Sometimes it takes a while to be able to put thoughts down on paper. Sometimes life gives you what you need.
A lot has happened in ten years. I lost my first true love. I finally understand bittersweet and melancholy. I learned that the human spirit is a very fragile and strong thing, sometimes being both at the same time. And I found love again, the second time around.
Christmas of 2015 was to begin another year of rediscovery. I’ve been married to Steve for six years and he never ceases to surprise me by knowing what I need. This year’s Christmas present would be no exception. To make a long story short, Steve bought me a painting class at the Fort Myers Alliance for the Arts and I exchanged it for a Memoir class. I hadn’t written anything substantial in quite some time, but writing has always been a passion since college.
In January I went to my first class. “Writing Your Memoir.” There were four of us students, all around the same age, although I was about 10 years younger, which wasn’t abnormal for Florida. Our teacher, Artis Henderson, was a young woman who wrote her first memoir about the loss of her husband, “An Unmarried Widow”. Artis and my fellow students were so supportive. We wrote, did a lot of exercises, enjoyed and critiqued each other’s writing. The class was enriching, and we didn’t want it to end. We decided to extend it for three more sessions. My memoir was going to center on these last ten years.
We met at a student’s house and the goal of the three sessions was to write a chapter of the memoir. I had written parts and pieces and listed chapters to be included. Which would I choose to develop into a completed chapter. I thought long and hard and decided that in the list of chapters for my memoir one was missing – The catastrophe that changed my life forever. And this is how “Just Breathe” was born.
November 12, 2006, two weeks before Thanksgiving. The family was coming up from Belleville and we were doing our normal readying of the house. My emotions were on overload and for some reason Rick’s were, as well. We were married almost 30 years and this was definitely something new, as he was usually the calm one. He was on edge. I didn’t think much about it, because as usual I was all consumed with my own thoughts and feelings.
I was making up the guest bedroom and we argued about family.
“Why do we always have to work like crazy before your family comes up here, I just don’t get it!” He said.
“Well, at least my family comes to visit us, unlike your family!”
He stood still for a second. “You’re right, I’m not going to argue; I’m going out to rake leaves.
“Wait!” I yelled, but he was already gone.
I was so angry. Past hurts raced through my mind, along with guilt for my sharp tongue. The only positive thing, I was putting that guest room together at warped speed. By the time I joined him outside, my temper had calmed and I was sorry.
He was raking and burning leaves, and I grabbed a rake to help him. He walked over to the table on the patio. I stopped raking and walked over to sit with him. We sat in silence.
“Do you want some lunch?” I asked.
“No, I’m not hungry, I think I inhaled too much smoke, I’m having a hard time breathing.”
“Do you want to quit for the day?”
“No, I’ll be okay,” he said as he grabbed his rake and walked over to the burn pile.
I started raking the leaves closer to the house, all the while watching him.
A short time later he came running through the yard. “What’s wrong?” I asked. No answer. I stopped raking and stood watching as he ran through the porch. I dropped the rake and followed to see. There he was, my strong husband sitting on the concrete step, holding his chest, chewing an aspirin with white powder on his lips. The look in his eyes was one I had never seen before.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“I’ll call an ambulance.”
“You need to go to the hospital!”
“You need to take me; I don’t want an ambulance.”
I paused, wanting to argue, but remembered what happened a little over an hour ago. “Ok,”
He went to the van and I changed from my sweat pants into jeans. I grabbed my purse. He honked the horn. I ran to the car, opened the garage door and backed out heading up around the curve and out of our subdivision. As we got to the corner he said, “I feel better turn around.”
“Are you sure?” “I think we should go to the emergency room and have them check you out just in case.”
“Why should I spend the last day of the weekend sitting in a hospital emergency room for nothing. Just turn around.”
I did as he asked. The drive from the corner to our driveway was about a tenth of a mile and by the time I got there he was having chest pains again.
“I’m turning around, we’re going to the hospital, and I’m not heading back home again no matter how you feel.” I wanted to be kind and loving, but knew this was serious.
I drove to the corner, turned left, made the light at a busy intersection and decided to take the faster road without stop lights.
“Hurry up,” He pleaded.
I needed help. I picked up speed as I opened my cell to dial 911. “Hello this is the 911 operator how may I help you?”
“My husband is having a heart attack. I’m driving him to the hospital. I’m on Washington Street. I need an ambulance.”
Rick threw his glasses at the dash board, he was struggling, as he slumped in the seat. I listened for sounds of life, as I listened to the operator for instructions. His body sounded like a car sounds when the key is turned in the ignition and the battery is dead. Click. Click.
