It’s Still Your Birthday, Even if You’re Gone

A post from last year on this date- posting it again in memory of my brother.

Today is my brother’s birthday. Or it would have been his birthday were he still alive, though I feel that just because he is gone does not make August 6th no longer his birthday. His age will forever remain at 54, but the date will forever be his birth date. He died by his own hand in February of 2015. I wrote about him on the first anniversary of his death here.He wasn’t married, had no children, and struggled so the last years of his life. Today I choose to remember him before all that, to think of him long ago before the demons set in. To remember him with rose colored glasses on, filtering out the sadness and anger. Remembering him with a smile.82802100-SLD-001-0015

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The Year Passes

Today is the first “anniversary” of my brother’s death. I wrote about his death, by his own hand, here last year. I have been thinking about him today. Saddened at the thought of his being gone from this world, sad for the troubled life he led, and sad at the thought that so few remember him. I am thinking about the mark each of us leaves, or maybe doesn’t leave. My sisters and I remember him, his 1 niece and 1 nephew whom he lived near and saw fairly frequently until his mental issues prevented that. Our cousins remember him as a young boy, teenager, young adult, the person they spent summer vacations with and shared holiday meals with growing up. It’s a small list of people as he didn’t have friends, was divorced for almost as long as he had been married. I hope somewhere at some time he had touched someone’s life in a meaningful way, shared a laugh with them that they remember, showed a kindness before his mental illness erased the good that had once existed within him. Replacing it with anger and irrational thoughts and all the injustices he thought had ever rained down upon him.

Today I choose to try to think back to those times before the darkness descended, to when he joked around and found humor in silly situations, to the laughter we shared together, to his love of the sea, of nature, how he loved to read the Encyclopedia. His curiosity about things and wanting to learn more and find out more. His love of yoga and meditation that centered him for a time, bringing solace to him and his world. Remembering that once long ago there had been light in his life.

 

My Brother

1961loulisa2atlanta 1998My brother died on Friday. His fourth attempt to take his own life was finally successful. My sister and I had talked many times over the years about how we understood his wish to leave. We knew each time he recovered that it was only a question of time until he would once again become dissatisfied with his life. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in his 20’s, but had recovered and married and had a job. Then something changed, depression, the TBI causing changes in his brain 20 years later. He was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. His marriage fell apart, he couldn’t keep a job. This latest round of medication seemed to work, he had finally found people who were helping him, who found him a nice place to live. Then once again the tides shifted, the time between those tides becoming shorter and shorter over the last 20 years.

My brother and I have had sporadic contact over the years. Years ago before we realized the extent of his mental issues we tried to reason with him, to help. That became impossible after a time. We have not lived near each other for many years, the last time I saw him was about 10 years ago. At that time his demeanor was more docile, I knew to stay away from topics that could set him off, this way keeping everything on an even keel.

My reaction to his death has been harder than I imagined. Even though I knew this would be how it would end, that it seemed inevitable. I reasoned that if I understood it intellectually, the whys, the reasons, somehow I thought that would make it less emotional. I thought having had so little contact with him over the years would bring a disconnect of emotion, make the loss less of a loss. What I failed to realize is that though the years may have separated us, and his mental state put a wedge between us, we were still connected in a very visceral way. There is a connection that runs deep, deeper than I had imagined, that has made the loss more profound than I thought it would be. Perhaps it is tied up with the sadness of knowing how unhappy his life was, how troubled he was. That in itself brings sadness.  Add to that the shared history of childhood, of teen years, the connection of just being siblings. I cry for the loss of the life he did not have, could not have. I cry to think of his struggles. For his mental state leaving him unable to find his way, making him incapable of doing so.

I hope he is at peace now, free from the demons and the ongoing arguments he perseverated over in his own head. I am glad my sister was with him when he died, that perhaps he in some way knew he was not alone at the end. I will try to remember who he was before his brain turned on him. Remember the boy who learned to fly an airplane in his teens, who loved all things having to do with fish and the sea, who sat reading the World Book Encyclopedia because he thought it was interesting. For the double pat he would always give me on the back when he hugged me good bye, and told me “take care” And to hold onto what would be his parting sentiment in the card he sent me last month thanking me for a gift card I sent him.

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Choosing Death

I read a thought provoking article in the NY Times, titled Aid In Dying. It is about a man who has a heart problem and has already undergone an open heart surgery, but needs another, which he does not want to do. The state in which he lives does not allow Doctor assisted “aid in dying.” Vermont, Montana, Oregon and Washington allow it.  Giving a patient the opportunity for a peaceful and dignified death is not suicide says the advocacy group Compassion & Choices. Overt assistance to bring on death, still remains illegal in most of the country.

There has been a move towards Palliative Care in  many hospitals- allowing a patient to choose if they want to undergo aggressive treatments or choose to forgo them and opt for less invasive measures. This allows the person more quality of life during what remains of their life. I attended a conference showing the outcomes of two patients, one who chose the aggressive measures for her treatment, and ended up spending the last 4 months of her life in a hospital, hooked up to drips, and another patient who opted to be treated with milder drugs, that she could take at home, which allowed her to still live her life and spend time with her family. The woman who opted for the less invasive measures lived as long as the doctors had predicted, not a shorter time. And her family was left with great memories of their time spent together during her last months. Sadly, this was not so for the patient who remained hospitalized.

But what of the person who chooses that they want to hasten their death- avoid the pain, avoid what they know cannot be changed with medicine? My friend’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 81. She was a vibrant woman, traveled extensively, involved in hometown politics, at the gym everyday from the time she was in her 40’s. Always attending lectures, always involved. The number 81 had no bearing on who she was. But  she started realizing  she was forgetting things, forgetting how to do things. She called my friend from a parking lot at the mall one day telling her she had no idea how to get home- it was as if she was “lost in space”- things didn’t look familiar. She underwent testing- and it was found she had the plaques on the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. She knew it was not going to get better. She had always been a very “take charge” kind of person- not afraid to speak her mind, to say what she thought. One of her favorite lines was “Everyone is  entitled to my opinion.”

So she began hoarding the sleeping pills and anti anxiety pills her doctor had given her. I remember when my friend called to tell me her mother was going to end her own life- my response was “she can’t do that!!” My own fear creeping in. But why couldn’t she? She told my friend she knew what lay ahead- knew that her decline into dementia could go on for years- she was healthy and strong but for her disintegrating mind. She couldn’t do it- she wouldn’t do it. She wanted to leave this life with dignity, not lingering in some state of nothingness.

And so it was. She did not want her daughter to be implicated in any way, so she let her know only that it would be sometime between a certain few days. My friend lives an hour from her mother so she called the Police to ask them to check on her mother when she didn’t get an answer on the phone. Did it make it any easier for my friend knowing what the Police would tell her when they called back? No, not really- the shock is still there that someone you loved is gone- but she knew her mother had died as she had lived- on her own terms.

Try not to pass judgement when reading this. I realize for many the reaction might be to say that life is precious, it is not ours to take, it is up to a higher power to decide the time to go. I hope none of us will ever be faced with having to make such a decision. I felt my friend’s mother was brave- it took courage to do what she did. It also gave those around her the chance to tie up loose ends- to say goodbye, myself included. I sat with her over coffee and talked about the years we had known one another, reminiscing, remembering. We talked about the choice she was making, was she sure. She was. She walked me to the elevator of her building, and I remember her smiling at me and saying good-bye. Hard knowing it was really good bye this time.

Evelyn and Me
Evelyn and Me