Ten days. Ten, all too short, days I waited before forcing myself to visit Eric. The charade of going through the motions, standing by his bedside, telling him she’s dead, knowing he wouldn’t….couldn’t respond, unsure if he could hear me, more less comprehend what I would say, was futile. He already knew.
Contemplating a make-shift plan, of prematurely thought out measures, for his care, I delayed as long as my conscience allowed, as long as my guilt allowed. Still grieving our mother’s death, exhausted and barren, the shell of myself needed rejuvenating. Dealing with Eric, beginning what I assumed would be a battle to manage his care how I saw fit, would demand energy, a reserve I failed to recognize in myself. Yet, I couldn’t shake a sense of Margaret glaring down at me. The tick tock of time pounded in my ears. Trapped, forced into a corner with no escape, I raged at her, for leaving this task undone. “How could you be so weak?” I seethed. “How could you leave this for me to do?”
In light of her devotion to Eric, the lengths taken to care for him, as her death neared, I wondered why no lengths were taken to spare me from this dirty deed. Wasn’t it enough, carrying the burden of responsibility for his suicide attempt?
Her passivity once again thrust him under my watch, from the grave. This too, would be my burden.
My convictions were impenetrable regarding Eric’s circumstance: We should have let him go the day he hung himself; our mother permitted the medical community to keep him alive for 12 1/2 years to make amends for neglecting him.
Both under judgment, we were serving self-convicted sentences: her penance through years of sacrifice to care for him; mine, well there is no atonement for leaving him alone the morning he hung himself, there will be no atonement for letting him go.
Fueled by blind purpose, I resolved ‘to get it over with’. A pompous attitude walked me into Prince George Nursing Home, all business, much like Margaret.
Mama visited him three to four times every week of the ten years he resided there, driving forty minutes to shave him, cut his nails, wash his hair, or read to him, even while nursing her bed-ridden, dying husband, and battling her own cancer; I lived five minutes away, scarcely visiting, refusing to join her vigil of martyrdom, unwilling to face my guilt head on.
The staff, who knew her so well, didn’t know me at all. Fitting every perception of the distant, cold hearted relative who didn’t have time to care for the sick, I was selfish. Walking through the nursing home doors, I felt naked, exposed, they knew I was selfish. When I begrudgingly introduced myself, oppressive guilt bore down, tempting me to turn and run. Mama’s death revoked my pardon from responsibility of his care, however, consumed with resentment, I knew it had to be me.
Greeted by a staff who had grown to care for my mother, they expressed their condolences, adding that Eric would surely miss his mother. They too would certainly miss the goodies she periodically brought them to show her appreciation of their caring for him. “She was such a sweet lady” they said.
Upon further explanation for my visit, the immediate concern of providing contact information should an emergency arise, Felicia and I were corralled into a conference room. There, we were addressed by a staff member with an opening declaration of Eric’s need for comfort care.
Those terms, ‘comfort care’, were first introduced during my step-father’s illness, they became familiar during our mother’s battle with cancer. Wielded by its use in reference to Eric, I puzzled, “Doesn’t comfort care mean letting someone die in dignity, providing them comfort measures to die in peace?”
Obviously stooped by the statement, the staff member offered a document for my clarification. In taking on the role of Eric’s guardian and emergency contact, I needed to initial beside the type of care I chose for him, one of which was comfort care. Quite simple.
My blood boiled as I studied the options. Before my mind caught up, I heard myself exclaiming “Did my mother have these same options for the past ten years?! Has it always been like this?! I can’t believe she chose to do what she did if she had these same options!”
Several staff members, now present, were shocked into awkward silence by my outburst.
Fidgeting uncomfortably, their eyes darted for something to focus on, besides me, this devil child risen from hell in my mother’s absence.
Realizing I had been duped for an entire decade, tears burst forth. She stood by as Eric was poked, prodded and mangled relentlessly, when she could have stopped it, a long time before. Sorrow filled me to my core. Sorrow for the atrocities he was subjected to: the surgeries, the broken bones, the poor hygiene. I think I could have struck my mother had she been alive and in front of me.
With no hesitation, I asked “What do I have to do to have the feeding tube removed?”
