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The Writers Page: Dying to Live

Dying to Live
By Donna M. Kohlstrom

The realization hits me like a sucker punch. Life’s not about living. It’s about dying. Maybe it’s the gravestones I read as I wandered through the ancient cemetery this afternoon. Maybe it’s the deathbed watch at my mother’s side. And maybe it’s the combination of all those things and more. It really doesn’t matter. The only thing that does is . . . I’m planning to die. A few people may mourn and reminisce and then I’ll be yet another grave marker in the cemetery.

Wondering if dying can be as simple as holding my breath, I suck air in until my chest hurts. Within minutes my brain overpowers my will to continue and I exhale like a bellows.

Okay, now if I just don’t take the next breath, will I render myself unconscious and mercifully pass out of the world? . . . Without my agreement, my body grabs for a lung full of air. So now that I can’t die by holding my breath, what’s my next option?

A gun . . . No. With my luck I’d blow off some body part and live . . . more miserable than before.

Maybe I’ll drive my car into a tree. . . No. Too messy.

Aha! What about pills? Now that’s a great idea! I rush to my medicine cabinet and swipe all the bottles into a plastic grocery bag. At the kitchen table I dump out the assortment, read each label and consider how many will do the job. I line up a dozen of each pill according to size, shape and hue forming a colorful mosaic.

Filling a glass with water, I palm a handful of the pills, put them to my mouth and then decide it will be easier if I drink some water first. Gulping down most of the water, I realize I don’t have enough left to wash down the pills. For the moment, the water has made me feel full. If I drink more and then swallow all the pills, I’ll probably throw up before I pass out and die. God, I hate throwing up. Guess I’ll wait awhile before I try again.

As I redesign my pill mosaic, I consider whether or not I should leave a note. If I do, what should I say? Life ain’t worth living? Why wait to die when I can do it now? Ah, just forget that. Anyhow, who’d care what I have to say?

My doorbell rings. I ignore it. Someone bangs on my door. I give in and open it.

My breathless younger sister, Sophia, shouts in my face, “Randy, where’ve you been? Why don’t you answer your phone? Haven’t you gotten my messages?” She pushes me aside and slams the door behind her.

Folding my arms across my chest, I lean against the wall and glare at her.

“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” she asks.

“You haven’t given me a chance. You practically knock down my door, demand answers from me...and by the way, it’s none of your business what, where or why I do or don’t do anything.”

“Oh, Randy, you know you don’t mean that.”

“Yes, Sophia, I mean it. I don’t want to see you, talk to you or anyone now or ever.” I open the front door and head her toward it. “Please leave me alone.”

Sophie slams the door shut and leans against it. “Stop being so hard to get along with. Go sit down. I need to talk to you about something important,” she says as she shoves me toward my recliner.

“Don’t order me around in my own house.”

“I’m serious, Randy. If this weren’t life and death, I wouldn’t be here now. Give me a few minutes to talk to you and then if you want me to leave, I will.”

Dropping into the recliner, I swing my arm out motioning to her to sit on the sofa. In silence, we stare at each other for a moment. “Well, I don’t have all day. What’s so important?” I ask.

Sophie takes a deep breath and exhales as she slumps back against the sofa cushions. “Just give me a minute.”

“That’s all you’ve got so talk fast. I’ve got things to do.”
She sits forward with her hands resting on her knees. “What can you possibly have to do that’s so urgent that you can’t take time to talk to me?”

"I told you it’s none of your business.”

“As long as you’re my brother I’ll make it my business. What’s gotten into you? You’ve been sulking around this house for weeks. In fact, I think you still have on the same clothes you had on the last time I saw you.”

“So….”.

Sophia drops her head into her hands. Her shoulders quiver. “This isn’t easy for me to talk about.”

“I’m waiting.”

Tears stream down her face as she looks up at me. Removing a piece of paper from her pocket, she drops it in my lap. “Here. Read this.”

“What is it?”

“Just read it. And then we’ll talk.”

I open the paper and scan a list of lab results. “Whose is this? What does it all mean?”

Sophia bursts into hiccupping sobs. I wait, not sure I want to know the answer.

“I . . . have . . . leukemia.”

I leap out of my recliner and pace the floor. Stopping in front of her I ask, “You’ve got what? Are you sure? When? How?”

Sophia hugs one of the toss pillows from the sofa. “I thought I was just over tired from all the time we spent taking care of Mama, then the funeral, kids and work. Two days ago, my doctor sent me for blood work. Today he called me back into his office and told me the tests show I have leukemia.”

They say bad news comes in threes, but give me a break . . . losing my job, Mama dying and now my sister has leukemia.

Staring out the picture window behind her, I try to erase the word leukemia from my mind. Saying it means I’ll have to accept it, which means I’ll have to accept her dying and I can’t.

Sophia blows her nose. Tears continue to seep down her face. “I’m sorry, Randy. I wish I didn’t have to give you anymore bad news.”

Collapsing onto the sofa next to her, I grab her up in a bear hug.

“What’s the doctor say? Can they treat it?” Please tell me you won’t die!

“I have to meet with a specialist at the end of the week. We’ll discuss it then.”