“Ma’am. Where are you?”
“I told you I’m on Washington Street.”
“Where are you at? I need to know whether to call the city or county rescue squad.” She wanted clarification.
“I don’t know. My husband’s dying. I don’t care which one you call. I am close to the city. Call them. I will get there fast.” In my mind I thought the city might have better equipment to save him. I kept thinking shouldn’t they be doing something to save him. Can’t she just call someone. He needs help. He’s dying. He’s face is white. He can’t die.
I drive as fast as I can with her on the line. Bloomington Heights Road, a big yard, this has to be the city.
“I’m in the city and have pulled over to the side of the road, what do you want me to do?”
“Get him as flat as possible.”
I push the seat back as far as it will go. The 911 operator is coaching me through my flip phone as I breathe my breath into my husband’s body. I am so scared and focused at the same time as she says, “exhale twice into his mouth and look up and inhale to get a fresh breath.” I have no experience at CPR, always thought I should take a class, but put it on the back burner. I’ve got time, I used to think as I exhale into Rick’s lifeless body.
I look up and see flashing red lights out of the corner of my eye. A police car, thank God! “Operator, the police have arrived.”
“Put them on when they get here, but keep doing what you’re doing until then”
It seems like forever until the officer gets to my van. “911 wants to talk to you.” I hand him my phone, continuing to breathe for my husband. The officer says he will take it from here and hands me the phone. I drop it on the floor board.
“I’m glad you’re here.” He looks at me and gets to work.
“We have to get him out of the car so we can lie him flat,” he says. The officer grabs Rick under his armpits. I try to help turn him, but he is so heavy.
“I’ve got this,” he says just as Rick slips from his grasp. Rick’s head crashes on the concrete curb. He looks at me. “I’m sorry.” He says. I stand unable to speak, as he picks Rick up and pulls him over to the grass. “The officer gives me instructions. “you breathe, and I’ll do chest compressions.”
My breathing becomes a constant rhythm, as I try to bring my husband’s heart back to life. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. “Am I doing this right?” I ask. “You’re doing fine.” Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. My thoughts whirl. I’m sorry we argued this morning. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. I should have called an ambulance. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. I love you. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. Where are the paramedics? Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. Breathe damnit! Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. I’m sorry. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale. I’m sorry. Exhale, exhale, look up inhale.
The ambulance and fire truck arrive and the paramedics run over with their equipment. They cut off Rick’s sweatshirt while at the same time begin breathing for him with an oxygen air pump. He seems to be getting so much more air, surely he’ll start breathing now. Everything will be okay.
I step aside and watch as they work. The officer sees me and comes over.
“Do you have any questions?” he asks.
“Is he going to live?”
“They are working on him. They will be transporting him to the hospital soon. It will be slow because they can’t use any of the life-saving equipment while moving. They will need to stop each time, so don’t worry if it takes them a while. Do you want to ride with me? I will be following them? What hospital do you want them to take him to?”
“St. Joe’s, it’s closer.” “No, I’ll drive myself.” All I can think of is I am losing control and need to take it back wherever I can.
“Ok. And I’ll let them know you want him taken to St. Joe’s.”
I wait for a while. The paramedics put Rick on the stretcher and carry him to the ambulance. I want to hold him, but fear of getting in the way keeps me at a distance. The officer hands me Rick’s ruined sweatshirt. I hold it to my face and smell the smoke of burning leaves, as I turn and walk to the van.
I wait in the hospital parking lot for the ambulance to arrive. It seems like forever before I see the flashing red lights, no siren. I wait for them to take him in the ER doors and when no one comes out I walk over. As I walk I see the paramedic holding the oxygen air pump, she is just sitting in the vehicle. Our eyes meet and she begins to use the pump on Rick. I worry.
Hospital personnel lead me to a small family waiting room. I call my daughter and get no answer. “Hello Julie, this is mom, your dad’s had a heart attack and we’re at St. Joe’s. Call me as soon as you can.” There’s no easy way to leave that message.
I look up at the door. It’s the policeman from the scene. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Just want to let you know the doctors and emergency personnel are doing all they can do. Your husband is really sick, but he is a young man. He walks out; I am alone.
“Hello, I’m the chaplain. Would you like me to pray with you?”
“Ok.” I close my eyes and listen to his gentle voice speak of God’s healing and peace. “For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory. “Amen”
The room is dark and cool. I smell the burning leaves from a few hours ago on my sweatshirt. I wait for some word of encouragement. I bargain that I will be a better wife and won’t lose my temper, if God will just let him live. The policeman stands at the doorway. “You can see him if you want. They are going to take him to the Cardiac Cath Lab to do surgery.”
