Tears From Cold Water

August 1, 2000.  That was the day my half-brother died.  I’d never met him, but since I’d learned about him in 1982, his 5th grade photo always had a prominent place  on my dresser (along with that of his younger brother, a half-brother I have met, though we don’t ‘do fractions’ very well… he’s my brother, and I’m “Hey, Sis.”).  Those photos are  still there. I remember looking at my e-mail at work for the last time  that day, and seeing the message from my cousin. (I didn’t have a computer at home).  She let me know that he was gone, and what we knew of the details at that time.  He’d drowned.  He was  a competitive swimmer as a child, and I couldn’t make sense of it.  I cried.  I went  up to the front office where the accounts person was still working.  I told her what I’d found out, and just sat there, numb, for a few minutes.  I stayed numb about much of his death for years.

My thoughts  immediately went to my birthmother.  She’d been through a lot in her life, and then her eldest son was gone.  I wanted to write to her, but I didn’t want to seem like I was being opportunistic in getting in contact with her during an unimaginably painful time.  I wanted her to know how much I was thinking about her, and that I wished I could do something.  What, I’m wasn’t sure.  But, I was horrified that she was having to go through the death of a child.  He was closing in on 30 years old, but as a nurse, I’d seen many parents face the deaths of their much-older children, and it was always a kind of grief that is unmatched.  But during that time, my bio-mom and I weren’t in contact.   I heard about her through other biological relatives, but it was a complicated situation.

Then I thought about the ‘what ifs’.  What if my bio-mom and I got back in contact, and the chance came about that I might meet my half-brothers?  I’d never know that with A.  What if I ended up with a relationship with my half-brothers, whatever it might be?   I’d never have that with A.  Had he known about me?  I later found out that he had.  But at the time of his death, all I knew was that possibility was gone in ever knowing A, face to face.  My hopes of some sort of  contact died that day.  It’s not a tangible loss.  It’s the loss of a dream.

In 2010, I ended up with leukemia.  I was expected to do well, but in case things ended poorly, I wanted to let my bio-mom know what was going on, and not just find out I’d died, if that should happen.  We hadn’t been on ‘bad terms’ by any means, it was just very complicated, and time was needed since our first contact by mail in 1982.  She did want to reconnect in 2010 and had been trying to find me (my name is pretty nondescript, and I’d moved from the last place she knew I’d been), and we’ve had an incredible relationship since then.

While I still have trouble talking about him, she told me what happened to A.  It was an incredibly hot day, and he’d gone out to the river to swim.  What he didn’t know was that the dam upstream had been released the day before, and much colder water than usual was flowing down the river.  When his body hit the water, that was so much colder than his core temperature, his heart just stopped.  Done.  Over. A life ended.  From cold water on a hot day.  He’d been used to going to the river.  He knew about water safety, and was an incredibly strong swimmer.  None of that mattered.

In some ways, that helped in easing some of the horrible images I had in my head of his last moments.  It’s unlikely he struggled, or couldn’t get his breath. He didn’t fight underwater.  He hadn’t suffered.  He may have felt an odd chest sensation for a few moments, not really long enough to register anything, but then…nothing.   That has been somewhat  comforting, to know that he wouldn’t have felt pain or the panic of final minutes.

But I still cry.  I have some CDs of his music sessions with friends, and it’s very hard to listen to them.  I’ve managed to at least hear his voice on a few songs, and I’m so thankful I have those CDs.  I’m sure I’ll get to the point that I can listen to them. But now, I still just cry when I think about the day I got that e-mail.   I can talk to my birth mom and brother about A.  I love hearing about when my two brothers were kids.  I have a bunch of photos of all of them, which are treasures, and I’ve got some of my bio-mom, brother, and myself together, which I’m also so thankful to have.  I think the three of us ‘kids’ could have been a nightmare together, in a good way 😉

