By Linda Grupp Boutin
I stared into my backpack. Did I have everything I needed? The space felt stuffed with the objects for an estimated three to four days. An opened bag of M&Ms, pain medication, heparin to keep my line open (Did I really need to carry this?) and an odd assortment of things to sustain me. I pulled the drawstring taut around the top and strapped our only sleeping bag into place at the base. One last glance around the closet assured me that inside the pack I carried everything for my anticipated hiking trip.
My green parka hung loosely on a thin frame. The hiking boots that had seen no use for over two years completed the ensemble. I glanced at my husband, Gary, sitting; shoulders slumped, on the bed. He looked up from his clasped hands when I stepped into the room. Tears filled my eyes, but there was no other way that I could see through this mess. Resolutely I turned from the bedroom and out the front door of our apartment. It had taken months of long consideration to reach this decision and I would listen to no further arguments on this matter.
My footfalls crossing the parking lot created the only sounds on this dark, late November night. My endurance lasted through Thanksgiving, but I could no longer continue the medical regimen required to preserve my life. For over a year my paralyzed digestive tract tolerated no food whatsoever. If I dared take a bite, I landed in a hospital bed. Each night, just to continue living, I connected myself to two machines, one to feed me intravenously for over 12 hours, one to drain the excess fluids from my stomach to attempt to keep them from entering my digestive tract.
Quality of life entered the news that year. A family wanted to discontinue medical treatment for a daughter trapped inside a coma for too many years. I understood the issue all too well, from the inside, but not trapped in a coma. I knew the pain of illness, emotional and physical, intimately. Reflected in Gary’s eyes, my illness closed us into a world intolerable at best. At UCLA the doctors held out hope for me for an intestinal pacemaker or maybe a transplant in a decade or two. I shook my head to clear the images and looked both ways before crossing the road out of habit.
My mind tripped back to happier days when Gary and I planned our first backpacking trip together. Newly in love, overflowing with hope for the future, we purchased the packs together along with one for my dog, Ginger. Now less than 5 years later we all knew this trip was to be taken alone. My husband could not understand why I could no longer tolerate the two tubes hanging from my chest, the machines hum all night long, my desperate desire to eat which the doctors had forbidden.
I left it all behind that night: the intravenous pump and pole, the bottles and bottles of solutions to feed myself with, the tubings, sterile dressings, suction machine. Walked away from my closet full of supplies for life to embrace what would follow, no intention of continuing the ludicrous routine ruling, supposedly saving, my life. I was done, exhausted, finished.
It won’t take any time at all, I kept reassuring myself. Three or four days at most, depending on how cold it was in the Laguna mountians. Dehydration would set in, after all, the medical encyclopedia listed this as a terminal condition. I have the right to choose treatment or reject it, don’t I? After all, I’m an adult. I had chosen to go to the doctors and accepted their recommendations, but now I’d changed my mind. After experiencing the life they’d designed for a year, doing all they expected, I could no longer accept it. This must all come to an end because I cannot live my life without eating. They are simply asking more than a person can endure. My plan had been to be a nurse to others, not to spend every day of my life taking care of a sick me!
Hence my plan to cause Gary as little grief as possible. Why did he have to keep fighting me on this? He said life is always worth living, but he has never gone a day not eating hooked up to machines, much less a year. So take as little as possible, leave Gary the car, take the bus to Alpine and walk out into the forest. Find a nice, quiet spot and let the disease take my life. Shouldn’t take too long, probably just three, maybe four days at most. Dehydration would take me quickly, I swallowed hard and reassured myself.
What is that I hear? No one should be calling me, not right now with my mind made up. I kept walking heading for the bus station. I saw the lights ahead and kept moving forward. Now I recognized the voice. One I knew all too well after just a few years of marriage. His long legs quickly overtook my lead. I begged him to go away. He said he would just walk with me, no more arguments. His pace matched mine. The lights brightened as we approached the benches arranged at the bus stop in the shopping mall. I took a seat, praying for a bus, any bus to arrive soon, so I could escape his company.
After minutes passed like hours, the bus approached. I didn’t check the destination, it didn’t matter, anywhere away from him would work just fine. I mounted the steps, jangled my fare into the box, stomped to the back of the bus, turned and took a seat. Sliding my arms from the pack I relaxed. I had made it. Now I could be released from this bondage of life with illness, disability, pain in body, mind and soul. Eating would mean nothing where I planned on going, food irrelevant.
The bus was just sitting there, not accelerating from the curb to take me to my destination. I looked up to see what the bus driver was doing and quickly discerned the problem. Another person had boarded the bus after me and now I was staring directly in those deep, brown eyes I knew all too intimately. Gary stood facing me, standing beside the bus driver. He seemed to be trying to imprint in his memory some final impression of his wife, now fleeing from his look of overpowering love. “Why did he have to follow me?” my thoughts screamed inside my head.
Now my eyes dropped to my hands and the moment of truth had arrived. That look killed so much in that instant. How could I turn my back on someone who wanted me so badly in their life that he would chase me down like that? I had to do this right, not be a burden, not make a mess, but clean one up. And suddenly I knew that quality of life had nothing to do at all with it. Empty, devoid of meaning, it was not up to me to pick and choose the time or date. Whether it took just three or four days or maybe thirty or forty years, it just simply was not my choice. But once decided, there could be no going back. I could not subject either of us to this anymore. If I changed course here, reversed myself, I knew it would be the commitment for life.
Slowly, my fingers clasped the strap of that blue backpack. Fighting all impulses, my knees pulled me up and back onto my feet. One step followed the next back to the front of the bus. When I reached him, he pulled the backpack from my grasp, hefting it onto his broad shoulder. I did not ask the bus driver to return my fare, just stepped down the steps and walked forward. Back into life, back into not eating, back into daily, 12-hour regimens of intravenous feedings for the next 7 years.
Today, 32 years later, I look back at that moment in time when I was convinced to embrace life by brown, loving eyes that refused to let me go. And bless the moment he walked into my life.
Originally written for Ladies Home Journal Personal Essay Contest 2012. I had hopes of receiving a prize for this one, but I didn't win. However, my nephew asked for a copy and later told me that it hung on his bulletin board. I understood I had won on a much deeper level a prize that money could not buy. I thought I would share it with my blog readers and followers. This event occurred in 1980 and was a moment of truth that changed my life and has guided every step of my life afterwards. There are no "do-overs" in life and no turning back from the choices we make.