2002 by Larry Appleton
The story was written for my mother shortly before she died. The story has not been seen outside of the family until now because of the personal nature of the story itself. It was very difficult to write and I had to pause many times to compose myself.
My sister, Brenda Sue, lay on the gurney in the intensive care unit with a bullet in her head. Reflecting on the day my sister shot herself reminds me of the devastating effects of a suicide and the emotional roller coaster a family has to go through. Some of the most difficult decisions of our life were made in the days that followed, and we all grew a little as a result of this tragic event.
Brenda Sue and I grew up together with only a year separating us. We were playmates and later became good friends. My mother often called her by her first and middle name, and that stuck with her into adult life. As children we were 'partners in crime' occasionally talking each other into doing things we both knew was wrong. We both married about the same time and separated to form our own families. As we struggled to raise our families we stayed in touch with each other by telephone. She had two children, Joshua and Trisha, and most of our conversations centered on the task of raising our children.
Late one November night I was startled awake by a ringing telephone. Immediately my stomach turned as I wondered who would be calling at such an hour. Answering the telephone confirmed my worst fears. It was my mother, calling to inform me that Brenda Sue had been shot in the head and was in serious condition at a Pontiac, Michigan hospital. I was in shock and tried to get more details from her, but she was upset and crying too hard to give me much information. We continued to talk for the better part of an hour trying to make the arrangements for the long trip to Michigan.
We agreed that my mother, my younger sister Karen, and my brother, John, would fly to Nashville and I would meet them at the airport. My father lived the closest and would meet us the next day. We then drove from Nashville to Michigan in my small Ford Fairmont. The stony silence made the trip seem like an eternity. My mother stared blankly at the highway; I noticed she looked much older than I remembered. Karen sat in the back seat weeping occasionally, but otherwise she was quiet. John, who was only six years old, colored in his new coloring book. Unaware of the grave condition his sister was in. We all hoped she would still be alive when we got there.
When we arrived at the hospital we were led to a small family room. As we waited for the doctor to apprise us of Brenda's condition, I could not help but notice the antiseptic smell of the hospital. It seemed to imply only the sick, hurt, or dying resided here. When the doctor told us that Brenda Sue was still alive, we all felt a sense of relief. However, our hopes were crushed when he told us she would probably not survive the day. He explained that the bullet had entered her brain behind her right ear and instead of exiting had bounced around destroying a large amount of brain tissue, effectively leaving her brain dead. About this time a police officer entered the room. It was then we learned it was self -inflicted. I was floored. How could she do such a thing without trying to talk with me? My mother was crying again as the doctor asked if we would like to see her. He recommended that John not join us because of the emotional impact it might have on a six year old. He tried to prepare us for what we would see explaining her body's reaction to the trauma. There was a lot of swelling and we may not recognize her.
We were horrified at the sight of Brenda Sue lying on the bed in intensive care. Although the doctor tried to forewarn us about the swelling, I was appalled to see that even the rings on her fingers were cutting into her skin. Barely recognizing her, I started crying. My mother trembled as I hugged her. My father immediately left the room without saying a word. And again there was that damn antiseptic smell. We all had to leave.
After returning to the family room we were met by Lisa, the nurse assigned to us by the doctor. She was compassionate, but had the difficult task of explaining the options available to us. She explained to us that the first tests for brain activity had come back negative and they would do one more the next day. In the meantime, we needed to discuss the possibility of taking her off life support in the event that the second test would also come back negative. She also asked us to consider donating her organs in case she was found to be brain dead. We decided right then that Brenda Sue would wanted that, so we gave permission to have her organs harvested in the event she died.
We left the hospital and went to my father's house in St. Helen, Michigan. Sitting in the large living room we discussed our options. At issue was whether or not we wanted her to remain on life support if the second brain scan came back negative. This was a very difficult decision. Although deep within ourselves we wanted to believe that somehow Brenda would pull through this, we also knew from the doctor's report that this was very unlikely. We decided that we just couldn't let her suffer for a long period of time. Therefore the decision was made to have her removed from life support and let her go. We also had to decide whether we wanted to bury her in Michigan or to have her cremated and sent back to Florida where she grew up. For mostly financial and sentimental reasons we decided to have her body cremated and sent back to Florida with our mother. Exhausted we all went to bed.
The next day was cold and blustery. I noticed the wind was blowing the snow into little whirlwinds on the road. As my family began piling in the car, I began to reminisce about some of the good times my sister and I shared. I also shared this with the rest of the family. I asked my mother why she had always called her Brenda Sue. She said she was always called Sue Ellen by her mother and guessed she just passed that along to Brenda Sue. My father added that all our names had a special meaning, and that since I was his first son, he had named me after him. Everyone's spirit seemed to pick up after that, and all the way back to the hospital the conversation around the good times we had.
Back at the small family room in the hospital, Lisa informed us that the second test had also come back negative. As a result the doctor had declared her brain dead. She asked us if we had made a decision. Almost in unison we told her that they had our permission to disconnect her from life support and to let her pass away. Lisa seemed to appreciate the unanimous decision we had made and asked if we would like to say goodbye to her one last time. We told Lisa that we wanted to remember Brenda Sue for the good times we had and did not want to see her again.
I look back on these events
with a deeper respect for my family. We made some hard choices and
to live with it in a positive sort of way. We talk a lot more to each
and have agreed that if we found ourselves in a situation that seemed
we would pick up the phone and call someone. I have only one regret,
all she never said goodbye.
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