When this week’s guest author Naomi Mesbur first approached me with her story, I wasn’t sure it fit the remit of this blog. Then she told me a little more, and I realized that the agonizing decision she was faced with, a decision we all hope we never have to make, is a story that needs to be told.
by Naomi Mesbur
I met Paul in July 1994. He had just been accepted to the Stratford Chefs School to start that coming October, and was completing his stint as a stagiaire (a stagiaire is a cook who works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen) at the famous Bistro 990. I would visit him on weekends during that first year at Stratford, and in the following year, I studied wine appreciation at the chef school with him.
We were married when I was twenty-eight and Paul was twenty-seven years old. When you get married before you turn thirty, you think you have all the time in the world. Everyone remarks on how you can establish your careers before having kids, buying joint real estate holdings, and all those other “grown up” things that people do when they make a lifetime commitment to each other.
Our goal and our dream was to work together, and have an in-home luxury catering business. We managed to get a few gigs, and got a write up in Toronto Life about our services in 2001. We were about five years ahead of our time, doing something that would later become commonplace during the foodie explosion that hit Toronto in the late 2000s.
We weren’t very good at taking care of ourselves, though. Paul was always working, and the last thing he wanted to do was cook when he got home. Our eating habits were terrible, and we were gaining weight from being too exhausted to bother with exercise, as couples often do after years of being together.
It was in 2004 when Paul started to look really jaundiced. We had both gained a ton of weight, from inactivity, from eating too richly. He finally went to the doctor and they told him he had Type 2 Diabetes. Because the condition had remained undiagnosed for so long, the doctor sent him to the hospital for some other tests, since his initial readings seemed off the charts.
Paul had developed something called fatty liver syndrome. It wasn’t cirrhosis, which is when the liver breaks down to the point that it’s beyond repair. The liver can still heal itself if you have fatty liver syndrome, but you have to take care of it, and yourself, and of course not drink.
We liked our drink. Alcohol was part of our job, and part of our lifestyle. I was teaching wine classes. For our wedding, we registered at the LCBO and at Ashley’s for the entire Riedel Vinum series of wine and spirits glasses. We took the doctor’s diagnosis as a giant warning, and thought we could temporarily cut back on our drinking if it meant getting both of us, especially Paul, back in shape and restore his health.
However, what nobody, not anyone in his family, not even I, knew was that Paul was a functioning alcoholic. A functioning alcoholic is one who can still drink and carry out their day without missing appointments or work. They’re never falling down drunk; others just believe that they very much enjoy their drink, and they can be quite social people. But when they get home, they don’t stop drinking.
I never thought about why our very expensive alcohol collection went missing. I assumed that we had lost track of our bottles, or that some of it had been used in recipes, or…well hindsight is 20/20.
We were never able to pinpoint exactly when Paul’s social drinking habit turned into a dependency.
Paul had to stop drinking if he wanted to live. And he tried. He went to AA, he went to therapy, he was seeing his doctors once a week. But, being self-employed, he couldn’t solicit or accept work and go to all of his appointments. I was working full time at a desk job, so he was at home by himself, using transit, walking or getting lifts and taxis to all of his appointments.
And he was still drinking.
But the rest of us didn’t know this. We thought he was doing really well. We knew that he was going to his meetings, we saw that he was eating well. He was losing weight. His colour was going from yellow to pale with some pink.
Paul and I had a booze-free New Years in January 2005. I had said I would no longer drink at home, and in fact, I said I would give up alcohol if it would help.
In about the middle of January, I came home from work and found him, sitting on the couch, with a mug full of vermouth that he tried to hide as water. I called his parents, and we had no idea what to do. We decided that someone had to babysit him 24/7 to make sure he wouldn’t slip. When I went off to work, he would go to his parents’ place all day, where the alcohol was kept under lock and key. When I came home from work, he would be under my supervision. We thought that was working.
He was still drinking.
At the beginning of February, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. The liver specialist knew he had been drinking, and sat us down to tell us point blank that if Paul had one more drink, he could die.
Paul was barely thirty-four years old. He didn’t want to die. He made up his mind then and there – he had hit the proverbial rock bottom, and was now determined to stop drinking, to get well, and start crafting booze-free dishes that could emulate the flavours of dishes cooked with wine and liqueurs and be enjoyed by everyone. He still had that creative light in him. We put all our faith and support behind him, to help him make it through his recovery.
Every day while Paul was in the hospital, he underwent a myriad of tests, being poked and prodded with needles, chatting affably with the gentleman in the next bed who also suffered from the same liver ailment. The medical staff noticed that Paul had developed some type of infection. But in spite of being barely able to walk, he could still eat, drink, and use the washroom; therefore, he was ‘functional’. They kept him in until his vitals were stable enough for them to release him. If it had been even ten years prior, they would have kept him in until he had made a full recovery, but this was Ontario after that round of drastic health care cutbacks in the 90s. The job of the hospital was now to get a patient well enough to continue their care at home so they could free up a bed.
