• leaflet

    . . .a thin triangular flap of a heart valve. . . a small book usually having a paper cover . . . a medical lit-art e-journal from The Permanente Press
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Chest Pain

Vol 6: Iss 2, Prose

It is said that people can experience pain in their chest when they have experienced a major emotional loss in their life, as if their heart is aching. Have you ever experienced the physical pain of your heart aching? Not like the pain of a heart attack that feels like an elephant standing on your chest, but the sheer, deep aches of emotional pain. As Merrill drove up to her parent’s home in Langlois OR, it was the only time she could remember experiencing this kind of physical, emotional heartache. 

When she was 12, they had found her Grandpa dead, sitting in his rocking chair. Her Grandpa had lived a hermit’s life in a one room cabin out in the middle of nowhere Montana. They said he died of “old age.” Even as a child of 12, Merrill knew people didn’t just die of “old age.” They had to die from something like a stroke or heart attack. When they attended the funeral in White Sulpher Springs, she didn’t know what to expect. It was her very first funeral. Merrill’s mom had warned her that the dead would not look the same way that you remember them. “Why not,” she would ask. “They just don’t,” her mom would say. Merrill didn’t find that to be a good enough answer. Her mom had scared her so much with the explanation that she couldn’t go up to her Grandpa’s coffin to view him. She had loved him so much; she was scared to death to look. She and her Grandpa had developed a kindred spirit. He was the coolest Grandpa ever! Merrill wrote him little letters before ever learning to write. Her mom would make dotted lines that would outline the letter of the alphabet and then she would follow the “dots” to make the letter. This took an inordinate amount of time on her mom’s part, but she had the patience of a saint. Grandpa would write back, which made Merrill feel very special. She still had a very vivid memory of visiting him at his cabin when she was no more than 6 or 7. Her parents had gone up to Aunt Helen’s house and left her with Grandpa. He showed her his prize collection of Indian arrowheads, and they talked about rocks and the weather. She remembered him saying that if her dad didn’t come and get them soon, they should go down to the creek and fetch the watermelon that was cooling in the water, cut it up, and eat some. Merrill had thought that was so funny and a very good idea! All her fond memories of her Grandpa would not be disturbed by going to look at him dead in his coffin, no way!

Once again Merrill needed to approach a room where they had arranged the dead for viewing. The funeral director had asked for a picture of her. Merrill assumed that it was because they were going to make her look exactly, or at least, as close to the picture as possible. One of the first things Merrill had learned in Nursing School was never to assume anything. She looked very peaceful lying there in her favorite dress. As Merrill looked at her lying there in the dim light, beautiful bouquets of flowers all around she immediately was irritated. They didn’t fix her hair the way she used to fix it, or even get it close to the way it was in the picture. It was all combed away from her face. She never fixed her hair that way. Merrill was the only one in the room, so she became brave and stepped a little closer to get a better look at her mother. Looking closely at her mom’s face, she could see the powder burns close to the right side of her mouth. There was a deep frown on her mom’s lips. Couldn’t they have at least gotten some kind of smile on her face? Can’t these guys get it right? This was the last time she would physically see her mom, and they don’t have enough sense or compassion to get it right. Her blood was beginning to boil and she could have gotten more upset, but she became so overcome by the reality of her mom’s sudden death that she lost the momentum. Merrill had brought some of her mom’s pansies from her garden in a bouquet. She wanted her to take them with her. Carefully placing them on her mom’s folded hands, she didn’t dare touch that cold skin. Merrill wanted the memories of her mom to remain intact with warm skin, smile, and her hair properly in its place.

