Hating Helplessness

Sinkholes are no stranger to us here in Florida.  They’ve been described as a “common feature” of our landscape, and as much as we lament the fate of those who lose their homes and possessions to one, those who aren’t affected typically absorb the news and move on.

But in the waning hours of February 28, a sinkhole in the small town of Seffner didn’t follow the usual pattern.  This time it took a resident with it.  A gap formed in the earth beneath 37-year-old Jeff Bush’s bedroom, sucking him down in full view of his horrified brother, who tried to save him…and failed.

Rescue personnel arrived on the scene as a neighborhood, and soon a nation, watched in disbelief.  Of course Mr. Bush would be found under the rubble.  Sinkholes swallow houses, not people.

A family stood by, helpless.  Neighbors stood by, helpless.

I can only imagine how helpless the rescue team felt as well, when their efforts proved futile and the final resting place of Jeff Bush became not a cemetery plot with a carefully chosen headstone, but a house on the short list for demolition.

“Presumed dead,” the media reported.  Later it was declared certain.

Across the country in California, just a few days previously, another death had shocked the country, one involving not an act of nature, but human regulation.  Eighty-seven-year-old Lorraine Bayless collapsed at a senior living facility and the staff called 911 for help, but, citing official policy, refused to perform CPR themselves.

It was clear from the voice of an incredulous 911 dispatcher that she was also left feeling helpless.

Reports of whether Ms. Bayless had filed a “DNR” order were conflicting.  Her daughter told a local TV station that she was satisfied with her mother’s care, but not before outraged Internet commenters (including this blogger) had already flocked to their keyboards.

* * * * *

These days there’s rarely a shortage of news media to surprise, shock, and sometimes infuriate us.  Yet these events resounded with me for longer than usual even though I didn’t know the parties personally, because they stirred echoes of that detested feeling of helplessness, in recollections of my maternal grandmother.

Years ago, during one of her nursing home stints, I’d dropped by to visit on my way home from work.  As I talked, searching for a topic to catch and hold her attention, I noticed she was gradually “slipping away”…becoming more silent, losing eye contact, her head leaning slightly sideways.  I kept a close watch until it was clear she was in something like a trance, gaze fixed unblinkingly ahead.  Then, just as I was heading for the nurse’s station, a staff member entered, took one look, and said, “That’s not her.”   I explained what was going on, to which she shook her head and repeated, “That’s not her,” and went out, presumably for help.

Which, if I am recalling correctly, did not arrive.  So I headed out again.  The next nurse’s response?

“She was all right this afternoon.”  I replied somewhat tartly that such was obviously not the case now.  Nurse Two prodded Grandma’s shoulder, prompting a slight reaction, but only slight.  “She was all right this afternoon,” Nurse Two repeated, and left without further comment.

Though I was still not excessively anxious, it was time to phone my mother, something I’d put off doing so as not to alarm her unnecessarily, but also because she’d taken her customary day shift with my grandmother.  A short while after her arrival, staff members were administering fluids, checking vitals, and other necessities, which, in the same gradual fashion as her withdrawal, brought Grandma back to us, albeit with no memory of what had happened.

To this day I have no explanation for that episode, but I still remember my angry frustration at the cavalier treatment of an elderly woman dependent on the care of others.  I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now – for my grandmother, for the family of Jeff Bush, or for Lorraine Bayless, possible DNR notwithstanding.

* * * * *

Fast forward some years to July 17, 2008.  In the early hours of that morning, exactly six months before her 98th birthday, Grandma left us.  We’d tried to prepare ourselves, expecting it at any time for several days.  Yet a strange, nagging thought came to me after she’d been taken to the funeral home.

Was she really dead?

My mother had told me about the hospice worker who came to the house after 2:00 a.m., checked my grandmother thoroughly, confirmed that death had indeed taken place, sat with my mother and talked to her in a friendly, calming way about ordinary matters.  He was trained to determine that death was certain.  But an uneasy image of my grandmother, waking up in the back of a van on its way to the funeral home, confused and frightened – helpless – haunted me several more times that day.

And I remembered it while grieving from a distance for a family I’d never met, as they publicly wondered if more couldn’t have been done to save their loved one.  I remembered those initial, ineffective nurses in my grandmother’s facility, as the tape of Lorraine Bayless’s 911 call was played and replayed in the media.

At last I found myself wondering if helplessness ever had a positive aspect.  I had to admit that occasionally it does, in the sense that it can draw human beings together, teach empathy, promote community.  Some fear it.  Some are said to learn it.  It leads people to despair or to faith: as Indian mystic Osho said, “Prayer arises out of helplessness.”  But in the end I was left with no profound insight beyond what really matters is how we handle it.

I knew something else, too – that no matter how I may handle it in the future, I’m still going to bloody well hate it.

* * * * *

How about you?  How do you handle those uncomfortable moments when you feel helpless?  If you have a story or piece of advice you’d like to share, please drop me a comment below.


3 thoughts on “Hating Helplessness

  1. I found my Dad in a helpless situation in a nursing home one time. An inexperienced nurse’s aid was trying to suction him without taking the cover off the tubing. I questioned her about it and she got upset and went and got the supervisor, who told me I had to leave the room. I told her I would as soon as someone who knew what she was doing took care of my Dad. She said that she was the supervisor and she would take care of him. And I told her she needed to teach the aide how to take the cover off the tube before she tried to suction someone. My Dad sure was helpless and near death, and I felt helpless, too.

  2. So glad you were around, Marguerite! I know my grandmother’s care would have been much poorer in general if my mother had not been so vigilant. We used to wonder about those who did not have advocates.

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