Sometimes you come upon priceless little treasures you tucked away years ago for safekeeping. And you find them later and melt like chocolate on a warm spring day. It happened to me last week, a week before Valentine’s Day.
I was cleaning out some boxes and bins in an upstairs closet, organizing and throwing the old out. In a folder I found a card Charlie had made for me one February 14. I think it was the same Valentines he bought a life-sized card, three feet tall, and so how do you top that with something personal? You draw a card. You make it yourself.
And so the engineer drew a heart with a red magic marker. Note that the low point at the top of the heart where the lines meet is exactly above the bottom meeting point. Because that’s what engineers do. And note that the sides are exact, too. I’m sure he folded it or something to get it right. Because that’s what engineers do. It can’t be off. And I don’t know if there’s a compass thingy for a Valentine.
The always-working engineer found time to make a heart.
In black ink he wrote:
The three magic words
A qualifier to the three magic words
The signature that you can barely make out to say “Charlie”…
I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I practiced signing his name. He always laughed and told me I’d never be able to do it like him. And he was right.
He cut out the heart. Lord help us all, the engineer did not stay on the line!
Charlie’s “I Love You” came to me ten, maybe fifteen years ago, inside this red heart. And it was endearing to know that a busy man would take the time to create something so simple, so personal, so heartfelt, rather than just stopping by the Hallmark store.
I didn’t know then that it would be a heart – his own real heart – that would take him away from me. But it was, and he is gone, and now I have this paper heart and the two red lines that touch in the middles and the magic words inside. And for the moment it is enough.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I probably shouldn’t be writing it. But I might as well get it out and be done with it. It has bothered me for eight months. I didn’t understand it at all. Now I think I do.
It goes back to the day I took my husband to the doctor and then he went by emergency ambulance to Williamson Medical Center. On my way to the emergency room, I called my sons who live in adjoining states 5 and 7 hours away. I also called my friend Currie to tell her where I was going. In the first hour, she showed up, and I was never alone after that, except for about ten minutes. It was what happened during that ten minutes that has bothered me.
After an hour or two, they moved my husband upstairs for evaluation and monitoring and surgery, and they moved me upstairs in a waiting room. No one else was there — no other families sitting vigil. Currie was with me and then Colleen showed up after we told her not to. She’d had a hysterectomy three days earlier, but she told us she’d do whatever she wanted and she’d come if she wanted and we should just shut up about it and not try and boss her around. We all compared hysterectomy scars, as we’d all had the same surgery within six months. (Mine was the best.) Then the two of them went to get Colleen some iced tea; Colleen has to have iced tea. My brother-in-law was on the way from West Tennessee, and Currie had called the sons to come home. But for the moment, I was alone.
The waiting room was deep and wide with dozens of empty chairs lining the walls. I had chosen a chair against the far back wall where there were big windows. I sat there trying to squelch the panic — unaware of how serious my husband was, aware that he’d be in surgery soon and he’d be there for quite a while. He had the best vascular surgeon in Middle Tennessee. I felt some comfort in that.
Then a woman about my age walked into the darkened room. She kept walking, she was aimed right for me. I thought, Surely she’s not going to come all the way back here and sit by me. But she did. What the hell? She chose a chair stuck squat up next to mine and took a seat, her right shoulder one inch from my left. I eyed twenty silent chairs up one side of the room and twenty up the other. I’m sure I frowned. I know I was shaking because I shook for 38 hours. I’m sure I wanted to ask, Why are you sitting here this close to me? My heart beat hard and fast. I folded my arms. I let the wrinkles in my forehead deepen.
She asked why I was there. I told her my husband was having emergency exploratory surgery. At that point, we did not know what was wrong with him.
