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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Deciding to let go
She held the hand of the only man she'd loved until the very end.
By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published June 17, 2007
Janice Ryals walks toward the blue house at the edge of the Ocala National Forest that she bought with her husband, Ray.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
[Janice Ryals photo]
Janice Ryals and her husband, Ray, before he died in March.
SEFFNER -- It was 256 steps from the elevator to Room 212 at Tampa General Hospital. Each day, Janice Ryals held her husband's hand. It wasn't the hand left coarse by 30 years of cutting scrap metal, fixing air compressors, working under truck hoods. It wasn't the steady hand of a hunter, who bagged deer and turkey, whose riflery the Army trained.
It was a limp hand attached to a ghost with tubes dripping morphine or draining into colostomy bags.
She met Ray Ryals 47 years ago working at a Zephyrhills drugstore. She told him a co-worker didn't want to date him anymore.
He shrugged. How are you getting home, he asked?
They lived in Seffner for 40 years. He was a tough guy who rode all-terrain vehicles and always had dogs following at his heels.
When he grew old, he left his dentures on the sink, gummed his food and stuck a toothpick in his mouth to make his wife laugh.
He was the only man she knew intimately. When Ray went hunting, Janice went. When Janice went to flea markets, Ray went. They spent Fridays at Aunt Fanny's in Ocala, filling up on all-you-can-eat fried fish. They had his-and-hers recliners, pointed toward each other.
They bought a 20-by-30-foot frame house next to the Ocala National Forest surrounded by 32 dogwood trees. They had planned to retire there this year.
Instead, Janice, 64, was at his bedside, their lives intertwined, their future in doubt. She told him to get better so they could drive to Ocala and that little blue house.
Heart trouble brought him to Tampa General. Doctors implanted a defibrillator and discharged him.
Abdominal pain brought him back. Two weeks later, doctors removed his large intestine. They left an 8-inch gash open in his abdomen to drain the wound.
For five weeks, he was like this. Each day, the same. His heart operated at 26 percent. A dialysis machine served as his kidneys; a ventilator propped up his lungs.
He was barely conscious, his mind flickering on life support.
A doctor told Janice things might never get better for Ray, who turned 70 in the hospital.
She thought about a friend whose aneurism had led to a loss of bodily functions. The woman wanted to kill herself, so her husband hid his guns.
Janice looked at Ray, strangled by tubes, reliant on machines. Day after day she weighed whether she could care for him.
One day, Ray showed small improvement.
"I want to go home," he mouthed to Janice.
"Honey, you're much too sick to go home," she replied.
He turned his head and closed his eyes. They were the last words she would hear from him. The day was a mirage that faded, leaving her with the inevitable.
Janice told Ray's surgeon she was considering terminating life support. The surgeon asked how Ray felt about it.
In Ray's family, people lived long or died suddenly. A prolonged illness was a subject the couple avoided, except once, when Ray's brother terminated his wife's life support.
After that funeral, Janice said, "Ray Ryals, if I ever get in this situation, don't you ever leave me in that hospital on these machines."
He couldn't promise.
Janice told the doctor she didn't know how Ray felt. When the doctor asked about it, Ray shrugged. He left it to Janice.
"Should I do this?" Janice asked herself repeatedly.
"How could I? ... How could I not?"
She asked a Baptist minister, "Do I have the right to kill Ray? Is it the Christian thing to do?"
God's the giver and taker of life, he replied. Doesn't matter what you do.
Persuading her eldest son seemed more daunting. He had been going to the hospital less frequently. It troubled him to see the way his father lay, his helplessness exposed.
Janice told him, "You need to sit there and see how your father suffers. Then don't tell me we shouldn't do this."
Soon, sons by her side, Ray's nurse holding her hand, Janice uttered the words that had weeks of thought behind them and lasting repercussions ahead.
"I want to let him go," she told a doctor.
The hospital stopped dialysis first. Ray slipped into a coma three days later. A nurse took Janice into a room. It was time to remove the ventilator.
Janice went back in and held Ray's hand as she had for each of the past 49 days. She told him she loved him. A chaplain prayed.
Ray died in 45 minutes.
Janice had lived with him for most of her adult life.
About this story Janice Ryals helped a reporter re-create feelings and conversations experienced during the loss of her husband. "Deciding," an occasional series, offers insights on the choices people make.