She fell on Tuesday – the ambulance came. She fell on Wednesday – the same crew returned and kindly got her to her feet. On Thursday, a visiting nurse tried to put on a pressure stocking over a dime sized wound on her lower leg. The stockings were better suited to an eight year old child than a heavy set woman at seventy. The wound grew to three by four inches in dimension.
After three consecutive days of trauma, my sister Jackie was completely worn out. I arrived with supper on Friday night, and she looked ashen and spent. She slumped in her Lazy-boy, had little to no appetite, and was clearly on edge. Her anxiety was ripe and full, and I knew her soul was in knots way too tight to undo. I came again on Saturday, and once again brought a meal to share. She seemed even weaker, and had an even harder time getting up to use the bathroom She was so unsteady on her feet, and I could tell another fall was imminent.
On Sunday I called her to see what she wanted me to bring to eat, and she said she was going to have a bowl of cereal and then sleep, as she could not keep her eyes open. I thought this odd, as she had been sleeping on and off for the past 72 hours. At 4:30 a.m. she called the ambulance as she could not stand. They came and helped her to the toilet. They came again at noon, but made it clear that she must go to the emergency room, as this was not an appropriate use of their time or skill – to which she reluctantly agreed.
I met her at the emergency room, and she was in bad shape. Her breathing was ragged, and she was on oxygen. She tried to communicate with me, but spoke either gibberish or thoughts which resembled a carnival bumper car ride. Her words just bumped and careened off of one another, and made no sense or progress to a point. She dozed off repeatedly, and they explained to me that her blood sugar and blood pressures were highly elevated and that she was retaining an extraordinary amount of fluid. After several hours of tests and pokes and prods of all kinds, a doctor declared that her kidneys had shut down, and that she might need dialysis by morning. My heart sank for her and for myself, as I quietly wondered if this was a foreshadowing of the flow of my own diabetes.
For ten days she was in the intensive care unit of a Kenosha hospital, and remained very sick and very unstable. It was clear she might not make it. She looked damn fragile as they wheeled her away for her first dialysis, but she did make better sense the next day. Jackie was an emotional wreck, and her worries were warts rooted in her worst fears. She was headed for a nursing home and dialysis several times a week. She slept a great deal, mainly as a defense, as well as having a body which had been squeezed dry of all energy and a heart of all hope. She looked like a carcass.
Jackie is presently in a nursing home, and she must be transported by ambulance three times a week to dialysis treatments. She remains frightened and anxious and bitter and beaten and bruised inside and out. She keeps asking me how this all happened, and yet I know we both know. Neither of us has taken good care of ourselves, and we come from a family which handled all crises with food – the proverbial stuffing of one’s face. As yet she will not allow me to decorate her room, or make it feel at all like a home of a kind. She insists on waiting, and I suspect she is looking for a miracle, one the equivalent of walking on water.
I recently spent three full years caring for my wife Patty, who died in October of 2013. I am nursing home phobic, and refuse to get caught back up in the vast maze of care giving. I've agreed to visit Jackie three times a week, on the days she does not have dialysis. I often dread those days, and feel an itch like resistance. I just don't want to go back there, as Jackie is ironically and spookily in the same room and nursing home as my late wife. I force myself to go. It is much like sticking your finger down your throat. I feel a little better when I've gone.
I think about Jackie a lot these days. Her sadness and stagnation swarm about her, and I can feel the agony of her lack of control or purpose. She has always loved being needed, and so longed for a chance to create a home and raise a family. I ache that she never got that chance, and so wish she had found someone who truly did love her. She deserves so much better than she has gotten, but then this is true for so many of us. By the world’s standards she has had a reasonably decent life. By American standards she has been poor and single and mostly alone – a mediocre existence at best.
She has done some really wonderful things for people. She offered the men she loved a home cooked meal, a spotlessly clean house, did their wash, made arrangements for their chores to be done, raised children, and offered each gigolo undeserved compassion and encouragement. Yes, she was used, but along the way her loving and mercy enabled many a soul, especially those of children, to have a better life. She was a frequent source of hope and inspiration.
Jackie was indeed a favorite aunt for many of my cousins. She was and is attentive to all of my aunts, and was deeply devoted to her now deceased uncles. When my mother became a victim of age and wet macular degeneration, Jackie provided her with seven years of trouble free living. They lived in adjoining apartments, and shared every evening meal. They talked at least a half dozen times a day.
Jackie served others. She made enormous sacrifices on behalf of my family and her cherished friends. She was such an amazingly giving woman. But now, well, there just is not much left to give. Her breathing is shallow and crackles, her voice a mere echo of itself, and her body has all but imploded. I can tell she wonders daily if the time is right to let go, and to surrender to a God she believes has mostly ignored her.
When I am around she does come to life a bit. She tells everyone who I am. “This is my brother Bill. He is a minister.” She retains an absurdly loyal devotion to me, as I remain a fixture of her memory and her belief in Life as a whole. I feel shame in knowing how often I want to run from any responsibility to and for her, and guilty that I have so little to say or do on her behalf. Many times when I drive along the lake after my visits, I simply weep. Life is difficult. Many folks, like Jackie, do not get a fair shake, and they slog their way through simply on the remembrance of better days and simpler saner times.
I will keep going. I do love her. I do recall how she made sure I got everything I wanted for Christmas as a kid, and how she would let me be “her butler” at the basement crepe paper strewn Halloween party. I think back to how she was always there in the midst of a crisis, and that her life often resembled an episode of “As the World Turns”. When I was in college, I frequently went out with Jackie and her friends to a bar, a dance hall, a drag show, or all of the above, and we would finish the night with a big breakfast at Denny’s.
Nobody has been a fiercer advocate for me. Nobody was and is more proud to see me become a minister. Nobody had a harder time seeing me married, or with a woman she did not choose. Nobody romanticized my father more, or tenderly nursed my mother in her final years. That is the bottom line, nobody.
Four of my beloved cousins came to Racine to help me clean out her apartment. It was so sweet of them to do, and such an enormous help to me. I recognized then just how much they loved Jackie, and how many stories they could tell of when Jackie was their babysitter, extended care Nanny, or simply an adult family friend. Jackie was and is beloved by many, both family and friends. She did make a difference. She made a mark. It was a caress, a giving without conditions, and raw in all of its hopes and dreams.
I will drive up there tomorrow, and I will talk myself into being there, and I will take the elevator to her floor and hobble to her room. I will kiss her on the cheek, and sit down in a chair, and then our ritual will begin…”Do you remember when we…”
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.