Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

What Happened on March 7, 2008

[I wrote this description of the day my husband died over a year ago for an old, reconnected friend. It’s not graphic content, but it could be upsetting. Most people haven’t considered this sort of thing happening in their own lives, and my story makes them uneasy.]

Dan died on March 7, 2008, a Friday. He’d been in a coma for two weeks by then. One by one, his systems shut down, until there was nothing left. He was at the critical cancer care facility at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Every day, I’d drive up the BW parkway, through some of the worst ghettos of Baltimore, to the hospital. It took about an hour. I listened to the same three albums over and over because I couldn’t take anything new, including the Magnolia soundtrack (a movie that when we watched, Dan cracked, “I wonder at what point in filming this Tom Cruise realized the best he could hope for was to not embarrass himself too badly in front of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.”). I’d drive and I’d cry the whole way. Because I couldn’t cry at the hospital. At the hospital, there were doctors who needed me to make decisions and my in-laws. At home, there were two very little, very scared children. I couldn’t cry there either.

So every day, going and coming, I’d drive and cry. I chose those three albums that would bring tears easily because I needed that purge.

Dan got very sick, very suddenly. And there’s no way to adequately explain just how hard I tried to keep him alive.

On that Friday, we knew that Dan would be dying. I’d signed the DNR a few days earlier, and the orders for palliative care on Thursday. I was very clear with the hospital that I would not be there for Dan’s last breath – that I spoken to enough people who told me that I did not want to have that memory. They understood and agreed that it was the best decision. Dan was already gone and had been for a while. This was just his body.

All the monitors were already turned off when I arrived on Friday, and Anton and Hannah were there – my best friend in from Seattle, and Dan’s best friend in from San Francisco. The terrifying continual dialysis shunt in his neck was gone. Only the ventilator was on. We sat in a row of lawn chairs (no upholstered furniture in critical care) at the foot of Dan’s bed and all held hands.

It was a horrible day.

Around 5 p.m., I packed up like I had every day so I could get home for the kids’ dinner and bedtime. I said, good-bye, love. I’ll see you later. I miss you. I love you. And I walked out of the room. Anton and another friend Rob stayed behind at my request. Dan was taken off the ventilator about five minutes after I left. He stopped breathing less than an hour later.

I drove home alone. Crying and listening to” Wise Up” from Magnolia, but this time I heard the lyrics for the first time (the minor key/soaring strings were the gut reaction that triggered tears) – “you’re sure – there’s a cure – and you have finally found it … but it’s not going to stop.”

So just … give up.

Time is kind and slowly removing some of the more horrifying images. But this burden – this crushing weight of not being able to save him and ultimately, having to take responsibility for ending his life – those are the things you never think you’ll have to do. Many people can’t do it. Somewhere inside, I have the backbone of steel, an iron will, and a merciful God that has pulled all of us through this.

But it hurts. No backbone or God is going change that.



When my husband died, there was lots of physical clutter to clear away — his ballast, the stuff that anchored a very ephemeral being. I held onto his ballast hoping it would bring him back. It didn’t. His ballast wasn’t my connection to him. So I got rid of it.

Next was clearing the emotion chaos of losing him. The guilt, the fear, the hurt of being left alone to raise our children, the betrayals small and large from just how radically our lives changed.

A few months ago, I dreamed Dan was alive again, and while he was happy to be back, he was really confused about all the changes in everything. And I was getting frustrated with him, explaining and re-explaining why things were *this* way now and not *that* way, and trying to figure out how we could go back to *that* way, when I had this moment of, “wait a minute, we can’t go back. Dan is dead. He isn’t coming back. I don’t have to undo anything I’ve done. Not only that, I don’t WANT to undo this stuff. This is all good stuff for me and the kids.”

So I had to tell him, Dan, you’re dead. You don’t get a vote anymore. I’m so sorry babe, but we’re not married anymore. We’re never going to be married again. You died. And I had to move on. I did what I had to do for me and the children, and you are not a part of our lives any more.

And then he was gone. Like, really gone. Like, he was mad and stalked out.

It made me feel like shit, literally sick to my stomach. I’ve never dreamed much about Dan after he died and those were usually happy, small dreams. He was usually observing me and the kids from a distance, smiling and waving occasionally. But this time, he was back in our lives, and it just wasn’t working.

So I told my best friend Jen about the dream, and my panic about moving forward. This is what she wrote:

“It’s okay to keep moving.

“It’s not just okay. It is vital.

“Look, you are not a terrible person or wife. You don’t get the miracle. It just doesn’t happen. Period. Dan did not want to die and leave you and the kids. You did not want Dan to die and leave you and the kids. This was not something you planned or hoped for. It wasn’t a choice. It just is. And you have done what you needed to do. For you. For the kids.

“This is your subconscious coming to grips with that reality — saying, look, the miracle will not happen no matter how much you wish it and look, you have figured it out, you have made a life and it is good, and your kids are good, and you are good. And this is how it has to be. And Dan, I know you are pissed, because I know you didn’t want to leave us, and I’m pissed too, because I would rather have not had to go though this, but no matter how lousy or unfair it is that this happened, this is the way it is and it’s not changing.

“I think this is your brain trying to end the magical thinking.”

And with that final gasp, that final push, it was over. The weight lifted, the skies cleared, and I knew I was okay. I’ve been pretty happy ever since.