That Time with the Tacos

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

There are a couple of weeks in my past with Kim and Katherine that I’ve wanted to write about but can’t find an angle in. Too many things happened in each week; there are too many sub-stories to tell. As soon as I think of a pivotal moment to focus on and start trying to write toward that moment, I get tangled up in backstory. And I’ve read too much good writing to think that I could tell it all in chronological order and represent what happened. What a flat version that would be.

But I want to tell these stories. I want to get at least some of it out of my brain and onto paper. I want to debunk my own myth that these events happened on some plane that makes them impossible to capture. I want to capture them.

The tacos are tangible. I was taking care of Katherine and had made tacos for her when Kim walked in the front door (from having been briefly hospitalized for psychiatric distress). Kim saw the tacos, assumed they were the standard kind with all the potassium and salt that Katherine’s kidneys couldn’t take, and turned around and drove to our mom’s house where she tried to kill herself.

That’s one way to frame the story. But it needs lots of explaining.

Or, I could tell it like this.

I was taking care of Katherine while Kim’s body was in the hospital. All the toxins from Kim’s overdose were being flushed out so her organs could be donated. Technically, she wasn’t dead yet. But I was told on the phone that as soon as her organs were ready, they’d take her off the ventilator and let her go.

I was in over my head with Katherine, so I called my then-husband Paul to drive the few hours south to Kim’s place and take over for me while I took Mom to see Kim’s body before she died.

Mom was showing just the early signs of dementia then, so she knew what was going on. I mean, Kim had OD’d in Mom’s guest room, so if Mom wanted to go see her body in the hospital, it wasn’t my say to keep her from it.

But, Kim’s body was shocking. They had the hospital bed up high, I guess because there was no chance she was going to try to get out of it. That meant you were looking at her body not as somebody below you in bed but as something on display.

She was her most overweight at that time, and they had only a thin sheet on top of her. I was used to seeing her body in black, flowing outfits that hid her shape, but here every part of her was laid out before me.

The ventilator tube was bigger than I remember seeing for Katherine, or maybe it had been covered in tape for Katherine? All I know is that it seemed to take up all of Kim’s mouth so that her tongue was hanging out. Lolling out, like when you pantomime being dead.

The ventilator was pushing air into her lungs so strongly that her chest rose and fell, rose and fell in exaggerated movements. The rhythm was off just enough that you could see the body wasn’t breathing. No one was in there.

I took our shattered mom back home, then returned to Katherine and told her the basics of Kim being very bad off in the hospital. And then, a day later, the hospital called and told me that Kim had amazingly revived. And I was mad at her because I’d gone all this way down the path of dealing with her death, and now I had to deal with her alive again.

Or, I could tell it like this.

I’d been called in to be present with Katherine because Kim was in the hospital, and the home caregiver company she’d hired for Katherine wouldn’t allow anyone in the house without a family member present. Katherine was a handful all the time, but especially right then.

I think a caregiver had to be there according to a judge who allowed Kim to care for Katherine. There’s a legal guardian in this situation somehow, whom I met in an office, with other lawyers. All I remember is how self conscious I felt because I was wearing the same clothes I drove down in several days before.

Katherine was in her 20s then, so full of ideas on how she wanted to live her life, but at the same time she was on oxygen so pulling a tank behind her; both hips were in need of replacing so she struggled with the steep flight of stairs in the condo Kim had right then; she was in need of dialysis at a hospital but had shown up late for her appointments or simply refused dialysis so many times that the very last hospital that would take her had her on a parole of sorts (no more showing up late).

Katherine hated dialysis; anyone would because it hurts like hell, but she had had several strokes by then, and her brain wasn’t working all that great to tell her that she had to have dialysis anyway. Add in lots of anxiety, lots of meds several times a day, and a big ole case of aphasia that kept her from communicating her fears and desires. She was having a hard time, and it took a team of people to care for her.

A tricky part was that Katherine didn’t want a caregiver in the house, so I had to ask whichever lady on that shift to stay on the third floor of the condo, in Kim’s bedroom, and try not to show herself on the main floor. Anyone who met Katherine would see the short stature and the handicap and talk to her as if she were a child, and that she could not stand. So, one young caregiver who was in nursing school was happy to be paid to sit upstairs and read textbooks. An older woman on another shift did a lot of knitting.

