By Nancy Arroyo Ruffin
The first time I remember experiencing death I was three years old. My uncle Louie lay in a casket at the Ortiz Funeral Home wearing a light colored suit; it could’ve been white, beige maybe. His afro was neatly picked and in my three year old mind he appeared to be sleeping peacefully. That’s the thing about death, to the deceased it is peaceful, and to the ones left behind it’s anything but. To those left behind, the haze of losing a loved one, which feels like a searing mass of heat injected deep into the veins, seeps into everything making it difficult to focus on anything but the grief.
From my recollection, the funeral home was a dreary place, old and decrepit, like an old lady who had spent too many years outside of herself watching her life pass her by. The red carpet in the viewing room was ragged and dirty and the lighting, though warm, was not inviting. It was a place that bid farewell to too many lives taken before their time. Exactly one year before on the same date, my maternal grandfather (his father) lay in a similar casket sleeping peacefully. He was in his 50s.
I can’t recall if I understood then that it would be the last time I’d see my uncle. I don’t remember if my parents explained to me the finality of death and what it meant when I heard family members say “at least he’s with his father now.” These are not things parents are prepared to talk about with their 3 yr. old. I think about my own 3 yr. old daughter and how I would explain death to her in a way that she would understand and I don’t think she would.
What I do recall about my uncle however are the times when he was vibrant and full of life. I remember how his eyes shone with happiness at the mere sight of me, or when he’d take me to the park and proudly tell everyone I was his daughter, even though he never had children of his own. He was young, handsome, and full of unrealized potential.
When someone dies we try our best to remember them, their great qualities, and how they made us feel. We try as best we can to remember the details about them like their scent or their energy as they enter a room. We try and recollect the curve of their mouth when they smile or the sound of their laughter, or the way their eyes say “I love you” when they look at you. We attempt to remember how their arms wrapped effortlessly around us or how their mere presence brought peace, happiness, and comfort.
Death robs you of these details leaving only the memory of these things and regrettably, memory doesn’t always work perfectly. Eventually, as time goes by, the things one does remember become vaguer until finally what we have left is nothing but pieces of a puzzle that no longer fit.
It’s easy to take for granted the closeness and physical presence of loved ones in our lives when we think that they will always be with us. It isn’t until they are gone that one realizes that time as we know it, is limited and precious. It’s been over 35 years since his death and I can still remember that day at the funeral home like it was yesterday. While there are some things that I struggle remembering, there are some images, like that one that I can’t forget no matter how much I try.
The call came October 6, 2014. I was jolted from my sleep when the unexpected ringing of the telephone woke me up. I looked over at the cable box and the orange digital numbers displayed 12:10 a.m. I knew that a call at this time of night to my house phone was not good news.
“Hello” I said.
The voice that greeted me on the other end was rambling and incoherent. Startled and disoriented from the late night call I could barely make out what the caller was saying. Had it not been for the caller ID I would not have known that the person on the other end who sounded as if she had rocks in her mouth was my sister.
“You have to calm down” I told her. “I can’t understand a thing you’re saying.”
Between sobs she managed to get a few words out and what I understood her to say was, “Tio Rafi’s liver exploded and he died.”
Shaken by this bit of information I jumped out of bed teary-eyed threw on a pair of sweats, t-shirt, and sneakers and told my husband I’d call him once I got to the hospital. My sister was outside my front door in less than 10 minutes. By 1 a.m. we arrived at the Brooklyn hospital and joined the rest of our family in the I.C.U. waiting room. My sister’s information was not accurate. My uncle wasn’t dead.
By the time we arrived at the hospital the internal bleeding that got him there had appeared to temporarily subside. He was awake and we were able to see him. He seemed to be in good spirits and joked with my sister telling her that without make-up she looked old. We all laughed, but behind his laughter I saw emptiness in his eyes. He looked scared, like he knew he wouldn’t make it out of the hospital this time. He’d been in an out of hospitals for years. He tried countless times to get clean and even though there were periods of sobriety he always ended up succumbing to the addiction. Most recently he’d developed cirrhosis of the liver along with other health issues, a result of decades long alcohol drinking.
Looking at him lying in that hospital bed I almost didn’t recognize him. The once lively and outgoing uncle I knew now appeared somber and melancholy. He told us that he didn’t want to die, that he wanted to try one last time to beat his addiction. He wanted one more chance to create for himself the life he always wanted; a life where he could embrace who he really was and be happy. He talked about taking it one day at a time.
