casey’s favorite place in the world. They know how to make terminal children feel like the special people they are.

There are so many stages to a long decline, dips and resurgences and good days. And you know, you know it’s all the same thing. It’s all dying. Dad and Angela had a running joke about looking for “ralph” after her chemo treatments. She had several spinal taps. One day when she was under the covers presumably asleep, the doctor came in and told mom she needed to have another but he wanted to wait to tell my sister and not freak her out. She threw the covers back and said you are already blowing my mind.

Mom said one day she complained of a headache and my sister said some days you hurt like hell and you just deal with it. This was a 9 year old. Mom and dad are the type of people that have never cussed. If mom told us to pick the crap up in our rooms we were afraid she had gone postal.

“Grief is one thing. But watching somebody die is a whole other thing. You know, not everybody can sit beside a dying person and hold their hand. I think sometimes it’s too much. Nobody wants their loved ones to be alone. I get that. But you could wait here for days and days, and when you go to take that one shower is when the person might die.” – Pattie Burnham, inpatient hospice RN on This American Life episode 523: Death and Taxes. But there’s a huge difference between dying and the very last part of dying, what Pattie and the other nurses call actively dying, a process that can take hours or even days. But it’s different from what comes before. And being familiar with one doesn’t mean you’ll recognize the other.

A friend of my mother’s came to my work and told me we needed to go to Louisville. I was going to tell the manager, a man named Roger Davis, and he met me and said, “Go. It is taken care of.”

We went to the hospital and my sister was breathing laboriously. After a few hours, her breathing calmed and I went to the Ronald McDonald House to sleep. (Again, I can’t say much good about the health quality of their food, but God bless the people who clog their arteries and allow Ronald to give a place to families of ill children). Four or five in the morning, the phone rang my mom’s friend said get ready that she would be right there to get us.

When we arrived my sister was breathing in raspy fits. “There’s a huge difference between dying and the very last part of dying, what Pattie and the other nurses call actively dying, a process that can take hours or even days. But it’s different from what comes before. And being familiar with one doesn’t mean you’ll recognize the other.” (American Life). As the bedside monitor’s beeps slowed, the nurse unplugged it. There was no need for it at this point. No need for mom and dad to hear its long drone announcing that her heart was beating no more.

My faith told me that I could grab God by the collar and tell him what he was going to do. So I held my sister with a prayer on my lips and continued to hold her as she turned cold and my faith left me as her soul left her mortal shell. I am perhaps like Bill Nye: and agnostic. Simply for lack of being 100 percent able to disprove the existence of God. I hold on to a thread of faith through science and its patterns and order. Every circle has a circumference that is 3.14159265358979323846 times its diameter. And its area is 3.14159265358979323846 times its radius squared. The earth fits in its orbit never popping out of the sun’s gravity well to float into space or crash into the sun. So please forgive me if I tell you that I am sending a hug and positive thoughts and energy instead of a hug and a prayer.

 

 

Angela Gayle Williamson passed about a year to the day after the diagnosis. The nursing staff from the oncology floor at Kosair’s came to the funeral. They had become friends with mom and dad, talking baseball cards with dad and watching mom’s progress on her needlepoint portraits. My brother’s ROTC class came from High School. Hell my brother was a junior and I had already graduated and the whole junior class was there along with principals and teachers. We had a standing room only funeral for a nine year old in a church that holds 250 in seats. She went to school as long as shge was able. Her classmates saw her bald and emaciated. When I go somewhere that I have to give my name, people still say I was in school with your sister. I remember her.

My sister put herself through college as a single working teen mom and is an Oncology nurse. She works geriatrics.. She said peds was too close to home. My cousin is a pediatrician: she was nine when my sister died. That cousin’s oldest sister’s first girl is named Angela. A month does not pass that I do not have a conversation with someone that knew my sister or went to school with her. Without fail they say I remember her and how that experience affected me.

I know others have similar tales to tell of their loved ones. I have spoken at and presided over the funerals of people that have made impressions on me and inspired me. But I can honestly say that laying on a hospital bed in Louisville, KY feeling my sister turn cold in my arms has had the greatest effect on me. An effect no amount of tequila, survivor’s groups or therapy has diminished.

I am 45. Single. No children. No chance that I have any that I don’t know of. My biography line on social media will always read that way. I have met people that have moved me. A young waitress at Chi-Chi’s before my sister’s death, a young lady I said hi to in a Burger King by chance and a fellow photographer that has heard more of the above than any other human and has heard and endured me through so much ignorance and angry lashing out on my part. She in many ways has saved my life.

My niece has also saved my life. Literally in ways. She took walks and pictures with me. Our first trip back to Disney was with her. She gave my dad a replacement for his shadow. And although she is blonde, she is every bit the angry redhead (said respectfully) that my sister was.

My friend Casey probably wishes that she had told me to share with her. Like I said to her though. Not pushy at all. Thanks for asking. Been a very cathartic experience and may have inspired a blog post… even if it was three months later.

And as I told her. I needed a good cry.