When I see stories about drownings, I always think about A.  When I see those looney ‘polar bear’ ice water swims in the winter, or jumps into ice water after saunas,  I cringe.  When I think about how easy it is for life to be done, I am thankful for the days I have, and wish with indescribable intensity that A had had ‘his share’ of time on earth.  It took me about 12 years to be able to wash my face in the shower. I didn’t want to have to hold my breath in water when I thought my brother had drowned.  (I finally got the bright idea to look down when I rinse my face, so there was no need to hold my breath… :/ ).   Even though I never knew A personally, he was a part of my life for the 18 years prior to his death, in the form of ‘what ifs’, trying to guess what he looked like ,  and those precious photos on my dresser.   Now, I do have contact with my bio-mom and brother, and I’m  so incredibly thankful for the relationships with them. They really are special parts of my life, and knowing them has helped me know myself better.   I still think about A, though.

He’ll always be part of my life.

My Friend Gretchen

I moved back to my hometown in late 2002, and left my friends of 17 years back in Texas. I got a nursing (RN) job fairly quickly, but then the dysautonomia and seizures made it impossible for me to continue working, even after finding a ‘desk job’ as an RN. I passed out too often to be employable. SO, I was at home. People here don’t keep in touch with ‘throw away’ co-workers, so I didn’t really have friends. There was nobody to list on any ‘who to call’ paperwork, except for my dad. So I was at home pretty much all the time. I had some really nice neighbors. ‘L’ lived directly across the parking lot from me, and Gretchen, and her daughther ‘E’ lived upstairs from ‘L’.  I became friends with ‘L’ first- mostly since I saw her the most, though I saw Gretchen periodically, and ‘E’ when she was home from college.  ‘L’ eventually moved to a condo, and Gretchen moved ‘L”s apartment downstairs.

For a while, we saw each other in the parking lot, and also got used to each other’s routines. She knew when my vertical blinds had been closed too much, and I knew when she was grading papers at her dining room table. I later found out that when she thought I hadn’t been seen for ‘too long’ she’d call the apartment complex office to see if they’d heard anything- to be sure I was OK.  I spent a lot of time in the hospital for sometimes weeks at a time- so she’d check up on me. She’d see my dad checking in on my dog (Mandy), and since they knew someone in common, they’d chat.  Gretchen taught 4th grade for many years in a neighboring school district.  Eventually, we talked more. I’d see when her grandson (first grandchild) was brought to see her when he was tiny, and other times when her daughters (‘A’ – the baby’s mom, and ‘E’, the college student) visited.  Being on disability, and home the vast majority of the time, afforded me a lot of time to see who was coming and going.  We always talked when we saw each other, but it was more ‘parking lot neighbors’ kind of stuff.

I forget which one of us had a knee replacement first, but that gave us something in common. We’d commiserate over the rehab process.  Then Gretchen started having other health issues, and also had to go on disability.  I understood what it was like to have a profession taken awayIt’s not the same as retiring. It’s being robbed of something that is truly loved, and having no way to get it back. It hurts.  I ‘got it’.  We started talking more, and becoming actual friends. If she needed me to go get her car when she’d have to go to the hospital, I was glad to help out.   I don’t consider a friend someone who is paid to be in the same place at the same time (that’s a co-worker- and friendly co-workers are incredibly important, and can become friends). Someone who is paid to provide a service isn’t a friend- though they can be friendly. To me, a friend is someone who shares common interests and is loyal and fun to be around.  Gretchen was a friend.

She decided to move closer to ‘A’ and her son-in-law  in another state, which was really hard, but I was also happy for her. She had a grandson she adored, and a granddaughter on the way. She was so excited.  ‘E’ was doing well in school, and she was so proud of her.  And we still had my unlimited phone plan (I had a landline; she had her cell phone), so keeping in touch wasn’t a problem. It would be different, though.  I could call Gretchen when she lived across the parking lot and ask if she’d eaten yet… her reply was “I’ll get the car.”  And off we’d go in literally less than five minutes.  She’d show me her latest treasures from the Target discount racks, and be so excited. I think she went to Target at least 3-4 times a week; sometimes I’d tag along.  I haven’t been able to go there since she’s been gone…  She called me when she couldn’t get her quilts in a ‘Space Bag’, and we’d fold and shove and vacuum until the thing worked.

