Doughnut holes in life like doughnut holes in Lehigh, Nebraska are incongruous. When a doughnut hole appears it sends the mind reeling. They are episodes that defy explanation, exist like tantalizing tid-bits of improbable supposition that boggle the mind, and hang like stories without ending beginning one moment, ending a few minutes later, and you don’t know why they happen, they just do. Through them, your mind must incorporated factual episodes even as they serve proof of threads that exist outside our control.
April 20, 1999
Kaiser Hospital ICU
For over nine months, I had accompanied my husband and sister-in-law to various ICUs across the Bay Area. My brother-in-law had developed Hepatitis C, a special present from a homemade tattoo. For years, Terry had suffered the effects. The paralyzing syndrome left his pancreas sluggish resulting in diabetes and now his liver had failed resulting in a liver transplant at the University of California, San Francisco.
The first week was transplant hell. One day he made it, the next he visited death’s door. He went from reading the newspaper while sitting in a chair to his body packed in ice to bring down a life-threatening fever. His kidneys failed and dialysis began.
Nine months later, his body exhausted and overwhelmed by pain, he continued his suffering. His feet had turned black from necrosis and diabetes while staph and Aspergillus had invaded his blood stream, yet he fought on. Finally, on this day while my husband and sister-in-law consulted with doctors on whether or not to stop dialysis I sat in the ICU crying my eyes out, the agonizing realization of loss beginning to set in while the shootings at Columbine played across the television.
A knot of love tied our families together. Terry and Dennis were born one year apart, on the same day. My sister-in-law and I were best friends before we married. She had a daughter, I had a daughter, she had a son, I had a son, and finally, I had a son and she had a son. Our children played together, fought together, and spent every holiday together. They were more than cousins—they were friends, and remain so to this day.
My sister-in-law and I came from broken homes, mine by death, hers by divorce. Each of us lived through hard times and we swore we would create families that grew healthy and strong. Included in that equation was a home filled with laughter, love, and joy.
We succeeded through the ups and downs and for over thirty years we made it happen. Married young, one at fifteen, another at sixteen, we’d started out unsure of ourselves, but our mother-in-law stepped in and showed us how to create a home for our families. She shared with us the secrets of a good marriage, how to raise kids, and how more importantly, to wrap a web of love around those who entered our lives.
Now, Terry had to leave and we weren’t ready. The decision was made to turn off dialysis, and my husband and sister-in-law escaped to separate corners, she to the street outside to smoke and my husband to the halls where the imprint of his heels were etched into cold tan tiles that decorated interior walkways.
Our children were on their way along with their spouses. The doctors had said it would take three days for Terry to pass so there was plenty of time to say good-bye. For the moment, miraculously, I sat alone.
I huddled in a chair, the ICU reeking of medicinal supplies as the scent of microwaved food drifted through air intakes. Bleak gray-green walls held nondescript prints and the television, mounted on one wall faced four pea-green and sour-pink plaid chairs. By the grace of God, no one was there and I curled deeper into the chair.
I gave into despair and sorrow, realizing that after all this time, after this epic fight, all was lost. All our hopes and dreams of vacations in Disneyland and retirement together in Twain Hart were gone. No more family barbeques, weddings, birthdays, and Christmas. Always we would be one person shy. Terry’s humor would die, his great presence, silenced by time and fate.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and tried to dig further into the chair. Now was not the time to speak, I didn’t have the strength to do more than sit in this chair and heave the sorrow from my chest.
“Excuse me,” said a stranger.
I looked up. A woman sat across from me holding a tissue. Confused, I wondered who she was and what she wanted.
“I sense you have someone in ICU.”
I nodded, feeling baffled and insecure.
"I need to tell you something and you need to hear what I have to say. Are you paying attention?”
I took the offered hankie and blew my nose. Through bleary and tear-swollen eyelids, I studied her. Next, I wiped my tears. I couldn’t speak as my throat filled with unshed tears. I nodded for her to go on.
"While in my twenties I had a near death experience. Do you know what that means?”
As a writer and an aficionado of the paranormal, I was quite aware of the term. Again, I nodded. Already I sensed where this conversation headed.
She continued, “You have an open mind so listen well. I developed spinal meningitis and died. While dead, an angel told me that when I returned to life I would assist those about to pass over, especially those having difficulty. Do you understand?”
I still couldn’t talk so I nodded. My nose ran with a frightening intensity and I gulped dreadfully, trying to breathe.
She said, “Understand this. I don’t need to help the person in your life. It is you that must lead.”
Again, I nodded. I knew what she talked about. I thought it is my job to help Terry let go, yet for the moment, a powerful anger swept through me. Why is it up to me?
A tremendous wave of emotion threatened to break through the dam the last nine months had created. An utterly magnificent crest of love, hate, anger, terror, and loss threatened to consume me and wash away all we had created for the whim of a God who set forth this woman to remind me of the path I had to walk.
I grabbed more tissue and turned away, trying to ignore her.
A soft hand rested on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said.
More tears fell and I suffered through them. I worried how my husband would live without his brother, his wife without her husband, their children without a father, and me without the fourth person in our world who made up our family. The anger raged and I railed at God until spent.
