The beginning of the end
Two weeks before my husband was admitted to inpatient hospice, he experienced an increase in bone pain. His daily medications were no longer easing his discomfort. I remember the initial comment from his hospice nurse, “Let’s admit him to the inpatient facility where we can get his pain under control.” Michael sat in the wheel chair facing the open French doors, while I was behind him gripping the handles as if they might keep me from fainting.
“What are you able to do for him at the hospice facility that you can’t accomplish here? Just call the doctor and have him increase his medication dosage,” I replied. By this time my hands were shaking and tears ran down my cheeks. I wrapped my arms around Michael’s upper chest from behind wanting to feel his closeness. Somehow I knew that when he left this house, he would never return.
Our hospice nurse called the doctor and was able to increase the dosage to better manage his pain from home. We had our reprieve. But perhaps Michael wasn’t looking to extend his life, he might and probably was ready to let go at that time. I was the one prolonging his misery.
Home away from home
During the time we lived in our friend’s home, and let me clarify that, the friend and his family were living in another state at the time, it never felt right. It never seemed like home, no matter what items were brought in from our house, no matter which friends and family were around. It was a mansion in a prestigious central Phoenix area with seven bathrooms, five bedrooms, a Jacuzzi, pool, huge patio front and back on several acres, and an electronic gated secured entrance. The walk from the downstairs bedroom into the kitchen was a half block area. And the French doors stretched from one end of the main floor to the other end. None of this state of the art décor mattered—it wasn’t our home.
I remember crying to Michael and begging him to go back to our home. In retrospect, this occurred during my most stressful time at the end of his illness. I wonder now how I could have even muttered those words to my ill husband, to my friends, or to my family. Somehow I thought if we could be back in our modest home, everything might get better; his illness might go into remission, the nurses might not visit daily, his pain might subside, his edematous legs might not ooze, his collar and scapula bone might not be so prominent, and our lives would once again be our own.
A lover’s attributes
My husband never complained about being confined to a wheelchair. This is a man who loved to bike. A man who went riding every Sunday regardless of the temperature, ignoring the wind factor, the heat, rain, or cold. I remember one day four months before his death. We were on our way to a doctor’s appointment when I stopped at a red light. A bike rider rode passed the car. He was leaning forward, dressed in black spandex shorts and a red jersey, helmet, and sunglasses. As he rode by, Michael looked over at me and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever ride again. I miss biking.” I don’t remember my exact reaction to his statement, but I believe I said something positive, something that was a lie, but something upbeat like, “You don’t know that for sure. You might someday be on your bike again.” That was the first and last time I ever heard him complain about his lack of daily activities during his 25 month illness.
I’m thinking about our last Halloween, when the temperature finally broke and we knew that fall was approaching. I talked with Michael about Thanksgiving and who we should invite. I talked about the holidays and our children and grandchildren’s birthdays in November and December. I wanted to schedule for the months ahead because I thought if we made definite plans that he wouldn’t die in the fall. That he might live through Chanukah, perhaps through New Year’s, maybe we’d be able to celebrate Valentine’s Day and his birthday in mid-March.
All of my conversations about the future turned out to be something I needed to do for myself. You see, Michael accepted his death early on. It was his wife who postponed it until it was evident that her husband could no longer deal with the pain and suffering. It was easy for me to want Michael to live; after all, I didn’t want him to leave me. I had and have no excuse for this selfish behavior.
During the last week of his life, he was admitted to a hospice facility. I remember the small room at the end of the hallway with a tiny bathroom, a hospital bed, and two chairs. French doors next to a small desk opened up to a view of the parking lot. There were no grassy areas, no flowers, just dirt, concrete and cars, and occasional moans from dying patients. These French doors were narrow, unlike the ones in our home away from home. We often opened them up to let in the cool night air. Fall had arrived and I wanted Michael to revel in the change of seasons, a time of year that most people let out a sigh of relief, a time when most of us feel liberated from the previous months of blazing heat; a time when trees begin to lose their leaves and summer flowers wilt leaving their petals to blow away—a time of change.
On the second day of his hospice stay, the rabbi called me into his room and said we needed to have a conversation. Michael turned to me and asked me in a weak voice to give him permission to die. I looked into his eyes and knew he was ready to go and that I couldn’t hold up his decision any longer. I had detained him from death long enough. So without hesitating, I put my hand in his and told him it was alright to leave me. Four days later, he was gone.
Notes on dying
I don’t think I can end the essay here with “he was gone.” It doesn’t give justice to what occurs when your best friend and lover dies. It sounds so mundane, a cliché at best. Perhaps because he isn’t gone—his memory is everywhere.