Ok, just know going into this that I am both shamelessly venting and possibly overly dramatic. While moving forward don’t blame me for your sudden bout of indigestion. I am feeling angry. And I am resenting the fact that this anger is focused on the almighty power of one of my all time favorite defense mechanisms: Denial.
Denial, by it’s most rudimentary definition is a disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing. A noun. Like a massive stroke is a noun. The one my father suffered, which lead to his slow agonizing-to-watch death weeks later.
What I personally witnessed via an ordinary American Greetings “get well” card, presumably sent with all good intent, caused me to throw up in my mouth a little. What in the hell was this? A generic card suggesting in festive tones that my comatose father “Get Well Super Fast!”? How many stroke victims get well super fast? How might anyone flee from the chaos going on in a traumatically damaged brain, even on a good day? Clearly, I was disturbed. But was it misplaced? Was I wrong to despise this piece of mail…it’s timing….it’s colorful lettering with whimsical font…it’s poor use of exuberance pertaining to this situation?
Maybe it was the sender, herself, that pissed me off. She was my father’s baby sister; my aunt who suggested “children should be seen and not heard” as my cousins and I sang Top 40 tunes together over the holidays at our grandmother’s home, where she still resided a million years ago.
Perhaps it wasn’t her at all as much as it was the masterful denial system that she employed. Denial must have told her to reject anything the doctors suggested might be Dad’s cause for “what appears to be long term sedative effect when, in fact, he should be cognitively aware and at least minimally alert.”
But really, what must my aunt have been thinking when she carefully placed this cheerful salutation in the bright orange envelope, licked the closure and tossed it in the mailbox? It wasn’t even just the actual sentiment and flavor of the card. This thoughtful gesture featured a slobbering dog; or rather, a talking, slobbering dog, who looked at the recipient with big, bug-eyed adoration (or hunger?). Cheerful boldfaced words were imprinted in a paw shaped word bubble above his big, black, wet nose that read “Dear Brother, Get Well SUPER Fast!”.
As sweet as that may be received by someone who himself could talk, or even have use of his arms, hands, or even neck, my father could not. In fact, he was a dying man who, as long as I’d known him, despised anything that walked on four legs and crapped outside. The mere picture of a hairy mammal made my father break out in anxious anticipatory hives and begin to hyperventilate. I had a bronchodilator and epipen ready at his bedside, just in case.
To her credit, however, my aunt called the hospital on a periodic basis while my father had been living there for those two and a half weeks. With her background in nursing it seemed important to have her in-the-know. Each time she called, she had been informed by a medical professional that her brother seemed weaker and less responsive than the day before. I was often there, or if I had stepped out, one of them would tell me, as my sister and I were his Closest Living Relatives Who Cared, or CLRWC.
On this particular day our aunt called Dad’s room number directly. She bypassed the nurses station, probably because they were all in Dad’s room with us, watching as he faded in and out. Perhaps he was weighing out the pros and cons of hanging around my sister and I another couple of days or heading on up to heaven a day early. Or just maybe he was waiting for his last living family member to say her goodbyes. He’d already seen his little brother there days before.
Dad had been sleeping through most of our waking hours and all of our nights together. He was, as far as we knew, paralyzed from the neck down from the massive stroke they’d found on his MRI. My sister wanted to jump up and grab the startlingly loud, ringing beast from its cradle as much to shut it up as to take control of something I suppose. I sardonically suggested we let Dad get the phone. Of course I knew he couldn’t. And of course I, the phonophobic baby of the family, was okay with letting a phone just ring off the hook unassisted.
Our estranged aunt had already proven she hadn’t a clue, despite her years of nursing, what was included in our father’s “massive stroke” diagnosis. She sent him the ridiculously cheerful American Greetings card, most likely crafted for a seven year old someone with tummy upset rather then a deathly ill person she was supposed to know and love. Perhaps this small token of love, akin to a “fine” response to “how are you today?”, was to be but a placeholder for her absence.
She could rationalize that her brother knew she was thinking about him so she wouldn’t need to make the nasty plane trip back to rural Maine. It was darn cold there in February as far as she could remember and she’d traded in her mukluks for stilettos thirty years ago. I do get it though. Death is a painful visual, even through one’s rose colored glasses.
I could’ve been cool with the whole card-in-my-absence thing if it had been more appropriate to the situation at hand. In fact, I would have happily held up such a card for Dad to see whilst I read so he might savor the words rich with love and meaning had their been one. Perhaps if she called more frequently to speak with doctors realistically, actually wanting to know things like probability-of-imminent-death-timeframe I could have overlooked that card.
And now that I think about it, if she didn’t have a whole three second one-sided conversation with Dad that included, “How are you feeling?…..(pause…crickets….crickets…)….You’ll be fine, Alan! (pause)….Just fine!…(more crickets…) Be back home in no time at all!” I also wouldn’t be as bent out of shape. That was Denial 101!
Am I nuts to have found that sentiment incredibly irresponsible as well as a tad arrogant coming from her comfy reclining chair in the Commonwealth of Virginia? Again, perhaps it was the denial speaking…just doing it’s job to protect poor Aunt Donna from another death in the family (it was their third in three years).
What, though, must have gone through my father’s head at that moment? Would he have said, “Thanks Donna, your optimism is:
In reality, it wasn’t really my aunt that was so disturbing. It was how my father may have seen his sister’s neglect at such a difficult time. Sure, she sent him a lousy card, the only card he’d received actually; but he could always see through insincerity. Even at his most delusional he was able to pinpoint times when I lied to get out of a visit or was withholding of information. So, it is in that vein that I have taken the liberty to impart some knowledge to anyone, who like my aunt, prefers to take the road labeled “ignorance is bliss”.
1.) I would suggest that Auntie Donna’s phone calls be kept to a “I love you, Alan! I’m praying for you!” type communication as Dad couldn’t respond to any questions and this simple, yet sincere message covers the basics, assuming she does indeed love her brother and that she is praying for him;
2.) Make better card choices. Might we at least expect a somewhat reality based version of said card? Absolutely. Here I have written an example of a greeting card that both wishes well and yet screams honesty. And frankly, shouldn’t we all be more human?
Get Well Super Fast! I hear that you are now in the hospital with a major life-threatening condition. I am so sad about this! And to that end, you need to be aware that I am a coward. I am selfish enough to know that emotional pain is not on my bucket list. Also, if you must know, I am a bit of a cheapskate. Fares to Maine are incredibly expensive for some reason. I therefore cannot, er, I mean, will not make the effort to actually see you lying in a hospital bed helpless.
I thank God that (place name(s) here)__________________________is/are there by your side.
Dying alone would certainly suck.
Thank you for being a good big brother to me while I was young, before I took off to the DC Metropolitan area never to return. Sadly I missed so many of your mental breakdowns and that horribly messy divorce. In fact, while life was giving you lemons I was partaking in homemade lemonade from trees I’d planted in my very own greenhouse! You would be mighty proud of your baby sister! I fared well. Sadly, you did not.
Chin up, Alan! What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!
Love your sister,