I’m starting this blog to keep a promise to my sister, Harriette. I watched Harriette die in 1997 of metastasized cervical cancer. She made me promise to write a book about us and to let women know that they don’t have to die the way she did. I don’t know when the book thing is going to happen. I’ve been plugging away at it since 1998 and at the rate I’m going I’ll probably have to pass on the promise to my sons in my Will. I don’t know what I’m more afraid of, failing or succeeding.
The reason I made the promise to Harriette was because I could never really tell her no. She was 10 months older than me and when she was alive I never dared say no, so promising just seemed the natural thing to do. The real problem is that I’ve never broken a promise to Harriette and I don’t want to break this one.
We settled a wrongful death lawsuit after Harriette’s death. In an arbitrator’s office in St. Louis, Missouri the doctor who refused to perform a pap smear admitted that she had some responsibility for Harriette’s death. The one thing I held out for was the ability to write about Harriette and use the doctor’s name and I got it. Dr. Veena Gupta of Mt. Vernon, Illinois. There. It’s out. It was never really about the money — it was about the human life that was lost because one doctor did not feel that one simple test was significant enough to perform and the fact that you can’t sue a doctor for criminal neglect and send them to jail (which I would have preferred). You’ve got to sue them for malpractice and wrongful death and put a price on the life of someone who you always believed was priceless.
Have you ever watched someone you love as much as the air you breathe die? I’ve seen many people die (I used to work in a nursing home and have bathed many deceased elderly people), but I was not prepared to watch the life go out a 47 year old woman who wanted so much to live.
I had moved in with my mother and Harriette when Mom said she needed help with caring for Harriette. I think it had more to do with the fact that Harriette and I were so close and I needed, really needed, to be there for her. We needed each other because there were a lot of things that Harriette hadn’t finished and she knew that if I made a promise to her, I’d keep it.
Mom had gone into town on that last morning of Harriette’s life and Harriette took advantage of Mom’s absence by making me promise to put hearts and flowers on her headstone and to have something nice written on it. She insisted on being buried next to our father. Daddy had died 11 months earlier and Harriette felt that if she hadn’t gotten sick that Daddy would still be alive so she wanted to be as close to him as she could get. She told me what to do with all the stuff that she called her “life” that was packed in boxes in the area above the garage. The very last thing Harriette made me promise was to write about it. She didn’t want her experience to be a secret; she wanted everyone to know what happened to her. She wanted the world to know about us–all of us. She made me promise to tell our story. I promised.
She even asked me the day’s date. She wanted to make sure that she wasn’t going to die on my oldest son’s birthday. Now every year I call my son on his birthday knowing that the very next day will be the anniversary of Harriette’s death.
After Harriette got every promise out of me that she intended to get, she complained about the pain in her back. You see, when cervical cancer metastasizes, it usually hits the bladder and kidneys. Harriette had tubes directly into her kidneys and a bladder catheter. Her kidneys had already shut down and the back pain must have been unbearable. The morphine patch that she was wearing wasn’t helping and neither were the hydrocodone tablets that I was crushing for her. We had just contacted Hospice to bring out oxygen for Harriette, but they never made it for their first visit. Mom had made it home not long before the end and she stood on one side of the hospital bed that we had moved into the living-room while I stood on the other. We had been trying to make Harriette comfortable (an exercise in futility) when Harriette raised her head, looked past us to the foot of the bed with an expression of recognition on her face. She asked a one word question, “Daddy?” and her head dropped back onto her pillow in death.
I didn’t scream, at least I wouldn’t call it a scream. I grabbed Harriette’s side and rolled her toward me, laid my head against her chest and leaned against the bed. The sound that escaped my lips was more gutteral. “Harriette, No!”
So here I am, still trying to make some sense of it all. Still trying to figure out why some of us are doomed to die while the rest of us are doomed to live on without them.
I’m no longer so terribly depressed. I do get angry, though. I still want to wake up one morning and pick up the phone and call Harriette, telling her about the crazy dream I had last night.
That’s why I’m here. I figure if I can work my way backwards to the beginning or forward from the beginning, I may get through it. And then again, I may reach the same conclusion — I am still here for Harriette.