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One Year Later, Death's Still Not Up for Discussion

Rumor has it that other people talk about the actual deaths of their spouses.
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Rumor has it that other people talk about the actual deaths of their spouses. And I mean specifics about the day, the night, the morning the person died. The sticky, sweet smell in the room, the way the light from the baby monitor glowed red and relentless on a table overflowing with pills and drops and nurse's notes, the ping of the pain pump going off for the three hundredth time -- despite the fact that they've laid there, on the floor, next to the hospital bed all night, clutching a box of D batteries and putting them in ahead of schedule so there'd be no break in the Fentanyl drip doing its best but, ultimately, not enough to keep their spouse comfortable.

What it was like. You know, the details.

"You never talk about the night Stu died."

My grief counselor, Laurie, and I were sitting in my cold kitchen sipping hot, super sweet tea one day when she just kind of casually slipped that in there and then looked at me like, So?

"Are you kidding me?" I replied. I mean, why in God's name would I talk about that? I try not to even think about it. "People talk about that?"

"Most of the time it's all they talk about."

I got up to get more honey. I find the grief counseling goes down better with a spoonful of sugar or, better yet, a bottle of chardonnay. But only if the session's after five.

"Really?" I replied, busting out all my wise-ass, because really, this was way too close to home. "People spend all their time talking about the night my husband died?"

"Ah, humor." She smiled. "How handy."

Truth is, it was morning, and I don't talk about it. I just wait until it pops into my consciousness, unbidden, and it sucker punches me in the stomach while I'm unloading the dishwasher, doing laundry, or driving, getting my roots done, buying groceries, or trying to put two words together. The worst, though, is when I'm doing something like watching my son make a big play during a flag football game and, swept up in the moment, turn and shout "Did you see that, sweetheart?" to one of my girlfriends or, more mortifyingly, one of their husbands.

Yeah, that really hurts.

Of course, if I did talk about Stu's death, I'd have to admit that on the last afternoon of his life, I ran out of Atropine. Atropine keeps the fluid in a dying person's lungs from building and making what's called a death rattle. Rattle, my ass. A space shuttle launch makes less noise. I'd hit the pain pump every thirty minutes or so, pray it would work, and then, just as the tension began to leave his face, that damn sound would burst from his throat and he'd be awake, agitated, and in pain. Again.

And so, because after nearly two years as a cancer caregiver I had it in my head that I now had a medical degree, I came to the conclusion that additional drops of Atropine would do the trick. And they did -- until I ran out and panicked.

I jumped in the car with my older son, leaving my mom and my younger son in charge, and raced to the pharmacy. The Fentanyl was working. The last dose of Atropine was working. I thought I had at least twenty minutes. I thought wrong.

Not half way there my cell phone rang -- a minor miracle in and of itself, as I live in farm country and there's almost no reception out here. The caller ID flashed "Home" and instantly I knew we were about to begin the longest night in any of our lives.

"Where are you?" Cuyler cried. "Come home! It's happening!"

I remember begging God not to let me and Casey get killed as I did a million-point turn in the Durango on the narrow road with a ditch on one side and a ravine on the other and racing back to find my younger son sitting on the porch, sobbing. I remember finding my mom trying to calm my husband who was awake and disoriented and trying desperately to get at the pain pump. I remember the sound of footsteps on the stairs as both boys made a mad dash for the safety of their rooms.

And I remember the frightened, anguished looks on their faces when I screamed that they had to get the hell down here and help.

My mom tells me that, despite my memory of being completely panic-stricken, I was calm as I did everything the hospice aide told me to do. I lowered the hospital bed flat and positioned her and Cuy on one side and me and Casey on the other. Then the four of us grabbed the sheet beneath my husband and shoved him up the bed, until his head was just about hanging over the top. Then I raised the bed so he was sitting bolt upright, and the rattling sound stopped.

I remember kissing my kids and watching them run from the room and calling hospice and having a nurse arrive about forty-minutes later with more Atropine. I remember my girlfriend's husband delivering the prescription I couldn't pick up sometime around seven.

And then I remember sitting on the floor by Stu's bed with the pain pump and the batteries and the Atropine and asking God what my husband could possibly have done to deserve this.

My favorite hospice nurse, Martha, arrived around midnight, and I slipped into bed next to Stu. I told him it was ok to let go, that I loved him and would take care of the boys. I promised him they'd go to school and get good grades and that I'd do everything in my power to make them grow to be fine men and never become Redskins fans. I know he heard me because he hugged me. And then Martha sent me to bed.

He died at five forty-one the next morning, a year ago today. He was sixty-one, whip smart, funny as hell and the best looking man I've ever laid eyes on. As for me, I still haven't gotten an answer from God, and I still don't know why anybody talks about this stuff.

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