Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It started with a drooping foot - nothing too worrisome - more of a hassle really. Then he noticed a stumble here and there. Then some weakness in his legs. Finally he went to the doctor and the doctor noticed something that made alarm bells go off. I got a call from my cousin who is a doctor and he voiced concerns that he was worried his brother might have a serious disease. That made me worry because I knew he wouldn't say something lightly like that if the threat weren't very real.

Later, the diagnosis arrived that my cousin had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. I watched him transform from using a cane when walking to using a wheelchair. I watched him being able to feed himself to being unable to do so. His poor body was robbed of the simplest functions even though his mind was sharp.

On his last night alive, his brother called me and told me that I might want to hurry up and come over to say my goodbyes. I made the trip from one side of the city to the other, in rush hour traffic in record time. I don't know how I got over there so quickly - and without a siren or police to clear the way for me! When I arrived at the house I went directly to my cousin and immediately burst into tears. I probably cried for 3 hours straight. He was unresponsive and was barely breathing. I was told that the breathing he was doing was called reflexive breathing. Breaths the body does as it shuts down - not good, deep breaths that keeps everything going.

I tried nudging him to get a response. Nothing. I tried tickling him. Nothing. I tried shouting in his ear, pleading for him to wake up. Nothing. I shook him and pinched him and let my tears fall all over his face and he never responded. So I sat there and cried and held onto his warm hand and watched his head lurch every few minutes when his body made that horrible automatic gasping breath. My cousin the doctor told me that he was already gone and all the body was doing was reacting to electrical currents firing but I didn't want to believe it.

My dying cousin had an oxygen pump blowing oxygen up his nose which was keeping him "alive" or else he would have died sooner. Finally his wife made the decision to turn it off and within minutes he was gone. No more reflexive breaths, just silence. And stillness.

I hate that horrible disease that took my cousin from me. I've never sat with someone and watched them die. It's horrible. But I'm really grateful that I got to be there with him. It reminded me of how fragile and short life is. And how important it is to make the most of every single day. I was - wait, I still am - crazy about my cousin. I still have his phone number in my phone and it's been over a year since he died. I'll probably keep it forever as a reminder to LIVE. He didn't get to. It's my duty to live and live large. You should, too.

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