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.

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