“What about Lisa and Darren? How will the kids be able to deal with your . . .” I can’t finish the sentence.

Sophia releases my hug and stands. “I need a drink of water.” She walks into the kitchen and screams. “What the heck is this?”

I run to the doorway and see her staring down at my pill mosaic. “Randy, were you going to do what I think you were going to do?”

Scooping all the pills and bottles back into the plastic bag, I knot it shut and toss it under the sink. “I was just counting my pills to see which ones I needed to get refilled.”

“Somehow I don’t believe you.”

“Believe me, Sophia.” I don’t know why she should believe me, because I don’t.

Sophia has always been the “take charge” person. I’ve always been the “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” person. I kid her about bossing me around, but in reality, I love it . . . the way she takes care of me and everyone else. I don’t know how she does it, but I’m thankful she does. “Okay, Randy. That’s it. You’re coming home with me for a few days. You’ve been sitting around this house too long feeling sorry for yourself.” She grabs my hand and pulls me along to my bedroom.

“I don’t need to go home with you.” Even though I say those words, secretly I’m happy that she’s taken over what’s left of my life. Seems like I’m not doing a very good job with it.

Putting her hands on her hips, she barks out orders. “Grab your gym bag. Underwear. Clean jeans and t-shirts. Toothbrush. If you forget anything, we’ll either buy it or come back for it.”

I stuff whatever she’s told me to into my gym bag. When I turn around to tell her I’m ready, she’s nowhere in sight. “Sophia.”

As I enter the hallway, I hear muffled sobs coming from behind the bathroom door. Easing the door open, I find Sophia sitting on the closed toilet seat lid grasping a box of pop-up tissues in her lap. I lean against the wall and rub my eyes, hoping the tears that have welled up won’t spill over. “Sophia. Come on. You know I hate to see you cry. Everything’s going to be okay. They’re doing great things now to cure leukemia.” Lies. All lies. I know. But lying makes it easier to deal with reality. At least for now.

She grabs a tissue, wipes her eyes and blows her nose. Standing up, she gives me a hug, almost knocking me over.

Then the real Sophia, the strong, “let’s do battle”, Sophia returns and says, “Now that I’ve got that out of my system let’s get on with living. There’s a lot to do.” She pushes by me and heads for the front door. Like an obedient child, I pick up my gym bag and follow her.

We’re lost in our own thoughts as she parks the car in her driveway. “Randy, I don’t want you to say anything to the kids. This is going to be our little secret, until I think it’s the right time to tell them. Understand?”

“Yes.” I wonder how anyone, including Sophia, can keep this a secret. If it were me, I’d be screaming from the rooftops, “I don’t want to die!” Then I almost laugh out loud at how ironic that is considering that just a few hours ago, I planned on killing myself.

“I’m going to tell the kids that you’re having repairs done at your house and you have to stay with us for a few days. They’ll be delighted that you’re here.”

“Yes, boss.” And I laugh for the first time in months.

She shakes her finger at me, like I’m some sort of naughty child. “And don’t you forget it,” she says and then we both laugh.

Sophia’s twin nine year olds, Darren and Lisa, greet me with hugs. “Uncle Randy, come and watch this new movie we just bought. You’ll love it,” says Lisa. She grabs my hand and pulls me toward the family room. I’m reminded how much she’s like her mother.

The next day Sophia and I meet with the oncologist. Blood tests have been repeated and confirm that she has leukemia. A round of chemotherapy is recommended.

Since I’m without a job, I volunteer to care for Lisa and Darren as well as drive Sophia to her treatments.

I’m amazed at the ways in which Sophia puts every moment into living, whether it’s playing games with the kids, comforting another patient who’s having chemo, trying to get me to “get a life” or working in her rose garden. Throughout her divorce, Mama’s death and dealing with me, a self-centered, pain in the butt older brother, she’s always found joy in living. Sometimes I catch her watching the kids play and see her hug herself and wipe away a few tears, but she never complains or talks about dying. She’s my hero.

The chemo treatments have ended and we’re told that they haven’t worked well. The oncologist recommends a bone marrow transplant. Her kids and I are tested as possible donors and find I’m a perfect match.

***

Today’s the day for the transplant. The nurse almost has to drag Sophia and I from our hug. We reassure each other that all will go well. Then I do something I haven’t done since I was a kid . . . I pray. Please God, let Sophia live. Let me live to take care of her and the kids. I can’t believe I even thought of ending my life. What would’ve happened to Sophia if I had? I would’ve been responsible for killing her too! And what about Darren and Lisa . . .?

***

Several weeks later, Sophia and I arrive at the doctor’s office to find out the results of her latest blood tests. “Good news,” says the doctor. “It seems like you’re in remission. Only time will tell for sure. I suggest you go home and enjoy your life. I’ll see you back here in a month.”
I’m not sure who cries more, Sophia or I. We hug each other until it hurts.

Sophia jumps out of the car when we arrive at her house. She runs in the front door, grabs both kids into her arms and exclaims, “Everything’s going to be okay!” I linger at the doorway and smile as I watch Sophia and her kids laugh and twirl about.

She has taught me that life isn’t about dying… it’s about living and giving life . . . first to you and then to others.