It was about 5 a.m. on an Easter morning. It was still dark outside when I was awakened by a nerve-shattering noise, like a screech from a trapped animal or an uncanny moaning from another world. As I roused myself into wakefulness, I realized the sound had come from my husband, Dick, who was sleeping beside me.
I stumbled from the bed and walked around to his side of the bed and gently shook him—thinking that a nightmare had forced his cry. There was no response. His body was rigid and cold to my touch. I frantically dialed 911, while continuing to massage his chest.
We were in our eighties and had been married for 62 years. I stood by our bed, after placing the emergency call and called each of our children, who lived nearby. Before long, our home was swarming with nine paramedics who had responded to the call. Three of them went into our bedroom and began CPR on my husband, who appeared lifeless.
Our hastily dressed and frightened children had come and we held hands and said a prayer, while the ER men continued to labor over his unresponsive body. It seemed like an eternity until they carried him out of the bedroom on a stretcher, placed the stretcher in the ambulance and raced towards the hospital. I felt it was a miracle that he had been revived, as I was sure he had died.
At the hospital, he was diagnosed with a Grand Mal seizure, which is very debilitating. It was days before we felt any hope of him ever having a normal life again. Dick was a pioneer in the field of pediatric dentistry and even though he was 82, he still loved his profession and never missed a day working at a dental facility. As he slowly regained consciousness, he was told he could no longer continue his work. It was a harsh restriction and he knew his life would never be the same.
After many days in the hospital, he was transferred to a care facility where he underwent therapy for a month. The seizure dramatically changed our lives, limiting his activity. I took over driving and we altered the pace of our lives to accommodate his recovery.
But even though our lives narrowed, we still enjoyed our home and family for another two years. He now used a heavy, metal, three-pronged cane and walked with effort. It seemed as if his shoulders sagged more each day as he slowly ambled along; his head bowed. It saddened all of us to see the change in his appearance and his energy level, although he still forced himself to exercise daily.
He enjoyed his modified lifestyle until he began to have a new set of health issues. A rare liver condition had developed and seemed to overtake him—sneaking in, uninvited. It proved to be deadly.
We tried to carry on our lives as normally as possible, but—unexpectedly—he collapsed and Cathy, our daughter, called an ambulance. The family gathered to wait for it to arrive. We tried to cheer one another and remain optimistic, but in my heart, I knew that it was the last time Dick would ever be in our beloved home.
At the hospital, he fought bravely, desiring to live, and the entire family offered their love and support. He was there for five days when the hospital staff realized they could do no more for him. He was transferred to a highly recommended care facility and placed in a small, private room. He was there for 77 days, but after the first two months had passed, the medical personnel told us there was no hope of recovery.
He was kept as comfortable as possible and during the days that preceded his death, he was seldom alone. On the last day of his life, I sat by his bed for 9 and a half hours. I patted him, held his hand—even though he was in a coma, I told him what a wonderful contribution he had made during his life and how much he was loved. I reassured him it was all right to leave us and that we would be fine. The nurse assured me he would be comatose for another day or two and insisted that I go home to rest.
Our daughters walked me to my car and made sure I was alright. He passed away while we were in the parking lot. Our granddaughter, Caitlin, was the only one with him when he left. Perhaps it was too hard to leave while his wife and daughters were present. Life for any of us will never again be the same.
So, if life gave us choices, would I choose a sudden death or a lingering death? Believing that my husband was dead, when he suffered the seizure, was heart-stopping for me. And yet—watching him fade away before my very eyes I believe was worse. When anyone is this ill, all aspects of dignity are lost, as the patient must rely on others for all of his personal needs. Modesty becomes only a word, as one’s dignity diminishes.
Many variables enter into the dying process: age, financial sustainability, availability of good health care, the patient’s desire to live, family resources—to name a few. Each situation is unique and wisdom is at the mercy of one’s loving heart.
It has been very hard to adjust to being an elderly, single lady, but I found I had strength I didn’t know I had when I was faced with the inevitable. I moved to be close to our daughters and restored the older and began a new life.
I found that when I have an especially hard day, I can comfort myself by reading a good book, buying a flowering plant, or inviting a friend in for a visit.
Classical music has been a big help and I have my radio tuned to it daily. Serving others by writing notes or taking small gifts all help fill the lonely hours, but the greatest source of comfort for me comes from my knowledge of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of being united again. We each must find our own path to walk on alone and seek to find some moment of joy in each day.
Finally, I think it’s good that we seldom make these life and death choices. But we can choose to move on with faith, hope, and a semblance of purpose, even though the loss of anyone dear leaves an emptiness that defies description. I constantly remind myself to be grateful for all that I have left and not to dwell upon or mourn what has been.