You cannot run from your past. No matter how deeply your mind’s self-preservation hides those experiences. Doesn’t matter if they are good or bad, happy or sad. Those memories of the past are still there. Every once in a while they get triggered.
A recent family issue has brought one of those memories to the very forefront of my mind. All of the feelings I had arose right along side those memories and they hurt no less today than they did back then. Doris’ birthday is July 7th and there is not a day that goes by that something or other makes me think about her, but none are more conscious than on her birthday. She left this world on February 27, 1982. Five months shy of her 47th birthday. Her death was not an easy one. Her life was not an easy one. Yet, her kindness, her intelligence, her beauty never diminished until the very end.
My sister Barbara and I flew to California that week in February of 1982, trying to prepare for the worst. We received a call from her significant other and her son telling us that she was dying from liver disease and if we wanted to see her we should fly out immediately. It wasn’t until we arrived that I found the real reason for the calls. They needed me to sign off on her death. She was on a ventilator. Her body deteriorating to skin and bones. Her once vivid red auburn hair now a dull grey. Her eyes so full of life and promise now gazing far away as if she could see something none of us could. My heart was so heavy seeing her lying so helplessly in that hospital bed and Barbara, I am sure felt the same.
Here is where my past comes back to haunt me. Since the age of 13 I knew Doris gave birth to me, but I didn’t know her as a mother, only as a sister, but that is another story for another time. It seems that the doctors in California needed consent to turn off the ventilator. They were telling us that her brain was dead and that the machine was breathing for her. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that. She just looked at me. She gestured for me to come down to her mouth so she could say something in my ear. I couldn’t really make out what she was trying to tell me, but I had a deep feeling inside that I knew without the use of comprehensible words. She thought I didn’t know how much she loved me and how she loved her two children just as much. I could see it in her eyes that she didn’t want to go, but had no choice now. Same as most of her life she had no choice but to make the decisions circumstances presented to her. How could I, knowing this turn off a machine that kept her with us? I just couldn’t do it. I had to consult with the rest of the family. We had just lost “our” mother in December of 1979, how could we now be expected to lose Doris as well? It couldn’t be this way. There had to be another answer.
For five brutality hard days we stayed in California. Everyday calling home to Brooklyn to report on any progress she had made, but there wasn’t any. She remained the same and seemed to be melting away before my eyes. She never opened her eyes after that first time when we arrived. She was sleeping I kept telling myself. Just in a deep sleep and soon she would wake up and we would remove that machine then and she would breathe all by herself. The doctors kept bursting that idea everyday. Her significant other and her two children were also of the same consensus. They kept telling me I had to let her go. She was not there, her brain was dead. I had to sign off on papers that would shut off that machine and agree to DNR orders. She had no will so I didn’t know her wishes. All I knew about her was the things she would tell me during our phone calls. She was a drinker so she would call me in the middle of the night and talk to me for hours about her life and dreams and her hopes. She would tell me her concerns about her young daughter and her pride in her son. She would beg me during those calls to watch out for them, to protect them. I could never really make that promise because our lives were so separate, although I have tried in the past to mend those fences, it just was too torn down to salvage. So her wishes for herself never arose in those conversations. She was very unselfish by nature and would never think of herself first in any instance. So those thoughts were with me as my sister and I walked through Doris’ life in those five days.
We met her friends, we saw where she lived. We did things that she would have done on a normal day in her life in California. After a few days, we were able to get a clearer picture of her and how she lived. Her life wasn’t perfect, but then no one’s life is perfect. She was, however, surrounded by love and as far as we could tell she was happy for the most part. I found comfort in knowing that. Finally, the fifth day in California had come and I could no longer delay the decision I knew I had to make. The family back here in Brooklyn didn’t want to give her up, but they couldn’t see her. Back then we didn’t have the same technology we have today. It was my word and Barbara’s word that they had to rely upon. After confirming with doctors one last time, I signed the order to remove the machine and a DNR order. Within an hour she was gone. It was just the machine keeping her alive. It didn’t matter how I felt or anyone felt, her body and mind were finished on this earth. The disease decided for her. I still have no doubt that if she had the choice to live on she would have, even though most of her past was painful. Somehow I know she never really forgot those painful past memories and experiences, but for a short while she found a way to live with them instead of resisting their constant power over her will, hence her drinking problem. I could say “if only” forever, but it won’t change what was or what is. People would say she brought it upon herself. I will tell them they are wrong. Her past brought it on her. Things that she lived through from a very young age haunted her short life and even though she was smarter than most women I know, she just never put herself first and that in the end destroyed any chance she ever had of a full life.
The decision I had to make that day changed my life forever. It placed a crack in my heart that has never healed. She was my invisible support system. Her words of advice no matter how seldom she had a chance to give them to me were chosen wisely and I listened. Her love of life, her passion for new things, her love of people are my legacies from her. How could anyone think the decision that was placed upon my shoulders to shut off the machine that kept her breathing was an easy one for me? Something that profound is never easy on anyone who has the responsibility. The most important part to remember though isn’t what we need or want, it is what the person would want. If Doris would have been a vegetable with the machine, she would have wanted to turn it off and I know that. Her quality of life was gone a while before she wound up in the hospital because the disease was eating her alive. Trying to save her would have been easy, letting her go was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
Today I sit and I watch as another family member is going through a similar heartache. My heart aches for them. I know, I really know that they can’t see beyond the need they have for the person to remain alive and I hope that it will be okay for everyone involved. I hope that the person isn’t suffering as I believe they are and that the person’s family will find the courage and love to let the person go one day soon. It won’t be easy to do and it will hurt beyond recognition. It will, however, also be the most unselfish act they could ever perform. It will also be that memory that stays hidden in the mind, where it resides so that your life can continue and where along with all the other memories it only gets triggered on occasion just so you never really forget or escape from the lesson in life that it taught you. So happy birthday Doris. You are not forgotten. You are forever imbedded in our hearts. Your life was worthwhile and your soul lives on.
And that is the Way I See It here in Brooklyn.