Bleeding Out on a Guatemalan Chicken Bus--part I
This post is one that I have tried to write since I came back from Central America a few weeks ago. But, plunked back here in jersey of america, after almost one month of wandering on mountains and beaches, and in jungles and caves, caused my brain more than a bit of disorientation. Focusing was difficult.
First thing back, all that I could see all over the news was this woman terri schiavo--terri who? terri what? Do you mean to tell me that American news has sunk this far down the ethical mountainside? Oh goddess, take me back to that gorgeous lake in Guatemala. Chicken buses and terri schiavo, in 2005, how do we measure the importance of life and of death? Who controls the yardstick?
How many people have died in a war that the righteous religious right supported? When these people were struck with the love of the lord, did it blind their minds also? When they were dunked and baptized, did the preacher clunk their heads on rocks in the river? How could they fight against her death, but not fight against the deaths caused by war? And, on another track, why does our culture think that any manner of life is better than death?
All of this controversy is because a husband wants his wife to die, in peace. She has lived a non-life for over fifteen years. Fifteen years. Fifteen years of fighting to have the person you once loved die in peace. Fifteen years of rolling over and over in your mind, the wedding pictures, the private pictures of memories only you two shared. Fifteen years of looking at atrophied legs. Legs that you once slid up against during the night, legs that you watched dance, watched walk in your kitchen, legs that straddled your lap, and walked on a beach with you. I don't know if I would have had her husband's fortitude during this long legal battle. I would have stupidly just pulled the plug, undone the feeding tube every night when I visited, something.
Dignity is important. Contribution is important.
February 2000 Charlie's heart stopped. Lucky, or, as he felt, unluckily for him, the ER staff jolted his old heart back to life with those paddles. For three weeks he tried to make his stop again, permanently. He kept pushing his 70+ year old arms above his heart. Causes severe stress on the heart when you do that, you know. He knew. Fear drove him. The fear of living the rest of his life as an invalid. He had already spent several years half blind, watching his strength, pride and autonomy seep away. No way he was going down as a vegetable.
Dignity counts. Contribution counts.
When you are born the oldest of six children of immigrants who depend on you for sustenance, when you marry at 19 and then support nine children and lots of grandchildren, you kind of define yourself in terms of need and strength. Others need you for your contributions, they depend on that strength. Take that away from a person and what do you have?
I also think that Charlie had an even deeper fear pushing him than that of spending his last days as a total invalid. He wanted to die first. I think that my father was putting off the grief that he knew would envelope him if his Mary, his 17 year old war bride, and wife of 55+ years, died first.
So, catherized, periodically receiving oxygen, he lay in the hospital bed at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, lifting those arms above his heart, or as high as he could get them. Soon, though, he was unable to do even that.
The green eyes turned and looked at me. Implored me. "Medbhie, pull the plug," the hoarse voice grunted. "Pull it, please." Only one other of my siblings was in the room, and he was asleep in one of those hard hospital room chairs.
Charlie meant it. He always meant what he said. I could have done it then, it was one of the few times that his hospital room wasn't crowded with a bunch of adult kids.
My mouth dropped, and I know that fear was all over my face. I didn't say, "No." But what registered on my face then made him know that I couldn't. At least not yet. And he wasn't going to be on my time line.
He turned his head away. I whispered,"Later." The nurse came in for something, my brother woke, and said that he would stay the night with him. We argued, I said that I would. The brother won out, since I had stayed the previous nights. I queried my brother. "Has he asked you anything?" "Asked me anything, no, ask me what, why has he asked you for something? "the brother responded.
Good, the little brother was clueless. Although, part of me wished that he wasn't. I sank out of the hospital that night, demons wrestling inside. By the time I made it home, I had made a decision. All of my life, for good or bad, my father embodied strength. And the strength of unending devotion to those that you love. He would have reached into a fire and pulled me out of it. He probably would have reached into a fire and pulled anyone out of it, though
He died a few hours later, after midnight. The little brother called to tell me, crying, "he kept trying to lift his arms above his head, all night, he knew what that would do, why did he have to keep doing it?"
Because dignity counts. Contribution counts. And dying your way is just as important as living your way. And in his final moments, I believe he knew that I might really pull the plug, and he wanted to spare me that. Love rules.
Rest in peace, you are in a better place, Terri Schiavo. Say hello to my Dad, he'll help you out if you need it.