Today marks four years since the day I’m about to describe. It was the day I lost a part of me, leaving a hollowness impossible to ever fill again. Nothing really prepares you for death; nobody gives you a pamphlet or a lecture on what to expect but I suppose it’s different for everyone.
At 2:20 AM, after checking on Mike and his breathing all night, the nurse finally woke us up to tell us his breathing had slowed down. Everything was fairly calm, it was obviously happening the way she expected it would; she must have experienced this kind of thing plenty of times before. We, of course, had not. So when I went to bed the night before, I was thinking Mike may have days, or weeks, or months, or even years left. I sat up immediately, and Trisha was quickly at Mike’s other side. The nurse reassured me he had just taken two breaths, so he was still here.
Ugh, that awful knot is back in my stomach. This is hard. I thought it would be easier. I’ve thought about those moments so many times. But now here I am, crying and sweating, reliving the feeling all over again.
Mike had a tear that had pooled in his right ear and left dried tracks on his cheek. It nearly stopped my heart…the ache in my chest seeing that, but not knowing what it meant. I desperately needed to know if he’d been crying or if it was just a physiological response, but wanted to be as present as possible for those last moments. Tom and Sue rushed over, we all gathered around his bed holding his hands and talking to him, crying a little but too stunned that this was happening to really break down. Our dear nurse told us if there was anyone we needed to call we should do it right now. Trisha immediately called Laura and put the phone up to Mike’s left ear. Laura and all of us told Mike how much we loved him and how proud of him we were, crying, holding his hands. The nurse stood in the background, calmly telling us when he took another breath to imply he was still there, then finally, after a couple moments, said that his breathing had stopped. There was a pause and I reached down and felt his wrist for a pulse. Nothing. The nurse felt for one and concurred; he was gone. She gently tried to close Mike’s eyes, but they remained partially open, his mouth still open and dry, his head turned slightly towards me and my bed where I slept. It all happened so quickly in less than 5 minutes. The death certificate says September 26th, 2011 at 2:23 AM.
The nurse left to give us a few minutes during which we continued to talk to Mike, hold his hands, caress his hair, and cry. The nurse brought back some alcohol swabs for me to remove the stickers he had stuck to him for radiation markers.
For the last day, we’d made it a point to keep the door to our hospital room closed and all the nurses were careful as well, so Griffey couldn’t escape, but somewhere in those next few minutes he snuck out. Some nurses appeared at our door carrying Griffey. They’d found him riding the elevator supposedly. Later, everyone was convinced that Griffey had followed Mike’s spirit out of the room, although I was skeptical. Griffey is notorious for wanting to escape and explore on his own.
I could hear Tom call his brother, Chris, crying on the phone in the background then everyone stepped out to give me some alone time with Mike, which I deeply appreciated. Alone with Mike, I now noticed he had dried tears on both sides of his face that had run down to his ears. I felt in that moment, that it would be something that would haunt me forever. And it has. I’ve researched it and it’s called lacrima mortis, or “the tear of death.” Doctors and researchers have done studies observing patients and the tears are sometimes noted at the time of death or in the last hours of life, usually on the right side. Often the person is unconscious but it usually occurs in people when their death is expected. The phenomenon has been witnessed frequently but really has no known explanation, although it’s thought to not be tied to an emotional event. I’m not so sure I believe that.
My thoughts immediately went to the heart wrenching possibility that Mike knew he was dying and cried because he was so sad to leave. He didn’t have the ability to really say goodbye, he knew he’d be leaving his parents and me and Griffey alone. His knowledge and fear of this had to have been overwhelming. So maybe those tears were for us, for his having to go so soon. Maybe he appeared to be unconscious these last couple days but wasn’t really. I wonder what his experience was like. I wonder what dying is really like. None of us can really know until it happens to us.
Alone, I sobbed on Mike’s bony chest and put his arms around me, calling him every goofy nickname I’d ever had for him. I quietly sang him the silly little songs I used to sing him, crying to the point of barely being able to breathe the entire time. Even in sickness over the last few days, Mike would jokingly bob his head to my little songs. Our nicknames for each other were Dittles, Dittledoo, and a multitude of variations of those. One of my little songs I would sing to him was:
Hey Dittle Dittle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon…
For Christmas, we used to get each other one ornament each year, or rather, I made him get me an ornament so we would eventually accumulate a decent amount of them to cover a tree and they would all mean something. One particular year, I found him an ornament of a cow jumping through the arc of the moon. It was perfect.
