“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
I began the first prototype of a book on my family history a few weeks after returning home from Cuba; it was week after Wendy died.
We had spoken almost as soon as I landed in San Diego, and she assured me that she was fine, and reinforced that I was the executor of her will, and that she had inherited Granny’s IRA and what little had been left of Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo’s retirement savings, and that she hoped my trip to Cuba had been fun. I knew she wasn’t telling me something, and that I wouldn’t learn anything more over the phone. I told her I wished she’d control her drinking so that we could spend more time together, and, fortunately, my final words to her were, “I love you, Wendy.”
She had always been a private person, ashamed of many things and embarassed by her Partin history; she had left my dad and me soon after I was born. I had never felt like sharing her story with anyone before. But that all changed on the afternoon of April 2nd, 2019.
Hope and I were skipping home from the Hillcrest farmers market and stopped to toss a frisbee in Balboa Park. It was the most beautiful of days, and even the big Mississippi Magnolia tree arcross the street from our condo was blooming, a rare treat in the relatively arid Mediterrean climate of San Diego. We were having the best day ever, free from worries, with nowhere to be and nothing to do except love each other and our lives together, and then I saw Cristi waving from our balcony; she looked sad, and I instantly knew something was wrong. I trotted over and I learned that Wendy was in a coma and unlikely to live more than a few days.
I booked the first ticket available to Baton Rouge, but it wouldn’t leave for almost 48 hours. I fretted around home anxiously, unable to think of anything else. When the time came to leave, I said goodbye and boarded an airplane, and eight hours and two time zones later I arrived at Wendy’s hospital room. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and my body ached and screamed and my memories swirled and churned; there’s no rest for the weary, and I needed to rest but I knew that every moment could be our last, and I steadied myself as best I could, stretching my aching back and then standing silently for a few breaths and stared through her door, dreading opening it.
I saw my reflection, because her dark room created a partial mirror on my side, and still allowing me to see her, resting high up on her hospital bed at waist level. I looked down to see her, and our faces were side by side. I saw that my eyes were bloodshot and my cheeks were puffy, and that I had three days of red and grey stubble on my chin. Her hair, though she was 16 years older than I was, was the same youthful looking strawberry blonde that I remembered from my childhood. But, she now looked old and frail, connected to many machines and with a large, corrugated tube blocking her mouth and extending deep down her throat.
I pushed open her door, and I was almost overwhelmed by the sounds of impending doom. The machines were noisy and distracting and foreboding. They beeped relentlessly with small bits of information, monitoring her IV pump and reporting her that her heart was beating at 54 beats per minute, and the respirator breathed for her and sounded like Darth Vader; it pushed her bed covers up and down once every fifteen seconds, as if moved by an unseen force. I rested my hand on hers gently, avoiding the many needles in the back of her hand, and my big hand almost completely covered hers, the needles, and her wrist. She looked so tiny and frail. I told her that I was there and wouldn’t leave her.
“Her liver failed from alcohol abuse,” her doctor said as he walked in. He had known I’d be arriving after visiting hours and had waited. He was a kind man, and he new time was important and he focused on telling me what I needed to know; by Louisiana law, he and I could decide whether or not to remove Wendy’s respirator tube.
“It can keep her alive for weeks or months, but we’ve been waiting for a suitable donor for three years, and they’re rare. And it’s unlikely that she’d survive the operation. If we remove her respirator, she may pass peacefully, or…” He continued and talked about what I knew could be a slow, painful process. Our choices were limited. He said that as her only surviving relative, Louisiana law said that I could choose whether or not to remove her from life support and let nature takes it’s course. He repeated what would happen if we removed her respirator. I listened to his words, but my eyes were fixed on Wendy and the respirator tube obscuring her mouth. I knew what I’d choose.
He’d let me stay in the ICU and think about it, and he’d return at 8 am to learn my decision. It was 8:56 pm. He left, and I collapsed on one knee and bawled and looked skyward and cursed loudly and dripped tears that pooled in my whiskers, trapped.
“Why, Wendy? Why?” I shouted!d
I knew it was rhetorical, but a part of me had to shout and release pressure. I stood slowly, resting my hands on my stiff knee to help me up, and blew my nose with a white handkerchief I usually carried and wiped my eyes and cheeks and stubble with the back of my sleeve.
Wendy had always been a private person, good at avoiding questions and keeping secrets, and embarrassed to share details of her life, because she was ashamed of her lack of education, alcoholism, and for abandoning me as baby. I was conceived when she was a petitie sixteen year old girl, estranged from her biologic family and a high school dropout, and then she was abandoned by my father, young man she had met at Glenoaks High School, a physically large and violent drug dealer at the time. She had a slight nervous breakdown, and she left me alone at a daycare center and fled Louisiana, ironically going to California with a man she had just met at a coffee shop. Someone saved me, and a judge placed me in their care as a foster child and recorded her exact words in my custody case, Partin vs. Partin: “I was emotionally upset. I was receiving little support from Edward. I was scared, very confused. I didn’t know exactly which way to turn. I felt I had no one to listen and help with the situation at hand.”
She returned from California on her own, and she spent seven years fighting to get me back with several judges testing her progress over several years. She finally regained custody; but, sadly, by then I was almost seven years old and didn’t recall her as my mother, and she, ashamed of still being so young and no longer wanting to be judged, she taught me to call her Wendy so that people would think I was her kid brother. It worked, and over the years we developed an atypical son and mother relationship. After I returned from the first Gulf war, we were different people and reconnected and, over time, became something not unlike best friends who loved each other. We shared secrets and inside jokes that only the two of us knew, but apparently we didn’t share all secrets. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
Her IV pump sounded an alarm and I ensured that the tubes didn’t have an air bubbles before reseting it. I rested my hand on hers, carefully avoiding the crowd of needles bunched on her small hand. Her inner arms were bruised from failed needle attempts in her collapsing veins, weak from low blood pressure, and the backs of her hands were crowded from all the needles dripping nutrients and pain killers from the bags above her bed and through the pump. I apologized for the loud alarm and assured her that she was fine, and I gently squeezed her hand and restated that I wouldn’t leave her. But my bravado failed, and I collapsed to my knees beside her bed, still resting my hand on hers, and cursed louder than the alarm had sounded:
“Fuck! Goddamnit! Fucking Goddamn bullshit!”
