My Brother’s Guilty Pleasure Made Me the Guilty One

He put his life on the line for chocolate candy

“V8 juice and mnms,” my brother’s text read.

“Are you asking me to bring you V8 and M&Ms?” I responded, assuming — yes, root word assume, making an “ass” out of “u” and “me” — that, after his prolonged weekend on a “leaf blower” supply of oxygen that prevented him from eating, he had been cleared for food.

“Yes”

“Plain? Peanut? Other type? And regular V8?”

“Yes, good for me. Yum!”

At 1 that morning, Scott had sent me a text requesting I pick him up “after she magazine also,” which he later translated to “a fishing magazine.” He speaks his texts since he broke his neck four years ago.

As he’d been in the hospital multiple weeks with various tubes down his throat, he sounded more like a cartoon character than my brother. I wasn’t surprised that his phone would mishear him and create such texts.

Day 10: Reunited with food?

This was the 10th day in the hospital in my hometown, Scott’s 18th day hospitalized altogether. He had been allowed to eat for almost a full day before lung issues forced a recall of that privilege. He’d been on high-volume oxygen for four days, and we believed that once doctors reduced the flow, Scott would be reunited with food trays. Today, we thought, was the day.

On my walk to the hospital, I veered off course to pick up his requests at the CVS. I found no fishing magazines, but I picked up a copy of Consumer Reports, new car reviews edition (though he no longer drove), and a shareable bag of Caramel M&Ms for my brother (caramel at his request) and a bag of Peanut M&Ms for myself (as I got a deal by buying two). CVS had no single-portion size V8, so I passed on the beverage.

In the hospital, I greeted my brother, who had graduated to a regular supply of oxygen instead of the high-intensity flow intended to both provide him with air and open his airways. He was delighted to see the Caramel M&Ms, appreciative of the magazine, and had developed X-ray vision to boot.

“I don’t know why I said ‘Caramel M&Ms,'” Scott told me, as I handed him his bag. “Peanut M&Ms are my favorite.”

I then reluctantly pulled the bag of his favorite M&Ms from the plastic bag (how had he known?) and let him have both. More delight! Weighing less than 100 pounds, my brother certainly had more use for the calories than I did.

My brother had presented to the hospital in his home city, three hours from me, two weeks before because of excruciating pain between his shoulder blades. The hardware implanted to steady his broken neck had shifted, and his pain was unbearable. He had an open wound at the site of surgery, and you could see the metal hardware.

However, when he appeared at the hospital, he not only had shifted hardware, he also had an infection at the site, was malnourished, bleeding internally, and had a collapsed lung. He didn’t know any of this. He spent much of his first week sedated and intubated, awakening when he arrived at the highly rated hospital in my community. I was overjoyed that I would be able to see him as he healed.

My brother on Day 10. If you look closely toward the top left, you can see a knotted white plastic bag. Inside it were two bags of M&Ms. Yes, I’m trying to get you to avert your eyes from Scott; I know it’s hard to see him like this. (Photo by Sara Dagen)

He had made some progress in his time. Doctors had stopped the bleeding in his stomach, at least. Most important to him was passing a swallow test that allowed him to eat food. But the day he started eating, he’d had moments of pure panic when he couldn’t breathe, hence the “leaf-blower level” oxygen flow that made the speech therapist insist he go without food all weekend.

On Monday, he’d had a procedure and still couldn’t eat. On Tuesday, the day of my M&Ms gifting, he graduated to a regular flow of oxygen and the right to eat.

Or so Scott led me to believe.

He hadn’t gotten approved for anything by mouth except ice. Speech therapy was concerned for Scott’s swallow; he might aspirate food and complicate his lung issues with pneumonia.

When I left that day, I left behind the two bags of M&Ms where he couldn’t reach them. It never crossed my mind that 1) he would reach them and 2) he would disregard what the doctor said and eat anyway.

I underestimated his ability to make poor choices.

Or I underestimated the power of M&Ms.

Never underestimate the power of M&Ms

He told on himself when I called on my drive home from work.

“The doctor said I couldn’t eat yet, but I ate anyway,” Scott said, proudly.

“What did you eat?”

“Cho-co-late,” he sing-songed, as pleased with himself as a successful 5-year- old thief.

I scolded, I warned, I begged and pleaded. The speech therapist’s warning that my brother might aspirate was a flashing red light and sounding alarm in my brain. Not in my brother’s brain. My pleadings were to no avail. My brother was going to do what my brother was going to do.

When I got home, I didn’t tell my husband that I’d purchased M&Ms or that I’d left them behind, even though I knew Scott didn’t have permission to eat or drink. I mentioned that Scott was allowed to eat ice and had been sipping water, despite the ruling he not have any liquids or food. Steve, a physical therapist, gave me, the proverbial choir, an absolute sermon on how dangerous it was for Scott to eat or drink if his swallow was in question.

I didn’t mention the M&Ms.

I slept guilty, writing blogs titled “Death by M&Ms: How I Killed My Brother” in my dreams. The next day, however, he hoped again that he would be granted food — permission from the doctor, treats from me. He started his requests early.

Day 11: Let the wish list begin


His list of requests continued…

My brother was nothing if not persistent. I could and would be equally stubborn. Having learned I should not trust him with things he should not have, I determined I would buy him no food until I heard it from the doctor that he had permission to eat.

But he still had shareable-sized bags of M&Ms hidden somewhere. I considered my options. Should I find his stash of M&Ms and take them away from him? Should I tell the nurse about the stash so she could take them away? Would a hospital take away someone’s personal belongings? (He had a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in his “murse,” and no one had confiscated those items.)