When done, I opened my eyes to an empty room. The television still blared out the events at Columbine, the chairs cold and stiff, the walls inhospitable. I had no idea how long it had taken to wash myself of the tears. I looked for the woman who patted my shoulder then walked into the bathroom and wiped my face, repairing the damage a lifetime worth of grief had created.
I traversed the hallway, looking around. I asked at the nurse’s desk if a short, thin woman with cropped brown hair and brown eyes had come in. A nondescript sort of a woman, though I didn’t say those words.
The nurse said, “No,” and I continued my search. The woman had vanished. She wasn’t in the cafeteria, the bathroom, or the hallways either outside or in. I settled myself into a chair next to a table, next to the restroom, in the ICU, waiting to see if she would return.
As the minutes ticked by, I thought of my brother-in-law that had fought the good fight. He had stayed so long on Earth his legs nearly rotted off because his heart couldn’t take the surgery to remove them. His most vital of organs had stopped numerous times and always he survived. The two worst infections transplant victims can have had invaded his body, blocking veins, cells, lungs, and aortas with their web-like tentacles threatening blockage at any moment. Yet he lived on.
Terry hadn’t been home for months. He’d lived in convalescent hospitals and ICU units then back to homes for the infirmed, striving to get well, to beat the odds, to go back home to family and friends. We had believed Terry would achieve his goals. We fought the good fight too.
They said this morning Terry was in a coma and that’s why they wanted to help us decide against dialysis. Another three days of fighting, I thought. Of living in a body that died even while it lived. The doctors explained the toxins would build up, easing him from this life. Three days wasn’t long after nine months of war.
I rose from my chair, my thoughts, and the words of the woman flowing through my mind in an uninterrupted wave. I walked the cold hallway, passed the nurses station, and into Terry’s room. Eyes closed, his head turned to the right, the blips and bleeps of the machines monitoring his heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure kept record of a life well lived.
I sat in the chair next to his bed, put one arm on the railing, and lay my head on my elbow, praying. I asked God to tell me if it was right to tell Terry to go. I asked God if it was time. I prayed God to help me and I waited for a sign, any sign that what I was about to do was right.
At a rustle of bed sheets, I looked up. A pair of brown eyes, the whites black, the pupils round and awake looked back. One red blood spot in his left eye kept watch on my own.
The words poured forth, “It’s time for you to go. I’ll watch after the kids, I'll make sure your youngest goes to college, and I’ll take care of the family. It’s okay for you to leave, because I’ll make sure everything is fine. Let go, Terry. Let go of the family that loves you and go on to the place we talked about. The one with the white fountain where your dad waits and the water springs eternal.”
The tears rolled off my face, drenching my shirt, and dripping to my waist. I repeated the words above until my voice was hoarse and the emotion forcing me to talk quieted.
Early on, Terry had had a near death experience. Since no one in the family knew about them, they called on me. Terry and I had discussed his experience and he told me of the white fountain in a marbled room where his father waited. Don had told him he had to return to his family, that it wasn't time for him to die. There were things left to do. Reluctantly, Terry had returned and nine months later, the time it takes a fetus to enter this earth, he was ready to leave.
“Louann,” a voice said, raspy with pain and longing. One tear, just one sparkled as it slid from his eye, to his cheek, and onto the bed. “Thank you.”
With that, he closed his eyes and turned away.
Forever and always, that tear will live in my mind, along with those eyes, and the love that shined within. Over the next few hours, the family arrived. Each gathered around his bed one-by-one, quietly watching the machine bleep out the moments of a wondrous life. The nurses came and said it would be days before he died and that the family should go home and rest.
Finally, they respected our need for privacy as we stood in his room, curtained off from the outside, the only sound, that of our beloved’s heartbeat. I can’t explain what went on as the reverence of a life lived reached a sanctity that spread through the air in a wave of quietude coupled with awe as one life passed into another.
No one needed to sit, we all stood, supported by the hand of God. Each person arrived and took their place as if an invisible telegram had gone out through the ethers reaching only those whom Terry loved. Three hours later, he died with his family surrounding him, secure in their love and the prayers accompanying him into his new life.
For some time afterward I grew angry with myself, wondering if perhaps I hadn’t told Terry to go he would be with us today. It took ten years for me to write these words and as I do so, I realize the timing is right and the logic perfect.
I believe in life after death and I know the human spirit goes on. I wrote Gemini Rising because of the doughnut holes that live within my life. The imagination is full of alternate realities and hidden dimensions. Perhaps this experience fits into one or not.
I don’t know the woman I met in the ICU. Perhaps she is an angel, or a woman on a mission to save the suffering of mankind. To her I say, “Thank you.”
I pray that someday she will read this in the knowledge that her path is not walked in vain. It took an illegal doughnut hole in Lehigh, Nebraska, along with ten years to of suffering, wondering, and praying to finally tell the tale.
Terry Carroll was forty-six years old.
Palliative Care: Comfort, Communication, Choices, and Control. www.pesihealthcare.com
Life After Death by Deepak Chopra: www.amazon.com/Life-After-Death-Burden-Proof/dp/0307345785
The Loss of A Child: www.CopeFondation.org