Touch: The Journal of Healing



The Choice

    by Elaina Turpin

Almost a year ago to the day I stood by my father’s bed and held his hand as he took his last breath. At the end they had become so labored with large pauses between them that it took me a moment to realize when they stopped. The sun streamed in on a beautiful afternoon bathing his gray pallor with light. I wonder if he saw the light.

Dad hadn’t really ever seemed in pain, just tired. Like a wind up toy, he just started getting slower and slower until he stopped. A young lady would come in and clean house and fix meals for him. She started having to do more and more. She had to help him shower, help him eat and in the end help him toilet. She would stay all day and I would stay the nights. I was as anxious as when my first child was born, constantly waking up to check on his breathing.

That left us alone, my sister and I. Our mother had died five years back and I was frankly amazed that dad had held on this long without her. But I was the one who had to break the news to her now. I really wasn’t sure how much she understood about death.

As a child she’d had spinal meningitis and as a result was mentally disabled. She functioned at about the same level as a third grade child.  She was my big sister, almost 10 years older than me. I wasn’t much more than a baby when she first became ill. I don’t remember how she was before, when she was normal. For me she’s always been just Nori.

I was in second or third grade when I realized that Nori wasn’t like everyone else. At an age where most girls were worrying about makeup and boys she was still playing with dolls. I realized that I was getting older and more mature and she was just getting taller. I asked Mom what was wrong with Nori, she just told me that she was special.

As was bound to happen I outgrew her. I was 13 and as awful, self-centered and insensitive as only a teenager can be. She was well past old enough to be out of the house and living on her own. I was resentful of all the attention that she demanded from our parents. She was following me around, always getting into my stuff and would pick up the phone and listen in on my conversations. She couldn’t keep anything to herself; she wouldn’t have been able to lie to save her life. So I had no privacy.  I blew up. I told her that I hated her, that she was stupid and retarded, and that I wished that she would have died so I wouldn’t have such an embarrassing big sister.

It broke her heart. When we were little she was my best friend. She taught me how to tie my shoes, play crazy eights and catch crickets. We’d have sleepovers where we slept on the back porch and stay up all night counting shooting stars. But I grew up and she never did.

I graduated high school and left to go to college. At this point Nori had moved out into a group home, trying to give her some semblance of maturing and my parents a break. I hate to admit it but I rarely thought of her. I had homework, thesis studies, boys and parties. I saw her when I came home for the holidays but then it was like seeing a distant cousin, not my sister who had been my best friend growing up. I got married, moved back to town and had my own children. I saw Nori just about every weekend but we never got back to the closeness we shared as children.

Taking care of my sister is never a task that I was prepared for. I suppose I never imagined our parents dying. Who imagines that possibility until presented with it? With the tears barely dry on my face I drove to her home. I had called ahead to tell the news to her caretakers but I wanted to break it to her in person. When the door opened her face lit up and she raced towards me. She swung me up in a huge bear hug lifting my feet off the ground.  

She led me back to her room chattering about her friends and how they were going to see a movie tomorrow. She was bubbly and excited, full of innocence and joy. It broke my heart once more to tell her the news.

We sat down on her bed, still the same double with the quilt that grandma had made. I took her hands into mine and explained things just like I did to my own children. She wrapped her arms around me so tight my ribs hurt but I just held on for dear life. We drowned in each other’s tears.

Things changed, I can’t pinpoint the exact trigger but at some point I stopped thinking of her as a burden and she started to become a gift. We’d spend hours talking on the phone talking like little girls, laughing over knock-knock jokes and silly hair do’s. She would come over and spend the night with my family. My girls loved her.

She was their new best friend. Everything had come full circle. We’d have slumber parties on the living room floor watching teenybopper movies and having popcorn fights. We’d paint each other’s toenails and apply makeup that would make Bozo proud. And every night before we went to sleep I would braid her hair, so long and thick, almost to her butt. Then we would all snuggle down into our sleeping bags and I would listen for their snores.  The soft snuffling of my girls and the loud resonance of my sister became my off-key lullaby.

Then it all came crashing down. The call came as I was sitting in my car outside the school. It was Friday and after I picked up the girls we were going to get Nori for another sleepover. I thought she was calling to remind me not to forget her when I saw the number on my cell. She was so needy at times; I was all she had left. It wasn’t Nori. One of the caretakers was on the line telling me she’d had a seizure and been rushed to the hospital. She had seizures frequently so I wasn’t incredibly worried. I told her that I was just picking the kids up and I would drop them off and head over to the hospital.

