A Study in Morbidity
My husband died November of 2010, at 2:04 p.m.—one week before Thanksgiving. I know the time because when he took his last breath, for some reason, I glanced up at the clock. Perhaps it was a nursing response to remember the exact time of death, or a distraction for a moment. It allowed me to concentrate on an object, at least for a few seconds, rather than a human being who had just left me forever.
I want to remember the important parts of his dying process; his facial expression at the time of death, the people present, their reactions, the silence, and what it felt like to watch him fade away.
Family members left immediately. My daughter and I stayed with him at the bedside for hours after he died, waiting for Sinai Mortuary to arrive; saying our last goodbyes, stroking his arms, chest, and legs, feeling his body stiffen like a manikin.
I gently closed his eyelids before tracing his gray and silver threaded eyebrows with my forefingers. I studied his ears; the way they were cropped closely to his head and how the salt and pepper hairs peeked out from inside. My finger touched the familiar mole on the side of his nose and I stared at it as though I had never seen it before. I snap a mental picture of his face, knowing I’ll never see it or touch it again.
It felt as if I had become a robot, programmed to do what was expected; a system of checks that people follow after someone they love dies. There was a plastic bag provided for me, into which I placed my husband’s smaller things. I am determined to carry everything to the car in one trip. A Jewish joke book which Michael had been reading —which he asked me to bring from home, and his shoes are placed in the plastic bag. These things are strangely heavy and unwieldy.
My daughter had to remind me to slip off his wedding band. She helped me gather other personal belongings: a sheet of paper filled out upon his admission to hospice entitled “ALL ABOUT ME,” a series of prompts and answers that described him as a person: My favorite sport: cycling. My work involvement: Owner of a downtown eatery, Tom’s Restaurant & Tavern. Foods I love: peanut butter, smoked salmon, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Tears flooded my eyes as I read through his bio–the questionaire I was asked to fill out when he was admitted to hospice. I fold the keepsake in half and slip it in the plastic bag for safe keeping.
We pack up his favorite CD’s which are piled high on the nightstand next to his bed. His laptop, still sitting in the black zipper case, is carried to the car, along with his clothes; the shirts with a slit up the middle (on the backside) to alleviate his bone pain when he was dressed in the mornings, his drawstring pajama pants, a flannel robe, and his favorite gray sweatshirt.
I remember leaving the hospice later that afternoon with my daughter. Both of us, still in a dazed state of mind, headed to meet with the rest of the family. The nurses, at their brightly lit station watched us walk away, in silence. I wondered how many others—“survivors”—they observed walking away, in this direction, toward the front doors, clutching at belongings, in total exhaustion, stunned defeat.
I knew if I told the story of his death, wrote about every detail that seemed meaningful, I might understand it better; make sense of it—perhaps even change it. What had happened still seemed implausible. A person is your lover and soul mate for years and then one day he disappears and never comes back. It resisted belief. He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer two years earlier. I had known for months that he was going to die, but his death nonetheless seemed like the wrong outcome—an instant that could have gone differently, a story that could have unfolded otherwise. If I could find the right turning point in the narrative, then maybe, like Orpheus, I could bring the one I sought back from the dead.
A little over a year has passed and I still think about his death and the circumstances that surrounded it. It’s a picture I have in my mind: the caring from close friends and family members, the support and love from my two daughters, and Michael’s courageous battle against cancer. But most of all I remember him wearing a red knit Cardinal cap, his peaceful face, long eyelashes, and the hint of a faint smile when I bent down to kiss him minutes before he passed away. I touched my lips to his, whispered to him for the last time, Goodbye my love. I’ll see you in heaven.