"We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection…We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth." Anais Nin’s sentiments about the cathartic power of capturing experiences in writing are echoed in the reflections of this month’s guest blog post by Marilyn Fast, a former hospice family member. What follows is Marilyn’s deeply personal, tender account of her experiences and reflections in the moments and hours following her husband’s death from cancer. The writer’s husband received hospice services from Transitions LifeCare.
The last time I touched my husband Pete, his heart had stopped and he was no longer breathing. He had gotten his wish to die at home, in his own bed. He was 71.
I called the hospice number. My daughter Pam, who lived only a mile and a half away, waited with me. It was close to ten o’clock in the evening when the hospice team arrived, a little over an hour after my phone call. Pam left, knowing to keep her phone on and by her bed that night. I had told her I wasn’t sure how I’d feel being alone. "Of course," she had said, hugging me.
I led Ann and Julie down the hall to Pete’s bedroom, across the hall from mine. His chest was bare. A rumpled sheet covered him from the waist down. They pulled off the sheet and unhooked the catheter. After filling a pan with lukewarm water, Ann began to wash Pete’s sweat-soaked body. His temperature had been 105 that morning when the nurse had come to check on him. Who knew how high it was by the time he died that evening?
Ann straightened, squeezed her washcloth, and turned to face me.
"Would you like to wash him?"
"Yes," I whispered, although the thought hadn’t occurred to me before she asked. It was therapeutic to dip the washcloth into the water, wring it out, and wipe it over Pete’s chest hairs—now gray and wispy, but still curly—that I had snuggled against for close to forty years. Dip, wring, wipe. Arms. Legs. Face. Back.
My tears hadn’t started. Not yet. I moved automatically, in a state of unreality.
"Have you selected what you would like him to wear?" Julie asked.
And of course, I had. No hesitation there. I'd had several days to think about the question. The two women helped me dress Pete in one of his favorite Jos. A. Bank shirts—I gave up on the idea of underwear—and wrestled him into a pair of navy slacks from Lands' End. They turned him first to one side, then the other, so I could thread his belt through the loops and buckle it. I didn’t think I could tackle socks, but he always wore them. I tugged them over his toes and heels and slid on his Birkenstocks.
No one else was going to see him dressed like this. The men from the crematorium were due to arrive shortly. The shirt and pants and shoes would be consumed in the fire, along with the love of my life. I would be left with ashes. And memories.
Trying not to look at the tumor that covered a good portion of Pete’s forehead, I ran a comb through his sparse hair. He lay on the bed, so peaceful. He looked like he was ready to stand up and weave his arm through mine, to head out of the door with me for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Bloomsbury Bistro perhaps.
A couple of weeks ago he had called out from the bathroom.
"Marilyn, can you come?"
I heard urgency in his voice. When he saw my shadow through the closed shower door, he warned me.
"I got a little carried away trying to take the scab off of the tumor." I heard his sheepish chuckle.
I pulled the door open. Blood, mixed with water, streamed down one side of his body. He looked like my vision of an Indian in war paint.
"Well, you certainly did," I said, surprised at the calmness in my voice. His chuckle challenged me to match his lightheartedness. "First thing, I guess we should turn off the water and see if we can bandage your head enough to stop the bleeding."
We laughed. We laughed a lot those last few weeks. Having accepted the reality of his impending death, we found joy in every moment we could.
Ann’s voice broke my reverie.
"Would you like a few minutes alone with him?"
I nodded, unable to talk, and they left the room, closing the door behind them. I sat on a chair beside Pete’s bed, slowly running my hands along the length of him, feeling his body beneath the thin layer of clothing, the body that had given me such joy over the years. He was cool everywhere except his abdomen. I laid my head in that fading warmth.
An unfamiliar moaning wail rose up around me. I had read of people "keening" after someone died, but this was the first time I had actually heard it. The sound came from me, I realized. I raised my head and watched my tears splash onto his shirt. I stared at the salty pool. I hate goodbyes.
"Well, you’re taking part of me with you, aren’t you?" I said into the silence that was to become my new world. "I guess now we’ll be together forever," trying to reach for a touch of humor.
I had needed to be strong for so long. Fixing Pete’s favorite meals when he could no longer go out, and we decided to party at home every day. Cutting his hair in the kitchen. Slapping bandages over the tumor when the scab broke and blood flew everywhere. If I started to cry, he spoke up. "It’s not a done deal," he chided. "I could still wake up any morning and find you dead in the bed." He paused for a moment before he grinned. "Then all of your tears would have been wasted."
He hadn’t cried during those final months. Not in front of me. But one night, after I had tucked him in bed and closed his door, I heard him start to bawl. My impulse was to throw the door open and rush to his side. Then I realized he didn’t know I could hear him. He had waited until I was out of the room, wanting to spare me as much pain as he could. I decided to match his courage, step for step. After that, each time I choked up, I recalled his words about wasted tears and smiled instead.
Now he was gone. I hadn’t died first. Flinging my arms across his body, I sobbed and screamed.
That night was the longest one of my life. Lying in bed, I cried and stared at the walls for hours, imploring the numbers on my digital clock to move faster. Twice I was jolted from restless sleep when I heard Pete call out for me. Once I thought he was standing beside me. Each time my heart fluttered wildly for a moment before I realized he was gone. When the first rays of sunshine began to peer through my blinds, a shard of hope flowed through me: no phone call to my daughter.
-Marilyn F., wife of hospice patient