Monday, February 28, 2011

Flying Solo

For years I'd developed a test of sorts for the people that I knew even though I myself didn't realize I was quizzing them. I'd push and push and push people away waiting to see if they would return. The few ones that did were my friends. For those that didn't I'd lament the faded relationships trying to figure out how things went poorly without even realizing that it was me that was at fault. And deep down in my heart I always wished that everyone would like me enough to come back. And no matter how many did choose me, it was never enough because I'd stand among them and still feel all alone.

Testing the loyalties of the male species was particularly fierce. I'd always either had anxieties about men or bad luck with them.  As I aged I developed a fear that I saw as more and more likely - I would end up alone and that was the thing in life I wanted least to happen.

Less than two months before I broke down my great-uncle died. While people in my life recognized that it was a difficult event they really didn't understand the significance of how that played in my mind. This event more than any other brought up all those fears and anxieties about being alone.

When my grandma learned she was sick she issued a gentle reminder that we would need to take care of him when she gone. He was a bachelor and had lived with my grandparents most of his adult life. Just another in the parade of family members that my grandparents took in, including my mom and I, in the home that I would joke was "the halfway house - all stray family members welcome." But my grandparents lived by the philosophy that family takes care of family and they expected that we would carry that tradition onward.
Shortly after my grandma's funeral I noticed that my uncle had a cough and other symptoms still persisting long after they should have. I asked him if he wanted me to take him to the doctor and he suggested that we go to the emergency room. So, I grabbed a book for the wait and drove him there.

 I was in the waiting room for hours. I was beginning to think that one book might not have been enough when a doctor and a nurse appeared in the lobby and called my name. The nurse didn't scare me, but the doctor accompaniment did. Instead of taking me back into the halls that lead to the ER, they directed me into one of those small consultation rooms. This couldn't be a good thing. They asked me a few questions about who was around to take care of him and a few similar things. I was relaxing sure now that they just wanted to determine there was someone around for him since he was alone.

But no, then they delivered the whammy. He had cancer. I'm sure they weren't anticipating my reaction. After the word cancer I pretty much told them to stop. I couldn't go through this again I said. My grandma had just died of pancreatic cancer eleven days ago. I was just a great-niece that thought she was being nice by driving him. I couldn't do this. There was no way in the world that I could carry him the way I had my grandma. I couldn't take him to the bathroom. I couldn't do any of those kind of things I did just weeks before and I certainly couldn't listen to this. And silently I thought about how I didn't want to have to do those things for him either. I'm sure they hear all sorts of things in that consultation room, but in this case they heard the rant of a very selfish girl that was not at all sympathetic to a man that was alone in the world. We were his closest family. I hadn't been raised this way. But, I still hadn't figured out how to deal with what I was going through, I couldn't add on more. They calmed me down and talked to me some more. I called my mom and then her sisters. We'd have to yet again figure this out. Family didn't let family be alone - I had to keep remembering that.

After a hormone drug treatment was started he improved and things were pretty normal for a while. And then two years later the cancer metastasized and things were tougher. At some point we had to make new arrangements and we divvied up days to make sure that he had visitors. And as I listened to the slight complaints of how it was interfering with every one's daily lives, I realized that this could be me one day. It would be me one day. As an only child without any husband or children random family members could be complaining about how they felt they had to come and visit me so that I wouldn't be alone all the time. Family might not let family be alone, but they certainly didn't have to be happy about the burden either. I felt instantly sick as bile rose from the pit of my stomach into my throat. I was looking at my future. This is what it would be like when I was alone.

As the cancer progressed we moved onto hospice care. The nurses that work in palliative care will tell you there are random small cues, markers, that hint that the end of life is no longer days, but hours away instead. That day the hospice nurses called in two families to their facility because of markers, but ours was not one of them. When my aunt arrived for a visit something wasn't right. She called the nurse who stepped to the side of the bed and then looked back in shock. Less than a half hour earlier she had helped my uncle with his lunch. Now, he was gone. And for those last few moments of his life, he was alone. No one, not even a nurse, was in his room. And he had not one marker that would make them think that he didn't have days, if not weeks or months, remaining.

There were a lot of things that people said to try to make this all seem better. My aunt thought that he had made a sound as she walked in and determined that he was waiting for family to be there and that had to be his last breath. The nurse told us that the only food he was interested in eating that afternoon was his desserts, which we all thought was an appropriate last act for a man who loved his sweets. No matter how many of these things were said I knew that here I was staring at my truth - this is what would happen to me. People in my extended family were going to sit around and try to justify how it was not as bad as it was that I was alone at the end.

When we gathered a few days later for a small funeral service the deacon delivered a homily saying that for someone that had no children of his own you could see his life had value by the number of people present at the service. I looked around and knew that the funerals in my family had never been this small. He talked a little about his love of sports and then paused and asked one of my aunts his favorite team and she answered Notre Dame. I sat there amazed because I knew that the answer was Ohio State. For some reason the fact that something so simple wasn't even known by some of the "closest" family made me even sadder. What lies would they say about me that they thought were true?

Through this whole experience I knew I was being rather self-absorbed. Here I should be grieving and celebrating the life of my uncle, but all I could think about was how alone I was and how alone I'd always be. Outwardly I said and did all the right things, but inside all I thought about was how sad I was and would continue to be. I didn't like this person that sat here thinking more of herself. I wanted to care more, I wanted to be a good person, I just couldn't. Most of my tears were shed for myself. And staring at a future that looked so bleak made it even more difficult to get up and face each day.

And that simple word, alone, rolled around and around in my head - alone - alone -alone - that's what I would be. I couldn't make the feeling or the word go away.

Just another layer of feelings, fears and anxieties that I would add to a miserable year. Just one more layer that made it more and more difficult to see if there was even a way out. The well I'd dug was very, very deep and there I was at the bottom of it now facing my future - all alone.

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