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CRISIS

My mémère died at home in her bed surrounded by many of the people who loved her, early in the evening of my thirty-fourth birthday.

She was my mother’s mother, a fiercely independent French Canadian woman with twelve siblings, which must be why she related to her twelve grandchildren so well because we all had a very close, loving relationship with her.

My mémère was the epitome of health her whole life, devoted to taking her multiple daily vitamins, and even more devoted to caring for her family. But in the years before her death, she suffered from heart problems that almost took her life, before cancer eventually would.

I wasn’t there when she died. I had just returned home after begrudgingly allowing my husband to take me out for dinner since our kids would be spending the night with their cousins. I regret that. I don’t know why, but I just wasn’t expecting her to die on my birthday. I was under the naive impression that the universe could not possibly be that cruel, but I should have known better. I had been taught that lesson before. I knew her death was drawing nearer every day, she was being cared for by angels disguised as hospice nurses and could no longer speak. But when I left her that night, I really didn’t think that would be my last goodbye.

Just two months before, my husband and kids and I had said goodbye to our dog of more than fourteen years. She was our baby before we had babies and it was excruciating to watch him break down after lowering her into her grave while trying to console our heartbroken children who were eight and ten and experiencing death for the first time.

I suppose in some ways having our dog die first, made us all better prepared in a sense for when my mémère passed two short months later. We had just gone through an intensely difficult time, so when we were thrown back into the deep end, we were at least a little more apt at keeping our heads above the water. But nothing prepared me to have another dog die just two months after her.

Our first dog was euthanized to end her suffering, but this dog died in my arms.

Her health began deteriorating almost immediately after our first dog died, so we knew the day was fast approaching for us to make that gut wrenching decision again of when to responsibly end her suffering. She was twelve and already had quite a difficult time of it getting around. But in the end, it happened so fast, too fast for me to get her to the vets in time.

I was alone and unlike both the peaceful, painless deaths I had just experienced, her death was gruesome and violent. Just when I believed it to finally be over, and had allowed our third and only remaining dog into the room to be near her, her lifeless body began jerking one last time, and I thought I would lose my mind.

After that, she was gone. After that, I grabbed our German Shepard’s face and began howling in pain. It was guttural. It was explosive. It didn’t frighten him, but it frightened me. All the pain I had tried to bury during the previous four months, rose to the surface and I erupted.

First one dog, then my beloved grandmother, then another dog. It was a dark, difficult time and with two heartbroken young kids who I felt helpless to console, I felt like I was entering crisis mode and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it.

“Crisis is unavoidable.” -David Whyte Consolations

Throughout my life death has been a frequent visitor on my doorstep, but only just softly knocking, only serving as an annoying, incessant reminder that I too have an expiration date. It was kind of a weird obsession with me. I found myself thinking about it a lot.

But thinking about it and experiencing it firsthand are two very different things.

Eventually, I would learn that those world-weary days were preparing me for more intense heartbreak to come. The next crisis would take ten years and forty-four days to arrive, but when it did, it kicked down my door and crushed me.

The call came late one otherwise ordinary Sunday night. My husband answered the phone from his side of the bed and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. We had both been asleep for only a short time, so it took a few moments for us to come to.

I remember instinctively knowing it was something bad. When he said to whoever was on the other end, “Hold on, here, you better talk to Amy,” I recoiled as if the receiver were a serpent about to strike.

My sister was on the other end. She wasn’t making any sense. She kept repeating the same thing over and over, my sister, Karen was gone. “We lost her,” she kept saying. “She’s gone, Amy. Karen is gone.”

I remember thinking, what the hell are you talking about, where has she gone, and if she’s lost why isn’t anyone trying to find her?

But in my heart, I knew what she was saying. That my sister, Karen, was dead.

She was pleading with me to go to the house to comfort her son and his new wife who were the ones to find her, as well as my parents who were already there.

“Mom and Dad need you,” she said. “Go now,” she said. It was the last thing I heard before throwing the phone across the room.

Bile rose in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. And I couldn’t scream because my children were sleeping and I knew if I started screaming I would never stop.

I also couldn’t drive, or more to the point my husband and daughter wouldn’t let me. I don’t remember if my daughter was already awake or if my husband woke her, but she was old enough to drive, and she insisted on taking me while my husband stayed home with my son.

My sister lived about fifteen minutes away. It was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. It was a struggle the entire way to resist telling my daughter to pull over; I was that sure I would vomit.

The first thing I saw when I rounded the last corner to her house was a cruiser, which had anything but a settling effect on me.

I didn’t want to get out of my truck. If I didn’t go in and see for myself, then none of it could possibly be true. Sensing this, my daughter took my hand then wrapped her arms around me giving me the strength I would need to walk through the door.

It is surreal to try and write about one of the most painful experiences I have ever had in my life. Even as I type this, five years since she passed, in many ways it still doesn’t feel real to me.

I can still feel each embrace from every single person in the room that night.

My sister had suffered from multiple sclerosis since her early thirties. She was forty-seven years old when she died from it, unexpectedly in her home.

She was a single mother to a single son who had come by with his new wife to show her pictures from their wedding, taken just four months before.

We both shook our heads in disbelief as I approached him, both of our faces disfigured in anguish and pain, tears coming too fast for any tissues to keep up. When we hugged he let go, and it felt like a privilege to support the weight of his grief. It is a moment in time that I will never forget.

I asked to see her. I needed to see her. I would not take no for an answer despite everyone in the room pleading with me not to.

I made it as far as the bottom of the stairs, but when I started up the first steps, I was stopped by a uniformed police officer blocking my way.

I could hear my family pleading with me from behind me, urging me to listen to this stranger who was now apparently the one in charge. I could feel my anger rising. He was treating my sister’s death like a crime scene, but I remained calm and tried to reason with him, making it clear I was unwilling to take no for an answer.

I was sharply rebuked and warned that if I tried to go into her bedroom, I would be arrested.

I could not see my mother standing behind me, but I heard her gasp. At that moment I knew I could not do this to her. I could not and would not inflict any more pain on anyone in the room, so I fled and left my daughter scrambling to catch up to me.

The rest of that night is a blur. The next several days were the hardest days my family has ever had to endure. We were a family in crisis. Sobbing uncontrollably one minute, laughing the next, waiting for another sister to fly in from out of town, greeting people no one wished to see but were grateful for their support once there.

Every moment of every day was gutwrenching. I feared we would not make it through her death and her burial and all remain in one piece.

“Every human life seems to be drawn eventually, as if by some unspoken parallel, some total flow or underground magnetic field, toward the raw, dynamic essentials of its existence, as if everything up to that point had been a preparation for a meeting, for a confrontation in an elemental form with our essential flaw, and with what an individual could until then, only receive stepped down, interpreted or diluted.” -David Whyte Consolations

We were confronted by life’s one true eventually, and we weren’t ready. Our essential flaw had been exposed, and we were raw. We were the walking wounded. And I questioned if we would ever heal.

 

PART I of III

NEXT WEEK: DENIAL

 

About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

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