“Help me die!”
Not a sound came out of his mouth, but I could magically decipher the startling message by reading his lips, the only body parts, along with his eyelids, that he could still move.
My husband of fifteen years, David, lay motionless on white pristine sheets on a hospital bed that rocked back and forth while tangled tubes transferred nutrients and complicated machines whirled, forcing air into his dormant lungs to keep him alive. Two weeks prior, he was in a one car accident on his way home from a haircut and now, my partner was a quadriplegic.
When I first met David, he was reluctantly concluding his military career as a Navy flier due to the fragile condition of his spine that eventually led to his death. He earned the rank of a Lieutenant Commander and as the tactical coordinator of his P-3 squadron, he was their rudder. From the back of the tiny propeller plane, he expertly directed the crew on their missions while checking maps and reading instruments. After his pre-mature retirement, he enjoyed telling me stories of their adventures and I loved to listen to his animated voice relive his proud moments of service to his country.
As a wonderful husband and father, together we were the voices for our young family. Partners in everything, we worked together to raise our children in a loving, simple life style. His children adored his quick wit and gentle manner while respecting his firm leadership as the traditional head of our household.
In his second career as a small town attorney, his clients relied upon him to be their advocate in personal injury cases. He expertly knew the law and often truly understood their pain. Through his professional voice, he solved their problems while bringing back their dignity when they were facing difficult circumstances. He spoke for them, and others listened and complied.
But now our partnership was in jeopardy. David’s own ability to speak was taken away on that cold winter night of the accident when his spinal cord was severed at the C-2 level. As a result he silently pleaded with me to step in to be his voice and to help him to die with dignity.
At forty-four years old, he had not gotten around to preparing his individual advanced directives like he had done for so many others. He did not think that he would be facing his own mortality while in the prime of his life. There were so many things left to do and so many unfulfilled dreams. But now our destiny was suddenly being revealed and he needed me to speak to the hospital’s Ethics Committee on his behalf.
Intellectually, we both knew that our time was running out, but emotionally, we struggled. Trying very hard to distance myself from my selfish urges, I focused on his needs, understanding that I could not hold on to him forever. But I was only forty years old with a ten-year old and twelve-year old child at home and I was feeling scared. Unfortunately, it was his time to say goodbye and he deserved to do so on his own terms.
For two hours, I tried to explain to the twelve-man panel of skeptical experts that while we greatly appreciated their medical expertise and care that was given to him for the past fourteen days, it was now time to step back, just let go, and let God take over. My voice started out weak and tentative like a small child asking for permission, but by the end of my monologue, I could feel my husband’s strength radiating up from seventeen floors below and it filled me with confidence. It was now our voice. We were a different type of team from this moment on.
When I stepped into the elevator, I looked at my watch. It was 4 o’clock, the exact time that the sympathetic attending ICU nurse told me that David’s heart had stopped. But then it curiously restarted, fueled by his final reserve of strength. As I entered his familiar hospital room, there he was in the soft orange glow of the late afternoon sun in a semi-comatose state. My beloved was waiting for me.
I bent down and whispered,”I did the best I could; I think they listened to me.”
We did not have to wait for an official decision from the professional, but sterile committee. Within minutes, the thin blue line on the bedside monitor went flat. Instinctively, I kissed his cool dry lips goodbye one last time.
It was frightening not to have his confident voice in my ears as my sounding board any more. It was difficult not to hear his cheerful greeting to a new day. It was lonely at night not feeling his warm breath on my face next to me in our bed. But as I slowly worked through my grief, I started to understand its purpose.
Our voice grew from deep inside of me and started to quietly whisper in my ears. At first it spoke tenderly through my diary. Every night I secretly hand-wrote my inner most thoughts in a small cloth-bound journal in an effort to chronicle and face my feelings. Then through years of rewrites and many failed attempts at publication, our voice finally came out for all to see in my first book. It was our story.
Our message has since become a springboard that has allowed me to reach out and lend an experienced hand to help others who are in their darkest time. Our voice provides some hope. Our voice eases the indescribable pain of grief, if only for a moment and gives these brave survivors permission to smile and to start healing and living again.
On February 24, 1993, David physically lost his voice. But through the unsevered bond of our loving hearts, he passed his strength on to me and in return I gained our voice. I have vowed to never let it be silent until we are together once again. Our voice was a gift from God and it is strong. It needs to be heard… and it shall.
We are all given a voice—it is what we do with it that becomes our legacy.