First he had shingles. Then he lost his energy and his appetite. When he had trouble breathing, my friend took her husband of nearly 40 years to the hospital. They put him in a regular room with regular monitors. They measured his blood pressure every 4 hours. The next day a nurse walked into his room and saw that his blood pressure was zero.
The hospital resuscitated him and put him on a respirator. But if the blood pressure is gone for more than 5 minutes, the brain is gone.
My friend called her husband’s family. They came. They said good-bye. My friend picked out a green burial site. Her husband had said he did not want to be cremated.. They asked the hospital staff to disconnect the respirator. He died. Again.
Since he died the first time, my friend’s life has been a string of details, arrangements, expenses.
I had lunch with her today. She said she cried when she watched a sad movie, but she’s calm most of the time, trying to take care of the necessary details. Her husband paid the bills for the 40 years of their marriage. She has to figure out where their money is, stop his social security checks, talk to the tax man who got an extension on their 2009 filing date.
She has stopped eating regular meals. She’ll eat a sack of lettuce leaves while she watches television. She still goes to her book group, her charities, her art groups. She eats with friends.
At the moment she’s acting like I do when my husband takes a trip. She’s in a holding pattern.
Her friend, the real estate saleswoman, is already pressuring her to sell the house. She likes the neighborhood. She likes her neighbors. The house has a 1st floor toilet, so if she’s ill and can’t climb stairs, she’ll be okay. There is no need for her to move. She has plenty to deal with. She doesn’t need to create new problems, like packing and moving, and unpacking, and learning a new neighborhood.
My friend asked me what I thought of the real estate lady. I told her that the real estate lady must love her job. I can’t think of any other reason to make such an illogical suggestion.
I watched my friend during lunch. She was just doing what she felt needed to be done, now. She’s financially okay. Her house is paid for. Social Security will only send one check a month to her house now, not two. But she only has to feed one person. She will do less laundry.
I watched her the way I watched women who had babies before me. How do they cope with the changes? This is a much more comprehensive change than getting married or having children. This is a disruption of 40 years pleasure and habit.
I find it disconcerting when my husband is on a trip and I come home to my house only it isn’t my house because my best friend isn’t there. I find myself looking for him, listening for him, thrashing around the bed in my sleep, feeling for him, smelling for him. He is as much a part of my life as my own body.
My friend never had children. Now, after 40 years, her companion is gone. She still does the things she’s familiar with during the day. But she goes home to her familiar house and her familiar world is gone.
I had more confidence that I could take care of a newborn baby than I have that I could adapt to a world without my husband.
I do not like picturing life without him. And honestly, there’s no value in doing so. Picturing will not make it easier if it happens. Picturing this possible future is like picturing any unpleasant future – it has no effect on the real world. Really, it’s a waste of thinking time.
But I watched my friend today. When she has good fortune, like selling a story to a magazine,I am happy for her. And I imagine I too might sell a story. Now that she has grief, I grieve with her, and I imagine a similar future.
Just because something is possible, even likely, that’s no reason to drive myself nuts thinking about it. I think of my mom who has survived divorce and the death of her long-term boyfriend, and all her siblings, and many of her friends. She keeps going.
Everybody wants longevity, until they have to live it. But there is something appealing about being alive – not just the unimaginable aspects of the unknown – what is death anyway – but the plans, activities, pleasures, adventures that being alive make possible. But when I picture these, I always picture doing them together with my husband. I don’t have a picture for doing it alone.
And that is what my friend now faces every day.