Not so happy anniversary

One year ago today was the single most stressful day I've ever had.

The day after Boo's birthday, my uncle went in for an out-patient gallstone removal. By Wednesday he was in ICU with pancreatitis. By Friday he'd gone into cardiac arrest and didn't regain consciousness.

When the call came to meet the rest of the clan at the hospital on Saturday “to decide what to do about Al,” I knew the expected outcome from the very nature of the invitation. After all, no one has to ‘decide what to do’ about a loved one who can decide what to do for themselves, right?

The burden of deciding life and death for someone weighs heavier than anything I’d ever experienced. It would take much more than a single blog entry to explain the full spectrum of emotions and experiences of that day. So many things at play--doctors detached information, family dynamics, age and life experience vs. relative youth and (naive?) optimism...

For me though, the whole day hinged on the moment that afternoon that Al unexpectedly regained consciousness. I didn't understand why the "elders" of the group didn't go to see him when we received word. Finally my sister and I went upstairs, in essence to say our goodbyes.

She and I stood on different sides of the bed and he looked back and forth to us as we each talked. He responded to our conversation by raising his eyebrows and making facial gestures. It was clear he wanted to speak, but with the tubes in his mouth, it was basically taped shut. I placed my hand on his right shoulder; the only spot that seemed to be free of tubes and monitors. I don’t know if he felt it too, but I had an overwhelming need to be tangibly connected to him at that moment. I hoped my touch would be comforting.

My sister did a better job with the conversation than I did. “Are you in pain?” she asked. He replied with closed eyes and a slight shake of his head. “Has the doctor been in to tell you what’s happening?” A look of bewilderment mingled with a tinge of panic accompanied another shake of his head. A lot of the conversation isn’t clear in my memory—it was hazy even at that moment as I tried to process how to look my dear uncle in the eyes knowing he was about to be disconnected from us in the most permanent possible way and no one had explained it to him.

Even so, several moments of our time with him are etched into my mind with laser-clarity. Almost as an afterthought I remembered to tell him, “Thank you for sending the gift card for Boo's birthday. It was really thoughtful of you.” If I had any doubt that he was fully conscious and fully comprehending what we were saying, it was completely erased when he raised his hand from laying on the bed and moved it to his heart as if to say “I love Boo.” I nearly lost all composure. “We love you too.” I choked out, stroking his shoulder.

To make an intensely long story more blog-appropriate, I'll skip the details to say that we were finally able to convince my dad (as next of kin) to talk to my uncle himself. My dad explained what the doctor said about the pending need for dialysis as his kidneys were failing and the probable need for a long convalescence should he recover enough to leave the hospital at all.

At the end of all those details, my dad asked "Are you ready to go?" Al shook his head "no." "Do you want to continue to fight this?" He nodded his head yes. Despite the conversations they'd had in the past, when faced with the actual decision to choose between life and death--even with the uncertainty that life going forward could be like the life behind--my uncle chose life.

I experienced a palpable relief as I learned that the decision was made by the only one who really mattered in the equation. We got to spend some unburdened moments with him before we left the hospital that evening with a promise to return in the morning.

I was preparing to head to the hospital when I got the call that he passed that morning. While I was (and am) so sad that we never had that next visit, I was (and am) glad that he left this world on his terms, not anyone else's. When a person knows the Lord these goodbyes are sad but not without hope. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with my uncle; I think that's why the events of the day were so weighty.

I learned some things from that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that have changed me forever. I learned that the will to live is far stronger than we recognize. I learned that decisions we make when we are healthy may not be how we feel when we are not healthy. And maybe most significantly, I learned that "quality of life" means something entirely different when it's your own life that's in question.

Thinking of you, Uncle Al. You are missed.

1 comment:

elaine @ peace for the journey said...

I will revisit tomorrow, but wanted to respond before heading off to bed. What a mixed bag of everything this must be for you! It's good and right and healthy to reflect when death visits our lives. Just tonight, I was thinking about my friend Marilyn who died in February from breast cancer. Unlike your uncle, she was ready to go. I was with her the day she died.

How thankful I am for the eternal perspective that links my now and my next. Without it, I am sure I would walk as hopeless and with little regard for tomorrow.

Thinking of you tonight. And yes, I do hope our paths will weave somewhere down the road.


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