So they sent him home on February 15 with a portable drip. They arranged for a nurse to come over to our home once a day to change the intravenous drip bag and make sure everything was working. We set up the apartment so Paul could stay in the living room and watch TV during his recovery. We didn’t know how long it would take, but we had made all types of plans for recuperative care, including registering him on waitlists for future physiotherapy sessions.
But while he was home, he got worse. The mechanism in the drip had malfunctioned and the antibiotics were not being transmitted into his bloodstream. Nobody knew — the nurse couldn’t tell, and of course we didn’t know. We were back in the hospital on February 18. Paul had contracted a staph infection when he had been at the hospital, but the medical staff only told us about it after he was brought back in.
The doctor on call said the only way to save him was to induce a coma, in the hope that his body would reboot, recharge…give the new antibiotics a real chance to work.
I remember the frightened look in his eyes. I remember us all still believing that the coma would be able to give his body enough rest to finally start his recovery.
We spent February 19 at the hospital — his mom, his dad, his brother, and me. We took turns going to his bedside in ICU, just so that he would know that we were there. When visiting hours were over, we all went home, and discussed where we would have breakfast before returning in the morning.
I was at home by myself when I got that 2 a.m. call. You know, the only call you don’t want to answer but know that you have to because it’s 2 a.m.? They asked us to come back to the hospital. They asked us what we wanted to do. And his parents told me to make the decision.
I hope I never have to make that choice for anyone else ever again. What could I do? I didn’t want to lose him. But his body was ninety percent staph. His eyes were yellow. His body was completely septic. He wasn’t coming back. He was already gone, even before they put him under. So we had to say goodbye.
Paul was Jewish, and I was not. In Judaism, everything happens fast. The body needs to be put to rest before the following sunset. The last thing we had ever given a serious thought to was what to do if we died. What kind of funeral we would want, what to do with our things (who gives serious thought to a will when you’re young, childless, and own nothing except some decent books and records?). Paul’s parents took care of those arrangements. I don’t know how they did it — no parent should ever have to bury a child.
I had zero idea about what I was supposed to do. Everyone had taken charge after I was the one who had made that awful, terrible decision. I felt like the failure. It was my fault Paul was in the grave. I don’t know what more I could have done, but at the time I was struggling to figure out what else I should have done. What I shouldn’t have done. Where I went wrong. What I should have seen earlier. What I could have done before things got so bad.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who was an associate at a large law firm in Toronto who helped me with the ins and outs of the other inevitability after death — taxes, holdings, tax filings. The Internet was still relatively new, but Paul had already established an online presence through our company website and through a website forum that had message boards about various topics — he was a member of the cooking forums and the dog owners forums. I had no idea what his passwords were, so I had to register on the site and post to these strangers that their online friend was going to be offline for a very long time. I had to cancel cell phone contracts, credit cards, and the like, each time explaining that the account holder had passed away (with many gasps or cynical comments of disbelief from the other end), having prepared a standard form letter with attachments to fax over (this was before .pdfs and encryption) since there was no formal “executor” (whatever that meant) for Paul’s “estate”.
February 20, 2016 will be eleven years since Paul passed away. Some years are easier than others. Last year was a very difficult year. Old questions with no answers resurfaced: Did I make the right decision? If we had waited, what would have happened? Did the organ donation people make the best use of what they were able to salvage? Did our registered complaints to the Ombudsman of the Toronto Hospital system help someone else in the long run to avoid falling to further illness when transferred out of the hospital system to the home care system?
People often comment about how strong I was at the time, and how strong I have been since then. I’m not sure if it was strength — I simply did not know what to do, so I followed my gut instincts. I made a decision to end my husband’s suffering so that he could be free of pain for the rest of our lives together, even if it was for only seven seconds. Knowing that he had found some peace before he moved onto the next plane of existence did not make things easier — nothing ever does — but it made things less difficult. It gave me the ability to handle all of those grown up things that people have to deal with when they’ve made a lifetime commitment to each other.
About the author:
At sixteen, Naomi began writing under the pen name of Mimi Jones-Taylor. After an energetic and enthusiastic start to a promising career in writing, circumstances took her away from the page for too many years, though during this dark time, she continued to crank out pieces which to this day remain hidden on portable, antiquated media.
Mimi’s drive to write overtook her sanity. She completed several pieces of fiction, and entered the world of blogging. Tired of hiding her writing in the cloud, and encouraged by the victims of her isolation, in May 2013, as Naomi, she took the bold step of becoming a member of the Writers Community of Durham Region, and read her first piece in public at June 2013 Words of the Season. She was encouraged to enter a shortened version of the piece in the 2013 WCDR Slam, and finished as one of the seven finalists.
Mimi is a realist-romance and erotic fiction writer who can often be found reading some of her short prose pieces to local audiences in Durham Region.
Naomi is a member of the organizational committee for the Ontario Writers’ Conference, and participates in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, an annual fundraiser for adult literacy programs for the YMCA of Simcoe-Muskoka.
When she isn’t at the page, Naomi is a single mother to a nine-year-old boy with autism who shares her love of music, reading, and writing down secrets longhand in notebooks.
Follow her on Twitter: (@mimijonestaylor (writing) or @woobiesmum (for all the useless knowledge in her head)) and Facebook.
Her blog can be found here.