September 2nd, 2014

A Manila Folder Filled with Distressing Shocks: Genealogy

Don't read this. Really. Just don't. It's helpful to write it, but I don't think this will improve your life at all. I think once I get the information into the tree (pictures of the death certificates, etc.), it will have mostly denatured the shock of leafing through all these pages at once. And I have to say that for all people like to collect Birth, Marriage and Death records, the most enjoyable records I've ever collected were divorce records. Everyone lives, at least for a time, and there's often a story. You may go into a project of collecting death records with high ideals of better understanding your medical risks. I'm not sure how well those ideals will survive an encounter with the reality, especially if you get a dozen or so of them all in one package.

A couple months ago, my sister went to go see a doctor about a pain in the rear. She was under the impression that several of our relatives (grandparents, an uncle) had died of colon cancer. I had no such impression. I said I'd collect a whole bunch of death certificates all at once from the State of Washington and tell her what I found.

Well, uncle, yes, definitely colon cancer. Paternal grandmother died of heart failure with presumed but never diagnosed colon cancer listed as other significant condition; there was no referral to a medical examiner so we're never going to know there. Paternal grandfather says: "acute myocardial infarction" with 20 years of atherosclerosis listed under "Due to or as a consequence of". And that, friends, is why so many people take so many drugs and have so many bypass operations and live some years longer as a result.

Those were not distressing shocks. Those were expected. The first bit of distress was also no surprise: my cousin who was murdered in 2000 (yet another of a long list of reasons why I hated August, until I got married in August, and then had my son in August, which went a long way to compensating for the many awful things that I blamed in part on August). Blunt head injury. Assaulted by another person(s). Homicide. Children killing an adult.

The second bit of distress I knew about: suicide. But I never knew how. "Comminution of skull and pulpefaction of brain" due to "Blunt impact to head". I hadn't expected that. At all. It was such a shock, I put the packet away for a few minutes, but I was unable to stop wondering about how that happens. "Jumped from window to cement courtyard." So, I guess if you're ever wondering about why facilities for those who suffer from mental illness have bars on the windows, there's your answer. I hate to think about how many times I looked out the window and thought about doing that. I'm glad I never did. No one will ever have to look at a death certificate and think that that's how I died.

The next: an accident. I knew about this death, also, but no one ever talked about the details. Genealogy is an incredibly rude hobby. "Acute combined cocaine and opiate intoxication." In 1987, we all knew those as speedballs. Under Describe How Injury Occurred: Parenteral use of cocaine and opiate. I think that means injected, but I suppose it could mean the nose.

Many more: leiomyosarcoma, gastric (stomach cancer -- no surprise and no health risks because it was surely related to alcohol consumption) with COPD as another significant condition. Smoker.

"Hypovolemic shock" due to "Bilateral multiple lower extremity fractures with surgical amputations. Due to Blunt impact to trunk and extremities." No surprises here, not even the "Prob. suicide" and certainly no blame attaches to the "Struck by motor vehicle". You walk onto an interstate, it's not the driver's fault. She was deinstitutionalized; that's who I blame. That and genetics, after hearing stories about her aunt.

"Cardiac arrest" due to "Severe atherosclerosis". He had the death we all dream of, a month shy of 104. More than one of his sons reached the century mark as well. He was around to provide information on his brother's death. "Bronchiopneumonia due to pulmonary edema due to atherosclerotic hearth disease". At 93, after multiple spouses, some divorced, some predeceased.

The uncle who died of "carcinoma of sigmoid colon", no mention of Type 1 diabetes.

The worst surprise of all, the biggest tragedy, and the one I had no expectation of finding: my 19 year old great aunt who had one daughter with my then much older great uncle apparently really did not want a second child, and in 1926, her options were limited. "Self induced abortion" listed as primary, with "Septicemia" as secondary, which would make me want to go hurt someone for getting it entirely backwards, but they are all dead already.

That would be why abortion needs to be legal, and entirely up to the woman with input only from people _she_ chooses. She should have lived long enough to see her daughter marry, and have boys and a girl. She might have made it long enough to see their children as well. Instead -- a dead teenager.

Her husband eventually remarried; he died at 51 of general septicemia (wow aren't we happy we have antibiotics -- we didn't have them in 1943), due to Endo pulmonary abscesses and pneumonia. And acute endocarditis on the right side. There's a second page with more notes: brachiopneumonia and the absceses were pyogenic not tuberculous. Splenic tumor was not malignant.

The difficult to track "Jenny", who I stumbled across as an obit: Apoplexy, with senility of several years listed under contributory causes of importance not related to principal cause. We are all thankful for blood pressure medication which is effective and has few side effects. She was 84.

Bringing me at the end of the stack to my orphaned at a tender age great-grandmother, likely the one who threw the teacup at the little girl whose teenaged mother was so tragically taken from her, cutting open her cheek and leading to a permanent rift. The divorce papers do not paint a pretty picture of this grandmother, who died at 83 of brachiopneumonia, old age and myocardial failure.

I have to say, there are two clear themes in my family of what kills us. We kill ourselves, directly or indirectly, or we die of complications of our pervasive tendency to get a cough and not get rid of it.

We don't die of cancer very often.