Alternate Self

I sat next to myself as a man, slowly dying and afraid.

photo credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

This won’t be a typical post. This is the account of an event having a significant effect on me; an encounter I won’t forget.

For those that read my blog often, you know that I post on various social media platforms. To preserve the privacy of the family involved, I will only share on Twitter and will omit names. Our connections across other media, as friends, may otherwise compromise issues. I would hate for them to stumble across this in that manner. Still, I’m so deeply moved I need to do something with it.

As a notary public, I’m occasionally requested for signing appointments. When I first obtained my notary, I imagined I would travel to sign clients in their homes. I had worked in real estate for several years, so it stood to reason that I’d be a shoo-in for loan document signing.

I expected to be making a ridiculous amount of money in after work signings. I’d hoped that they’d miraculously present themselves to me because lord knows I didn’t market myself to local escrow companies.

Despite my escrow experience, I was still required to take a state-mandated course designed to prepare notaries specifically for loan document signings. This seemed redundant to me, so I never pursued it.

To date, my notary has predominately been used at my place of business and the occasional word of mouth requests for friends. This is how I ended up at Palomar hospital last night.

A few days ago I was asked by an acquaintance of mine to assist with a notarization. Initially, I wasn’t given much information. I knew I’d have to meet these folks at the local hospital – I was informed that his situation was terminal.

I’m not sure why I assumed that he had cancer. I have a habit of jumping to conclusions based on theory substantiated by very little evidence. He was not dying of cancer, I would soon find this out.

I was briefed on what to expect before arriving. Nothing you’re told – nothing I was told, prepared me for what was next.

I checked in at reception; announced myself as the notary who was here to sign the gentleman in room 426. I waited patiently as the guard verified my identification, opened the large doors for me, then told me where to go.

Timidly, I drifted down the hallway until I was spotted by a relative of the man I was here to notarize. I had spent so much of my childhood in hospitals on account of my mother, why did this feel so foreign suddenly?

Entering the room, I was greeted by two women. The first was young and had an infant in her arms, this was his sister. The other was older and introduced herself as his mother. Suddenly, a gentleman stood from the chair he’d been occupying; this was his father. My attention turned to the hospital bed. This was my reason for being there – I was to help him complete a Power of Attorney.

This isn’t at all what I’d expected. He was young. Younger than me. I introduced myself and attempted to shake his hand. That’s when I noticed – when my heart sunk and I understood.

I had been told he was an alcoholic. I was asked to notarize a Power of Attorney for this man, authorizing his family to carry out his health care directives, or represent him once it was deemed he could no longer do so. I had not been advised of his condition. I suppose I should have assumed it was dire. Still, having never seen someone in this state, I was overwhelmed with raw emotion.

As I said, he was young. Younger than me and immediately my heart hurt for him. I knew he would not live to see his nephew grow up. I knew he wouldn’t see his own children (if he had any) get married. So much life, unlived. My heart crumbled. He tried to prop himself up in the bed, he was weak but resisted help from family. His skin was jaundiced. His eyes a shade of yellow that I am certain I’ll never forget. Terrifyingly haunting.

I searched them (his eyes) for what felt like an eternity. Probably too long for his comfort. I imagine he must’ve felt like an animal on exhibit. I asked questions to establish coherency; this was his wish, signing this document. He understood what was taking place and the ramifications. I kept trying to talk myself through the process of doing my job. Just do what comes next, stop trembling, they need you to be strong, this isn’t about you.

It was incredibly profound sitting in that room. The juxtaposition: the infant boy, the dying man, the parents, now watching their son die, and the sister who will be all that will remain of childhood’s happier days.

I felt overcome with gratitude sitting in that room. Too sensitive for the overhead lights, we opened the blinds so that I could complete the document. He grimaced at the first hints of daylight. I held back my own tears. Why had my own life been spared? Why had I been able to get sober? Did I even deserve it?

As alcoholics, many of us will ask the eternal question: why do some of us get it, and others just can’t or won’t? Some never will. As I embraced each member of that family last night, I didn’t question why he didn’t get it. I was humbled and marveled that I had. I’m so sorry that he won’t make it. If I could save him, I would. It makes it even more essential that I speak with purpose, offer help when asked, and listen when others speak.

I felt utterly shattered leaving that hospital. I still don’t know what to do with it. I can’t change his fate. Maybe, hopefully, I can be a light for others lost in the dark.