“Just initial beside comfort care” she smiled. A few staff members darted for the door, excusing themselves politely, while others stayed to console Felicia and me, “Eric has suffered so much, for so long.” “I know your mother just couldn’t let him go, but he has suffered enough.”
My make-shift plan, the crusade of hiring an attorney and begging a judge to remove the feeding tube, disintegrated around me. Unprepared, the simplicity of the situation rendered me speechless. No lawyers, no judges, no court orders, just a few strokes of a pen. As I often do in moments of complete anxiety or fear, I chuckled uncontrollably. Now mine, the decision had me squirming in my skin. “This burden is too heavy to bare, especially by a mother” I empathized.
The magnitude of my actions terrified me; choosing to let my brother die. “How can I even consider any other option?” I questioned. Pausing, pen in hand, I recalled the many discussions and differing opinions Mama and I held.
Given he hung himself, Mama vexed with the possibility of Eric spending eternity in hell for taking his own life. She remained optimistically hopeful of him waking up one day.
Adamantly, I disagreed on both accounts. The idea of a loving God judging a mentally ill person, damning his soul to hell, contradicted my belief system. Eric was sick, a victim of a disease, disorder, call it what you will, of which he had no control. Years of torment robbed him of his sanity and any sound reasoning abilities. Eric would never wake up, he wasn’t in a coma. He was in a persistent vegetative state; the facts were presented to us from the beginning. At least 50% of his brain was damaged; the remaining vitality controlled his autonomic nervous system. Organs would continue to function; he would sleep and while awake, he would cough, sneeze, yawn, hear; all of his senses were vital with the exception of his sight, questionable due to brain damage as well.
Despite the possibilities presented to us early on (the possibility his brain might heal itself, the possibility a miracle could occur) we were never provided any false hopes of a substantial recovery. As the milestones of time passed each week, each month, each year, the physicians orchestrating Eric’s care were forthright with information and I heard them clearly. I heard the improbability, resigning myself to the belief he would never recover. We lost Eric the day he hung himself.
Allowing the medical profession to implant a feeding tube to prolong Eric’s physical existence was a choice I never agreed with, it was the beginning of a very long end.
After years of hospitalization, Mama baffled at the bureaucracy of red tape mandating Eric’s care. Frantically, she searched and found a nursing home facility to take him on. “Too little, too late” I smugly thought of her persistence. “Where was all this concern for him on the day he was released from jail?” I wondered.
Her longsuffering ensued after she moved him to Prince George nursing home. Initially I visited him as she did, half-heartedly at least. Holding one sided dialogue was grueling; I never grew comfortable spending hours with him. The staff encouraged her behavior, coaxing, suggesting he knew when we were or were not there, declaring the automatic body functions/reactions were purposeful. Mama needed to hear those things, they indulged her.
The possibility of his experiencing any inner awareness while lying there was unimaginable for me. If the haunting voices never ceased………, if he possibly couldn’t see…..we were cruel to keep him alive. As long as he had breath in his body, I believed we held his spirit captive, and I could not bear that thought as I visited.
Mama fell into her Nazi role of checking on him, keeping the staff on their toes, while my visits dwindled to a rarity. His inability to communicate deemed it imperative she make regular drops ins at the nursing home, or accompany him if hospitalized, to prevent limbs from being erroneously removed or many other wildly exaggerated undue procedures. Enthralled by her role, it became apparent to me how unhealthy this new dynamic in their relationship was, for both parties, and I made a plea to her in writing.
What little I knew when I wrote that letter. Drowning in guilt, I unconsciously hoped his death would ease my own suffering. I avoided him all those years to avoid my feelings of guilt for leaving him alone the morning he hung himself, to escape the insurmountable anguish I felt by the possibility he still suffered from the save voices that compelled him to hang himself.
She was his mother though, it should have been her duty to take care of him when he got out of jail, not mine.
Mama had ample opportunity to name someone else as Eric’s guardian before her death, but she chose not to. His name wasn’t mentioned to me during her final weeks, there was no need. She already knew what I would do and I deduced that maybe she wanted me to let him go, because she couldn’t. Pen still in hand, I initialed ‘comfort care’.
Although I never asked, as I sat there in the conference room at the nursing home, I realized I needed her forgiveness for what happened to Eric under my watch. She never verbally expressed blame towards me, but I felt it.
