Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Dealing with it, Part 3: Guilt
A few hours before my father died, I was discussing the death of a friend and coworker's mother with another friend and coworker who has lost both of her parents.
"I'm trying to help her understand that the pain will fade in time, but it will always be there," my friend said.
"Yeah." I said. "I think what helps the most with coping with my grandmother's death - with Haley's death - are all the other tragedies that have happened since then. Each one puts a little distance between you and the pain."
In a few hours I would have something happen that put even more distance between me and the loss of my grandmother and my dog. And a few days after that something would happen to put immense distance between me and any personal pain. How can I wallow in the loss of a single person when there is so much loss, so much suffering for others?
And yet I do. Which helps me to feel another species of guilt.
Guilt, I have always said, is something we Catholics would have invented if the Jews hadn't beaten us to it.
Guilt, for me. I didn't visit my father as much as I should have. I didn't make my presence felt - not with him, but with the nurses and the staff. I cut my visits short when I couldn't stand to be there anymore. Even if he wanted me to stay. Even if he wanted to leave with me.
Was there a design flaw in his chair that allowed him to slip out and strike his head? I should have seen it. I've got a degree in Physics, for Christ's sake - I should be using it for something.
What was the thing he didn't want to talk about Wednesday night, two days before his accident, a week before he died? Why did the Alzheimer's-demented woman in the chair next to him say he'd been a "naughty boy"? I asked the nurse at the desk, the young one with the scar on her chest over her heart who looked tough and pretty at the same time, who wore camouflage scrubs, but she said she didn't know of any incidents that day - had something happened that they weren't telling me about?
Was he overmedicated just so they could have an easier time handling him at the nursing home? Did he get to play with the butterflies they had there on Thursday? He said he remembered them, but then he said a lot of gibberish. Did he piss off that one very pretty nurse when he grabbed her while we were talking about the butterflies?
Should I have gone the other way on the surgery/no surgery decision? Would he have survived the helicopter ride to the other hospital, the surgery on his bleeding brain? Would he have bled to death in post-op?
Why did I wave bye-bye Tuesday night? We never wave bye-bye. My Cioci Alice waved bye-bye to my mother and grandmother on that day in 1974 when they went to see her in the hospital; they say she was dead before they got to the parking lot. My grandmother waved bye-bye to my mother in December 1998 as she was leaving to visit my sister; it made my mom feel sick and scared, remembering what had happened with Alice 24 years before, and only my positive reports throughout her trip kept my mom's mind at rest for the next week, until that fateful Sunday morning when my grandmother simply died. And there was my father, in his Tuesday coma, rousing and gesturing at something just past the foot of his bed, something I couldn't see with open eyes but maybe he could see with eyes tightly shut, gesturing and waving. And then, after the nurse came to give him his pills, after I helped her get them down, after the noise of the neighbors' televisions died down, after I had read a few more chapters in my book, after I had made sure he was reasonably comfortable in bed, after I had turned out the lights and headed to the door, why did I turn and wave bye-bye?
Guilt for my sister. She had insisted in the summer of 1997 that we get the tumor on our dog Kitty's side looked at, and the vet agreed, and decided to take a biopsy, and the "biopsy" turned out to be the entire tumor, leaving an incision half the length of Kitty's body on her side, an injury from which she never recovered and from which she died several weeks later. (The tumor, it turned out, was benign.) My sister insisted at the beginning of July that my mother take steps to place my father in a nursing home. Within two weeks that was exactly where he was. A little more than a month later he was dead.
Guilt over Haley. When she fell down those last few steps on her final night, how much pain did it cause her? Did something inside her lungs rupture? Why did I insist on having her come downstairs? Wouldn't she have been much more comfortable upstairs in front of the air conditioner rather than panting in front of a damned fan? How much longer could she have lived?
Guilt over Kitty. We didn't do things right after her surgery. We let her jump up and down, on beds, on couches - how did we expect her wound to heal? It didn't, and she died.
Guilt over my grandmother. Her stroke in 1992 might have been my fault. I had pushed her in her recovery from sciatica. I had taken her on a marathon shopping trip the day before she had her stroke. We bought a microwave oven and a giant bag of flour and all sorts of other stuff and I parked in the alley behind her house and cut through the wires her tenants had tied around the back gate and listened to "Bittersweet" and "Broken Hearted Savior" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters as we unloaded the car and the next day I had work and when I came home from my 12-hour shift they told me she had had a stroke.
Guilt for my mother. She always worries when she goes away on vacation. Are the kids OK? Is everybody OK? She was on vacation when my grandmother died. She was on vacation when my father had the accident that led directly to his death. How can she ever relax?
Guilt for dwelling on this when so many other people have lost so much.
And yet it moves.