When the word “roller coaster” is mentioned what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Your first roller coaster experience at Euclid Beach Amusement Park in Cleveland, Ohio or some where similar? One of your favorite uncles tries to bolster your courage in the name of fun, “Just raise your arms over your head and scream.”
Or perhaps your favorite roller coaster memory is of you standing next to the kiddie coaster watching the contrasting expressions on the faces of your two children as they react. One is clearly having a thrilling fun time, the other wears a dubious look hoping this thrill will end sooner rather than later and hopefully before tossing up the arepa and cotton candy.
My routine is just getting back to normal after a recent roller coaster ride not occurring at any amusement park. The ride began Friday, July 3 and ended yesterday, Monday, July 13, 2015.
My son and I parked the car at the South Miami metrorail station and boarded the Orange line to Miami International Air Port. We were each looking forward to the family reunion followed by separate activities. Thom was going to ride a commuter train into the city (Chicago) with my neice’s daughter (his second cousin?) where he planned to attend a concert. Upon arrival at the venue it was discovered that the concert was cancelled due to illness. But he was happy to spend the next few days in the city, coach surfing with his cousin (once removed?) and sharing a visit to the botanical garden. Our plan was to meet up at O’Hare to fly back to Miami on Tuesday.
Initially, my plan was to spend time visiting with family members who still live in the area where the reunion took place. Maybe some family grave sights. Plans often change. Mine did.
One of my sisters and I were aware that another sister, who lives in southern Illinois, was once again hospitalized. For the past four years (more or less), Mary had been cycling through a pattern. Which comes first, the bottle or rehab? Mary reluctantly admitted that her best friend was Vodka. They were practically inseparable.
Except when they had to bid each other farewell during stints in rehab programs. Mary always planned to stay sober. She did admit to feeling well and appreciating clarity of thoughts. She would faithfully attend AA meetings and acquire the white chip. Then she would loose the sense of sobriety and cut back on her daily food intake to allow for the empty caloric consumption of vodka.
The water bottle ever present in her hand or within easy reach was a decoy. It was filled with vodka. As a result of alcoholic intake instead of water she would become dehydrated. Within a short time Mary was back in the hospital. Detox. Re-hydration. IV nutrition. Discharged to out patient physical rehab to regain lost muscle/strength and counselling. Again. Again. And again.
Calling Mary took a mound of patience. Her home (she lived alone) is on the edge of a National Forest so phone communication either land line or cellular was tenuous at best. She had to find a good spot and stay still. Often times the caller was uncertain whether Mary had been drinking or just overdue for her vitamin B shot. The symptoms of each are very similar. Slow thought process and slow speech. Sometimes it was difficult to determine if the phone connection was lost or if she was taking longer than usual pauses between words.
At some point between learning Mary was again hospitalized and arriving for the reunion, it became clear that this was the last cycle for Mary.
Five of the eight sisters were at the reunion. Three of us traveled to get there. One of us had college tours scheduled in Chicago with her daughter. Another sister was already at Mary’s bedside. We made an announcement before blessing our food at the reunion. Immediately following the reunion we would be heading to Carbondale (about a 4 hour drive) to say good bye to Mary.
A brief explanation was provided for those who were not aware of Mary’s chronic consumption of vodka. Within the family there has been a history of alcoholism or addiction across generations. Clearly, in earlier times, alcohol addiction went undiagnosed. That does not mean it was not present. More than a couple at the reunion have successfully overcome the inexplicable power of addiction; maintaining clean/sober living for various number of years.
Mary’s declining condition did not come as a surprise to any of us. In addition to the routine dehydration and malnutrition diagnosis, she had sepsis of unknown etiology. Each of us shared the thought and possibility that Mary would one day be found unresponsive and alone in her home. It was not unrealistic. Coming to terms with the fact that we were unable “to fix” Mary was a difficult realization for each of us. Neither of these concerns eliminated the sense of worry about Mary.
The drive to southern Illinois seemed endless. Mary had been on renal dialysis every other day for about a week. The doctor opted for this treatment to give the liver and gallbladder a chance to recover. My unspoken thought was that we would be too late.
Mary’s long time spousal equivalent-husband-ex-husband, Jeff was with her as well as our sister, Ruth. Jeff texted that if we were quiet (big IF), no one would bother us even when we arrived around 8:30 pm. This turned out to be true. Mary was awake. Alert. Aware as she could be. She had trouble speaking she said because of the “swallowing test” she had earlier in the day. We visited for a short while. Mary knew that she was sicker than ever, but assumed that she would be going home as she always did after previous hospitalizations.
My explanation to her was honest and blunt delivered in a caring, kind and loving tone. Her expectation to frolic, visit people and go places was unrealistic. Her body had worn out from years of overindulgence, poor nutrition and loss of muscle tone. Her arms were covered with hemorrhagic bruises. Heaven would become her frolic “grounds.” She would also be able to see people and places from higher, hallow places. She looked at me like I was crazy or delivering a curse.
We left Mary for the night but told her we would be back in the morning.
None of us imagined that it would be as difficult as it was to find a room for the night. It was unclear why so many people were in Carbondale, Illinois for 4th of July weekend. Reservation desk clerks offered various theories. The one that made the most sense was a national fishing tournament. There are five or seven lakes in the area.
The closest motel with suitable availability was back about fifteen or so miles. Exhaustion is an understatement.
In the morning, we had the opportunity to meet Mary’s doctor who explained (again) to Mary and to us that Mary’s diagnosis was “wet brain.” Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a form of Alzheimer’s most often caused by many years of excessive/abusive alcohol consumption resulting in a thiamine deficiency. Her organs continued to decline. Dialysis would be discontinued. I regret not knowing anything about wet brain until this point. When I looked it up, it definitely described Mary’s behavior changes. It would have been so much easier to cope and accept Mary’s decline with a little knowledge and understanding of the progression of the syndrome.
Mary wanted us to go out to her house and select a few mementos. I had never been to that house and she, as well as my other sisters, wanted me to see it. To say it was bizarre going through her things with the intent to collect something to remember Mary is an understatement. We did each find one or a few things to take.
We returned to the hospital for our final good byes. The priest had been there to give the sacrament of the sick while we were pilfering Mary’s belongings. Mary was able to interact, react and laugh with us. Bittersweet. Alan (Barb’s partner) lead us in prayer and song. Mary gave that mystified look of disbelief and puzzlement; she heckled Alan between sung phrases.
We each asked that she send us signs from Heaven once in a while. The drive back to Kankakee was very quiet and introspective. Mary had a brilliant mind in her peak.
Thom and I along with Barb and Alan met at the airport for the flight to Miami. Thom worked the next day. Barb, Alan and I drove to Florida’s west coast to explore the area for my retirement spot. The roller coaster ride was just about over.
Yesterday I went back to work. Just before 9:30 a.m. Ruth texted us that Mary had finally taken her last breath. Peaceful rest at last. She joins our mom, biological father, step-father, grandparents, aunts, uncles and a collection of dogs. I know within a couple of days that I will hear a bell symbolizing Mary’s wings fitting. She will never be forgotten. And I don’t drink vodka.