Dogs…Diets…Dating Column October 2008

Split Second Tragedy-Comfort in Dog Years

My sister Liz is eating tropical fruit salad tonight…not in the tropics though…from a container in a refrigerator in a nursing home…a place she lives now. A place where she never planned to spend any time…a place she didn’t fill out a change of address for. She has no choice here except to rely on the comfort and care of strangers….and often that reliance brings her only frustration, disappointment, and always questions.
Tonight when she hollers loud enough to get the attention of one of the nonchalant aides milling about the nursing station…she will ask them to get the small container of tropical fruit salad out of the refrigerator in the messy kitchen behind the even more cluttered nursing station and bring it to her.
I know right where it is…that it has sections of mango and papaya and pineapple and guava and little shavings of coconut. I studied it carefully in the supermarket…it helps to concentrate on things that are small these days. I walked down the hall past people shuffling in walkers…into the stark dining room of despair….opened the half door that keeps the residents from going into the kitchen and searching for things….and put this little container of sunshine in the refrigerator…at least that’s what I hope it will be for my sister when its fed to her.
The residents search for things that aren’t in the cupboards or on the shelves inside of the refrigerator….they are searching for times lost…days that have vanished. They go to the kitchen because they forget where they are…it’s a curse and a means of survival in this place that they too must live now for whatever reason time has stolen the life they knew before.
For a few moments they are oblivious to the signs about keeping the refrigerator door closed or leaving the ice scoop in the ice machine…they don’t see the labels on all the food…they are living in their memories at the homes they have left with the people who have left them. For only a few glitches in the sequence of time …they are back.
In this house of little hope, my sister doesn’t have that memory-lapse pass to escape her present. She is if anything these days…acutely aware of what is and what is not…she just doesn’t understand what has happened and she is not alone there. We, her family do not either.
We do know however, that on August 10, 2008 our sister was struck down…pulled into an unconsciousness that defied diagnosis and understanding to those of us standing on the sidelines of her nothingness that we could not reach through. In a moment she was sucked into a coma and became a prisoner of some unseen enemy that no one had the weapons to defeat.
Each family member abandoned the paths of their own lives to travel to Liz’s bedside. Sitting on an airplane pelted by relentless rain, I flew up from the south, numb; hurtling through the night sky to a surreal world I dreaded entering. My siblings, our parents, my sister’s husband…a fractured family at best, came together in her intensive care room where the sounds of machines breathing for her…feeding her…checking for signs of life that had all but vanished…covered the grief imposed silence. Something horrible…an unexpected tragedy has happened to my family…not the usual squabble…not the miffed feelings that always abound…a deep down sad life event…that will undoubtedly change us and has immediately shamed us. When was the last time we were all in the same room together? Families shouldn’t come together only at hospitals and funeral homes. We are guilty and this remorse is very evident in our eyes and in our silence.
We are asked to do something unfathomable…remove all means of life support…and for once we come together as a functional family and we decide instead to pray. It is more with penitence than hope that we all do what we have to…watch the machines perform inexplicable tasks…feel the wind as the life flight helicopter lifts off and takes our sister away…to a destination where we have sent ahead every fiber of belief we can summon. I stand on the ground with my Mom and Sadie watching the life ship fly away until it is out of sight realizing we remain as close to her now as when we were next to her bed. Liz remains out there in oblivion while we gather ourselves together to begin a journey infinitely longer than the two hour drive ahead of us.
Like most things in life, it now seems as if this all happened in an instant, and the days have flown by like the helicopter that whisked Liz off to recovery. Now, on this day that my sweet dog Sadie and I put the tropical fruit salad in the refrigerator, we are weary, but grateful. I am thankful that the coma’s cruel grip vanished 19 days after it changed our world for what seems like seconds now…and for what will be forever for my sister.
Thank God we have our dogs in times like these…living creatures we can whisper our most horrible fears to…the best of therapy and counsel on four legs…who with the lick of tongue or a touch of their soft fur…take the worry and the tension away. I tell Sadie that while I am the person making arrangements, capable of getting necessary care for my sister, finding people that no doubt saved her life, and seeing to the things that need to be seen to…that I am frightened beyond all measure. As we drive back to Charleston, I wish this never happened, I pray that my sister will walk again, be able to use her hands, sit at a holiday dinner table with the rest of us. I don’t look for answers….its all I can do for now to put one foot in front of the other most days.
The calm and accepting presence of my Sadie girl is my lifeline. I smile in the dark of the car remembering how Sadie walked around the nursing home today…greeting each person much like she does at her book signings…taking an extra moment for a person to lean down from their walker and touch her…not minding that one woman is lost in time and thinks Sadie is her dog. It’s a different audience than Sadie is used to, but she doesn’t mind.
I am sending up a lot of prayers these days asking and thanking equally, but I thank God every day I have my dog Sadie as I know does everyone else who has experienced the love and comfort of a dog…or cat…or other living creature. Sadie keeps me going…she reminds me to live in the moments…moments that become days and days that become years and if we’re lucky….years that become memories. Looking for memories is not a good thing…making them is. Dogs are the best at this. Sadie savors her days and lets the years take care of themselves. She loves me and I need her so I can be there for those who need me.

Patti Lawson’s 37-year old sister Elizabeth was stricken with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), a neurological disorder characterized by inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. After 19 days in a coma, she regained consciousness thanks to the fantastic staff at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA. Her miraculous recovery is the result of prayer and in large part due to the efforts of Dr. Tristan Smith and Dr. Thomas Scott. She continues to struggle to regain mobility and cognitive abilities. Sadie’s visits inspire Liz and the other residents. Read more about Patti and Sadie and follow Liz’s