I've been trying to write this for months, and no matter what I do it won't come out right, so I'm going to go ahead and post what I have.
I wanted to explain exactly what happened on the day P died, both because I've never really talked about it here, and because some of the details are starting to get hazy in my mind. I don't want to remember, but at the same time, I can't stand to forget. So this is the story, and if you think it might be upsetting, then this would be the place to stop reading.
To begin with, you should understand that P wasn’t in the habit of seeking treatment for every little thing. He’d been told years ago to stay out of the emergency room if at all possible, as running there constantly would ruin his quality of life and probably not help his condition all that much. There were certainly times when he or I called his doctor for advice, but in general, he tended to shrug off symptoms that would make most people dial 911. So when he felt ill the Friday night before he died, he wasn’t too concerned about it, even though he was uncomfortable enough that we had to leave the movie theater less than 20 minutes into the show.
The next day, Saturday, he was feeling better, and we went back and finished seeing the movie. When we got home that evening, he had a migraine and took his regular medication for it, plus an extra painkiller because his legs were hurting too. After G went to bed, he was restless – he played guitar for a while, then wanted me to come and lie down with him in the other room. While we were lying there talking, he said, apropos of nothing, “I’m ready to let go now. I’m tired of being a burden to everyone.” In retrospect it seems significant, but I'd heard him say similar things before, so at that moment I just gave him my stock answer: “You can’t do that; there are people [meaning me and G] who want you here.” He didn’t say much in reply, and not long after that I went to bed.
I’m not entirely sure what happened over the next few hours. Later, I found a set of guitar tabs he’d printed out at 4:02 a.m., and the history in his iTunes showed that he’d been listening to the same song (“Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam) at about that time, so I think he must have been teaching himself to play it. And I know he was in a lot of pain, because sometime around dawn, he woke me up and said, “My legs really hurt. Can you rub them for me?” I said “Sure,” and half-awake in the grey morning light, I reached over and rubbed his left leg. After a few minutes, he said, “Now this one” and turned around so I could reach the right leg too. They were the last words he would ever say to me, and that was the last time I would ever touch him while he was alive.
I went back to sleep after that, and he must have fallen asleep too, because he was sleeping when G came in and woke me just before 10 a.m. I got up, put on a DVD for her and made her some cinnamon toast. I know that P was still alive at that point, because while I was doing all this I heard him make some sort of noise in the other room – not an unusual or alarming noise, just the sort of sound people sometimes make when they're sleeping. It may have been the moment when whatever killed him happened, or it may not. I've spent five months wondering whether it was, and if so, whether I could have changed the course of events if I'd gone back to check on him right then. But I don't know, and I never will.
So after I had G set up with her cartoons and her toast, I went back to take a shower. Weekends are the only time I can take long showers, so I was probably in there for 30 minutes, maybe 40. When I came out, wrapped in my towel, I walked past the bed – again, without noticing anything out of the ordinary – and went into our office to check my e-mail. That took maybe 15 minutes, and then I returned to the bedroom to get dressed. I was standing there with my back to the bed, rummaging through the drawers for clothes, when for no apparent reason, I turned around and looked at P.
This is the point at which people who are getting interviewed for news stories usually say things like "And then it hit me" or "I knew right away." It's true that it did, and I did, but those words don't begin to express how suddenly and completely the knowledge entered my mind. The room was dark with the blinds drawn, and I couldn't see P clearly, but even so, I could see that his eyes were slightly open, and so was his mouth, and that there was an awful unnaturalness to the way he was lying. And I felt it all over, all at once, like a splash of cold water drenching me from head to toe. I knew.
I said "Oh shit," which wasn't very eloquent, but seemed to sum up the situation. The black electric stand fan was whirring gently away on my side of the bed, so I went around the other side, still wearing my towel, and leaned over P. His eyes were glassy and fixed, staring past me at nothing; they didn't look as if he'd opened them, but as if the lids had slid back on their own. I shook him and called his name twice -- "Peter, Peter" -- and when he didn't respond, I slapped his cheek hard, also twice. There was no resistance, and he just felt wrong, like a half-filled sack of sand, or something else loose and heavy. I did, and still do, feel terribly guilty that I slapped him, but at the moment I couldn't help myself. It wasn't the time to be gentle or polite. He was so far away that only drastic measures could reach him, and if he'd suddenly snapped back into focus and demanded to know why I was hitting him, I would have been more than happy to explain.
But he didn't. He just kept lying there.
I knew the next step was calling an ambulance, but I also knew that once I called, I wouldn't be able to hang up until the paramedics came, and I didn't want to meet them wearing nothing but a towel. As quickly as possible, I went back to the open dresser drawer, grabbed the first two pieces of clothing I touched, and yanked them on. The next bit is a little hazy in my memory, but I do know G came in and asked what I was doing (she told my mother later that she'd heard me "yelling Daddy's first name"), and that I told her Daddy was sick and I was going to call 911. She was right behind me as I went down the hall to get the phone, and she started to follow me back as I dialed. I wanted to keep her out of that room at all costs, so I told her to wait by the front door for the paramedics and let them in when they came.
G went off to do what I'd asked, and I went back into the bedroom. I felt a little shaky -- it had been hard dialing the phone -- but other than that, I was full of the artificial calm of shock. It was like being wrapped in a heavy blanket; everything seemed slightly muffled and farther away than it should have been. The 911 dispatcher had answered while I was giving G her instructions, and now she asked me a lot of questions: Was P breathing? Did he have a pulse? I knew he wasn't and he didn't, but I checked anyway and told her no. She said that the ambulance was on its way and asked me if I wanted to start CPR, and lowering my voice so G wouldn't hear me in the living room, I said, "To be honest with you, I think, I think it's too late. But I'll try."
