Five years ago today, I held Rick’s hand in a death grip. A literal death grip, for hour upon hour. By noon of that day, I realized he was going to die, and he did, at 8pm that night.
The night before, alone in my bed, I had an odd feeling. A scary feeling. A feeling like my life was going to change drastically. A feeling that the love of my life may be leaving me forever. The odd thing is, there was no medical reason for me to think that the night before he died. He’d broken his hip the day before, and, sure, there were unexpected breathing issues, but the doctors said he’d just need to be on a ventilator for a couple days until his lungs were clear, then they’d do the surgery to repair his hip. After a few weeks of rest, he’d be like new.
Well, as new as a man in remission from lung cancer could be.
But, that’s the thing… he was in remission. The cancer wasn’t the issue. The effects of the chemo and radiation had weakened him and he’d fallen before he could regain his strength. So, this was just a setback, right? Not life threatening? Except, deep inside, my mind was telling me this wasn’t routine, or a setback, or any of those things. This was it.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Finally, I texted him. He had his phone with him at the hospital, but of course, he was unconscious and restrained, so obviously wouldn’t see my text. But it was my crazy last-ditch attempt to pretend everything was normal, that it was just a short hospital stay like many others in the past year since his cancer diagnosis. I wanted to believe that he’d be coming home soon. And I hoped, in some surreal imaginary world of my making, that by reaching out from the loneliness and desperation of my empty bed, he would hear me telling him that I loved him…
But by noon the next day, I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I knew I’d never feel his arms around me again. I’d never hear his voice. I knew that I had to keep touching him, stroking his arm and his head. I needed to memorize the feel of him before he was ripped from my life.
At my age, I’ve lived through the death of many loved ones. I’m aware that it’s inevitable. I’ve held all those hands at the end… my mom, dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I’ve watched so many of them take their last breath. It’s painful. It’s difficult to process. But, this one death, Rick’s death, was unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
I ask myself why. Surely losing my own parents was as awful as it gets. But I expected to lose them. The entire generation before me has left me, one by one. Of course, that doesn’t make it hurt any less, losing those people you’ve loved your whole life, but, still, they’re older and you know they won’t live forever, so you brace yourself for the inevitable as you watch them age. This death was different.
This man was truly a part of me. He knew me more completely than anyone ever had – even my parents. We shared our deepest thoughts and most intimate feelings. He knew me at my worst, and loved me anyway. And I knew every facet of him, as well. And, despite our foibles and failings, we chose to stay joined to each other “until death do us part.” Those words, spoken at the altar twenty years before, pronounced in front of family and friends, didn’t quite sink in until death actually parted us. And I realized that when I recited them on that joyful wedding day, I pictured two gray-haired ninety year olds in fifty years or so, holding hands and dying in bed together – like the old couple in “The Notebook.” That was my vision of “until death do us part.” After spending our golden years together, we’d drift off in each other’s arms.
But that wasn’t meant to be. Instead, he was one week short of his 64th birthday, intubated and unconscious, emaciated from cancer, dying from a freak accident, while I clung desperately to him, hoping for a miracle that didn’t happen, leaving me to spend the rest of my life without him.
I retired a month ago, so, despite having five years to heal from the grief of his loss, I’m suddenly faced with a new set of challenges as I tackle how I’m going to spend these golden years without him by my side. I’m not going to be traveling with Rick, hanging out with him on the beach during sunsets in Florida (or in our backyard), or even simply having breakfast at the diner, dinner on our deck, and going on our weekly date night, before watching our current favorite series on TV. Instead, I’m living alone.
I’ve made new plans for how to spend my golden years. I have a full and fantastic life, and I’m very, very thankful for that. I’m also grateful that, despite not living to reap the rewards of his 40 years of hard work, Rick left me living in financial security and able to retire and begin this new journey. I’m surrounded by friends and family who support me and help me fill my idle hours, and I’ve got a vision board of hopes and dreams (a term I like better than “bucket list”). I re-entered the dating world six months before COVID hit, so I’m also back out there meeting men and moving on.
But this wasn’t how I pictured any of this. And five years ago today, as I held his hand in that death grip and sat staring at him for hour upon hour, waiting for him to take his last breath, I knew my world was shattering and that it would take years to pick up the pieces.
Most of those pieces have been picked up now, and the picture of the rosy future they used to form has been rearranged successfully into a new world without Rick. But there are still some jagged edges, some gaping holes in the center of that picture that will never be filled without him here. I just can’t focus too closely on those, or my whole world might collapse again. So, I’ll give myself this one day to reflect on our last moments together and dream of what might have been. Then I’ll get back to work picking up the pieces of our shattered world and continue to recreate my new life and future without him.