Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hard-Earned Life Lessons

 
A week ago today, I walked into a nightly devotional service at the yoga retreat center where I’ve been living most of the summer. A woman stopped me in the foyer, and told me that another guest, Barbara, was having a severe allergic reaction and needed an epi-pen. She didn’t know who to ask for help, so I found the first aid lead, got the keys to the car and drove the first aid woman and Barbara down to the main house to wait for the ambulance. 

I stayed with Barbara while others came in and out of the room, trying their best to make her comfortable and help her. Nothing helped: not the epi-pen, not oxygen. Barbara’s airway slowly closed off; she was at least unconscious, but the paramedics think she had already passed away before they arrived. Although they immediately cleared her airway and performed CPR for 45 minutes, she never responded.

Barbara told me when we first arrived at the main house that she wasn't sure what she had eaten that had caused her reaction. Over the days following her death, it became apparent that there was no single thing that could have helped her; there was a series of things had led to her death, none of which could be attributed to any single person, action or event.

I couldn’t sleep that night, for obvious reasons. What could I have done differently? Could I have saved her? Could I have helped her in any other way than simply holding her hand, telling her she wasn’t alone, and standing by her side as it got harder and harder to breathe?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is no. After hearing from the coroner, a trauma doctor friend of one of the other guests, and my own mother, a veteran ER nurse, I accept that I did the best that anyone could do by being calm, collected, focused on Barbara, and witnessing her last moments. 

I may know this is true, but I cannot write it without tears streaming down my face. The 25 minutes the ambulance took to arrive are the longest of my life; I may know that I did the best I could, but that does not stop the grief at the unexpected loss of a life in my presence from bubbling up and overflowing in a torrent of tears.

I had introduced myself to Barbara that day; I barely knew her, and yet somehow she has forever become part of my life and memories. I feel that there is a lesson here, and as I have struggled with her death and my feelings at having been there, I have tried to put a name to it. Although many people at the ashram said they realized – as we all often do with death – how precious life really is, and that it should not be wasted, that does not seem to be my lesson.  

Instead, it seems that perhaps my lesson is that sometimes the most you can ever do – the most helpful, positive and loving thing possible – is stand next to someone and witness their struggle; know that your presence in their time of need is important, not because you can fix it for them, but simply because you are there.

There are many times in my life when I have thought it was my job to fix someone else’s problems; that the most caring thing I could do was take away their struggles by applying my own solution. This has rarely worked the way I wanted it to, either because I became frustrated that they didn’t think my solution was the “right” one, or because it truly did not work to apply my experiences and answers to their problem. There are many reasons that trying to live someone else’s life is a bad idea, but mostly, it is because it is not actually my life – the same rules do not apply. 

I have struggled a lot with the decision to publicly write about this. I was afraid of coming across as callous, unfeeling, or trying to dramatize a terrible situation. I hope that this isn’t how it comes across, but the truth of the matter is that I need to write this, not just to process it for myself, but also in the hopes that my experience will help others somehow – that there are more lessons to be learned from Barbara’s death than just the ones that I took away. I hope, invisible audience, that this post brings you something you didn’t already have today – some piece of wisdom or understanding that wasn’t there before. If it doesn’t, however, please try not to judge me too harshly; please try to simply be a person willing to stand next to me, and witness my pain. There is truly nothing that would help me more.

Love and tear-stained kisses
Morgan