Felicia and I agreed not to divulge to anyone the actions taken, refusing to muddle the decision with what others might think or say. Any contradictory views were too damning and weighty to take on and I purposely deprived them of any opportunity to interfere.
Humbled by my decision, I claimed it and took full responsibility for it. Forgiving our mother for her weakness, I accepted the irony of my role in Eric hanging himself and what would soon be his death.
I was destined to kill him twice.
As I made way to his room, my mind flooded with memories: swinging on our swing set, so high we could almost see over the house top and so hard the entire swing set rocked out of its footing in the ground, always striving to see who could fly higher; building a skyscraper to the heavens with our cardboard bricks; playing hide and seek in the corn fields; wrestling in the front yard, playing catch me if you can; he was thrilled by fast cars and police chases, and would get beside himself with excitement while recanting more than one run from the law, sound effects and all; skinny as a bean pole, his legs and arms would go to flailing when he told those stories; during the summers his hair turned white and his skin a golden brown, from the many hours spent roofing houses, perfectly framing his beautiful, big smile; he had an insatiable curiosity for anything mechanical, insisting on tearing things down so he could figure out how it worked and put it back together again; that lanky, curious minded suit he wore housed one of the most lively spirits I have ever encountered on this planet.
Standing by his bedside, looking down at what he had become, I saw clearly that the gift of life, the gift that personified Eric, now lay before me, trapped in a body riddled with scars, bloated from years of lying there, his arms and legs intertwined into a writhing knot.
No charade, I knew he could hear me, just like the nursing staff always said. “Mama lost her battle with cancer Eric” I gurgled. “She’s probably waiting to take you with her. They’re gonna remove your feeding tube,” I continued, “It’s all up to you now. I know you’ve held on all these years to protect our Mama, but you don’t have to do that anymore, you can let go now.”
His feeding tube was removed the following day and Hospice came in. Presumably he would expire quickly due to his frail condition. With time waning I still did not visit every day. Unable to forgive myself for my role in this tragedy, I drowned my sorrows, drinking every day after work. The hospice nurse kept calling to update me, each time saying “It won’t be long now”, yet he lingered for weeks, just as Mama. Starving to death takes time.
On the day he died, Felicia and I were given ample time to arrive and sit with him, and wait. More guilt settled in for taking time to sit by his side as he died and not doing so before. It proved difficult to watch as staff members dropped by his room to say their final goodbyes. They were more family to him than I had been for the decade he stayed there.
His final hours were no less painful to witness than Mama’s. Felicia sat on one side of his bed, I on the other, and we watched his skin change colors with every dying breath growing more shallow and further apart,…..red…..purple….blue….yellow…ashen grey. We held his hands and rubbed his arms, just as we did for Mama, chanting through tears our love for him. “It’s okay to go now” we said over and over again.
The room, the entire nursing home, was eerily quiet and still; the pictures of his children stared back at me from the wall, my heart grieved, knowing they never knew him, and now never would.
Death, greedy and hungry, permeated the room, consuming my energy along with Eric’s. The vividly colored tattoo of a grim reaper on his arm taunted me with its evil intentions. The heaviness of his tragic death, thirteen years in the making, was thick and stifling, countless times I reminded myself to breath. Our mother was mercifully spared from witnessing his death, for this I was thankful. This would be unbearable for any mother. The magnitude of what I was doing came to rest in my gut, I was willfully choosing to let my brother die.
I prayed for assurance….”Am I doing the right thing God?”
I begged, “God have mercy on my soul and Eric’s if I’m not!”
Hypnotized by his ever slowing breaths, I sat frozen, my eyes fixed on his chest. Stillness blanketed his body and when I looked to his face, I saw nothing more than a hollow, empty vessel. Listening intently, my soul beckoned his to say goodbye, my soul ached to hear him, and our mother, because I knew she was there, say “I forgive you Carlette”.
Nothing, nothing but silence piercing a hole into my heart and soul and mind, creating a void that may never be filled. From the silence, from the dark empty space, a question beseeched within, “Surely I did the right thing………..surely?”
That question reverberates within every day my eyes open and my feet hit the earth. I’m still listening for the answer in every bird’s song…….in every wind’s howl…….in every wave’s crash……in every tree’s sway……in every breath I take.