Part of the reason I began to write was to give myself an outlet; a sort of therapy that’s free as opposed to the fee per hour that would have even Jim Rockford scratching his head saying, “Is that with expenses?” But the main reason was to effect change, no matter how small. If I get one person to listen, to see what others are doing, then I have succeeded.
Those changes are on a number of fronts. First and foremost is to look at what you have. I spent many days joyously happy in marriage and my relationship, I really did. But in the wake of losing my wife to a strain of pneumonia that seemed to take her apart cell-by-cell in less than a week, I found myself able to remember every sordid detail of every single argument. A few were important; how could there not be a few after being married nearly half as long as I’ve been alive? But most were frivolous; about as important as wondering why your wife didn’t put the lid back on the toothpaste. It’s a terrible thing to take stock in what you had and not having taken stock in what you have.
Understand, many times we don’t take a look back and remember the things that brought us together. Nor do we remember the things that brought us to where we are. Do you look at your wife or husband and wonder why you put up with them more than why you haven’t walked over and kissed them today? Do you end the day, however difficult and terrible, saying, “I love you” and making sure the conflict is over before you both go to sleep? How often do you take out your wedding album or the pictures of the party that preceded the first night you made love? If you can’t remember, you need to get them out and reminisce. I guarantee looking back on what made you a couple will repair the rough road ahead.
On that note, though, you should also be prepared. Do you have insurance? Do you have life insurance or a will? Have you thought about who should watch your children if something were to happen to both of you? I mean, even signing up for the insurance through your job – which I know disappears if you ever get laid off, fired or quit – is better than nothing.
If you think, “there’s plenty of time” or “we’re too young to have anything really serious happen”, learn from my lesson. I’m 41. Except to the 16-year-old classmates of my daughter, I’m not old. The year Andrea had died, I had signed up for the extra benefits, those on top of the regular life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment (which is just such a pleasant thing to think about isn’t it?). I paid for the protections for myself, all four kids and normally Andrea. But literally two days – 48 hours before Andrea ended up in the hospital, she’d reviewed my benefits statement from my work. Through a paperwork snafu, most likely my own hurried filling out of the paperwork, I had left her off the list. I had myself, of course, Abbi, Hannah, Noah and Sam, but had missed Andrea. I remember like it was yesterday saying to my wife: “I’ll call HR in the morning and find out what happened. Maybe they can add you, or at least I can get something to fill in the gap until next benefits period.” But there was no next time. I spent that next day at home worried about the cough and infection Andrea had contracted. The following day she was in the ER, and just a couple hours after that – in the Intensive Care Unit. That was Tuesday. By Saturday, she was gone; no insurance, no money, no way to pay for the funeral, the grave, the casket, the flowers . . . none of it. Don’t kid yourself; death, my friends, is VERY expensive.
The one thing that pushed me to write though, the one action that floored me, sticking in my craw and angering me to no end, is what I hope makes you all sit up and take notice.
It started nearly the moment I arrived at the hospital that last day. The hospital had called just as I was heading out the door, to say, “Your wife is in some distress . . . we were hoping you might be able to come and be with her.” That’s the line they used. If you’re wondering why I was at home, the ICU had finite visiting hours, even for a husband like me, and I was caring for my four kids alone. Even at this point I was looking at things like they were temporary, that we were going to cure her and I’d bring her home in a couple weeks. She would recover and it would get better. It always did.
Even when I got to the hospital I didn’t know anything was wrong. There are security doors by the ICU so you pick up a phone and call the nurse’s desk to get in. I called, like every other time I’d gone there and heard the nurse on the other end say, “Oh my God, it’s her husband!” hoping, I am sure, that I didn’t hear that little exchange. When I got into the room, it wasn’t “a little distress”; two nurses were doing CPR on Andrea’s chest. Now, before you think about that being no big deal, I want you to realize this isn’t like the CPR you see on television. That’s a dummy or an actor pretending to compress the other actor’s chest. This is far more violent; it has to be. Your heart is surrounded by ribs, designed protect it from the very outside pressure they’re trying to exert. I heard one of Andrea’s ribs break. I know it was because, again, unlike the TV shows, this room was ungodly quiet. You could hear the doctor calmly calling out the count, telling them what medications to inject, all of it. The noise was from voices, but not shouting. No beeping and screaming machinery.
It was oddly calm. I heard myself begging through tears for my wife to stay with me. Begging her to stay for the kids. The only part of her I could touch or hold – and it seems so funny to think about right now – was her foot. I was squeezing her toes, almost so hard she’d complain if she’d been awake, hoping it would draw her out. The doctor came up to me and told me, “we’ve been doing this for more than a half hour now. Even if she comes through, which I don’t think is possible, we can’t guarantee she got enough oxygen to her brain. She just might not even be in there now.”
Half an hour. Bear in mind, they had called me probably twenty minutes before. I had no idea Andrea was in there having this much trouble. She was alone, without her husband and best friend, and all I was told was she was, “in some distress.”
I heard another rib break and I couldn’t take it any more. “stop,” I said, just that quietly. “Please, God, just make it stop. Don’t hurt her any more.”