I was alone with Mike for a while. I told him how much I needed him, how sorry I was that this had happened to him. I ran my hands through his hair that had thinned a bit from his melanoma drugs, I caressed his gaunt cheeks, gave him a kiss, and closed his eyes better. I even tried to raise him from the dead. Jesus did it, telling his followers to go out and do greater works than he had, so why not? I’d actually envisioned this moment since Mike had gotten sick. I’d imagined being alone with him and commanding him to get up and walk, as Jesus had, however in my fantasies, of course, Mike got up miraculously cured. But his body didn’t respond to my demand that he get up. A part of me wanted to ignore the natural world and deny that death was the reality. Maybe if I didn’t give up, and continued to believe in supernatural miracles, he would get up and be his healthy, vibrant self again.
But real life won out, and I set my spiritual imagination aside as a nurse came to remove Mike’s catheter. Everyone else came back in the room, Laura and Dan got there as well as Uncle Chris who stopped by before having to fly back home. I was kind of surprised how long the hospital staff just left Mike there with us but I was greatly appreciative. I felt his stubble on his face, ran my fingers over the little lumps under the skin that had given me so much anxiety over the last few months as they began cropping up, because they were probably cancerous. Blood started pooling on the right side of his face since he was turned that direction, causing a slight darkness on that side. This was something he’d told me about witnessing as an EMT the past year. He’d seen bodies rolled over hours after death and had been shocked by the discoloration from blood pooling.
Nurses came and removed his PICC line from his arm and began wiping his whole body down. That’s the other thing that happens with death: muscles relax causing sphincters to relax and your body usually expels a little poop and pee. Sorry to break it to you, if you didn’t already know this. Anyways, these wipes they were using smelled of perfume and chemicals. I kindly stopped them and said it smelled awful, Mike would hate the smell, asking if there was any way they could use wet washcloths instead and they were happy to switch for me. I didn’t mean to be demanding, especially of how they clean a dead body, but I didn’t want that to be the last way I smelled him and I knew he would hate the smell if he were alive. They had a deodorant to use on him and asked if I wanted them to use it, but I said I would use his own. Laura and I put Mike’s “Ocean Surf Speed Stick” on him instead. I still have that stick of deodorant in my drawer and occasionally I use it to smell like him when I can handle the déjà vu. The nurses asked if Mike would like his face shaved and I said no. He was usually scruffy and I liked him that way.
I called my mom at 6:30 AM to tell her Mike was gone. She told me she’d been praying about Mike early that morning and opened her Bible. It opened to Isaiah 57.
The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one under stands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
We still had even more time with Mike that morning, and I almost couldn’t believe they let us keep him that long. He developed rigor mortis around 7 AM. I tried to pry his skinny little fingers apart to hold his hand but they wouldn’t budge, held together in a loose fist. He was cold by now and the little slit of eyes we could see looked glazed. Griffey curled up on the bed between Mike’s legs like he normally would have. It was comforting to me knowing that Mike had Griffey’s presence in the last day and it was also comforting to me that Griffey got to see Mike even in death, and perhaps could understand what was happening. I know that’s wishful thinking. But if Griffey hadn’t been there, I would have come home without his dad and honestly, I’d still feel today that Griffey didn’t understand why his dad never came home to him. Griffey is more a part of my life than anyone could ever understand.
Dr. Nichols came to see us around 7:30 AM. She had tears in her eyes when she hugged me and said she’d never seen anyone last as long as Mike had in that kind of condition. That didn’t really surprise me. He really wanted to be here. The transport people finally came a bit later. Mike’s family helped them lift him up onto the stretcher and Sue gave Mike one last kiss on the forehead before they covered him with a sheet and wheeled him out of the room. I can’t describe the hollow loneliness and emptiness in that moment. Even nearly unconsciousness, Mike’s presence over the last few days had kept us a “we” and prevented me from being alone. But now, with his body gone, it was proof that I would never have him there to complete me again. We would never be a “we” again. It’s been four years today, and I can’t breathe even right now recalling that feeling of having his existence end and knowing I’d never have him in my life again.
