I have been accused of smacking my readers over the head, being preachy and judgmental. I am. Working on it. Trying for more subtlety. But damn me if I don’t think my readers sometimes deserve the full truth. Raw. Blunt.
I hate flu season. Not the disease so much but the season. I hate snow. Not so much the precipitation but that it usually happens around flu season. I hate the wail of an EMS siren. The snow, flu, and EMS created the perfect storm nineteen years ago.
Raleigh’s weather had been bad. Finally the snow melted. The roads were the usual mess. My husband and I had the flu or so we thought. Rod had been ill since Wednesday. He stayed home from work – something he dearly loved to do. We got to spend more time together. My office was on the other side of the duplex.
By Friday afternoon, I was feeling better, seeing a few clients at my home office, and checking on him between clients. He didn’t look good. Green around the gills. Listless and grumpy unlike the teddy bear he had become over our marriage. I was out of graduate school and the pressure was off him as I started to bring in money. We were planning to open a holistic bed and breakfast. A year later, I found a notebook, two inches thick, with specifications of the land that he would have bought, notes on his instructions to real estate agents, and drawings of structures I had okayed as possibilities for our adventure.
When I finished work after 7 that night, I washed my face before checking on him. He was lying in bed. A six foot four unmoving lump. Chest barely rising. Staring at the ceiling.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said.
“You don’t look so good. I’m going to call the doctor.”
I called Rod’s newly assigned doctor. I could tell he was irritated by a call on a Friday night – abrupt, dismissive annoyance traveled over the phone. I told him I was concerned. My husband didn’t complain. Barely went to the doctor. But he was complaining now. He wasn’t quite thirty-one.
“You have to see him. Something’s wrong,” I yelled into the phone.
“I’ll call you in something for the flu,” said the doctor.
“Do you think I should take him to the ER?”
“No. It’s the flu,” he said and hung up.
I promised Rod to be as fast as possible, drove to the pharmacy, and got the anti-nausea med. When I returned it was close to nine. Rod had collapsed in on himself. The skin around his mouth was blue. His eyes were sunken back into his head. He looked like he had lost thirty pounds in an hour.
“I’m taking you to the hospital,” I said.
“No don’t,” he said. His eyes were sad, glittering with tears, but he smiled up at me.
At that moment, through some grace of God, we knew he was dying.
“I’m so scared,” he said. I had to move close to his heart to hear him.
Instead of denying it, I asked Rod, “What do you want to do?”
“I want to be at home,” he said along with the wordless question of could I be there with him.
I don’t remember what we talked about but we talked. He gave me permission to love again. He told me it would be a waste to have learned such a hard-won skill and never use it again. I tried to laugh it off but he put his hand over my mouth for me to kiss. We smiled a little, giggling like the young things we were. Murmuring little love words to each other. Saying our goodbyes.
By midnight, his muscles had started aching from lack of oxygen. At first his body alternated between trembling and stiffening. In an hour, whole body seizures started. I held him. Rocked him. Massaged him. Sang him little songs he loved. Told him not to be afraid. It would be shitty but I would stay with him. Held back all the tears that I nearly drowned in later. When he started blacking out, going minutes without a pulse, I called EMS. I had kept my vow.
A gruff man came in and took over. He was the age I am now. “What’s your husband’s name?” he asked.
“Roderick Eugene. Rod,” I said.
“Rod, I need you to listen to me. Pay attention to me,” he said.
“We can’t get a blood pressure,” said another member of the EMS team. They got busy.
I grabbed our stuff from the bedroom. Threw on some clothes. I was not allowed in the ambulance so I followed them to the Emergency Department in our truck. The wail of the EMS kept my adrenalin up, pushing back the terror, robbing me of breath. EMS pushed his gurney through the doors, sirens still wailing, leaving me to fill out papers. I waited.
The doctor came out to talk to me, a sad man with kind eyes.
“There’s nothing we can do. He has a virus that is causing him to bleed into his heart and lungs,” he said.
“Is there someone you can call? I have to get back in there,” he said looking at the closed doors where my husband lay bleeding out.
I called my friend and colleague, Catherine. She found me staring at the pale green walls, tight and motionless on a plastic molded chair. She wrapped her arms around me but I didn’t cry.
The doctor came back.
“We couldn’t save him.”
Save him from what? I thought.
“We’re going to clean him up and then you can come spend some time with him,” he said.
In a few minutes, a gentle nurse with soft, fat fingers took my hand, leading me to the room. She told me that he would be covered in tubes and hospital regulations would not let them remove them. Lying on the stretcher, Rod was gone. The nurse handed me some scissors and left me alone. After cutting off a swatch of his hair and gathering his wedding and anniversary rings, I left the hospital room.
The ER doctor came out to express his regrets in words somber and heart-felt. I never heard from Rod’s doctor – the one I annoyed with the phone call.
Somehow, I drove home and made the necessary arrangements. People were good to me for a while, more than a while. The ER doctor talked to me periodically. The hospital called with bills. I was clear that Rod had died in the way he wanted – in our love, in our house.
Here’s where I get preachy. Love your partners. If they are ill, fight the doctors to get the needed care. Make a scene. Here’s where I get judgmental. If you don’t love your partners, you won’t be able to be with them when their time comes. So let them go find the partners who will be there in love.