I'd taken a Red Cross course in CPR once, but that was a long time ago, so I asked her to remind me how to start, just in case. She asked whether I could put P on the floor, and I said I couldn't -- he was thin enough that I probably could have lifted him, or at least dragged him, but the bed was so high off the ground that I was frightened of dropping him and breaking his bones, and although I didn't think it could have hurt him at that point, I didn't want him to suffer any damage or indignity. I said that I could lay him flat instead, and she said that would be all right. And I approached the bed.
I will admit here that I was afraid to touch him. I knew he was dead. I knew it. You couldn't have seen him and not known it. And I didn't want to feel again how death had changed him; turned him into a lump of clay that was the same in shape, but not in substance. But I couldn't let him go without trying everything I could to bring him back, and so I climbed up and knelt next to him on the bed, and I put my hand behind his neck. He was as warm to the touch as ever, but his face, his eyes ... I can't explain it. Still, I was there, and I was the only one who could help him, if anyone could. So I lifted him up with one hand and pulled the pillows out from underneath him with the other, and I tipped his head back and bent down.
I don't think I would have been able to perform the actual CPR if not for the shock. Shock is the body's gift to the mind; it's what protects your sanity while you do what has to be done -- while you crawl out of the wreckage, while you fight off the mugger, while you put your mouth over your dead husband's mouth and breathe air into his still and useless lungs. That's what I did. His lips were just a tiny bit cool -- not cold by any means, but not as warm as the rest of him -- and I couldn't get his mouth to close properly and make a really tight seal, but I did the best I could. I could hear the air going into him with an awful whistling sound, like wind blowing across the entrance to a deserted cave, but his chest wasn't moving. It wasn't working.
But you can't stop once you've started, and I didn't. After breaths come chest compressions, and if anything, those were worse, because I could see the way his head rolled from side to side; the way his half-open eyes were looking at me without seeing me. As I compressed and counted, I heard sirens in the distance -- the most welcome sound you can possibly hear if you need help. I finished the set of compressions just as the paramedics arrived, and got off the bed as G opened the door for them. I can't remember whether she told them where to go, whether I called out to them, or whether they just came and found me. All I remember is that suddenly they were there, filling the room with movement and noise. One of them said "Why's it so dark in here?" and ripped back the blinds, letting a flood of sunlight in through the window. The others picked P up under his arms and knees and carried him down the hall to the living room, where they shoved aside one of the couches and laid him out on the floor.
G was right there, and I told her "Go into your room and close the door, and don't open it until I come to get you." She obeyed (thank God) and I sat down on the edge of the other couch and watched the paramedics work. There were other people there too -- two cops, and someone who looked like a fire captain -- and some of them were asking me questions about P's name, his history, what kinds of medications he was taking. I answered them all with one eye on the floor, where the paramedics were inserting IVs and pushing meds and firing up the defibrillator, which they ended up not using.
They'd put P on a backboard, and when they picked him up to take him out to the ambulance, one of his arms fell off the edge and dangled there, thin and limp and pale, until somebody put it back and strapped a belt around it. That image, along with the way his eyes looked, is going to be burnt into my brain for the rest of my life. If I hadn't already known he was gone, I would have known it then. But I did know it. I'd known it all along. I never once, from the minute I found him, expected any sort of positive outcome, and the emergency crew didn't either. After the EMTs had carried him out the door, the fire-captain guy -- he was maybe ten years older than me, with a tanned face and a salt-and-pepper mustache -- told me "We'll do everything we can, but it doesn't look good," and from deep inside my blanket of shock, I said, "I know."
The men who were left -- if there were any women on the crew, I don't remember them -- started picking up the mess of wrappers and needles and tubing they'd dropped on the floor, and I went down the hall to get G, who was sitting on her bed with a book open on her lap. She came back to the living room with me, and while I found P's driver's license for the fire-captain guy, the two cops, who were both youngish and good-looking and deserved a medal for kindness, stood and talked to her about the cartoons that were still playing on the TV. She warmed right up to that and chattered away; I finished the paperwork; and then everyone left and shut the door. And just like that, G and I were alone.
There's more to tell, more about the emergency room and the doctor and the social workers and the hours and hours that passed before I was finally able to get someone from P's family on the phone. But that was the part that haunted me -- the instant when I saw him and the 15 minutes or so that followed. I couldn't get it out of my head for the first few weeks. Every time I was alone, every time it was quiet, every time I was someplace where my thoughts could run free, those images drifted across the lens of my mind's eye, and I felt like bolting out of whatever room I happened to be in, as if I could run away from something that was inside my own head.
It didn't take me long to figure out that this was not compatible with going on from day to day and doing what needed to be done. I couldn't live with it, but I thought I might be able to live around it. And so I very deliberately put the memory of those moments aside; walled it off; dismissed it every time it tried to come back. It's still there at the center of my mind, like the room you never enter, the bruise that only hurts when you touch it. Every now and then I check to see if it's lost any of its horror, and I back off quickly, because it never has. The rest of the time I don't think about it. I know it's there, but I choose not to go to the place where it is. Life without P is hard enough without torturing myself with the details of his death.
In a way it amazes me that I can do this: there are certainly things in my past that I don't dwell on because they're painful, but I've never made such a conscious decision to put a terrible experience aside. I didn't know I could do it until I did. And in a way I suppose that even though I wish I hadn't been the one to find him, even though I'd give almost anything not to have been in that room, it's good that it was me, because I can do that. No one else was there, except for G who didn't really see anything. No one but me will ever have to know what it was like. And I imagine that it's what P would have preferred: he had told me explicitly that he wanted a closed casket and I was not to let a lot of people come and look at him after he was dead. Better, then, for it to be me who found him, and if there's a cost (and there is), for me to be the one who pays it.