It was the worst kind of phone call…the kind you dread, without even knowing it.
My husband was in the hospital after suffering chest pains but being cleared of having a heart attack. In the morning he was scheduled for additional tests to determine what was causing his pain, nausea, and dreadful pallor. I came to spend the evening with him in the cardiac unit but at 7:30 he said he was tired and needed a nap, so he would see me when I came to visit him in the morning. He kissed me goodbye and told me he loved me. I kissed him back and told him that I loved him and I would be back first thing in the morning.
I never saw him alive again.
It was 9:30 and I had just gotten off the phone with my daughter, telling her that we should come to the hospital the following evening to visit. His mother was planning to be there, and I needed some moral support in the face of my judgmental, hypercritical French mother-in-law. After putting down the phone I stood up and started for the bathroom, more than ready for a long, hot shower, but the phone rang before I could get to the end of the bed. Expecting my daughter again, or perhaps my MIL, I sat back down, picked up the phone, and gave the cheeriest hello I could muster in my increasingly exhausted, worried state.
“Hello?” came a weak, soft, hesitant voice. “Hello, is this Mrs. Smith?”
My heart stopped and my stomach shrank into a cold little knot…already I knew. “Yes, this is Mrs. Smith. Who am I speaking with?”
In badly broken English this timorous voice stammered and stumbled around the point. It was the hospital calling, I was able to deduce, but my caller was not making herself clear. After several repetitions of what sounded like “we did what we could” and “we are very sorry,” I finally couldn’t take the suspense any longer.
“Are you telling me that my husband died?” I blurted out.
“Yes,” came the timid little voice.
The earth stopped spinning.
“How did this happen?” I finally demanded, an eternity having passed. From a place detached from my own self, I could feel that my toes were ice cold and the feeling was creeping inexorably upward in spite of the late July heat.
“Do you want to see him?” the little voice inquired. I realized I had an iron grip on the receiver and my hands felt frozen. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl.
“I’ll be right there,” I said and slowly, numbly put down the phone.
I felt paralyzed, frozen. My insides dissolved into a quivering mass of jelly and this queer, trembly feeling enveloped me, rather like the time I fainted so many years ago after giving blood. I steadied myself on the bedside table and told myself to breathe…breathe….breathe. I had to call his mother and it was something I dreaded even more than going to the hospital and confirming the unthinkable news I had just received.
It was nearly ten by the time I could call her.
“’Allo?” she asked imperiously, her accent undimmed by more than fifty years in America. “’Allo? Who eez dees?”
I opened my mouth to speak but my throat closed into a hard knot, no sound escaping. I gasped a few times, trying to respond to her increasing annoyance, but to no avail.
What could I say? How do you tell an 80-year-old woman that her 50-something son has just died unexpectedly? The doctors had assured us just hours before that it wasn’t a heart attack and they would run tests in the morning to come up with a confirmed diagnosis…we shouldn’t worry, we should go home, rest, and come back in the morning to be supportive.
“He died,” I finally gasped out, and heard a sharp intake of breath.
“What?” she demanded. “What deed you zay?”
A shaky, reedy version of my voice, unrecognizable to my own ears, replied “The hospital just called. Chuck passed away. I am on my way there now…”
“What? What?” she was almost screaming. “What are you telling me? Shuck hass died?”
“Maman,” I tried to soothe her but my voice was breaking and cracking. “I don’t know what happened. I have to go to the hospital to find out. The doctor who called me could barely speak English. I will call you when I know something.”
“But what heppened?” she asked, her voice calmer. “I t'ot he wass going to be hokay?”
“I don’t know,” I told her, calmer myself. “I will call you when I do.”
I sat by his bedside. He looked asleep. I touched his still-warm hand, as huge and strong-looking as ever, and fondled his wedding on my thumb where it kept slipping off. He was a big man, nearly six and a half feet tall and built like Paul Bunyan. His wedding ring was a size 16, his hands dwarfed my own. I had always loved his hands, so strong yet dextrous enough to sew a log cabin quilt for his first grandchild’s birth.
Without thinking, I smoothed the blanket and pulled it up to his chin, as if it would keep him warm. I kissed his lips gently, they were soft and resilient and I felt the faint tickle of his moustache for the last time. Never again would I see the flash of his deep, boyish dimples, the twinkling moss-green eyes. My mind knew that it was over…he was gone...it was over. But something within me remained cold and paralyzed.
It was nine days before he was buried. I demanded an autopsy because the hospital claimed he had not had a heart attack yet the attending doctor wrote on the death certificate that he died of cardiac disease. What did that mean? For days I ferried his mother around, made funeral arrangements, scoured the house for financial documents, found his will, and stared blankly at walls.
I did not sleep.
I did not cry.
Food revolted me. I could drink water. I could drink cold soda. But the smell of food made my stomach turn over and threaten to leap out of my mouth. I had to keep the windows rolled up in the car lest I smell something foodish and be overwhelmed with sudden nausea.
I borrowed the money to pay for his funeral. I designed the memorial card and had it printed. I called people and told them when and where the funeral was going to be.
I began sleeping an hour or two a night. On his side of the bed. In his nightshirt. Comforting our little dog who had finally realized he was gone.
My best friend Helen came over and asked me when I last ate. I couldn’t remember. She went to the store and came back with a small container of cottage cheese, knowing how much I ordinarily liked it. I managed to choke down two bites before nausea claimed me. I was able to keep it down, but it sat in my stomach like a lump of clay for the rest of the day.
