An Open Letter…Posted: August 3, 2008
My Dear Husband,
I need to clear the air. I have regrets, guilt, and I need to talk to you about it. I went to a grief counselor and it was recommended that I write you a letter and say what I want to say and then perhaps burn the letter and take the ashes with yours to the Tennessee River beside Neyland Stadium and send them off with you. But I’m keeping you here with me until I resolve my guilt and I’m ready to release you. And I’m saying this openly because I suspect there is a community of us who are caught up in living and don’t grasp that we are walking a tightrope between life and death, and then when death comes suddenly, it catches us wishing we’d done it all differently, and it heaps loads of guilt on our backs. What we do with our guilt affects how we grieve and heal. I suspect I will always hold myself somewhat accountable. You were mine to take care of, and I didn’t do a good job. We both knew that you were the caregiver in our relationship, but that doesn’t excuse my actions on that fateful day.
First of all, I’m so sorry I didn’t follow my gut feelings. A couple of weeks before you died, I remember looking at you one evening as you sat in your chair watching “Larry King Live” or one of those Lifetime movies you hated, and what I saw made me gush aloud with no tact because it was so vividly blatant. “My gosh, your face is gray and chalky. What’s wrong with you?” You were not happy with my observation. “Nothing,” you said, taken aback, “I’m fine.” But on subsequent nights, I stole glances at you and you had that same grayish and whitish look and not the pinkish red face I was used to seeing. Maybe this was a sign of the catastrophic event that ultimately took your life. Maybe not. Maybe I should have insisted you go to the doctor. Maybe you’d be alive today if I had. We’re talking about your life here, and I didn’t do enough to save it. I’m so sorry.
A week before you died, you looked at me one evening and rubbed your legs together and said, “My legs are tingling.” I knew with those words that something was wrong with you. Maybe then I should have insisted that you go to the doctor. Maybe you’d be alive today if I had. I’m so sorry. But I know as well as I know my own name that the doctor wouldn’t have suspected aortic dissection. After all, many people have tingling legs. My father did all his adult life. He rubbed his legs together like a cricket and complained every night. He lived to be 84 and didn’t die like you did.
I remember you telling me that your back hurt. “Low back?” I asked. “No,” you said, “between my shoulder blades.” Your olive green eyes looked into mine, wanting an answer. You’d never hurt there. Now I suspect it was caused by the aneurysm or tear, or the process of aortic dissection beginning. I couldn’t have known, but I wish I’d done something to stop that horrific process. After all, it was your life. I’m so sorry.
I always teased and told you I knew everything and I could diagnose your aches and pains, but when it really mattered, I didn’t know anything, and I couldn’t diagnose you, and I couldn’t take care of you, and I didn’t, and I’m so sorry. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make things all right, and I couldn’t make this all right.
I keep thinking back to that Friday morning, a little over a month ago. You woke up at three, sick. You didn’t wake me then, but told me at five, when I got up. You just told me you had diarrhea. I thought you had a stomach virus, or maybe salmonella from the tomatoes we had eaten. You thought so, too. I was a little miffed with you because in your job you were always touching people’s mice and keyboards and catching things, even though you used Purell religiously. I even tried to stay away from you because in two days, I was leaving for Asheville to be with Son #2 while he had an endoscopy for a persistent problem, a feeling like something was in his throat. He had convinced himself he had esophageal cancer and had me worried, too. I couldn’t go to this procedure if I caught a stomach virus. I sprayed the house with Lysol and regret this display of drama. I’m so sorry I didn’t put my arms around you and my face against yours and hold you and ask what I could do to help. Instead, I worked with a vengeance that morning. I paid bills, I did invoices for Genisys, I went to the bank, I went to Publix to get you crackers and ginger ale—my God, you could have died while I was gone!—I tried to complete all my work so I could be gone a few days. I didn’t know how serious it was, I didn’t know how incredibly sick you were, and I’m so sorry.
You didn’t tell me there was blood with the diarrhea, and lots of it, until later in the morning. I called the doctor, but by then the staff was at lunch. “Let’s just be there at 1:30 when they get back,” I said. “Or do you think this is an emergency and we should go on to the hospital?” You said it would be 1:30 before you could get your clothes on anyway. As we drove up under the canopy, you said you’d need a wheel chair. “Really?” I said. I still wasn’t understanding how sick you were. I got a nurse and we wheeled you in.
I knew it was something bad when you told the doctor that it felt like someone had jabbed a broom handle down your throat. You hadn’t told me that, and I keep seeing the image of you illustrating that to the doctor. He wrote up orders to admit you to the hospital, and I wheeled you back out to the car. “Okay, get up and get in the car,” I said. You didn’t move. I didn’t realize you couldn’t move. “C’mon,” I said, patting you, then trying to hold your arm and help you. You looked around at me with twitchy movements, and I’m not sure if you were passing out or seizing or what, but I remember shaking your shoulder and yelling, “Stay with me, Charlie! Don’t you leave me!” I ran inside for help. A doctor and nurse came running outside. I told her to call 911, which she did. A team took you inside and put you on a table and held your legs up and I helped them and they started an IV and tried to stabilize you. Every doctor and nurse in the place were working on you. The ambulance arrived and took you away, and I was scared out of my mind, but I still didn’t know how sick you were, and I’m so sorry. I called my sons, I called my friend Currie, I hurried to the ER.
They kept your IV going, they started giving you blood, you screamed with pain and writhed and pulled out all your tubes, and they couldn’t give you anything for pain because your BP was so low they couldn’t even get a reading except by Doppler. You said, “It’s bad isn’t it?” and I should have said yes, but all I did was try and calm you. I thought they could correct your problem with surgery, I thought you’d be okay.
You wouldn’t have wanted the five hours of surgery, the life flight to Vanderbilt, six more hours of surgery, then an additional hour of surgery, during which you succumbed. You always said you wanted to “go” quickly. You lived 38 hours. It was a violently invasive 38 hours, and I can’t get over the catastrophic nature of it and never will. I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.
Most of all, I’m so sorry I took you to the doctor and you never got to come home again. Your life was full of loose ends. You never got to tell the dog good-bye. You had jobs for customers pending, inventory ordered. You had season tickets for UT football, hotel reservations made. You bought parts to fix the grill, you were going to fix the headlight on my car, you were going to clean the gutters out, and you wanted to buy a bicycle like mine, or a motorbike. It’s like we were walking along having a normal life like everybody else and all of a sudden we were at the edge of a cliff, and this was truly where the world ended. Only it was you that fell off, and not me, and I’m so sorry it ended for you and it ended this way. And I want you to know it ended for me, too, in a different way.
Our wedding vows that we composed together concluded with “I want to endure all things with you. I want to walk home to God with you.” You kept your promise to me. I cannot keep mine to you, and I’m so sorry.
In baring my innermost soul to the whole world, I am in hopes that others will remember my experience and ponder and prevent the likes from happening to them, the guilt and regrets part, that is. I am letting you know that I feel so unworthy to have had you, so undeserving of your goodness and generous spirit, so unworthy as a person. I am so sorry I didn’t do better with what I had.