“I do.” I walk into the sterile, bright light environment of the emergency waiting room hall. They didn’t even put him in a room. Just a long hallway. His eyes are small slits, but at least they are open. I touch him. “I love you. You’re going to be ok.” I can’t take my eyes off his face. I touch his beard and give him a kiss. “I love you.”
A voice interrupts our togetherness. “They’re ready to take him to surgery. You need to go to the waiting room.”
I walk away, fearing I may never see his eyes again.
The paramedics and doctors tried to bring him back to life that day, but he never regained consciousness. They tell me Rick was without pulse for 40 minutes and without oxygen for 15 minutes. My husband had a massive heart attack, 98 percent blockage in the big artery. They call it the widow maker.
Julie and I sat in the hospital room with family and friends coming in and out from Sunday evening until just after midnight on Thursday morning. During that time his eyes would blink, his body would convulse due to oxygen deprivation, but he never spoke to me again. The EEG registered perfect brain waves which to my heart’s sorrow means a beta coma, no life. On Wednesday he had a fever of 108 degrees. He was burning up. Without the brain, the body doesn’t know what to do. I learned more about how the brain works and doesn’t work during those three days than I ever wanted to know. And I learned that they may have repaired his heart, but what happened to his brain was terminal.
Three days after his heart attack, Julie and I made the tough decision to take him off of life support. Rick died 12 hours later. Julie, my mom, the hospital chaplain and I stood at his bedside as he took his last breath. I watched my husband die twice. Once in the car driving down Washington Street and once for the last time in a hospital bed. I told him goodbye earlier in the day. Told him he was a wonderful husband and father. Told him it was okay to die and that I would miss him, but would be okay. All those reassuring things. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to give back that last bit of love for all the love and caring he gave me. He deserved and earned that much and more.
Julie and I planned his funeral. The doctor wasn’t available to sign off on the death certificate so his ashes wouldn’t be at the service, but I knew his spirit would be with us. Friends and family gathered for an intimate visitation and service. Julie spoke loving and touching words about her dad. The ceremony was respectful, it was what I wanted, that last thing we can do for our loved one. We had a small gathering at the house.
Three days later I returned to the funeral home and picked up my husband’s ashes. I buckled him in; he was coming home to the house we built together.
The urn was beautiful, cherry wood with a light oak stem and leaf and red rose carved on the side. He was a woodworker and it just seemed fitting.
I carry him inside. “Where would I put him that would be a place of honor?” I say to no one. “I wish we had a mantle.” “Maybe the kitchen, he used to love my cooking,” I think. “No, the bedroom on the entertainment center so I can see him each day when I wake and go to sleep.” I smile. “Yep, the perfect place,” I think out loud.
I sit on the loveseat looking up at my husband. “Rhonda, he says, let’s order a pizza. You call in the order and I’ll pour the”
“Rhonda, what are you doing in there? Mom asked. What do you want for dinner?”
Thoughts interrupted. I fight anger. My mom has been here since the day after Rick’s heart attack and will be here through Thanksgiving. I haven’t lived with my mom for 32 years. The house is big, but there is no place to be alone and that’s all I want to be right now. Alone with my thoughts of the past. Alone with memories of my love.
“I’m in the bedroom; I’ll be right out!” I yell in a too crabby voice. My anger calms as I remember my mom is also grieving. My dad passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s eight months ago. Mother and daughter widowed at basically the same time, our ages 26 years apart.
“See you later honey,” I whisper. I touch the urn and walk out already thinking of excuses to return to our bedroom. All I want is to be with him.
Mom and I had dinner, watched the news and a movie before I could break away for the evening. “Goodnight mom see you in the morning,” I say as I give her a hug and kiss and walk toward our bedroom.
I close the bedroom door and walk over to Rick, giving him a kiss. “I’m back,” I smile.
I change out of my clothes into pajamas and crawl into my side of the bed. Rick has been gone for nine days and I have left his side of the bed uncovered. There is this part of a me hoping I will wake up and find him lying there some morning, our life as it was.
Almost 30 years is a long time to spend with someone. Our life was not perfect, there were ups and downs, but he was a loving husband and he loved me and supported me so much. We fit together, had fun and went on many adventures. Through those years of raising a daughter, growing together, and growing as individuals we always loved each other and relied on each other. Our marriage was solid. We were kids when we met with all that ego and angst, and as I lie here looking at that urn I feel a love that transcends the ashes inside.
I drift back out of my thoughts. This room is so big, but it feels warmer, more intimate with him here. I dose through the night, each time waking to find him sitting there. It’s comforting. My husband is back in this room.