Finally it was time to bury him. His daughter, whom I had never met, came to the funeral, instantly recognizable by her big moss-green eyes. They had been estranged for the entire twelve years he and I had been together. “I thought I had more time…” she kept saying. “I thought I had more time…” She cried. I patted her shoulder comfortingly, my own eyes dry and burning. I had slept no more than a few hours since his death nine days earlier. I felt like a column of ice, frozen, rigid, fragile.
He was buried next to his second wife. We threw roses into the grave. His mother cried. My daughter cried. I could only clench my fists and my jaw until they hurt, my throat closed tightly, my eyes dry as the Namib.
He had been a widower when I met him, five years widowed when we married. He had bought a double plot when Brenda died and I saw no reason not to use it. Sadly, there was no stone over Brenda’s grave, so I determined to have one made for her when I ordered his. My mind drifted as I stood at the grave in the hot August sun, clad from head to toe in black. I was so cold my fingers should have been blue.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” his brother said. His brother, a millionaire several times over, had grudgingly loaned me the money to bury my husband…and only at his mother’s insistence. Now, Chuck was safely tucked beneath the mountain of flowers and wreaths and Armand assumed command of the family, his mother ever ready to excuse his discourtesy, his disrespect, his unashamed avarice. He looked pointedly at me, “Let’s go have lunch…I’ll pay.” His voice was condescending.
I gave him a wan smile and, thanking him for his kindness, I declined. “I’m very tired,” I told him. “I must go home and rest.”
I lay down on the bed…on his side of the bed…and waited for the tears to come. Surely now that he was buried I could cry? The numbness felt like it was a part of me now, my muscles were sore from their extended rigidity, my neck so stiff I could barely turn myhead. Curled on my side clutching his pillow, I waited for something…anything…to happen.
I fell asleep.
Twenty hours later I awakened and my stomach grumbled. In the refrigerator I found the cottage cheese that Helen had bought me and was able to eat three or four bites before I felt sick. I had not eaten for ten days.
My eyes could suddenly see the state of disarray the house had fallen into and, like a mad woman, I fell into a cleaning frenzy. Even the dog, to her dismay, got a bath. I washed clothes, I mopped floors, I disinfected the bathrooms, scrubbed countertops, and vacuumed with a vengeance. Anything to keep my mind occupied.
Eventually I had to return to work. I had to drive past the cemetery on my way, so every evening I stopped, walked through the green lawns until I came to his grave. Every day I spoke to him and waited for the leaden feeling in my chest to release, waited for the tears. Every day I went home dry-eyed.
Five weeks after he died I had a dream. It was more like a visitation, actually, than a dream. He was lying in the hospital bed, the pale terra cotta coverlet pulled up to his chin, his body pale and rigid in death. And yet he spoke to me; I could clearly hear his voice and feel his arms protectively around me. “You’re going to be fine,” he said. “Everything will be ok.”
I felt comforted by the dream, but still, I did not cry.
The headstones were delivered after six weeks. A black granite stone with gold inscriptions for him, a pink granite stone engraved with a rose for Brenda. When she died, he bought a double plot and couldn’t afford a headstone. When he died, I didn’t have to buy a plot, so I could afford two headstones. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I stopped driving my little black sport truck and began driving his cherry-red minivan. I moved to his side of the bed and took over his pillows. I wore his nightshirts instead of my gowns. I bought a long gold chain and threaded it through his wedding ring and wore it around my neck. I kept his picture on the nightstand, I used his towels in the bathroom, I despaired of living without him. But life went on and I had to, so I did.
One afternoon, driving home from work, I realized that I had not heard music in months. Chuck and I enjoyed country music and had a large collection of CDs and tapes and often sang along as we zipped through the countryside. We were not fully prepared for the 12 hour drive to Oregon to visit my father until we had a carefully chosen selection of music to accompany us. Without thinking, I turned on the CD player and a mournful country ballad came pouring from the speakers and without warning my throat closed up, my nose became congested and my eyes spouted tears.
Unable to see through the tears, I pulled over to the side of the road and sat in a silent agony as the ice around my heart turned to an expanding mass of throbbing pain. I didn’t cry, at least not in the sense of sobbing, but tears ran uncontrollably down my cheeks and I actually began to drool a bit because my throat was so tight I couldn’t swallow. I found a tissue…and turned off the music…and within a few minutes I was back on the road.
Over the next few weeks I realized I couldn’t play music if I was alone. The presence of others would keep the waterworks at bay, but alone I would dissolve into this peculiarly paralyzed kind of crying…closed throat, rigid body, tears flooding from beneath closed lids...but only for a moment. Sometimes at home I would feel a sudden, overwhelming sensation of being light-headed and on the verge of fainting as tears unexpectedly poured down my cheeks, only to have it over a few seconds later, leaving me with a headache from my clenched jaw and suddenly overstuffed sinuses.
It’s been years now. I never did really cry. I’ve moved on, remarried, sold our house and moved away. I can talk about Chuck as if he just lived down the street…he and my new husband would have liked each other a great deal. My new husband is a good man and talks with me about Chuck as if he were a mutual friend.
But there are times…last week was the anniversary of his death and burial. He came to me in another dream, smiling and laughing, his dimples flashing, his moss green eyes a twinkle. “I told you it would be ok,” he laughed. “I told you.”
Later in the day I remembered the dream and I felt the familiar tightening in my throat. My eyes grew moist.
But still, I did not cry.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
It was the worst kind of phone call…the kind you dread, without even knowing it.