I’ve been writing about a lot of different subjects for a long time, much of it for publication, plenty that nobody’s ever seen besides me.
So I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of writing. But I’ve dreaded putting these following paragraphs on paper; it was a task that called to me to be done, but I procrastinated from one day to the next. And finally here I am sitting in Donna’s old office, at her desk, typing these words on her computer screen (get it over with; you’ll feel better).
I never intended to write confessionals, but getting personal is what I’ve been doing over the past several years, even — sort of — against my will. I’ve struggled with deciding when something gets too personal — when a writer’s instinct to lay it all out there conflicts with my own need for privacy, and for respecting the privacy of family members and friends.
I don’t know whether reading this will help anyone, whether it’s any good, whether it will even speak to anyone else’s experience. This is something no writer really knows, no matter how much success they’ve had or failed to have.
Write what you know, they say. This is a story I was intimately involved with. I was a witness to my wife’s death. This is what I experienced that day.
At the start of the day my wife Donna died, January 19, 2016, I was as hopeful as I’d been for the past two weeks she’d been in intensive care that she would live.
It started out as just another Tuesday — well, not really, because Donna had been in an ICU in a specialty hospital in San Antonio, nearly 100 miles from our home, for the past two weeks, fighting for her life.
I began the day in the most prosaic way possible, dropping off our dog at a local groomer. Right after doing this, my cell phone rang; it was one of Donna’s doctors. I don’t even remember the words he said to me, as I stood there in the parking lot outside the groomer’s, but it was something about Donna’s situation having worsened, that it was gravely serious, and that I needed to come to the hospital.
I think I must have shut off the part of my brain that was trying to tell me, “She’s dying; you have to be by her side.” I’m not even sure, but I think I went directly to the office where I was working at the time. I must have stayed there for one or two hours, my brain in turmoil; I then called Donna’s sister Kathy (not her real name), who had flown down from New Jersey and had been staying with us since shortly after Donna was admitted. We took turns driving down to San Antonio and visiting her in shifts; my 10-year-old twins had remained at home with one of us. I had last stayed with Donna for several days, through ups and downs, mostly downs. Donna had initially been intubated and unable to speak; the tube was later removed, but she had drifted in and out of consciousness, the transfusions, draining of abdominal ascites, and sedation characteristic of end-stage cirrhosis taking an awful toll on her.
I drove home and spoke to Kathy, who was standing in the living room, clearly distressed. “Donna has had a cardiac event,” she said. Those exact words. For the past two weeks Donna had struggled with a stubborn bacterial infection that made it impossible for her to be placed on the list for a liver transplant. Now, her heart had become so weakened that it put even a remote chance of a transplant out of reach.
Donna was in pain and had no chance of recovery.
We had to let her go.
“I’m so sorry,” Kathy said, and we hugged, and I said “I’m sorry, too.”
We quickly gathered our things and departed for San Antonio; the twins were in school, and Kathy had arranged for a family friend to come and care for them until we came home.
Kathy and I pulled into the hospital parking lot at around 4 p.m. and threaded our way down a series of corridors leading to the other end of the hospital, through a large set of double doors, into the room where Donna lay unconscious. We were met by a local social worker I’d been in contact with for the past two weeks, a religious Christian woman — I’ll call her Judith — who was, somewhat incongruously, working for a Jewish agency.
“This is it? There’s no hope?” I blurted out to a young female nurse, who, with a stricken face, nodded agreement.
One staffer explained that Donna would be removed from all life-support equipment and placed on a morphine drip to ease her pain.
It is an indescribably sad thing to watch someone you love get sick and die, and not be able to do anything about it. And there was nothing to do but wait, and wait.
As I sat by my wife, helpless and dying, her body exhausted and spent from an awful ordeal, I thought: How had it come to this, that a strong, vibrant woman — who had once pedaled hundreds of miles a week on a racing bicycle, who thought nothing of lifting an upright bass over her head to carry it through the audience after performing at a piano bar, who had thought nothing of staying up all night club-hopping and going down to the beach with friends after work, then going right back to work in the morning — would end up in an anonymous hospital room, eyes closed, waiting for the end?
Kathy, Judith and I kept watch over Donna for nearly six hours.
At one point I asked Kathy and Judith to leave the room for a few minutes so I could be alone with Donna; they did, and I then told Donna some things which are none of your business.
I had brought a laptop — Donna’s old laptop — and we played song after song on YouTube, a very eclectic mix of her favorites. Mel Torme, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Kirsty MacColl (the musician whose death brought us together to begin with), “They Don’t Know.” Slam Stewart and Major “Mule” Holley (Donna had known Holley in her Village days in the ’80s and credited him with teaching her a great deal, and not just about playing the upright bass). The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which I played, obsessively, over and over for several weeks after Donna’s death.
And on, and on, as the sun set. Donna was sleeping, peaceful, quiet, unconscious.
At one point I filled out a form with information that would be used on Donna’s death certificate.
After 9:30 p.m., the end drew near. The nurses gathered in the ICU, one of them, a male nurse with a stethoscope, ready to make an official pronouncement. He put the stethoscope in place and listened.
“She still has a heartbeat.”
And then, some minutes later, the stethoscope again, and in a quiet voice he said:
Alive (in an earthly body)
Dead (or “crossed over”)
Kathy, Judith, and I hugged.
I got to say goodbye.
And just felt empty inside.
I had been wearing an old flannel shirt for the purpose of tearing off the pocket at the time of Donna’s death — an old Jewish tradition — which I did, and promptly removed the shirt and tossed it in the trash.
What good did it do, to witness Donna’s death? I don’t know. I know I had to be there, that it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t be, but I found no comfort in it.
In the end, what of value was accomplished by my being there? To die inside, along with Donna?
I couldn’t and still can’t comprehend what the world had lost. What my family had lost. What I had lost.
The music. The writing. The wit and the laughter. The caring. The art of living. The way of being. The love.
The great, great knowledge of so many things. Cooking such wonderful, carefully crafted meals. Expert parenting. Rare insight into people and their problems. Taking photographs of a high professional standard. The memories. So many things, never forgotten, now impossible to retrieve outside of texts previously set down.
The water is wide, I can’t cross over.
At least not yet.
And now, what?
Suffering through a long illness — whether it’s cancer, AIDS, liver disease, or whatever — is inevitably referred to as “fighting a brave battle” against death. Versus what — welcoming it with open arms? I think we aren’t really supposed to know what happens after we die. If we knew how great it was, there would be mass suicides everywhere. Perhaps.
Perhaps Donna was put on earth (among many other things) to teach my soul how to be more human — more compassionate, more loving, more fully integrated into our deeply flawed, always challenging, but also vibrant world.
But then, why did she have to die so that I could fully amalgamate this knowledge into my own soul?
In other words, she saved my life, but I couldn’t save hers.
Time is now both my worst enemy and best friend.
Because, and this I believe: time is taking me simultaneously ever farther away from Donna, and ever closer to our ultimate reunion.
I know how Donna died.
But as long as I live, I will never know why.