I watched her go. I don’t think she had been in there, maybe not even when I first got there. I watched the color drain from her as I lost it. And I do mean I lost it, hard, intense, and louder and more violent than I have ever broken down in my life. It’s that moment of cognition, a moment of panic, where it sinks in what happened, what you’ve told them to do – no matter how right the decision was – and you lose it.
All of that may be hard to read, but I need you to have context. What I went through next I’ve been told by more than a few people who have lost loved ones say they have faced as well, and it’s wrong – absolutely, unequivocally and totally wrong. Understand, at this point, I hadn’t been able to say goodbye, not talk to her, not even hold her hand or kiss any part of her. They could have slid the glass door of the room shut and let me fathom what happened. They could have let me get through the wave of panic and sadness first; instead, they had the chaplain – not my parish priest and not a Catholic deacon even – say, “Here we will get you someplace you can be alone.” Alone! Not what I wanted. I already felt alone, so separated, so violently apart from the rest of the world. They put me in an office with a bunch of cubicles and told me, “It’s OK.” Believe me, at that moment, at that precise and exact second, things were far from “OK.”
The chaplain shoved a bunch of paperwork in my hands, telling me, “You have to look at making arrangements.” At this point, it had been mere minutes since I’d lost my wife. I had time to call my parents, who were on their way, a couple hours from my house. I called Andrea’s parents, an awkward conversation even on good days. It was so soon after her passing that I hadn’t even told the kids, “Mom isn’t coming home” and the hospital handed me a list – three full pages of line items – things I was going to have to contend with. There was line after line of complicated decisions that even two hours before I hadn’t even thought about. They wanted me to pick out a mortuary then and there. It was like they were walking around saying, “Oh my God, oh my Gaawwwd . . . there’s a dead person in there, get it away. Oh my Goooood!”
I stared at the list – and smack in the middle, the one thing I couldn’t take my eyes away from – was, “You need to find clothes for your loved one.” Clothes. How the hell was I going to figure out what she’d wear for the rest of eternity? I can’t even coordinate my own outfits without Andrea laughing! What if I get this wrong, for the love of God, she’d haunt me for the next two lifetimes if I gave her clothes she hated! No matter what was left to decipher on that massive list, all I could see was the line about clothes.
I refused to decide on anything. I had exhausted the emotion and the energy I had left from four straight days of being in a hospital and caring for four kids. I had to hold just enough energy to go tell the kids. I asked if I could say “goodbye,” because I hadn’t gotten to. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I knew it wasn’t her; I knew it. But it just seemed like I should. When I got in the room all I wanted to do was kiss her one last time, I even said it when I asked if I could go in there. They were in such a hurry to move her I figured they’d have her ready and I could just say goodbye. But they didn’t. Andrea was still there in the room, the floor still littered with the ripped paper casings from the syringes. The sheets and linens were scattered everywhere. The lights were off and the curtains closed. Andrea was just lying there, alone, and they hadn’t done anything. By this point, it had been close to 45 minutes or an hour and she still had the tube in her throat. She still had the tubes and wires hanging from her.
The one thing I wanted, the last thing I needed to do, I couldn’t. She was gone and I couldn’t kiss her. I felt like they’d robbed me of my time in the room and now they’d taken this as well. I leaned over and said a small prayer, then told something very personal to her. Closing my eyes, the last tears I could muster in my dehydration trickling down my cheek, I told her I loved her – I would miss her more than anything . . . and I would tell the kids how much she loved them.
I turned to leave and that same chaplain, the one who had forced paperwork in my hands, tried to get me to “open up” while pushing what seemed a hospital management agenda in my arms. She grabbed my hand and started saying the “Our Father” loudly and dramatically in the room, like it was a big show. At first I was flabbergasted but then I got angry. I am not happy for acting this way, but I pulled my wrist out of her grasp and said, “I’ve said my prayers. I’m done.” I left and walked the long, empty hallway to the entrance, trying to figure out how to tell my children what had happened.
This is what I want changed. I have talked with so many people who’ve lost loved ones, who have similar stories, similar complaints. They lose the most important person in their lives only to have others – hospital, friends, family even – say clichés. They push you to make decisions and “move on” the minute your loved one has stopped breathing. The reaction is to remove the symbol of grief, to get rid of the problem. Your being uncomfortable makes them uncomfortable. My feeling on that? I don’t give a good damn.
I want the world to treat those with loss like they need to be treated. Not with kid gloves, not with clichés, but by listening. You need to pay attention to what they’re asking for. If someone had just asked, just paid attention, just listened when I mentioned I couldn’t get to her to say goodbye, I would have stayed. I would have waited to kiss her. I’d have sat there in the room while they removed everything for a quiet moment to tell her my goodbyes. I was robbed of that chance and I want the people who continue to steal those moments like a petty thief, to stop!
Can you effect change in the lives of others? Do you have a plan? I guarantee, some of you may not have the parents, the family, the support I do. Before you think to yourself, “it’s no big deal, it won’t happen to me,” think about the fact that four days changed my life; they re-wrote the plot to my story. You can bet I have the insurance now, do you? I have started thinking about who will care for my kids if I go, have you? At the very least, have you looked at your life, your relationship or marriage and thought about where you are and where you thought you’d be? You are the only one who can make those changes. Most are not difficult or brave decisions. Sure they’re hard, but is anything worthwhile ever easy? These things are important; have you done them?
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