Then she told me her story. She was there to visit her husband, who was in intensive care. She’d be taking him home in a couple of days. The previous Sunday he had gone to play golf. He fell asleep and ran off the road and hit a concrete bridge abutment. His car had On Star and 9-1-1 was alerted. Paramedics arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital. Emergency room doctors checked him over. A CT scan was ordered to make sure there were no hidden injuries, and doctors discovered an aneurysm that was leaking between the layers. It had nothing to do with the accident. It would have killed him within days or hours, though, … had he not hit the concrete … had his car not had On Star … had the doctors not ordered a CT scan. She was so proud and happy and grateful to God that everything had worked together to save his life. Call it divine intervention, call it a miracle, call it luck.
Currie and Colleen came back into the room and took their seats to the right of me. The woman got up and left.
It was 7 or 8 hours later that we learned my husband had an aneurysm that had leaked between the layers, too. Only he had no divine intervention, no miracle, no luck, no CT scan.
The inner layer went pfffft! and sloughed away, stopping up the pipe, causing mesenteric artery occlusion, shutting off blood flow to major organs, killing the bowel, killing him. Cause of death: intestinal ischemia.
Two similar cases. One in which everything went right. One in which everything went wrong.
It’s hard to believe that I have been without my soul mate for six months. Six months ago today, my husband died. I can still see those black curls, I can still smell him, I still have one saved message from him on my cell phone, not that I need it to remember his deep soothing voice. All the firsts are coming quickly back-to-back this season: Thanksgiving, his birthday, the dog’s birthday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, our anniversary, New Year’s Eve — a new year that I will enter without him.
Of all the things I miss, I guess what I miss the most are the early mornings. He’d be working — as Winston — on his blog, and I’d be in my upstairs office writing or revising an essay. Occasionally, I’d venture downstairs and plop down in the wicker chair beside his desk. He’d look up at me, take his hands off the keyboard, and say, “I guess you want to talk.” Sometimes I did. Sometimes I’d say, “No, I just want to be close to you.” Sometimes I’d ask him to brainstorm with me, if I needed an opinion, or if I needed a particular word to fit a particular situation, or if I needed to come up with a creative phrase or title. It was he who came up with the name for the journal Muscadine Lines.
The dog misses his presence, too. She hates to be away from home, but was obviously happy to be in a house with lots of people and noise for Christmas. She even lay at my son’s feet and rolled over on her back, as if to say, “You can be my new Alpha. I need somebody.” Lord knows I can’t be the Alpha. I get her butt-end — not her face — snuggled up close to me at night. Once a litter mate, always a litter mate.
It’s too quiet and lonely at home.
Six months. Seems like this should be a significant milestone. But…
Moppy has been shopping!
Thanksgiving Eve, after eating at PFChang’s, we stopped in at Sports Seasons, so Son #2 could look at Colts gear. That’s when I ran across some little orange outfits, baby-sized … on clearance. Jillian Autumn, “Jilly,” will have the white one, complete with puffed sleeves and a puppy Smokey on front. Winston Hardy, “Hardy,” will have the orange one, complete with GO VOLS on his little butt. Moppy couldn’t resist, especially on the day we learned the sexes of the twin babies. Next football season, they will be wearing orange in Ole Miss/ Miss State territory. In honor of Poppy. It’s just right.
Now, it’s Thanksgiving morning at 6:30 and the turkey is in, all swathed in a mixture of orange juice, orange marmalade, Jack Daniels whiskey, and fresh garlic, with lots of rosemary/garlic blend sprinkled on top. And I just thought of something. I have no clue how to carve a turkey! In four hours I will pull that fourteen-pounder out of the oven and stare it down.
In the past when it was time to carve, Charlie, or Winston — I was married to two men at the same time — would pour himself a glass of wine, roll up his sleeves, and tell everybody to get out of his way. He meant it, too. The whole family would disperse to the living room and give him plenty of elbow room. Except the dog, of course. Chaeli sat by his right leg, in hopes of getting a bite. And Son #2, who stood at his right shoulder, crowding him, watching, waiting for some dark meat, giving unsolicited advice.
So now, Son #2, you’ve got to step up to the plate and punt if we’re going to have slices of turkey with our dressing and sweet potatoes!