How had life gotten so hard to live that the only choice left was to extinguish her life? Had she not known the love that was for her, and her alone? Merrill was thinking in a rational mindset. Her mom had not been thinking rationally at all. What about the cookies? She was amazed that her mom had been thoughtful enough to have a full cookie jar of oatmeal-raisin cookies. Had she planned it that way, in light of what she had done? The violent suicide certainly was not the product of someone thinking rationally. Making a full jar of her favorite cookies was rational thinking. Merrill was beginning to feel guilty about not being able to keep her mom alive. She should have seen it coming and been listening to her for the past 4 years as her mom struggled with claustrophobia and depression while traveling around the country in an RV. She had received inconsistent care as they traveled. Her mom had been passed from doctor to doctor with no community health record. The doctors would always depend on her mom telling them the truth about her past medical history. Of course, Merrill didn’t want to interfere in her mom’s life, and didn’t inquire too deeply. She really didn’t know what had been happening in her mother’s life and didn’t realize the depth to her mental illness. Her dad had no concept of how much he had contributed to her mom reaching this point. Merrill didn’t want to blame him, how could she. Her mom had completed this act strictly of her own accord. But he was the one who encouraged her to get off of those pills she was taking (the Haldol). Consequently, her mom had started dosing herself by cutting the pills in half, then in quarters. Merrill’s dad wanted her mom to “get ahold of herself,” and “pick herself up by her bootstraps.” Her dad’s generation had a narrow concept of mental illness and how to deal with it. She wasn’t sure her generation knew how to deal with mental illness either! Merrill had also experienced a brief bout with depression when she was 30. She had realized that she needed help and quickly engaged in it. It had taken several months of counseling and Xanax to help her sleep at night. She had been living on 3 hours of sleep a night and had lost so much weight. Her mom had shown these same signs, but at a much more severe level. A little over a month and a half ago, Merrill had spoken to her mom on the phone. She had mentioned that during the month of October, she had lost almost 30 pounds. She told Merrill that she had no saliva to swallow anything and had no appetite. Of course, the doctors had worked her up for cancer. When everything came back normal, the referral to the psychiatrist came next.

Merrill needed to know what had happened with the psychiatrist’s evaluation of her mom. Her dad was a poor historian, and really couldn’t tell Merrill what she needed to know. Her sister-in-law had called Dr Roberts and angrily chewed him out for not managing mom’s care well. The doctor had failed to communicate the need for potential suicide risk. What the heck had he done to protect mom … nothing! She had to speak to him and put pieces of the puzzle together. There were too many holes in the long story that lead up to her mom’s death. Right now, she just had to get through the funeral and see if she could manage her own grief. So many questions unanswered.

Merrill’s Christian faith was challenged during this interruption on the road of her life. She had loved her mom so much. Did she blame God for this horrible, violent death that her mom had experienced? Why did her mom’s life get shortened so that she was not able to enjoy more grandchildren and experiences with her own children? Merrill didn’t blame God. She knew that we were all capable of making our own decisions. Yet, if mental illness was involved, could that be considered legitimate decision making? Once again, her mom’s decisions were not based on rational thinking. Without realizing it, years would pass before Merrill would figure out what her mom’s death had meant to her own life and the lessons she would learn about herself. 

The family reacted differently to this brutal invasion of death into their lives. But commonly Merrill and her brothers would find themselves going around the house touching things that they knew their mom had touched, caressing items ever so gently, careful not to disturb anything.

That evening, the sleeping arrangements were discussed. Merrill’s two brothers and their families were here. Merrill had left her husband at home to care for their animals. He really should have come with her, but she had insisted that he stay home. After all the discussion, the conclusion was that Merrill was to sleep in the very room where her mom had taken her life. Wow, how was she supposed to do that?! She supposed it was because she was a nurse and everyone thought she could handle it. Why was she the one that had to be so brave? Her dad did not want to sleep there and had chosen to sleep in the RV. The spare bedrooms were taken by her two brothers and their families. There was absolutely nothing in the bedroom that indicated that her mom had taken her life there. Just a plain, old bedroom, she reasoned with herself. It was where her mom’s soul had left her body and ascended to heaven! It was the last room her mom had ever been in on this earth! Now, she was going to have to sleep in this room, in the same bed! It was going to be a very long night.

Merrill managed to make it through the night until the next morning. She rose before daylight and sat in the gold armchair. She found it comforting to just sit and reflect about her mom and the good times and memories she had of her. She reflected about what her dad had said to her late the night before. He had not shared this with her brothers. The morning after her mom had taken her life, before any of the family had arrived, he told Merrill that her mom had appeared to him and spoke to him. He said that her mom had told him that she was very sorry for what she had done and that it was not his fault and that she loved him. Merrill’s dad was not one for having unusual things happen to him and was a grounded person. Merrill believed him, as she knew God had strange ways of communicating and providing comfort. She reasoned that if her dad believed it, then so did she. She seriously doubted that dad would share this story with both brothers. Her oldest brother was grounded in his Christian faith, but her middle brother was a professed agnostic. As Merrill contemplated what her dad would do, she found her mother’s robe. She held it up to her face and smelled, thinking it was just a few days ago that her mom had worn it. She felt at peace in the midst of the tragedy, even with the unanswered questions. She rose and dressed and decided that she needed to stretch her legs and get some fresh air before everyone else woke. After a long unrestful night, she headed out the back door and walked off of the porch and into the dawn.