Where we wrestle with the sublime, mysterious, powerful and often frustrating paradox of God's necessary grace.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grace and the Avalanche

Some avalanches begin with just a snowball....

The Sturdy Wench and I drove down Saturday morning to see R., and that rumbling sound you heard was my emotional baggage slowly sliding down the mountain side but picking up speed and power.

The trip itself was physically painful, my right knee was a red hot railroad spike as I tried to find a comfortable angle that would let me drive and straighten my leg out as much as possible. I reached my limit just south of Bakersfield amid the eucalyptus trees on the sides of the highway and my wife and I exchanged seats while I gratefully stood up and walked around the truck before clambering into the passenger seat and a lesser round of pain. I had taken two acetominephen (sp?) before the trip, but clearly they hadn't been enough. Next time I bang down the leftover Naproxin. No more fooling around with OTC stuff.

We reached the hospital and, due to the hospital being old, added onto like the Winchester House, and under reconstruction, took the Death Star tour through bizarrely-angled halls and across miles of cutesy paint hall wall paint jobs until we reached my brother's room. We were the first family members to see him.

(My brother D. said he would drive down to see him that weekend but did not, and looks as though he won't be doing so this week, although he could surprise me. He'll be on a cruise all next week so he's out of the picture until he returns.)

I've never seen such a cramped hospital room. His bed had literally less than 12" of space around the left and right sides (I measured it with my handspan). There was a box fan on the tiny sink counter to his left blowing on him as the room was warm.

He was hooked up to an IV drip machine and was wearing an oxygen infuser hose around his face, feeding O2 into his nostrils.

As for what he looked like? Like a manatee beached on the sand, gasping for breath, his eyes closed, his upper lip wearing a small blackened rose of dried blood scab, his face painting his effort at breathing as he slept fitfully. I tried to wake him up (nurse said that was okay) but he couldn't maintain consciousness. He looked me, his light blue eyes (I'd never realized he had blue eyes before) trying to grab focus, then closing as he fell back asleep. This happened a few times until Cynthia, his nurse, walked in and began shaking his arm. "My dear! Time to wake up! Wake up, my dear, you have people here to see you, I need you to wake up, why aren't you waking up?!" She had to do this for a few moments and then he finally did awake.

She left the room and I stepped around the curtain separating his area from his neighbor's and looked at him as he registered my presence. He smiled and I touched his hand. It was the one of the few times I'd ever reached out and touched him, not to shake hands or slap him on the back. (You know, the Approved ManTouch™.)

We talked for a few minutes, he was coherent but slow, hunting for some words. His fever had broken and the doctors had given him a betablocker to stabilize his heartrate. I felt completely at sea, no idea what to say, so I tried to speak slowly and clearly, keep things short and simple and let him know my wife and I cared about him. I remembered my hospital stays and one or two visitors who wouldn't shut up when I was exhausted and wanted only to sleep.

We were there for about two hours, only talking with him for as long as he seemed to want to talk. My sister G. arrived, who lives nearby, and I became angry with her at her attitude but said nothing. She works and lives in the metro area and should have been the first one to see him, but she said she was busy working. (She works with patients in nursing homes.) To me, your brother being rushed to the hospital with arrhythmia and fever trumps your job, at least for a few hours. Well, she has the family reputation as the Angel of Death, the joke being you never let Georgia into your hospital room unless you have someone watching power cords and oxygen hoses because she likes to joke about disconnecting same in order to kill off people who don't lead productive lives and who are suffering. (Working with dying seniors for decades instills its own sense of black humor into you. I'm guilty of the same when I worked as a collector for a mortgage servicer.)

O yeah, this is about my brother. Okay, back to him.

He has an infection but doctors can't locate it, hence can't treat it. Because of his obesity, he can't fit into the CAT scanner and chest x-rays are unclear. So, the doctors are calling around to find a facility that can handle him.

Finally, my knee announced it was done and time to go home, so we made our goodbyes (R. had fallen asleep by this point) after the Sturdy Wench and G. talked with his nurse. No release date, no diagnosis.

In the car, the SW asked me what I wanted for dinner. I said, "To get the hell out of this city." She agreed and we left as the avalanche roared down the mountain.

Now I see the avalanche freightraining down the hill toward me, enormous clouds of icy white spume boiling upward, trees and rocks hurled out of the path as though they were tin toys.

This afternoon my other sister, J., called. R.'s been moved to cardiac ICU. As yet, no diagnosis and my sister G. says the cardiologist will release only limited info over the phone so she'll see him "Maybe tomorrow, maybe Thursday."

"Go see the cardiologist" you say? Why, whatever in the world would possess you to ask that? What are you, some kind of troublemaker?

Yet another reason for my rocky relationship with my family.

Right now I feel like I'm sitting shiva for him already. (No, I'm not Jewish but I wish I were.) If my sister were to call me now and say, "He's gone," my first feeling would be of relief his suffering was done and the sucking chest wound of our relationship was closed and over. The same feelings I had when my mom died.

Yet another reason for my rocky relationship with my family, part 2.

I'm already going through the mental catalogue of Things To Do To Settle His Estate. The calls, the emails, calling the Neptune Society for handling his remains, the closing of credit card and bank accounts, getting the death certificate, planning the memorial, dealing with friends and family, disposing of his property and his house, etc. All the stuff he and I had to do after the deaths of our parents.

Right now, my heart hurts. I feel at sea, lost, threatened, incapable of dealing with what's coming down on me. I feel rage my brother and I never connected emotionally, he was always too controlling, too needy, too hurtful, and I was always too needy for a love different than what he could offer, too easily wounded, growing up too often someone with no boundaries to respect.

It's after 1 a.m. Wednesday now, and I don't know what the day will hold. Either he makes it though today or he doesn't. The only thing I can do is pray for him, for me, for the grace to endure the avalanche as I try to swim to the top of this cold, boiling mass and keep breathing.

In, out. In, out. In, out. In, out. In, out.

Left foot, right foot, one in front of the other. Left, right. Left, right. Left, right.





UPDATE 3 Dec 2008:

From an email from my sister J.:

The past two days have been two steps back, one step forward. Yesterday morning we learned that R. had been transferred to the Cardiac Care Unit. This was not good news. He was unstable and his fever had returned. He was breathing with great difficulty.

This morning, he is "doing okay", to use the nurse's medical parlance. He's evidently able to get out of bed and into the bathroom.

I just called him and we spoke for about 5 minutes. He's still weak and not enunciating clearly, so it can be hard to understand him. He's anxious to get out of the hospital, so that's probably a good sign. However, I'm comforted to know that he has round the clock care until he recovers more strength and is feeling more ambulatory.

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