We packed up all of our belongings in the hospital room and carried it out to the car. There are no words to explain the despair of leaving the hospital without Mike. Tom, Sue, Griffey and I got in the car and left. Life would never be the same. I was alone. It was impossible to comprehend that Mike wasn’t alive anymore and we were heading home without him. It didn’t feel right at all.
We stopped at McDonald’s where I got an apple pie and some water. Then we stopped at Pet Smart and got Griffey some treats. Then Safeway for some groceries. How strange does that sound? How could we run errands, eat apple pie, let alone even function to drive? I have no idea. I felt sick, horribly empty, but in a state of shock. On the drive home I was petting Griffey and noticed he had a flea. I dug and dug through his hair and found a couple more. I guess he’d been a little more neglected lately than usual. We stopped at the vet’s office and bought some Frontline to apply then went home. Laura and Trisha were already there.
I went downstairs to Mike’s room to unpack some things. The basement and Mike’s room with the same smell over the last eight years since I first fell in love with him was the loneliest place I’d ever been. I took a shower, the entire time imagining Mike walking into the bathroom and talking to me while I showered.
I spent hours reading all the Facebook messages and comments to both Mike and I that night, sitting on the living room floor bawling my eyes out. I couldn’t sleep downstairs. Not yet. I made a bed on the living room floor in front of the TV, took a sleeping pill, and read on my computer until I passed out, not allowing myself to have any moments without a distraction to have to think. I feared the next morning I would wake up with the sensation of having woken up from a bad dream, only to remember it wasn’t a bad dream, it was real. But when I woke up, it wasn’t as shocking as I thought it might be. The pain had never left me, even in my sleep, so when I awoke, I felt the same as I had the night before. There was no confusion over reality, no temporary relief that it had all been a bad dream. There were visitors all day that day with lots of tears talking about Mike and memories. That night I took a sleeping pill again, and read other peoples’ depressing stories on Caringbridge until I passed out on the floor in front of my computer again.
The next few days kept us busy going to Spokane to sign papers at the cremation place, looking at urns, getting Griffey groomed, and passing the empty time reading other peoples’ depressing cancer stories on Caringbridge as if it would make us feel less alone. Any time Mike’s parents were gone and I was alone in the house, I kept envisioning that he was there. I pictured him sitting in his dad’s recliner using his vaporizer or lying on the floor with his garbage can throwing up. I pictured him out on the deck in his pajama pants practicing swinging a golf club or on the patio shooting a basketball. I even pretending he answered me when I called out in the empty house, “Babe?” or “Dittles?” My journal turned into letters to Mike. Each day when I journaled, I wrote it to Mike, telling him about my day or what thoughts I was having; I told him how much I missed him. One day I went to Spokane with my mom and had lunch and went shopping. I was in a fog but I kept checking my phone waiting for a text from Mike. It felt like a day away from him where I knew he was at home waiting for me, but he wasn’t. One day in Spokane, I even drove to our old house by Audobon Park, the last place we lived when Mike got sick. I imagined I was talking to him on the phone as I got home from work. But there was a wreath on the door I didn’t recognize and the car in the driveway wasn’t ours. Another day I met Laura in Spokane and together we picked up Mike’s ashes. They were heavy and more like a coarse sand than I had imagined they’d be. That night Laura and I went through all the childhood pictures Sue had picked out for the slide show for Mike’s memorial. We had to veto about half of them because there were too many. But we found ourselves laughing till we cried at some of the silly pictures of Mike as a kid. It felt good to laugh.
After a week of taking sleeping pills each night, I started trying to sleep without them. I had dreams that Mike was cured. He’d get up from his wheelchair and start walking miraculously. Then I’d wake up with a sickening realization it was a dream and I’d try to return to it. Anytime I drove Mike’s truck I’d listen to the music he had in there and it reminded me so painfully of him, I would scream and cry because I was alone and I could. When Tom would come home from work, occasionally he’d walk in and call out the same way Mike did to Griffey, “Puppydoo!” It sounded exactly like him and my heart would nearly stop.
