It’s been nearly a year now since you died. A year full of checking boxes of things off the list. First summer, first Thanksgiving, first birthday, first Christmas and now the list has come to an end. There are no more boxes to check; no more firsts on the list. So now what is there to do? You always hated when I started a sentence with so. I guess it is usually unnecessary. Do I start the list all over again and start checking off seconds? The second everything without you. That doesn’t seem very productive, but then again neither was the first time around.
I remember this week last year. Christmas was on a Sunday. I knew that it would be our last Christmas together, although no one else seemed to realize it. And if I said it aloud, I was guilty of stealing hope and killing the joy in the day we had left. I told my husband it would be your last Christmas. Even he didn’t seem to believe me. He saw your decline, but death never seemed like an option. You always seemed bigger than death. You were pretty much invincible. Christmas was good. You sat at the head of the table and managed to eat a few bites and participate in conversation.
The next day was Monday, I was off work. We had an uneventful day of playing with Christmas toys and cleaning up wrapping paper and bits of Christmas activities off the floor. My mom called me that evening to tell me that you were confused and asked me to come over. I sped down the curvy backroads in the dark like I had done so many times before. I used to be afraid to drive out there at night, but this time I knew all the twists and turns with my eyes closed and I was more afraid of what I would find when I got there than the driving there itself. You were confused and wandering and wouldn’t listen to anything we were saying. I went back home to pack a few things and kiss my babies goodbye so I could spend the night over there. As soon as I walked back into my door, my mom had called and said you had fallen.
It took four of us to get you off the bathroom floor. Your 6”4’ frame, although a shadow of what it was, was still very strong and resistant to help. The confusion continued, your gait was unsteady. It felt almost certain you would fall again and you were resistant to using an old walker we found in the barn. We decided to call 911 even though you didn’t want us to. Surprisingly, when the paramedics got there, you were able to answer all their questions appropriately and they almost did not take you to the hospital due to your refusal and current-appearing coherent state.
We followed behind the ambulance in the car. They took the long way with no lights on. The EMTs irritated me. They were uneducated and judgmental. They didn’t listen to us and treated you like a child. In the ER you were put in an empty trauma room. Your long legs hanging off the end of the stretcher and your head oddly extended on a pillowless makeshift mattress. Your feet always hurt and it hurt me to see them dangling unsupported like this. With all the bad healthcare experiences you had to endure, you were lucky enough tonight to get a calm, jolly doctor. She had creamy white skin, silky blonde hair, and a body that looked a little like Santa Claus. She took the time to calm my hyper mom and listened to everything mom and you had to say.
After a few hours I decided to go home. They would admit you but you were waiting for a bed. You both told me to go. There was no place for me to sit in the cramped room and I think my pacing was making you nervous. I felt so selfish leaving. I knew that neither of you would leave my side at the hospital. I felt like I was abandoning you. But that didn’t stop me from leaving.
I came back to the hospital the next morning. Your room was on the floor I used to work on. The oncology and hospice floor. I was glad. I had friends there and I knew they would take good care of you. Mom was distraught and you just wanted to come home. After the oncologist came in and talked to you about a do not resuscitate order which you refused, mom and the doctor went out to talk in the hall. I sat on your bed. You were not happy that mom had gone outside. You said that they just told you that you were dying and everyone was leaving. You started to cry. I rubbed your head. I held you in my arms and you wept. I have never seen you cry before. I had no words. I don’t know if I was a comforting presence or if you would have rather me not been there either. So I sat silently, your head cradled in my arms and rubbed the peach fuzz left on your scalp after chemo riddled your body with harsh side effects. I told you it was going to be okay. I told you a DNR didn’t mean you were dying. I spewed the false hope just like the rest of them. But in that moment, I thought it was just what you needed.
I asked mom if she wanted me to stay. She told me to go to work. Selfishly, I wanted to work. I rationalized it in my head. You would have wanted me to go to work and mom wanted to spend time with you alone. So again, I left. Mom told me later that you tried to climb out of bed and called out my name when I went. I told you I was leaving but I would be back. That was the last time I saw you awake.
