By Betsy Klee*
After caring for a neighbor family who had come down with the flu, my boyfriend’s mom, Brenda, caught it in September 2009 and no one thought much of it. After all, who has heard of a fifty-year-old woman with no medical conditions dying from the flu?
But she kept getting worse. Finally she was admitted to the hospital. Then, after being on a ventilator for eight days fighting H1N1 and pneumonia, her organs began to shut down. The family decided to take her off life support. I didn’t want to stay but I couldn’t leave my boyfriend in there alone. Now every time I close my eyes to go to sleep I can see her laying there, her lips deformed by the ventilator tube gasping for air, turning blue. Then I hear the constant ringing of the heart monitor, telling us her heart had stopped. She turns blue, then a faint shade of gray.
I’m thrust into a life of responsibility far greater than any eighteen year old should be put into. I feel like I have to worry about my boyfriend, his grammie, his sister, his dad. Panic attacks overwhelm my boyfriend frequently for months. I feel obligated to be the female role model for Catie, his sixteen-year-old sister, who is lost, confused, and angry. David, their father, is around, but barely capable of taking care of himself. For months he goes to work at the casino where he is a pit boss, comes home, and goes to sleep. He buys meaningless gadgets trying to fill the void. I don’t have time to take care of myself. This leads to a year-long depression, a depression that causes me insomnia, lack of motivation, and an empty feeling that won’t go away. I spend too much time trying to take care of James and Catie, and worrying about their dad, hiding the pain that I feel.
Brenda was the real provider of their family, although she had been laid off nine months before she passed away. She was a project manager at a big company that decided it needed to downsize. While she was in the hospital three companies called and offered her jobs. Her money had paid for the vacations, gymnastics, cars, but all of that was gone when she died; the unemployment stopped coming and the life insurance went quickly. She was a woman who loved life, but I think she found the most joy in her family, animals, and gardening. She always kept beautiful flowers in her front yard, spending most of the spring making sure her garden was perfect.
Last year, James and I were attending Pittsburg State University, two hours south of Olathe, Kansas, where our families live. The night that we got the call the two hours seemed like an eternity. Was she still alive? Would she be alive when we got there? The rain poured as we sped home.
James and I were sitting in my room watching a movie and suddenly he says “Betsy, I can’t breathe.” I looked up at him and saw the tears running down his cheeks. I had to tell him that it was okay, that he just needed to breath in and out and he would be fine. Sitting him down on the side of my bed, I stroked his back as he calmed down. All I could say was “I know you miss her babe, I know you do. But there’s nothing you did that made her go away; there’s nothing that you could’ve done.”
And now a year later I can’t go to their house anymore without an eerie, empty feeling. The energy that she brought to the house was ripped away. The experience has brought everyone closer together; they learned to rely on each other to make it through the tough times. David has taken the day shift so he can now be home with his kids, James transferred back up to Johnson County Community College, and Catie does the chores. Although it has been a year, time has flown by. As Catie says “It feels like she just left for a long business trip and she’ll be coming through the door any minute.”
The last thing she wrote down before she was sedated to be put on the ventilator, “Be sure to plant my flowers.”
So we did.