When my girls came rushing out that door to my car they were all bubbling smiles. Carrie’s pig tails bounced along her shoulders as she skipped, her newest trick. Jess walked more stately beside her, ever present of her big sister status. After every one was settled in their car seats I explained that Aunty was sick and their other aunt, my sister in law, would watch them while I went to check on her. Carrie, the little sweetheart, offered up her “Boggy” because he made her feel better when she was sick. That ragged little dog was missing one ear and half it’s tail; it was her most valued possession. I gently declined.

When I arrived at the hospital things were so much worse than I had expected. She’d stopped breathing during the seizure and had been unconscious for several minutes before anyone realized something was wrong. She liked to watch cartoons in her room, it wasn’t until the movie was over and making that awful sound that old vhs cassettes do that anyone came to investigate. They estimate that she went between five and ten minutes without oxygen. CPR was started soon as she was discovered but it was too late. She had very little brain function to begin with and now they declared her brain dead.

She lay hooked up to so many machines.  The whooshing of her artificial breathing was louder than any of the other beeps and squeaks. My heart sank, my quick on the road lunch threatened to come back up. She looked so small and innocent, angelic. All the off duty caretakers were huddled around her bed their faces pale and tear streaked.

Standing in the doorway I stared at her as the doctor gave me the grim prognosis. She would never wake up, never be able to feed herself, might not even be able to breath on her own.  He continued talking but it all came to me through the cloudy haze as I looked past his shoulder to my sister and her heartbroken friends.  She was so sweet, with a huge sense of the hilarious, always laughing and moving. To see her so still and quiet was heartbreaking. She would never give me another bear hug.

He stood there staring at me as the tears dripped from my chin to stain my blue shirt black. I realized that he’d stopped talking. I looked up to see the sympathy and pity in his eyes.  He rested his hand on my shoulder and said he’d give me time to make a decision.

I pulled a chair up alongside her bed and held her hand. One by one her friends hugged me and silently left. I could feel their grief, smothering me in this small space.

Her fingers were long and narrow, with fine lines and small freckles dancing across the back of her hand. They were the hands of a middle aged woman, on my eternally youthful sister. I knew what Mom and Dad would want; I can still hear my mother’s cries of “please” as she writhed in pain. She was begging to be put out of her misery and we all stood by sobbing, unable to do anything as the doctors tried to relive her pain.

This is too hard though. I am her little sister; I should not have to make this decision. What do I know? I cannot predict the future and neither am I a doctor who can tell the truth about her prognosis from education and experience. All I know is that I love her. I love her so much.  I swear that I can hear her whisper, “turkey,” our little private joke.

She needs more time. I need more time. I just want to curl up in a ball and sob. I don’t want to be a responsible grown up. I want to be a child who has lost both her parents and is now losing her big sister.

My husband James shows up and gently lays his arm across my shoulder. I can feel his breath in my hair as he kisses the top of my head. He is so strong and vibrant kneeling there beside me. I lean into him, hoping to find answers in his scent.

“What do I do?” I ask him, hoping to pass this on to someone else. He is smart and good and so much stronger than me.  He just holds me close.

“Whatever feels right.” He lays his hand over my heart and I hold on. Tears drip from my nose trailing down our entwined hands. Nothing feels right about this but I know what our parents would do. I ask him to go get the doctor. I need some time alone with Nori.

I brush her hair back and kiss her forehead. I pray that she understands and that what I am doing is right. I pray that she’ll join our parents in whatever comes after this life. And I pray for forgiveness as I make the choice to take her life.

They drag me to the hall to do paperwork, her life reduced to a few squiggles of ink.  James heads into the waiting room to retrieve her caretakers and friends. We stand around her bed, hands joined, as they unhook the machines. Her skin starts to turn blue. The beeping slows down and rests on an empty hum. I turn into my husband’s embrace, heart so void that all the tears could never fill it.

© 2010 Elaina Turpin

Elaina Turpin lives in Oregon.  She is the mother of three children.  When she is not writing she spends most of her time in the garden.  She is a self professed tree-hugger and has been known to randomly break into song.

Copyright © 2010

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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