Thank you for coming to comfort me after you died, for the visits where I could feel you near, your hand on my shoulder, the nights when I felt the bed move as you sat down beside me, and the times I felt you spooning behind me, your arm around me in a protective and loving way. I know you were there, and you were reassuring me that you were free, no longer in pain, no longer trapped in an old, broken, body, and more alive than perhaps you had ever been. Thank you for that. While your visits were comforting, they were painful, because my grief was so raw, because I had spent my entire adult life with you, because I had made you my life. The separation was like picking at a raw, festering scab, day after day, wanting the pain to end but unable to stop picking at it. I was so broken and weary by the time you died, that I could scarcely go on. But I did. We all did somehow. Yours was the most devastating death I had ever known. Now, some five years later, it still hurts.
The night you died, Raymond, I know you were ready to go. You had told me so many times. In fact, you had already notified them at the dialysis unit that you wanted to discontinue dialysis and let nature take its course. We discussed it, and your plans to do so never wavered. You had experienced enough. You were ready for your next assignment. I didn’t actually know you were going to leave me that night. I knew you were having a rough bout, but you had experienced so many of those, so many miraculous recoveries. Before that night, we talked about what you wanted to do if you faltered. You said you wanted to stay at home, to die at home, and I respected your wishes. But that night, as you struggled for breath, I saw the terror in your eyes. It is easy to make decisions when you are not in crisis, but when the moment comes, it is not so cut and dried. I held you, as you sat up on the couch so you might be able to breathe better. I asked you if you’d rather stay home or have me call 911 and get you to the hospital. You thought about it for a while, and asked me to call. Soon the rescue unit was there, doing what they do, and giving you oxygen. I wanted to know if “this was it”, you know, were you really dying, and they did what they were trained to do, take care of the immediate crisis, sound calm and reassuring, and make everyone as comfortable as they could. They did not let on that you were taking your last breaths. I didn’t believe it could be so. I knew that someday the time would come, but I wasn’t ready for it to be now. You know? I bet you weren’t either. I mean, when death comes, extending its hand to you, it’s just not how you would have expected it.
At the hospital, they did all the usual things, asked a lot of questions, hooked you up to machines, avoided my questions….and my eyes. That was my first big clue that you were going to leave me. Then suddenly, everything started to fail. All the alarms began beeping, people came running, a doctor was called, and they worked on your chest and started with the dreaded blue bag, to “bag you”. Patricia, our daughter, had gone out into the parking lot for a smoke and she missed it all. I was so afraid she wouldn’t have time to say goodbye to you, but I wasn’t about to leave you to die alone while I ran to find her. A nurse offered to go find her. I saw your bed crowded with medical people, so crowded I could barely see you. And I was all alone, and hurting at losing you, and wondering if miraculously you would pull through again. But they couldn’t stabilize you, and I saw them working your chest and bagging you, and I stood, wanting to tell them all to stop. You were so tiny and wasted on the narrow cot. Out of nowhere a nurse came to me and said “You get in there. You just push your way in.” And I said to the doctor who was head of the team, “Stop. Please just stop. He has a DNR, he’s been through so much. Please, just let him go. I promised him I wouldn’t let this happen. Oh please, just let him go. He’s suffered long enough.” He looked up at me, my anguished face, and he signaled for the group to stop. Not a word passed between us. They quietly packed up their gear, unhooked your monitors, and quickly left. Someone squeezed my arm on the way out. They drew the curtains so we could have some privacy. I was alone with you then. I came to your bedside and talked. I could feel your spirit ready to leave. I could feel your hunger for the next life, for some well-earned rest. I held your hand, smoothed your thinning but still magnificent hair back, I told you how much I loved you, wished you well on your journey, reassured you that I would be okay. I kissed your furrowed forehead, your eyes, your nose, your lips. I put my head on your chest briefly, careful not to put any weight on you, but just to have our skin touching. I told you that you did a good job, that I was happy for you. I smiled down at you, tears dripping off the end of my nose and landing on your flesh. And just like that, you sighed deeply, expelling all the air out of your lungs, and never breathed again. I felt your soul leave your body, and just the flesh remained. You were gone. I still could not believe you had actually died. I mean, Raymond does not die. He almost dies. He has flamboyant comebacks. He does not actually die!
Patricia and I took turns listening to your chest. No sound. Pulse? None. We waited. Surely you would come back. You always came back. You did not come back. We stayed awhile, giggled together as we marveled at our joint belief that you would suddenly sit up and say “I’m hungry. Can you find me something to eat?” Then when you didn’t do your famous Lazarus impression, we said our goodbyes. A doctor was called in to confirm your death, and we were left alone with you. I don’t know what happened after that. It seemed wrong to leave your body there, in the hospital, with us walking away, and yet, there was nothing else to be done. We walked out, hand in hand, into the cold October night. Patricia called her sister, Crystal. I don’t recall any of the details. I was in shock. You were gone, the man I had loved my whole adult life, after 31 years we were irrevocably separated, and my heart was ripped raw, from my chest. There was a canopy of stars overhead, twinkling like every wish was possible, and yet I couldn’t wish you back, knowing I would be sentencing you to more pain, more suffering, more of all that you so happily left behind. Not that I could wish you back anyway. You were already on to your new journey, how could I wish that away from you?
Patricia talked on the phone, and I stood by the car, watching my breath punctuate the cold night air, clutching my jacket around me, looking up at the stars, and thinking of that song, “Starry, Starry, Night”, singing it over and over in my head, but only the first line, because everything else was blurry…. I hope I did right by you. I wanted to. I really wanted to. When we got home, your presence was everywhere. Not the afterlife you, but the living, present you. The heaviness on my heart was so great, I thought it might just fall out of my chest. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt. But mostly, my heart hurt, and that ache continues to today. After 5 years, you’d think it would be over, that I had released all my pain, but sometimes it creeps up on me, like the insidious beast that it is, and sits on my chest again, and makes me remember, relive, relove.