Gretchen had had another knee replacement and began having complications. She had fallen, and also had some tendons fall apart and an infection.  She had several more surgeries, and we’d talk daily about something, either in the hospital or in one of the rehab centers (she knew I’d worked in rehab and nursing homes as an RN, so I knew what was acceptable care), as well as during TV shows we both liked.  It was a rough time for her.  She did come back to this town for a month not long after her granddaughter was born, and ‘A’ and her family had taken a trip.  We did a lot of thrift store shopping for the grandkids (we packed the Jeep absolutely full), and had fun just goofing off together.  She had an infection brewing in her leg, and we’d gone to Walgreens…both of us had forgotten our glasses. Fortunately, she could see close up, and I could see distances, so between the two of us, we got some panty liners to put on her leg to sop up the drainage from her leg. It was a bit unconventional, but it worked.  We just laughed about our combined visual deficiencies, and how we made it work 🙂 We always found something to laugh about !

After she had the last surgery, she was in a long-leg cast, but Gretchen wasn’t one to sit around.  She wanted to be mobile ASAP, and didn’t let a wheelchair or cast keep her from moving herself from chair to bed, or wherever she needed to go (like in front of her computer to order stuff for the grandkids and her daughters).   She’d been through a lot after the last knee replacement, and it seemed like things were going well.  She was going to be by herself one weekend morning, and she’d asked me to call her just to see if she was OK- and I had no problem with that; we talked all the time anyway (or she’d e-mail me; I just found a few of her old e-mails that had been saved the other day… kinda freaked me out). 

I called as planned, and got no answer. I knew something was going on- ‘A’s home phone had multiple lines; even if someone was on one line, another would be open. And, they weren’t supposed to be there. Gretchen was supposed to be home alone. Something was wrong.  I tried several more times, and was trying to figure out what to do if I couldn’t get ahold of her.  And then ‘A’ called me. I knew before she told me.  Gretchen had died.  They’d found her on the floor that morning.  Whatever happened had been fast.  She had some other medical issues, so there were very plausible reasons for a sudden death… and it was sudden and unexpected.  It was later found that she’d been on the computer as late as 1:00 a.m. that morning; she was found before 8:00 a.m., or so.  I was stunned.  My friend was gone. My friend’s daughters, son-in-law (who she also adored), and grandkids had lost an amazing part of their family.

Since then,  twin granddaughters were born less than 2 years after Gretchen died. She would have been so excited and  having so much  fun with all four of those beautiful kids.  I keep in touch with ‘A’, and her husband, and ‘E’, which has been great.  I see the updated photos on FaceBook.  I know Gretchen would be so proud of all of them.  Her heart was so big, and she loved them all so much.

I don’t think Gretchen ever met a stranger, she was just one of those people who was kind and really cared about people. She got a bunch of kids’ hats, mittens, and socks when we’d go thrift store shopping for kids in her class who didn’t have much.  She thought about what other people were going through when she had a lot of her own stuff going on. But her family made her light up more than anything.  I was so angry that she was missing out on them… on those incredible grandkids growing up, on ‘E”s life after college and grad school (and that she’s working for Target !!), the twins (that she never knew about), and so many of her friends and her former students.

But I got to know Gretchen for a few years.  Very few people have been in my life for such a relatively short period of time and left such an impression.  She was a real friend. I’m lucky to have known her. ❤

The Why of Loss

I remember when a dear friend of mine died unexpectedly a few years ago, I couldn’t get past the question ‘why?’.  She had been through several complications and surgeries from a knee replacement, coupled with her longterm steroid use for rheumatoid arthritis.  Her muscles, tendons, and tissues were weakened by those steroids that she had to have in order to treat the arthritis.  When she was found dead one morning on her daughter and son-in-law’s floor, I couldn’t comprehend it. I had talked to her the night before, and she sounded great!