There but for the grace of God go I…

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14 thoughts on “Alternate Self

  1. Powerful stuff and beautifully written. Some people have that moment of clarity and can act on it. Some, the demon has its claws in too deep. My brother had a friend who didn’t make it past 32. A family friend invited her junior friend over for Thanksgiving — again early thirties. She was thin and wore a little black dress but had what looked like an inner tube around her waist — turns out her liver was gigantic. She needed a liver transplant but wouldn’t stop drinking — she didn’t make it much longer.

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    1. It’s so tragic. I was angry when I left there. Angry at the disease, angry at others for not intervening, angry at him for being indifferent. Then I remembered what 6 yrs. ago felt like for me. The hollow desperation and inability to take action. I will not soon forget those eyes. I’m no storyteller, but that was something you’d see in Pan’s Labyrinth. All I could muster on my way out was, “I hope they’re able to keep you comfortable.”

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  2. Alcoholism runs in my family, as does the denial of alcoholism. I’ve seen so many lives damaged or ruined from it, that I stopped touching the stuff decades ago. This experience of yours seems to have really hit home, and you do a good job of conveying it here, in my view. I might just reblog this, also.

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  3. Reblogged this on Chasing Unicorns and commented:
    Christina has a blog I follow which is called, um, um, oh for fuck’s sake, I can’t remember. It’s a mix of humor and serious stuff. This particular post though, is deadly serious. If you’ve ever had a problem with alcohol, or know someone who does, you might be able to relate to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A wonderful story — thanks for sharing — good to try and protect the family. Whenever I think about “Why Me?” for either good or bad things — you can just as easily say “Why not me?” So much of what the universe throws at us is random. Accidents of birth (we could have all been squirrels) or just shit storms of coincidence and timing. No one really gets what they deserve. We can only deal with what we have and try to make it better. I admire you for trying to help others with addiction. It’s a place I can only understand through the stories of others.

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  5. This was a fantastic, emotional work. Nurses are faced with this daily. Once in awhile, something like this happens and it just shreds your insides. You never know when your dying patient’s condition will mirror what your own would have looked like, had you not found an answer. It’s terrifying when you walk into a room not expecting it, and it slams you in your face. I wish you peace after this difficult experience.

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    1. Thank you. I respect the work of nurses and doctors. Faced with cases like these (and worse) every day, I’m not sure I’d make it. I may find myself back in the bottle. It’s often thankless and overlooked work you do. Having spent my childhood in ERs, waiting rooms, and patient rooms, I know the truth of it. My mother was a terrible patient. Thank you.

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  6. This is such a moving post. I suffer from prescription addiction myself, and today I have a serious rash because I drank a whole bottle of cough syrup yesterday. I plan on seeing a dermatologist soon, but a part of me wants to abuse more prescription drugs that alleviate the suffering, but have side effects of their own. I hope I don’t give in. But enough of me. You are a light in the darkness. Your empathy proves it. There are many who’d watch the man die and then say that he brought it on himself apathetically. I’ll never know why some suffer while others’ don’t. I’ll never know why this young man’s life was tragically cut short, while some others who don’t even seek help for their alcoholism are strangely functional. Everything is mysterious and life isn’t fair. We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. If there is a God above I’d ask him why he didn’t do things differently when he had infinite possibilities before him. But what matters now is that you fought and triumphed and you can help others do the same before it’s too late.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and for allowing yourself to be vulnerable here. Thank you for sharing what you are going through. I understand addiction well. I understand it in many forms. Food, exercise, alcohol, attention, and the list goes on. I suffer from never feeling like I am enough on my own. I cannot begin to tell you how much it means to me that you are comfortable sharing these parts of yourself with me; a near stranger. I hope to be a comforting place when others feel overwhelmed and even toxic to themselves – because, I know that fear. You will never receive judgement from me. Maybe “never” is an absolute I shouldn’t promise. I will try my very hardest to always listen with compassion. I hope this message finds you well.

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      1. Thank you Christina for such a beautiful comment. You are one of those few honest, genuine writers here. I’ve read so many blogs during my time here and some are filled with sadism and a lack of empathy. I believe that only people who have suffered themselves can empathise. I’m glad I opened up to you. I do often feel overwhelmed physically and emotionally and become toxic to myself. Some of my rants stem from that. I’m better now, but I’m struggling from a little withdrawal. I still have a long road ahead. Thank you again for all the support.

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