Grace at Death`s Door: A Memoir


They say that resentment is the number one offender. They say it`s like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies. I didn`t care. Some people just deserve the worst that life can dish out. Some people are so evil, selfish, and abusive that all you can do is hate them, and long for the day that karma strikes deep and sends them the gifts that only hell can give.
James was my stepfather. The first time I met him I was 10. It was a rather anticlimactic event; nevertheless, I was happy that Mom seemed happy. I had spent the last two years living with my grandmother as my mother sought to kick her addiction to heroin. My mother was a good woman—we all make mistakes, right?
James and mother married a few years later. That`s when the nightmare began. James was an addict and an alcoholic. They say, “Like attracts like.” This was very true in my mother`s case. My mother was a great looking woman. She had auburn hair, a great figure, and was a very independent 60`s woman. I grew up around hippies and bikers so not much in the way of dysfunctional living surprised me; however, James was cut from a different mold, altogether. He had a twisted and demented personality that suffered from the darkest of personality disorders.
Our childhood at home—my little brother Tom and sister Shelly—was a combat zone. I remember the first time, as an adult, I heard the term “PTSD,” I thought it was garbage. I would later come to understand how real this illness is for those that have suffered constant traumatic environments. Our lives, because of James, were a constant mortar barrage, a life-saving dive from a machine gun nest—we huddled in the foxholes of our minds. Like small prisoners of war, we were tortured, beaten, and emotional starved. Our lives would be affected for decades to come.
The abuse went on for eight years until I was old enough to give James—personally—the kind of beating a man of his type needed, and deserved. Then, I left for the Navy hoping my mother would wise up and divorce him. After a few more trips to the hospital, my mother shot James with an arrow from a crossbow. This seemed to be just the type of language he spoke—violence. He never beat my mother again. He dwindled into a sad caricature of a man: a pot-smoking drunk. Mother finally divorced him in the early nineties.
My mother always loved James in spite of his wicked ways. I never understood it. I likened it to the stories of abused children that are abducted for years and used as sex slaves. Often, when they are finally discovered, they try to protect their abusers. Mother always protected James until the day he died.
In early 2001, my mother found James again. He had been living in a travel trailer behind the construction company he worked for at that time. His life consisted of being paid on Friday, drinking until Monday, and occasional trips to the hospital to do dialysis because his liver was shot. He had Hepatitis “C.” When a person has “Hep C” and they continue to drink, it`s like pouring gas on a fire in terms of the damage done to the liver. James didn`t care. He was the poster boy for the definition of a “T-totaler.”
Mother began a relationship with James once again—to the families chagrin. It ended in him burning her house down. No one could ever prove it, but everyone knew he damned well did it.
I got the call about a year later. My mother told me that James was in the hospital and things looked grim. She never asked directly, however, I knew she hoped I`d go and see James. At that time in my life I rode with a motorcycle club and I wasn`t much on mercy or respect for those who “had it coming to them.” I wasn`t much on Darwin`s theory of evolution; however, I did like his idea that the strong survive and nature gets rid of the weak—at least that was my interpretation. James, to me, was a parasite on the ass of society. I resented him with all my being. In spite of it all, something drew me in…was it curiosity? I wasn`t sure. I decided to go see him. I had no idea why.
As I walked into the hospital, questions rolled through my mind like a thunderstorm in mid-May. One minute the sun shines, the next, it`s pouring rain. Why was I here? Maybe it was because I had the chance to stand over him and laugh in his face. Maybe I could give him a last piece of advice before his demons drug him away. I envisioned a scene like the one in “Ghost” with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. The demons, like shadows, climbing upward as if from some unseen staircase from hell—tormenting their prey and dragging them off into the dark underworld for eternity.
I was still thinking through this vision in my head as I entered his room. The site before me shocked me into reality. The room was totally empty. There was a heaviness to the room—death was there: no cards, no flowers, no balloons, nor any evidence that anyone had visited James. It was simply a sterile, lifeless room of white and stainless steel. Then, there was James himself—a picture of fear I will never forget.
As I looked at James all the resentment, anger, and thoughts of his justifiable demise melted away. The ice was broken. He lay there looking at me with eyes wide open like a man who had seen Satan himself. I knew, somehow, that his fear was not of me, but of his condition. He was a dead man. I learned later that James would come for a few days of dialysis periodically, then leave, and return to his life of mayhem and drinking— not this time. This time he had played his last hand in the game of life. He had thrown it all in the pot, and he watched as addiction pulled the winning pot away into its corner with no mercy or remorse.
James had been a hulk of a man most of his life. He was a construction worker, was always about 250 lbs, and had a very athletic physique. Now, he lay in the hospital bed at fifty-one looking like a man of eighty. A sagging sack of bones. His skin hung off him like draping sheets of fabric. His eyes were yellowed with jaundice, and he had a breathing tube in his mouth—yellow bile seeping out the sides. I felt pity.
As I walked toward him, his eyes followed me—still wide open. His body shook. I`m not sure if it was fear, pain, weakness, or a combination of them all. As I came closer, he kept motioning, as best he could, toward his mouth. I said, “No Jim, you can`t take that out.” He slowly shook his head No and pointed again to his mouth. I asked if he was thirsty and he slowly shook his head yes. I motioned with my finger to wait a minute.
I walked out to the nurses` desk and asked for his doctor. I wanted to know if he was able to drink something. The doctor soon appeared and gave me the grave details of James` plight. “His systems are in the process of shutting down. There`s nothing more we can do for him. He has 24…maybe 48 hours, at best.” I was given permission to feed him chipped ice—water would only cause him more pain as his stomach was full of fluids and bile.
In a moment of self-reflection, I was overcome with grief and guilt about the resentments and anger I held for this man. In spite of who he had been—should I lower myself to the same inhumane brutality and unforgiveness? Was I no different from him? I remembered the mercilessness of his beatings and abuse—now I had a choice to make: would I—too—treat him with that same brutality and mercilessness in his dying moments? On the other hand, would I forgive him with the hope that he might find peace before his passing?
I walked back into the room with my mind made up. I would show this man mercy—even though he did not deserve it. Yes, grace was my choice. Grace, the same grace God had shown me in my own life.
I walked over to his side and fed him ice chips. He desperately sucked them out of my hand. Suddenly, there I was, feeding the very man I hated like a babe needing mother`s milk. I asked him, “Jim…do you know what`s happening? Do you realize your prognosis?” He shook his head yes. A tear streamed down his cheek. I knew that I was looking at a man—a human being—that was standing on the great precipice of the afterlife, and he was not at all prepared to meet his coming fate. He was not ready to die. I leaned over and rubbed his head, as I would a child before sleep. I looked him in the eyes and said, “James…you were a good father…I love you. I forgive you.” Again, tears streamed down his cheek. I stood up and walked out of the room. I never saw him alive again.
My mother came to see him that evening. She told me later that she gave James a pen and a pad. He simply wrote, “I`m afraid to go to sleep.” Mother called the doctors in and asked if they could give him a morphine drip. She told them James was an old addict—“Can you just let him die in peace? Can you just give him something that will let him fade away peacefully?” They agreed. James died about 5 am the next morning.


The last I heard, his ashes were never buried or spread. They remained in the closet of a friend. No one knows to this day where his ashes ended up. This was the very sad and stark truth of how a man`s life ends when he lives a narcissistic and selfish life. No one cares. No one ever even remembers your name.

S.W. Biddulph, 2014

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