It is five months today, Thanksgiving Day, that Charlie, or Winston, had his aortic dissection, and five months ago tomorrow, Black Friday, that he died.
The little orange outfits show the cycle of life…life moves forward. Birth, death, it’s all a natural part of life Charlie, or Winston, would say. I’d just as soon have the birth part, by itself.
The calendar on the ledge above the coffee pot still says June 27. He tore off the previous day’s page when he got his first cup of coffee that morning. He was dying then, but he didn’t know it. June 27 was the last day he poured coffee in our kitchen and the last day he spent with me in the home we built together.
He had a head full of thick, black, curly hair — only a few strands of gray. He shouldn’t have died.
Right now, I would give anything in this world to have one of his hugs. He was the best hugger in the world. I could sink into him and stay there, and the world would melt away. I fell in love with him after just one hug. That, and his voice. It was deep and strong, yet soothing. I fell asleep many times listening to him during long conversations.
Aortic dissection is a catastrophic thing. His aortic artery ripped and tore apart from throat to groin and he bled and threw clots and vital organs were deprived of oxygen. The doctors said he had a five percent chance without divine intervention, and God didn’t save him.
I had two final seconds with him. He was in surgery and I was two stories up in a crowded waiting room focusing on the bright lights on the ceiling. All of a sudden a serene warmth enfolded me and I felt his presence and I heard his voice, though not out loud, saying urgently, “I’m going, I’m going.” He wanted to be the one to tell me.
A half hour later, his surgeon rushed in to get me. The doctors and nurses had asked me for thirty-something hours if I needed or wanted anything. I finally thought of something. “If my husband isn’t going to make it, I want to see him one last time.” I knew he’d be cremated and I’d never get to see or touch him again. The doctor granted my request. “We’re losing ground,” he said. “Come now.” He ran down the hall and down two flights of service stairs with me trying to keep up. He’d discouraged me at first, saying it was bloody and messy in the OR, and I probably didn’t want to be in there. “Yes,” I said. “I do want to go in there.” He took my hand and led me into the room. It was bright and there were red, yellow, and blue tubes like coiled wire that filled the room and people were standing around in scrubs and my husband was lying there covered in blue with a screen at his head and I decided not to look around, just to look down at the floor. The surgeon led me to a little round stool that I sat on, and he pushed me up to the back of my husband’s head, and I touched his hair and told him he was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Then I walked out of the hospital without him.
People told me I had to build a new life. I was offended. I hated to hear that. I hated them for saying it. I didn’t want to build a new life. The old one was just fine.
Lee Gutkind put it better when he signed a book: “Best wishes for happiness in your new world.”
It is a new world. I’m not happy in it yet — HAPPY is not in my vocabulary any more, it just doesn’t apply to life now, I mean, what is there to be happy about? — but I’m settling into the newness. It has been three months. I play and laugh with the dog, I work, I walk, I ride my bike, I mow the yard, I hang out with friends, I go to meetings and events, I write and edit, I drink a little wine, I’m getting used to the loneliness, the aloneness, the quiet, the void.
Four days ago on my six-in-the-morning walk, I looked up at the sky for the first time in three months. I’ve been looking down, struggling to make my legs move, focusing on getting the right foot forward, then the left. I know more about what aggregate looks like than the workers who laid it. I had forgotten what the lightening Prussian blue sky looked like. It was crisp, the air was cool, and there was a pearl sliver of moon low in the sky. It felt good to look up. It was somehow a turning point.
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.
The house is quiet now. The kids have gone home — son, daughter-in-law, son, girlfriend. I couldn’t have made it without them the past week.
Besides silence, the house is filled with the sweet, sweet scent of lilies. I must do something about that before it overwhelms me.
I thought my husband had a stomach virus — or maybe salmonella — and went out for saltines and ginger ale. But that wasn’t it, and after teams of doctors and surgeons in two hospitals worked to save his life over a 39-hour period, he died one week ago of an aortic dissection, a catastrophic event.