I paused, trying to stop the harshness of my words, but I released one more, as if the pressure inside of me needed one more burp to stabilize, and I looked up and shouted:
I said her name, but I meant Wendy, Life, God, The Universe, and anything else I didn’t understand. It was an old habit.
“If I had known,” I said when I calmed down, still looking downward and kneeling and clinging my hands to her bed rail, too depleted to stand just yet, “I would have made different choices. I would have made time.” But I knew that she knew that, at least when sober. She had been a heavy drinker for the past decade, which is part of the reason I had stopped visiting as often, ironically.
I stood up and tried to focus on something, anything, to allow my breath to settle and to distract myself from ruminating about either the past or the future. I knew what I’d tell the doctor when he returned, but I didn’t want to think about it. It was probably my last night with her, and I knew the best I could hope for was a quick passing and that the alternative was too terrifying to consider, and I didn’t want to think of either outcome of my choices any more that night.
I looked at the IV pump serial number and recognized the date of manufacture and focused on that. It was before my time working with that company. Coincidentally, I had led the team redesigning it, a common model from a company headquartered in San Diego. I inspected her respirator, a new model also manufactured in San Diego but by a different company. It was one of 35 produced each month, and sold for between $36,000 and $75,000, depending on the software options. I recognized the serial number, and knew who had authorized itsshipment to Baton Rouge only three weeks prior, coincidentally. The current and hopefully temporary manufacturing instructions included a photo of my left hand pointing towards a critical step in the process that hadn’t been designed with manufacturing in mind; I had pointed to the step, making a joke that a picture was worth the thousand words that would be necessary to describe the step and how to redesign the system to be more user friendly. I told Wendy that, and tried to smile and joke with her, hoping she could hear me and perhaps stop thinking for a bit, too. I told her I had a hand in making her life support.
I had inherited or developed Wendy’s sense of humor as a kid, centered around coincidences and ironies and puns. Her birth name was Wendy Anne Rothdram, and she had kept my dad’s name for reasons she never told me, and she had always joked that she was born WAR and that marrying Edward Partin WARP’ed her and made her Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. I tried that night to say the joke that she was still a Partin, and therefore still warped; but I collapsed again and cried loudly for a long time.
I stopped crying and wiped my eyes ensured her IV bags were full enough to last until morning. I recognized the names on the quality assurance label from their Tijuana manufacturing plant, only 16 miles from my home in America’s Finest City,. They had released the bags from their quality control system only three weeks prior. I had led their new company in workshops on how to comply with FDA quality assurance – I have a knack for languages and unraveling complex books filled with rules, and had traveled a lot for work – and I spent a while telling Wendy about the people who made her IV bags and their families and meals we had shared.
I forced myself to tell her a bit about my condo in San Diego and what was happening there. Like Wendy, I had grown up reticent to share personal details that could lead to further questions, and my work was complex and difficult to summarize concisely. I was a private person, too, if only out of habit. She hadn’t left Louisiana in thirty years, but always asked about my life on the phone so that she could live a bit vicariously. I felt regret for dismissing her questions, not taking time to simplify what I did like I could do regulations, and I felt that the least I could do was share some stories and hope she could hear me, or to make some jokes that only she and I would understand.
I held up my scarred left hand and showed her the watch she’d remember from her childhood. I said it was old and scratched and scared, but it still working and useful, as long as moves a bit each day.
“Just like me!” I said, chuckling and, for the first time in days, feeling a hint of genuine happiness shining between the clouds of worry and sadness that had depleted my sleep. I told her about Hope and Just in Time and our lives in San Diego, and talking about those things kept me feeling better than I had in many long days.
I leaned into the momentum and rotated my head to show her my greying, receding hairline and the long, arching scar across the back of my head I had had since a child, and I repeated Uncle Bob’s jokes from when he, too, had been here, in the same hospital, shaking his watch with two fingers to keep it running, telling me that I, too, would one day be like him. “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” he’d say, smirking and rubbing his balding head, like I was doing for Wendy 30 years later. I told her he was been right.
She was still young, only 16 years older than I was, and we shared the same family history, references, and secrets than only a few other people knew. All of our family had died young, too, and all had been alcoholics and died from complications related to alcohol or cigarette smoking between the ages of 62 and 64. Uncle Bob had died a few months before his first social security check and a year before he could begin withdrawing his IRA without penalty. Auntie Lo inherited both, and received only one check before dying. Granny died a few months later, just before she would have been eligible for social security or withdrawing from her IRA. Wendy had inherited all of their retirement accounts, but lived moderately; financially, at least. She became an alcoholic, just like her mother had been. Over the decades, Granny’s IRA had left Wendy dying as a wealthy woman, and I hadn’t known it and I had to process a lot that night
No one I know knows which decisions are right or wrong, or what defines life or death, or the words we should say. I told her that, and it was the most truthful thing I could say at the time. I didn’t know what I’d say to Cristi and Hope when I got home, or how I’d explain what it’s like to spend all night knowing your choice would end your mother’s life in the morning. Though the night was only half through, it had been bad enough already, and I hoped no one I loved would ever have to experience it. I knew I’d try to explain things, but I couldn’t imagine how.