I had talked to her nearly daily since she’d moved in with them in another state, to be closer to her grandkids (she was so excited!). I had talked to her daily from each of the rehab facilities she had been in following the various surgeries.  She wanted a nurse’s input regarding some of what was going on, or for me to explain how things work in nursing and rehab facilities (one of which was a kinda creepy). She had done well during the various phases of her surgeries for the knee issues, until another complication set in. When I talked to her the night before she died, she asked me to call her the morning, as she’d be at home alone. She was perfectly safe doing that even with her cast. She was someone who just got it done. But she said she’d feel better if she knew someone was going to check on her- so I told her “no problem”.

When I called several times that next morning, and got a busy signal, I knew something was wrong. The house phone had more than one line. One line should be open.  A few hours later, her daughter called and confirmed what I already knew in my gut. She was gone.  It had apparently been very sudden, as she was next to the bed.  I couldn’t grasp it.  It still bugs me sometimes, but I understand that she didn’t suffer.  She’d been through so much.  At least the end wasn’t painful, like the years of rheumatoid arthritis had been.  I still miss her like crazy; we’d been neighbors, and while we hadn’t known each other for that many years, we had near daily contact during the last eighteen months or so.

When my mom got sick during her winter with my dad in Arizona, I was livid at the treatment she got (or didn’t get). The emergency room in Sun City West had blown her off. She had been brought in by ambulance, unconscious after a seizure- and they couldn’t get blood samples to find out if she had some sort of systemic infection (sepsis)- but they got an IV in. Most competent ERs get the blood from the IV site before they hook it up to fluids (if fluids are started- which they were). They got a urine specimen, that showed a bad urinary tract infection, which along with the altered level of consciousness should have screamed urosepsis (when the bladder infection gets so bad it gets into the bloodstream) and the need for admission to ICU for IV antibiotics.  That is SO basic, and yet it was ignored. She was sent home with my dad on antibiotic pills.  She was semi-conscious and they sent her home on pills (the home they were renting).  It took three people to get her into the car on the hospital end- they didn’t care how she got out of the car at home….with my 71 year old father as her only caretaker.  He found some friends to help, but he shouldn’t have been in that position. Period.

My take on the whole Arizona ER situation is that they saw my mom as some disposable dementia patient who had a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ request IF she was to the point of needing resuscitation. But her heart hadn’t stopped. She had a treatable problem.  She had been with my dad to an art museum the day before. She still enjoyed things, even if just for the moment- but in the eyes of those medical ‘professionals’ the hospital people, she wasn’t worth the time. The hospital had been full; several people were waiting in the ER for a room. But the greater Phoenix area has many, many hospitals. A competent ER doctor would have sent her to another hospital, and that would have been appropriate. Instead, my dad had to make arrangements to fly her back to Chicago  after a few days of those antibiotic pills (crushed in applesauce) to make her just well enough to fly. When I went to help get her off of the airplane, the flight attendant told me that dad had to hold mom’s head up for most of the flight back. He’d left his car in the parking lot of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, and flew with what he had on his back. The original plan was for me to pick her up with a family friend on this end of things, and dad drive the three days back. But the airlines wisely required that dad fly with her.

It’s a good thing that dad was with her, since he never would have made it back from Phoenix before she died. She was admitted to the hospital as soon as we got into town from O’Hare (airport near Chicago- for those outside of the US), and was dead within 48 hours.  Gone. I’ll never know if she would have had a chance IF the hospital in Arizona had done the right thing.  They took that away from us.  But, she also didn’t end up getting even more demented and lying in a nursing home, not knowing anybody.  I’d moved back from Texas just 3 1/2 months earlier to make sure she stayed out of a nursing home as long as it was physically possible for me to help dad keep her at home… and then she was dead.