Listening to him affirm all the things he wanted for himself made me feel guilty for all the times I thought that death would be much easier for him and the family. I didn’t want him to die. I, too, wanted one last chance to help him. A part of me felt like I failed him, like the entire family failed him. I told him how much I loved him and he replied with his signature “I love you more.”
My sister and I left the hospital feeling a little more at ease. He’d fallen asleep and seemed to be doing a bit better. We’d find out the next day he wasn’t. Had I known that night would be the last time I’d see him alive, I would have never left his side. I would have told him one more time how much I loved him. I would have hugged him a little bit longer, kissed him a little bit longer. I would have spent the night holding his hand just so he’d feel safe and a little less alone.
The next day after work I went directly to the hospital. When I arrived I learned that his condition had worsened. He was bleeding again and this time his heart stopped. The doctor’s wanted to perform an endoscopy to see if they could identify exactly where the bleeding was coming from, but the procedure was too dangerous. All we could do was wait and see, and pray that the bleeding would stop on its own. It didn’t.
They called a code blue and teams of doctors, nurses, and other care providers rushed to his room. Years of working at a hospital and one too many nights spent watching Grey’s Anatomy I knew that code blue was a hospital term for someone who is experiencing cardiac arrest. His heart stopped beating. Sometime later a female resident came into the waiting room and informed us that though he coded they were able to get his pulse back. His heart started beating again. Our hope was restored. We talked. We reminisced. We prayed. He coded 2 more times and each time they were able to get his heart beating again. He coded one last time and we cried as thoughts of him dying could no longer be denied. This time they weren’t able to bring him back. His heart finally stopped beating for good.
It wasn’t until years later I learned that my uncle Louie was murdered in a bodega on Bushwick Avenue. It was also the first time I realized how deadly addiction could be. The disease of addiction is not rational and makes perfectly rational people do irrational things like try to rob a bodega, or steal from family members, or exchange sexual favors just to score drugs. It is frustrating to watch the unravelling of someone close to you. It is frustrating to love someone with this disease. There is no limit to what an addict will do chasing that elusive high. The mentality and behavior of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until one understands that they are completely powerless over their addiction. Addiction wraps its tentacles around the addict making it almost impossible to wriggle out of its grasp.
When you first discover someone you love is an addict or alcoholic the only thing you want is to help them. The problem with that is if they are not ready to help themselves there is nothing you can do. When you spend years watching someone slowly kill themselves you develop immunity to their self-destructive behaviors. You learn to isolate yourself from them and don’t allow yourself to feel sympathy for them as a way to cope with their addiction. You rationalize your decision by telling yourself that it’s their life they’re ruining, but the truth is watching someone you love destroy themselves kills a part of you too. For many, it is difficult to feel anything for an addict who will cheat, lie, or steal from you. Addiction is an unfortunate disease, which I have seen take the lives of some of the people I’ve loved dearly, and no matter how many people you lose you never get used to it. It never gets easier and even though you see it coming you’re never prepared for it. The blow hurts just the same every time.
My family has been cursed by addiction for decades. The loss of my uncles is something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. I think about the circumstances that forced them to believe that numbing the pain with drugs was their best option. I think about the untold stories and secrets that died with them; the experiences that influenced their lives so deeply that they felt they had no other choice but to turn to drugs and alcohol. I think about the cycle of self-sabotage that still continues with other family members and wonder what I can do to stop it. Not much I suppose. The fact is, that despite how much I may want to help, I can’t, if they are not willing participants in their own recovery. They have to want it for themselves. They must make a choice every day of their life to not pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time.
I had a conversation with a loved one the other day who says that he is finally ready to get clean. He says he is ready to deal with his demons and stop hurting the people he loves. When I asked him why he never wanted to get clean before, he answered, “Because I just didn’t care.”
I tell him that recovery is a long lonely journey. No different than the path to addiction. I tell him that there will be days so dark that the memory of the high will be stronger than his will to stay sober. I tell him that healing takes time, and is often accomplished in layers; one step at a time, one day at a time. I ask him if he’s ready. He replies, “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.”
Nancy Arroyo Ruffin is a writer, mama, wife, and motivational speaker. Her work has been cited and published in various online magazines and literary journals such as Duende Literary Journal, Poets & Writers, For Harriet, Elephant Journal, CentroVOICES, Moms Magazine, MUTHA Magazine among others. She is a 2014 VONA fellow and a 2014 International Latino Book Award recipient for her sophomore collection of poetry Letters to My Daughter (CreativeInk Press, 2013). She chronicles her work, which primarily centers around culture, feminism, and motherhood on her personal blog at www.nancyruffin.net. You can find Nancy on Twitter @IAmNancyRuffin