I was away for work that week. I stayed at a Hampton Inn on Arlington Blvd. I stayed to try to finish my work as quickly as possible. I finished up all I had to do on Thursday night and I came home. Mom said you were sleeping a lot. I asked my five year old daughter if she wanted to visit you. She said yes. I drove her out to the hospital. You were not asleep. You were unresponsive. Your breathing was rattled and noisy. My daughter had drawn you a picture. She was scared. We decided to go home.
The next day I brought my work to your hospital bed. I stayed busy typing a report of my findings while you occupied the bed in front of me. I told mom you could likely still hear us. Your room was filled with a parade of visitors, your sisters, friends, people I didn’t even know. I felt bad for you. You would not want people to see you like this. I sat in the room alone with you. I prayed with you. I sang jimmy buffet to you, but I think it just agitated you. I told you it was okay to go. I told you you had done all your jobs here. You raised three great children, all out of the nest and thriving. I promised I would take good care of mom. Today was the 30th. I told you if you died by tomorrow, mom’s deductible wouldn’t reset and she wouldn’t owe any money for your hospital stay. I appealed to your practical side. I knew you wouldn’t want to live like this.
I went home and cried a little. Loved on my family. I had a drink. One of moms friends called me from the hospital and said to come back. That the nurse said dad would die any minute. I thought that a very off statement. I have been a nurse the better part of 15 years and never told anyone it would be any minute. I have said hours to days, but I’m not sure how she narrowed down his time of death to the minute. I drove to the hospital. My mom called on the way. You were dead. You had been dead when the other lady called me. I should have known.
I got there and my brother had just arrived from out of town. I helped to bathe your body and helped transfer you onto the stretcher when the funeral home arrived. I made sure they treated you with the respect and dignity that you deserved. And when it was all done I laughed and I laughed. A cruel release of emotion that was long overdue. It surely wasn’t funny, but it was over.
And now it’s that same time of year again. On Christmas, mom sat at your place at the table. The patriarch replaced with the matriarch. I tried to cut the turkey, but that was one skill you didn’t pass down. No one taught me how to cut a turkey. I tried to be happy at Christmas. Tried to be happy for my mom and my kids. They tell me you’d want me to be happy. But I really can’t. It’s hard. And what’s even harder and weighing on me is all of the stuff.
I used to love Christmas. I think you liked Christmas. I know you liked the colored lights and watching all the kids open presents. But I yearn for a simple Christmas. I feel so heavy. Heavy with sadness, heavy with guilt, heavy with all the weight of the world on my shoulders. And all of these gifts, these possessions, these meaningless things just weigh me down further. Each Christmas gift feels like another rock tied on my ankle pulling me deeper under the water. I am so heavy I can’t help but drown.
I’m not sure what will make me happy. But I think it starts with simplicity. Shedding the material things and all the stuff accumulated in my house and my life and discarding it like the weights around my neck they have become. I am shackled to my possessions and they imprison me in an unsatisfying life. I’ve thought about moving. Selling this house and leaving all my things and starting over with nothing somewhere warm. But, I don’t really know if running away will help, and I don’t think my kids would like it. So for now, I sit here. Next to the fire wrapped in a blanket like the one you used to have. Cozy and warm and remembering times that were good and hoping that somewhere down the line, I will find more of those good times.
I joined an online grief group, hoping it might help ease the sadness around your loss. It feels rather self-indulgent. I feel like every time I get the wound sutured up, it rips back open. Every time I can almost forget all the pain that I feel, someone shares a similar story and everything comes rushing back 100 fold. I never thought your death would affect me so much. We always loved each other, but we weren’t always that close. We talked, but often our conversation had little substance. I guess losing a parent is always going to hurt. I can only hope that after checking off all these firsts that the seconds won’t sting so much. That I can learn to feel again. That I will swim before I drown. That I can live while I am alive. That I can live.