I carry a lot of weight on my shoulders every day.
That’s no mere metaphor, it is literal as well as figurative.
When I met my lovely wife I weighed a mere 180 pounds. I fluctuated, sure, going up and down, 190, 180, 197, 195 . . . no massive surges in either direction that would cause me to even track my weight every day, though. That is, until about a year ago . . . maybe 18 months.
I gained a substantial amount of weight. In fact, by the time of the funeral, pictures of which now horrify me for vain reasons as well as emotional ones, I had ballooned to a whopping 250 or 270. Not sure, by that point I was too embarrassed to look. It’s painful to carry that much. Walking was slow, I had a hard time catching my breath, and I could tell my metabolism had changed to the point that I can’t eat whatever I want and assume my body will just burn off whatever I need.
That’s changed. Not because I’ve taken control, focused my mind and body and begun a stringent training routine that involves drinking some sort of green, grass-flavored liquid and running before the sun rises in the East. It’s changed because I just don’t have the time to sit on my ass and munch on crap while watching television. I also have a job that gets me out of the building and isn’t stuck dealing with turning a million stories with too few resources and too much pressure. Yeah, the pressure’s there, but last week I was riding in a boat while interviewing a guy on a story out in the Bay. What other job lets you do that?
I’ve lost almost 20 pounds since then. The other weight isn’t coming off, not anytime soon.
I’ve done my best to make decisions that I thought would create the least amount of chaos; inflict the least amount of damage. Hasn’t always worked out that way, and the road is paved with my good intentions, as they say, but it’s the best I could do.
When Andrea first went into the ICU, we didn’t have the kids come in. Andrea was very weak and she just needed to get stronger to handle the pull and need of the kids, both emotionally and physically. I’m not sure if we ever had a discussion that said “keep them home for now,” but I did anyway.
When she went into respiratory arrest everything changed. I’ve described the panic, I won’t relive that with you. But in that first day, nervous, hurried and hyper to the point of talking for every single second, I made a lot of decisions I regret, but don’t know that I’d change. Whether it is true or not, I believe that those in a coma, or in Andrea’s case, sedation, can hear us. I hear the kids in the twilight of my dreams when they come into my room just before they wake me up. Why couldn’t Andrea? So as a result I didn’t stop talking. Not from the minute I arrived through my way out the door each night.
It’s also why I kept everyone away. With the kids it was for two reasons: first, I didn’t want them to see her that way. If you’ve ever seen someone intubated, on a respirator and fighting for every breath, you know it’s horrible. The medical dramas make it look so romantic, a frenzied operation that pits the nurse or doctor above the patient’s head, the scramble of activity and the rush to get the tube inside and get the person breathing just in time . . . believe me, that might be the first few seconds. The rest aren’t.
The tube is all the way down the throat. So when the nurse comes in, sedated as Andrea is, they touch, move or adjust that tube, Andrea feels it. She jumps. She cringes. She grimaces. Nothing about it is comfortable for her or for me. I saw it when my Dad was recovering from heart surgery, and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen my mother cry. I watched it, every time they came into the room with Andrea, and I faced it because I felt like she needed me there.
That awareness is also why I kept most everyone out. Andrea’s sister Amy came, and that was fine. She was always a comfort to Andrea, who loved her deeply. Andrea also had a connection with her sister, loved her children almost as deeply as her own, and was comfortable around her. She told Amy things she didn’t tell anyone else. Her visit was welcome.
But I kept Andrea’s parents away as long as I could. Andrea always tensed up, with every visit when they were there. Andrea’s mom, you see, had come down with a degenerative brain disorder, something akin to Parkinson’s but faster acting and harder hitting. Andrea would visit their house and I would take her call on the way home, in tears, often distressed either by the further deterioration of her mother or because of some argument with her parents. Neither made things easy on her. It was this stress, this tensing that I thought she didn’t need that I tried to keep away. They did visit once, and Andrea’s body was more rigid, the seemingly reflexive movements growing faster. Andrea didn’t need to be subjected to this every day, and neither did her parents. I was there, I didn’t like what I saw, but you don’t abandon someone you love because you’re uncomfortable.
You have to understand, I sincerely thought, even by then, she would get better. It was just pneumonia. I know it’s horrible and that people can still die from it, but I thought we’d come through it and be stronger for it. I had no idea that it would just be . . . over.
Now, I wonder where the kids’ heads are. Are they mad at me because they didn’t see their Mom those days? Do they wonder if she was thinking about them? None of them act out to me or seem like they are upset about it. But the signs creep out that they wonder. I was determined, though, that their memory of their mother be the best memories, the ones that revolved around her dancing in the middle of the living room with them to some goofy little song. The woman who sat at the table with her huge mug of coffee and infectious laugh. I didn’t want them to see or remember her with the plastic tubing snaking around her like tentacles; the black marker on her leg to indicate which one had an infection; the tube full of greyish crap that they pulled out of her lungs through it all.
After the funeral, the hospital let me know there was a bunch of stuff of Andrea’s that I had left behind. It took a lot for me to go to the hospital then, but I did it. I wasn’t going to leave any of her behind. I was pretty proud, too, I’d done fairly well and held it together. That is until they handed me the items. They’d taken a bunch of her stuff, her clothes, shoes, even the copy of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and tossed it into a clear plastic garbage bag. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except in the bottom were the get well cards the kids had made for Andrea – cards that she’d been able to read, just hours before she took her bad turn.
They all seemed, at least at that moment, to plead for her to come home. They told how much they missed her, nearly begged her to come home, that they needed her. It was like a visible representation of their hearts ripping in two. The weight got a little heavier, as did my heart.
Now, when I’m home and Sam’s playing upstairs or reading, he’ll shout down every 15 or 20 minutes:
“I love you!”
Hannah will stop me in the middle of walking from the flour to the sugar while making cookies to hug me, in the most inopportune moments.
Noah wants to be around and have some sort of activity every second of every day.
Abbi, well she has a lot of responsibility she shoulders now, whether I pull it off of her or not. All of this is a result of my decisions.
Were they the right ones? I don’t know. I will never know, I don’t think. It’s a very solitary thing, to carry this weight. My parents helped carry some of it, holding me up after they arrived. Still, the decisions I made, alone, when nobody else was around, I have to live with whether they’re right or not. It’s one of those horrible points in life, where every decision will have bad consequences, you just have to measure which decision has the fewest.
I am fortunate to have 4 amazing children, who tell me things, who let me know if they’re down or miss their mom, or just need help. I can live with Sam freaking out in a store if we’re not all together or Noah constantly under foot. Why? Because we’re far stronger together than individually.
I make no decision about our family without their input now. I don’t care how minute. They’re involved, and they’re part of it all, which is as it should be. It’s not because I want them to shoulder the burden, it’s because they should never have to feel left out again. They should not be alone in the dark.
But mostly, I just want to make sure they don’t have to carry that weight. Pick your musical metaphor, use whatever philosophical platitude suits you best.
No matter, I’m going to carry that weight . . . a long time.