I sorted through Katherine’s meds every few hours, showing her each pill so she could approve it with hand signals. I managed the oxygen machine when it beeped warnings because something was broken in it; the manufacturer was sending a repairman soon. I helped Katherine move her walker from her bedroom to the living room sofa and back to the bedroom, trying so hard to keep her calm so she wouldn’t have a meltdown, because I couldn’t carry her, and asking the caregiver to help would turn the meltdown into a full fit. I came in to her bedroom every time she called out, to flip her pillow for her because her latest face piercing was tender. I laughed with her when she managed to be witty and clever with so few words at her disposal. I think this was the last time I was with Katherine.

Or, I could tell it like this.

The trip to dialysis that week was a miracle: finally getting Katherine into a clean bra that fit and down the steep stairs and into Kim’s car with her wheelchair in the back, only for snow to start falling hard. We were late for the appointment, the last one Katherine would get if she wasn’t on time. Paul drove and joked while I had an anxiety attack in the back with Katherine.

As Paul parked, I got Katherine into the hospital and up to the dialysis unit, and in a bed, but I couldn’t get her to agree to dialysis.

So I called Katherine’s dad and asked him to fly in from Vietnam where he lived for work. The trip takes 24 hours; I knew from experience that if I waited until the situation was dire, I’d still have at least two days on my own.

He got a flight the next day and was there a day after that. I updated him, kissed Katherine, and drove away as fast as I could.

I stopped at a restaurant off the interstate and had a huge bowl of grits: turns out I’d lost a pound a day the past week and gained a sinus infection. I was in urgent care the next day getting antibiotics so I could go back to my printer deadline at work when Kim called me from the psychiatric hospital. Would I forgive her? Would I call her lawyer so she could get her ex-husband out of her house and sue him for putting salt on her marble doorstep?

There are so many ways I could talk about this one week, and even when I get several of them on paper, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten it all out of my head satisfactorily. And there’s still another tricky week, a different week, stuck in my head that doesn’t have anything as concrete as tacos to be the focus point. This is how people wrap their hands around the past though, so I will keep trying.

13 thoughts to “That Time with the Tacos”

  1. Oh Shelly, this just breaks my heart not only knowing what you had to endure but also what tormented lives your sister and niece lived. It makes me realize how blessed I am to be living my ordinary, boring, mundane life.

    1. There certainly is a lot of suffering out there, and in my little world it’s Katherine’s that makes me saddest. It infuriates me to see those commercials or billboards of children in hospitals all hopeful and noble, when childhood sickness and disease is misery. I don’t mean to be so depressing though – thanks for reading and commenting, Cindy!

  2. My mom and I spent 6 hours in the ER with my dad last night, and we had to leave him (he was being admitted) because my mom was in a lot of pain. This has a point, I promise. The process you described made me realize how we don’t always discuss the messiness of disease or sickness. Also, “burdening” others. I think that many people are afraid of burdening others with their innermost emotions and by keeping them hidden, they end up OVERburdening others. This is why my dad was in the ER last night. He hadn’t been able to breathe properly for three days. If he had told us right away, we wouldn’t have had to spend six hours in the ER. (Even though we would do that for him in a heartbeat)

    Shelly, I am deeply sorry for how all of this took place. How are you taking care of yourself? Writing? Traveling? What is helping you?

    1. Jeez Louise six hours in the ER is a torture. I am sorry. Your dad is in his own room and being taken care of by now? I hope he’s going to take care himself after this with less burden on your mom.

      My shenanigans with family was all years and years ago. It’s helped me to write about some events b/c they were living in my head as these nebulous creatures, and writing demystified them some.

      I am good! Living on the road has given me lots to reflection time and time to just sit with myself. Time to fall apart, as it were, then reconstruct.

      1. He’s in the ICU now. Still no idea of when he will be out of the hospital. One day at a time.

        Writing is therapy for me. I don’t know how I would get through things without it.

        I am so glad. I love reading about your life and also, getting to know you better. 💕

          1. He’s still in the ICU with no plans for release. He is having trouble swallowing and breathing. He isn’t on any machine, though. I hope we get more answers today.

          2. It has been. We just found out yesterday afternoon that he will be discharged on Tuesday and will enter rehab for ten days before returning home. We are so thankful that there is a plan.

          3. Yes! At least there’s that. He’s gonna be so glad to be home when the time comes.