July 22, 2004
I stood barefoot in a threadbare flannel nightgown, coffee cup in hand, staring at the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window. I was astounded that the sun had come up that morning- that the laws of the universe were still in play. The earth still spun on its axis; the sky was still blue; Chicago summer still hot. It was as if I believed that the whole world stopped just because Dan’s heart stopped beating at 9:10 last night. I felt for my own pulse and was repulsed by its strength and regularity. Why wasn’t I dead too? I felt dead; glacier cold, numb, senses dulled by a sense of surrealism.
The reel of last night’s events played relentlessly in my head. The paramedics doing CPR on the altar of our church where Dan had just finished practicing a rock rendition of the Lord’s Prayer for the upcoming Sunday service:
They can’t get the tube in. I’ll tube him. I know how to do it. No, I’ll call the hospital and activate the heart team. What’s his rhythm? Damn it, tell me… She’s a nurse, I heard someone say. Agonal rhythm… agonal…. dying heart…..
At the hospital “Meggie, your Dad has had a heart attack. He’s in cardiac arrest. It doesn’t look good.”
Dr Richards looking like he’d rather be anywhere than this small bare room where they take the code families. He started to hang crepe. I’ve done it hundreds of times. You don’t want to just blurt out bad news, so you assault them with medical details and jargon they can’t possibly understand. Except that I did understand. I saw in his eyes that he knew that I knew. I felt sorry for him. He finally said it. “We weren’t able to resuscitate him.” He escaped from the room, dripping relief and failure. I turned to Meg to make it real, “Daddy died.”
The parade of family, friends and dignitaries begins. Kelly, my other daughter and her husband Jeremy arrive, faces gaunt and gray with shock. I’m an administrator at this hospital. They called in the hospital president, my best friend Sandy who was vice president of nursing, Horace the huge black chaplain that I danced Motown with at every hospital function.
The charge nurse comes in “Do you want to see him?” Yes, yes, of course. I make everyone go see him. He looks like he’s sleeping. I kiss his face over and over, hold his hand, this husband of mine, 33 years together, and realize that the warmth is leaving his face, that this is real. I take care of everybody else; hug their heaving shoulder, wipe their tears. “Thank you, thank you”. I thank every staff member, everybody. I make arrangements for the body.
One last look. I desperately want to tell everyone to get out so I can be alone with him. I want to crawl up on the hospital gurney and lay on top of him, hold him and pretend that he could still hold me back. I didn’t ask. I still wish every day that I did.
The wake, the funeral, the procession of respect and love. Blazingly stupid things said. “He’s singing with the angels now.” “How wonderful he passed in church.” “At least he didn’t suffer.” The only one that rang true was his frat brother who said, "I can see him singing with John Lennon.”
I wanted to scream at everyone “He didn’t pass, you insensitive morons! He didn’t fly by me in a red Corvette jauntily waving good-bye on the way to some celestial band gig! He didn’t PASS AWAY! He promised me he would never, ever leave me and then he FUCKING DIED!!! …..He fucking died.
Sept 27, 2008
I sat on a metal folding chair in the farthest corner of a spartan room with a large central table and chairs. I was trying to melt into the metal and stop my hands from shaking at the same time. I finally sat on my hands and stared at the filthy, rusty red concrete floor.
“Hi. My name is Mike and I’m an alcoholic. This is a closed meeting. Anyone with a desire to stop drinking is welcome at this meeting. Is this anyone’s first meeting in life?” Oh, FUCK no, I’m not declaring myself. The leader of the loonies paused expectantly and then droned on. I heard words that formed into sentences that dripped into my consciousness. That sounds like me. I looked up and met some old lady’s eyes. “You just don’t need to drink today,” she rasped, “You just don’t need to drink.” I don’t know why but I believed her. I had drunk myself to black out oblivion every day for three years, but I believed her.
I didn’t drink that day and I haven’t had a drink since.
I told the people in that room things I didn’t think I could speak out loud without bursting into flame or imploding into dust. I told them I felt like a fallen humpty dumpty in an endless cave, shattered into a thousand pieces- crawling around in the dark slashing myself on the shards of my old self and my old life. I told them about the searing ache ever present in my heart, the continuous slideshow of Dan’s death that played in my head. I told them about compulsively wandering in the night, searching, searching, every room, every closet, peering anxiously out every window. About sleeping with his Bear’s jacket wrapped tightly around me for months, until I couldn’t convince myself that it smelled like him anymore. About David, the man I had asked to live with me, who I hated but was afraid to ask to leave because I was afraid that I would drink if I was alone. About hating what I had become and having no idea who or what I could be or how to get there.
And they listened. And they taught me how to live again; a different way, without running from myself or life, without drinking, without Dan.
They gave me hope.
I live in Indiana now- in a little blue and white cottage on two acres in the country- with trees, a pond. I cohabit with two unbelievably cute dogs, flora and fauna, where the background music of my days is the wind in the trees, tree frogs peeping and birdsong. My little piece of heaven on earth.
I got really sick three years ago and can’t work anymore. I can’t hike like I used to or dance the night away or even stay up past 9 o’clock most evenings. I have Swiss cheese holes in my short and long term memory. “Did I say that? When did we do that, Kelly? What’s that box thing that you put things in to stay cold?" A language of riddles and charades that everyone close to me has learned to accommodate. I’m tired a lot, and in pain some. I wobble Weeble-like, but rarely fall down. My hair is a becoming shade of gray.
I like myself now. I know myself. A crazy quilt, patched together physically and emotionally, but present, engaged, curious about life, mine and yours. I’m very spiritual, as many of us get as we age, one of those tree-hugging, meditators at one with the universe that I used to mock. I paint and write. Putter and garden. Go to book clubs and 12 step meetings. I have two amazing daughters and an outrageous and incredible granddaughter named Danni. I love some people and some people love me.
It’s a quiet, pretty peaceful life; the only real chaos fabricated in my head for my own edification and entertainment. I try to take it one day at a time and live every day fully aware.
It’s been eleven years now since that day...you know…that day that Dan passed.