In the end, perhaps to save myself the embarrassment of confessing to the nursing staff or to avoid the wrath of Scott, I just prayed — intensely — that Scott wouldn’t aspirate chocolate and die from my kind gifting of M&Ms.

That day, numerous medical types promised my brother he would get to eat after he had another procedure. (If a hospital isn’t the place to “under promise, over deliver,” I don’t know what is.) All day long the message my brother heard was “you will get to eat.” My brother became an aspiring attorney, forcing the different medical personnel to repeat their promise in my hearing, as if that would force them to make good on the promise.

Ultimately, no one gave the order that he could eat, and so as I drove home I got text after text from Scott cussing out the doctors and begging me to bring him food.

I’ll skip the cussing and get to the heart of the matter:

His manipulation didn’t work. I was driving and so didn’t respond until I was safely home. Then I tried to talk sense to Scott — basically, asking him what the medical staff were doing and saying regarding his health and eating. When it was clear I was unbending, that I would not provide him food that might, ultimately, kill him, he sent more texts:

And then the ultimate guilt trip:

The next day, his daughter sent me this text:

(As if I would have eaten M&Ms in front of him! Or forgotten to eat the whole bag!) But this is how I replied to Liz:

She reminded me that he’s a grown man making irresponsible decisions and that his choices aren’t my fault.

“How is your brother?” was the daily question I heard from numerous colleagues at work each day. I’d been regularly sharing the roller-coaster ride of ups and dangerous downs of Scott’s health-care journey. When I shared the story of the M&Ms and my guilt, they found it entertaining and, like Liz, absolved me of guilt.

But I still felt guilty. I wanted him to be allowed to eat — quickly — so I might feel less guilt. Or cover my tracks, anyway, should he actually aspirate and get pneumonia.

The next day, Liz arrived from Scott’s hometown and was with me when speech therapy came to his room for yet another swallow test (that Scott would fail), she did graduate him to “nectar liquids,” or thickened liquids.

“Liquids are too fast, and pureed foods are too slow for your swallow,” the speech therapist said. “We’ll try ‘nectar’ liquids; I believe that is your sweet spot for now.”

Secretly, I was thinking chocolate might be his sweet spot, but I’m also silly enough to believe a sick person would be more cautious with his own life than his kind sister. Then at that moment, she added:

“And not M&Ms,” she said, as she looked at his chart on the computer.

His contraband had been discovered by a nurse the previous night and entered notes indicating that in his electronic chart. I felt relieved. (And no one had pointed a finger at me.)

Scott was happy to have “nectar” liquids — thickened Gatorade, thickened juices — and the M&M crisis seemed averted.

And my husband would never have to know.

Pride: more threatening than M&Ms

While he was in the hospital, Scott often had his own ideas as to what was wrong with his body and what would fix it (including M&Ms). One look at my brother, and anyone would know he hadn’t been following the Owner’s Manual for his body. Had he been, he wouldn’t have been in this situation.

It made me think of this Scripture verse:

There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.

Proverbs 14:12

When the speech therapist declared he couldn’t eat — after numerous studies of his swallow indicated he couldn’t swallow without aspirating food or liquids into his lungs — my brother thought he was right in eating the M&Ms.

“Unjust laws are no laws at all,” he told me repeatedly, in texts and in person.

What law was unjust? Who was he to judge? He was no expert on swallowing. He was no expert on any of the numerous issues his body was experiencing. Yet he thought he knew better.

“How prideful! What arrogance!” I thought to myself.

The decision to keep food from Scott wasn’t unjust or cruel. It was in Scott’s best interest because he was in true danger of choking or aspirating food into his lungs. Aspiration would cause pneumonia, and in a body already compromised, that complication might well signal death for my brother. Choking, obviously, could too.

But Scott thought he knew better than the medical staff as to what was good for him.

Pride.

In true, Biblical “see the speck in your brother’s eye while you have a plank in your own” fashion, it was easy to see how my brother’s pride and arrogance, his sense of “I am right” or “I know more,” could very well cause his own demise.

But I am not immune from that deadly sin of pride. While my niece was here, she shared stories about loved ones suffering the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse. I listened — while sipping a glass of wine over dinner.

My oldest sister had a drinking problem and died from complications, ironically, just after she quit to save her life. When I visited her in the hospital before she died, I thought that anyone who saw someone suffer the way she did would never drink.

But in my own arrogance, I sipped wine and wondered at my thinking that I could overcome this familial tendency toward alcoholism.

As the youngest child of five, I got through my teens and 20s relatively unscathed by the world’s temptations, in large part because I watched my siblings’ experience with those things and learned I wanted no part of the consequences that followed.

This time with Scott, too, reminds me that I don’t want to open my life to “M&M”-like, fleeting pleasures that could put my health or life at risk.

Pride and M&Ms unite

Before I started writing this post, I had told several people at work about my brother and the M&Ms. They found it funny, especially as I shared my dream about writing a blog post titled “Death by M&Ms: How I Killed My Brother by Being Gullible.” (I am thankful I can write this blog with a less dark title, as Scott didn’t aspirate or choke on chocolate candies.)

But as I typed, I realized I was about to publish a post to the world about something I had never confessed to my husband. What was I thinking?

(Well, clearly, I just wouldn’t publish the post, because that was easier than confessing.)

Then something happened a few days ago. As Steve and I were talking about Scott and his continuing issues, including pneumonia — not induced by M&Ms! — my husband mentioned something about Scott eating M&Ms in a line of questionable choices since he landed in the hospital.

What?

“I bought M&Ms for Scott when he was up here…” I confessed the entire saga.

I have no idea how he knew or what he knew, but now Steve knows everything about me, Scott, and the M&Ms that didn’t (but could have) killed him.

And so do you.


(Feature Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash)

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