“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Writing about the death of my wife is not something I expected I’d ever do. Most husbands, after all, die first; actually on average of five years before their wives. Certainly, most people live longer than Karen’s 51 years of age (the life expectancy of American women is 81.)
But here I am.
My wife of 31 years passed away at home on July 5. It was 2:44 a.m. to be exact, just hours after the sound of popping Fourth of July fireworks had ended. Those sounds tapped at the windows of the den where she lay in a hospice bed. I find it ironic that her last full day on earth was Independence Day for all of us knew that soon she would find independence from a body that failed to battle the leukemia that robbed her of healthy blood.
Her last weeks were characterized by high fevers from low white blood counts, and delirium and hallucinations between coherent conversations. She kept her eyes closed a lot. Karen became completely dependent upon us to lift her in and out of beds and wheelchairs and a recliner.
Her last day was not a good one. Karen was extremely weak and tired to the point that she couldn’t tolerate the voices of those she loved the most. She always loved to hear Brandon play his guitar, but on her final night she found the strumming of our son’s guitar to be irritating.
A sense of relief came with her passing.
Heaven at last. She longed for it. She was off to a new world where we are told there’s no suffering, no pain and only joy. Since her passing I have pondered where it is; perplexed by the mystery of its location and content.
Her lengthy battle was a trial for me as well. It’s hard to watch someone you love suffer and be unable to do anything about it other than sit and offer your presence and care. I found myself juggling the duties of running the Ceres Courier newspaper while making the twice-a-week trek to San Francisco to be with her during lengthy hospital stays that lasted up to four months at a time. Our last Christmas was spent in a white clinical world that was only assuaged by a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge miles to the north.
Leukemia may have cut Karen’s life short by 30 or so birthdays, but she faced her adversary in a most brave way. She faced it like a champ, far better than I could.
Shortly after she was thrust into a world of chemotherapy and hospitalization on the 11th floor at UCSF Medical Center, one patient who was trapped in a body of cancer himself, bitterly snapped at her “Why are you smiling? You’re going to die anyway.” I would have slapped the guy, but she smiled and kept making her rounds walking on the floor.
On June 1 she was strong enough to speak at a local Relay for Life event about her journey.
In September 2011, Karen began experiencing disturbing symptoms, the first being that she felt like collapsing during showers. The task of going upstairs knocked the wind out of her. She was pale and looked sick during our 30th anniversary trip to New York. On our return, she went into the Oakdale hospital on Oct. 3, 2011, and doctors weren’t sure what was wrong. They could only tell Karen that she was “a very sick woman.”
On Oct. 4, before the diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia , Karen was alone and frightened when she had a most unique experience. (I have no doubt that it happened because she told it many times in the same way). Karen said the presence of God came to her, through a window, in the form of a large broad-shouldered figure of light. His face was without detail but apparently she heard God say in an audible voice: “I am carrying you through this and all that is touching you right now has been sifted through My hands. I will not allow more than you can bear. I have purpose in this. Will you trust Me?” He then repeated the question, “Karen do you trust me?” Karen said she nodded her head and replied, “Yes, but help me in my unbelief because I have a hard time trusting.”
God never told Karen that she would be healed.
Her faith in Jesus Christ carried her through the illness to the very end. How does anyone face something like this without faith?
Once when I asked why she was so upbeat all the time, Karen said, “Why do I have to act like something is wrong?”
Good point. Because if you think about it, we’re all terminal and we all could improve our attitude by realizing time is short, so enjoy life. Make the most.
Karen’s faith in God made all the difference in the world. She saw the end of her life here to be the beginning of a better one in the next life. Nurses often came into her room and noticed her mood and spirit was sweeter than the others. She was staring at death but she knew where she was headed and she wasn’t afraid. So when I heard the breath leave her body, I knew she was entering the presence of God who loved her. It took away the sting.
It would be an understatement to say my life changed on July 5. A life partner is gone and I am learning how to go about life solo. I’m the only parent now to four grown children and that in itself is an adjustment that feels odd. I babysit a 17-month-old grandson who, just months ago, was taken to the park for play by my wife but who does not even show a curiosity as to where his “granny” has gone. I have been strong, but I can scarcely walk the backyard without tears as I see the plants thriving that she planted despite a permanently absent gardener.
What saddened her the most was knowing the grief her family would feel and she didn’t want us to stay sad for long. In preparing to leave, Karen told me that she wanted me to move on and to find a good woman to spend the rest of my life with. I would push away that talk until she told me that it helped her cope with things.
One of the first things I did immediately following her death was to remove all reminders of that damned disease. There was the oxygen machine, the hospital bed, boxes of syringes used to flush out her PICC line and all of the pills she was slaved to taking. I want to remember the good times, but the bad creeps in like a persistent and unwelcome intruder.
The goodbye continues with disposing of pieces of her life. I collected her pants and took them to Hope Chest on Hatch Road last week. The proceeds help Community Hospice help others dying of terminal illnesses. I am now more mindful of the needs of others because of my own experience. There are other Karens who are lonely and scared and frightened in hospitals throughout the world.
I was told by woman who lost her husband recently to expect a “year of firsts” with my wife gone. The first Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. Indeed, my mind stumbles upon memories at every turn. When was the last time we did this? When was the last time we ate here?
The permanency of her death has been a difficult mental exercise. I realize that many of the things she wanted to do she will never get to do. She never got to set foot in the Holy Land nor see Europe. She will never see our grandson grow up, or know who Jeremy picks as a wife. Nor will she be around to see the births of two more grandchildren on the way, tough realities for someone who loved seeing the family expand into the next generation.
You cannot lose a spouse and fail to see the goodness of people at work. Many of you have sent cards and notes – one was only signed as “faithful reader” – that underscores words spoken by Karen at the recent Relay for Life: “It’s just wonderful to know that there are so many loving people out there that care for people they don’t even know.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
Life is short. Love each other.