I think about a 90+ year old lady who had been admitted to a nursing home I had just started working at in Texas. She had developed  kidney failure after a severe bleed in her gastrointestinal (gut) tract. The blood loss was so bad that her kidneys didn’t get enough blood to keep them functioning. The family decided that she was not going to get dialysis- the only thing that would keep her alive. She was admitted to the nursing home not knowing her own name or why she was there. This was a lady who had been living on her own, in her own house, doing her own yard work, etc.

Her life had changed in one single day. The aftereffects of that day lasted the rest of her 34 days. She got to the nursing home 17 days after the bleeding started. She left the nursing home a couple of weeks after that, following continued deterioration, and readmission to the hospital (and a physician who didn’t return calls to nursing homes; he was a problem).  Without dialysis, her body couldn’t even get stable. Her legs leaked fluid from the loss of proteins in her system, causing pools on the floor under her wheelchair, for the brief periods of time she tolerated being up. And her skin became fragile, and ‘broken’. The really sad part of that lady’s story is that her family decided that they’d like to profit from her death, and held the nursing home (four of us who worked there) responsible- even though they were the ones who refused the dialysis (and I understand why they made that decision- it would have been a miserable existence for someone who didn’t understand why it was happening- and getting a shunt into her blood vessels would have been a nightmare of torn vessels from the low protein levels). The doctor was never named in the lawsuit; he also didn’t help our defense attorney (provided by the corporation that owned the nursing home).

I was one of the people sued for wrongful death. To a nurse, that’s like saying I killed her. The lawyers had absolutely NO interest in the truth, or even the entire story- they just wanted some way to make money. Period. I felt like I was being accused of murder. I took care of that woman the best way I could; she was dying when she got there.  There was division  in the family about whether or not to sue- and nobody ever visited or called when I was on duty during the day, so I never even met the person who initiated the lawsuit.  What that lawsuit did was erase most of what made that woman who she was– an independent elderly woman who was amazingly strong and intelligent, and reduced her to a lawsuit.  The lawyers eventually settled, which angered me. I was ready to go to court. After a grueling seven (7) hour deposition, I wanted to see it through. But lawsuits don’t work that way- they just destroy people on one side, and issue a paycheck to someone on the other side (and their lawyers).  When there is some evidence of absolute negligence or malpractice, that’s one thing. When someone dies because their body breaks down, and someone wants to blame someone for it, that’s something else. 😦

Lousy things happen. Sometimes, there is some nice explanation, and it’s somewhat expected, even though it still leaves a sense of shock and deep, deep loss.  With each of the three examples above, I have to look at one thing: at least it wasn’t worse.  My friend could have ended up in a nursing home for life dependent on people to help her with basic mobility, her mind intact- that would have crushed her independent spirit.  My mom could have also ended up in a nursing home, oblivious to anybody or anything around her for years– at least she still recognized people up until 36 hours before she died. And dad and I were both with her- he wasn’t on the road, and I wasn’t stuck here waiting for both of  them to be able to get here, unable to have those last days with her.  With the lady in the nursing home, well, her situation was pretty bad all the way around. And it was made worse by the displaced grief and anger of at least one family member,  and questionable intra-family dynamics. She will always be associated with ‘the lawsuit’– not a sweet lady who had been changed by tragic and unpredictable physical disease.

I can’t pretend to understand why God allows some things to happen. I can understand why things fall apart from a medical standpoint. When one thing is going on, it’s usually pretty straightforward. When there are complications and coexisting problems, that makes it easier to understand in my head, though my heart has trouble catching up. I do know that in God’s timing and purpose, all things work together for good.  That doesn’t take the pain away, but it does help me realize that there is a much bigger frame of reference for things than my human brain can comprehend.  God has it under control- and He’s with me when I do or don’t understand why some things happen.  Sometimes it’s just so hard not to want to be able to make sense of it all….and some things just don’t make sense.  Except to God.