Games

Leave a comment

You ever watch people play those games where you grab a stuffed animal out of the plastic bin with a mechanical grabber. What about the game where you drop your quarter in and hope slider will make the other quarters drop off. You watch these people drop quarter after quarter in there. They will run and get more money to drop in the machine. “I almost had it that time!” “Just one more quarter will make them all fall.” I worry about those people.

They have began to worship that little stuffed animal or stack of quarters. No. Think about it. They have spend all there money to get a three dollar fuzzy bunny. That is worship. They have set aside all else for the pursuit of that goal. That stuff people do in church on Sunday mornings isn’t worship. It is singing. Worship involves a total pursuit of an object with all your hearts, minds and soul.  That girl in high school, that new car (or that old restored car), or that new house.

You know the old saying that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. We can began to worship that other yard. We forget the family and friends that we have. We can leave a job that we have prospered in and go full- hearted after that new and better thing.

The sad thing is that which you worship will rule you. That fuzzy rabbit can own you. That different woman can own you. That better job can own you. People give themselves a sense of strength and pride when they pursue these things. I am driven and pursuing something better for myself. I am growing, I am progressing. No. You are following like a mindless fool blown by the winds of fate and whim.

We paly games with ourselves and the real losers are all to often those around us. We need to worship those close to us. Those that nurture us. Those that stand there and finally say, “NO! You cant have another dollar. Stop playing the game and let’s go”

Perceptions

Leave a comment

A few days ago we had a few flakes of snow fall in our local area. I posted on Facebook that we all needed to run to Kroger’s an buy our five gallons of milk and three loaves of bread.That is a phenomenon that I will never understand. Anytime there is the slightest risk of snow people go to the grocery. One of my contacts posted “I used to laugh at people who went to the store because of snow. Then I experienced the blizzard last year when the boys were stuck home for two weeks and we couldn’t get to the store. i was pretty sure my children were going to turn into cannibals. Now I watch for snow in the forecast and run to the store.”

So okay. I admit there is a reason to be prepared for bad weather. People should go to the store if it is going to be bad for a few days. Now this would make sense to me if they were buying bottled water and canned goods and pantry staples. I am mocking the folks that buy milk and bread. I mean they are getting skim milk even. It needs to be full 4% milk fat to sustain you, people.

So the whole above thought process got me thinking of how people look at various situations in different manners. What to some people is a pleasant chance to sit at home with the kids or snuggle up in front of the fireplace with a friend can be seen as a dangerous risk to others. You know things like starting a family. can be the same. There are some people who see it as a chance to have a spouse and kids. Others see it as a chance to give up hope of achieving anything other than being a parent. But I digress.

It is very easy to see that two different people can witness the same events and have two different  versions of what occurred. Doubts and questions of “expert pressure” are not exclusive to America. That leads me to the true point of this blog post. Why do we continue to exact the ultimate punishment on people convicted of heinous crimes? Especially when that conviction is based on nothing more than eyewitness evidence. I am not defending people who are rightfully convicted of such crimes as child molestation or elder abuse or rape and murder. I know it is hard to not want to exact vengeance on these people. I will admit that part of me thinks we should bury them under the jail. The hardest thing about making prison visits is dealing with those emotions. I can sit with someone who has abandoned his family and neglected to support them. I can deal with an addict who has ruined the lives of friends and family. But those persons that have taken a human life or stolen the innocence of a child are difficult to sit across the table from and counsel. A large majority of them proclaim innocence and recently I am beginning to wonder how many are telling the truth.

We have come to trust Medical Examiners and coroners to give us the facts. Many of these people aren’t even doctors. This can create some extreme circumstances. There doesn’t seem to be sufficient oversight either. While some cases receive national attention, others fall through the cracks. Too many to list them all here. While in most cases of life, errors and mistakes can be overlooked, this is a place where it cannot. Even one mistake is too many when exacting the ultimate price. Despite great philosophical differences, supporters and opponents of the death penalty agree on one basic fact: the government should never put an innocent person to death.

While prosecutors complain of the CSI Effect and when juries rely too much on forensics there are going to be mistakes. In 2011, The Innocence Network exonerated 21 persons; in 2010, 29. When you look at those numbers compared to the number of 1,605,127 prisoners that state and federal correction facilities had jurisdiction over in 2010. But to the families of the wrongly convicted, one is too many. To society and the families of the victims, it should be too. Justice is not justice if it does not exact its penalties on the guilty and not the innocent.

What closure comes to a family at the execution or conviction of a person when it is later revealed that the conviction was in error. Are old wounds reopened? What happens to the state of normality that has returned to their life? Deeper, what happens to the sense of accomplishment of society in deterring crime and bringing justice? Much has ben said about the effects of wealth  on representation and I won’t, as a white male, attempt to explain the feelings of Blacks or Hispanics have towards the legal system. But when there are such biases possible and appellate courts fail to remedy wrongful convictions , how can we trust twelve jurors or one judge to hold the power of life or death over another human being?