I kept myself very busy preparing for the memorial that would be on October 9th. My best friend would come over and help me with the program, Laura’s sister-in-law came over and we put the slide show video together. I went to Spokane and got the programs printed and I also met with Dan Stone, who would be speaking at the memorial. I knew that’s who Mike would want. He spent time with the Stone’s growing up and we went to their church when we were home occasionally. I also was coordinating with our friend, Allen Stone, to be there to sing, which meant a lot to me, and I know it would have meant a lot to Mike. People were so willing to help and take on responsibilities. People brought food, books, and just kept us company. The distractions were nice. Although sometimes I hid behind the couch, lying down, hoping the company didn’t see me and I didn’t have to socialize. If I didn’t know someone well, I didn’t always have it in me to make sentimental exchanges.
I got notification that Mike’s corneas had been transplanted. That was the only part of him that was useable. It was fitting, however, because Mike had incredible vision and the most beautiful blue eyes. Someone should be able to enjoy a part of them. I wrote a letter to the recipient telling them all about Mike and how he was voted “best eyes” in high school and eventually their family wrote me back. Pretty awesome.
The memorial was on Sunday and I wore a Husky t-shirt that Mike insisted on buying me when he got accepted to UW Physician Assistant program. In fact, when people started showing up to the memorial, I realized almost all Mike’s family and all my girlfriends had worn Husky shirts for Mike. I wore Mike’s cross necklace with his wedding ring on it. Mike’s family greeted everyone as they came in but I was too afraid I’d start crying if I had to talk to people. I was going to speak on stage and knew it would be impossible for me to talk without crying if I started crying before I had to go up there. So I sat in my chair and kept to myself as hordes of people filed in, not having a clue who was or wasn’t there. Allen’s dad, Dan, did an amazing job speaking and directing the flow of the entire thing. I chose to speak early on in the beginning because I was nervous and wanted it out of the way. Of course I knew I didn’t have to speak, and with my stage fright, I desperately didn’t want to, but I knew I would from the moment Mike got sick. I’d had images in my mind of standing on stage in our high school gym speaking at his memorial. I just knew I would do it and that I’d regret it today if I hadn’t. So I read from my prewritten speech so I didn’t get nervous and cry, but as soon as I started reading a letter I’d written to Mike when he’d gotten diagnosed (but forgot to give to him), I broke down and cried. After I spoke, Mike’s Uncle Chris spoke which was beautiful, then Mike’s sisters, mom, and niece Jessi. Everyone did a great job and held it together. We played a video called A Good Day because it was something inspiring Mike used to watch while he was sick, then we played the slide show which moved from childhood through adulthood, celebrating all the stages of Mike’s beautiful life. Allen played Let it Be on the piano and sang, and then his dad closed in prayer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place and luckily we’d placed boxes of tissue throughout the gym. Most people moved to the cafeteria area for food and visiting. I honestly feel like Mike’s memorial is exactly what he would’ve wanted. Heck, it’s exactly what I would want for myself. I’m very proud of how well it went and I know he’d be pleased. After I read through the guestbook, I realized how many people had come. Mike’s old roommates from college had come, some from as far as Alaska. I couldn’t believe it and I kind of regretted not greeting people.
I will always remember Mike in two distinct ways: before cancer and during cancer, although equally painful to think about for different reasons. Additionally, I’ll always think of Mike as the best person I’ve ever known. I will love Mike for as long as I live and miss him desperately. It will never stop hurting. But I am genuinely happy and have found my place in this world without him, as much as I didn’t want to believe it was possible. In life and death, Mike has shaped a huge part of who I am and defined much of my existence. For this I am grateful, because I can never forget him if I am who I am partially because of him.
My experience is not particularly unique; people lose loved ones to cancer every day. But I feel like Mike was extraordinary and writing has been my way of keeping him around. Today I may or may not watch his slide show video. It has been something I’ve tried to do each year on this date, but it’s exhausting and takes a lot out of me. This blog has been a way for me to take each of you through our cancer journey, and it’s made me feel less alone. Thank you for being an audience and supporter for so long. It’s taken me two years of writing this blog to make it through 5-6 months worth of events. It’s time for me to go in another direction. Although I originally planned to blog about my travel adventures after Mike’s death, I need to work on the book instead. This blog will continue to exist, but I’d like to transition to a different avenue. Stay tuned!
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