Jeff Ackerman: Life’s lessons found in choices we make |

Jeff Ackerman: Life’s lessons found in choices we make

I never paid much attention to my liver before. I know it’s the largest organ inside my body and that it serves as a filter, or detox center – a constant guardian that protects me from the many poisons I voluntarily ingest each day.

Last week I saw what happens when your liver stops working, when it finally surrenders to years and years of brutality from the very thing it was designed to defend.

My sister Joani was only 46 when she died last Thursday. I got to see her one last time five days earlier as she waited to die on the fourth floor of Kaiser Hospital in Terra Linda. Her 19-year-old son was the only one in the room when I arrived. I wasn’t prepared for the sight. My once beautiful baby sister was yellow and swollen. Her lips were parched and cracked, the tips of her fingers bloodied. Her son was wiping his mother’s forehead with a wet cloth. Various tubes from plastic IV bottles were strung above her head.

“Uncle Jeff?” Shaun Patrick wondered. The last time I saw him he wasn’t 6 feet 4 inches tall and muscular, and I wasn’t 55 and shaved nearly bald. My sister had been fighting the alcohol and drug demons most of her adult life, and I chose to stay as far away as I could, knowing how easy it is for anyone in our family to get caught in the cycle. Joani was simply the latest in a long list of victims, living and dead. We had an uncle who killed himself after drinking a bottle of after-shave. It wasn’t funny.

Joani was sleeping (they knocked her out after she kept trying to get out of bed), so I took Sean Patrick to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. He told me he was living in Arizona now and attending a restaurant management school. He said he had left town six months earlier and that he never wanted to return. He’d lived with his mother and saw her destroy herself, one bottle and one pill at a time, before he was old enough to leave.

Those who choose to destroy themselves take a lot of innocent bystanders with them. They leave a path of destruction so wide it takes generations to rebuild.

I told Shaun Patrick that his mother had a tough life and that early on, the odds were stacked against her. Our mother died when Joani was 7 and our father (it was his brother who drank the aftershave) died a couple of years later, but not before he passed on his alcoholic genes to my sisters. I somehow never developed a real taste for booze. Not for a lack of effort, mind you. Lord knows I tried. But the headaches and embarrassments from the night before were not worth the effort. One beer, or perhaps a gin and tonic on a Friday night, seems enough these days. At least it did before I saw my sister’s swollen yellow face.

The doctor told us my sister could have been a candidate for a liver transplant, but that she needed to be sober for at least six months and she couldn’t manage to do that. Her boyfriend had to literally carry her to the hospital because she refused to go voluntarily, even after looking at herself in the mirror. That’s how deep these addictions run.

She murdered her liver and it took her with it.

Hospital officials don’t really like to keep people like my sister longer than they have to. I suppose that makes sense, considering she wasn’t paying the bills and that she didn’t have long to live. The beds are better suited for those who want to live and perhaps still have a fighting chance. And if they have insurance, they are more than welcome to stay for as long as they’d like.

Joani was moved to a hospice facility on a Monday and died three days later. They stopped giving her the medicine designed to do the chores a liver is supposed to do, and the only medication she got was to relieve the pain.

The pain, however, remains even after my sister’s body was turned to ashes. On Saturday there are plans to take those ashes and toss them into the winds of Stinson and Bolinas beaches. That’s where my mother’s ashes were tossed and that’s also where another sibling’s ashes (cancer took her) were distributed. There are many of us and soon, it seems, the shores of Stinson and Bolinas – where we spent so many summer days – will start to resemble a volcanic wasteland, especially if the chain of destruction is not broken soon.

As I’ve grown older (I may outlive them all), I’ve become rather hardened by the hard lessons in life. I really do believe life is simply a series of choices we make, each one leading to another. We ought to learn from the bad ones, but sometimes we just don’t, or can’t. That doesn’t make us bad; my sister was not a bad person. It just makes us human, complete with all the imperfections most of us exhibit each and every day.

As imperfect as we are, the human body is still an amazing work of engineering and deserving of so much more respect than we tend to give it.

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