On May 12 my life was so peaceful, so predictable, almost boring. I’d poured a lot of energy into ensuring that my life was, above all, unbusy. And then, on May 13, I stepped out of the life I had chosen and into something that felt more like a fast-paced drama on TV.
It was the darkest part of the night, but the hospital parking lot was lit up like almost daytime as I hurried my confused and exhausted 6-year-old towards the building. Streetlights blazed above us, beams of piercing brightness. The world was a sea of confusing images, the bright lights contrasting with the fog and darkness of the world beyond. But I wasn’t confused. I knew exactly where I was going. This time, I knew I was in the right place. Cat looked at the building ahead, her eyes unavoidably drawn to the massive, glowing red letters that blazed above the entrance. “E-mer-gen-cy.” She sounded the word out slowly. That’s right, Cat. Good reading. This is the emergency room. We can go see your daddy now. Finally.
Dove had put Cat to bed that evening. Her bedtime was usually a whole family affair, but Dove had seen that I was needing some space, so he offered to put Cat to bed solo this time. I rested in my room, listening to the happy sounds of Cat and her daddy chatting about their day and playing together as he helped her button her pajamas. On some level, I knew even then that our lives offer no guarantees. But never in a million years could I have guessed that those blissfully normal moments of connection and joy would be the last time Cat would ever see her father.
Cat has always been a good sleeper, and she was sleeping soundly when I woke her up in the middle of the night. She cried, exhausted and confused as I slipped shoes on her feet and tried my best to explain that something had happened to daddy, and we were going to see him at the hospital. I was filled with so much hope. Modern medicine is nothing short of miraculous. We would drive to the local hospital, and the doctor would explain what had gone wrong. She would explain which medicines or treatments or surgeries or whatever would be needed. We would do whatever the doctor said to do, and then Dove would be ok. I predicted some rough times in the immediate future, but Dove and I had gotten through plenty of rough times before. We’d get through whatever this was, together. I didn’t think about the fact that sometimes, you don’t get through things. Sometimes, things just end. But no, I was filled with a shining hope that felt like certainty. I was quite certain, for example, that Dove was actually at the nearby hospital the paramedics had rushed him off to, sirens blaring. But by the time I got there with Cat, he was gone. The nursing staff explained that he appeared to have had a heart attack, but was in stable condition. He had been airlifted to another hospital. Ok, that’s fine. We would get back in the car and drive to wherever he was. It was the middle of the night, but I had enough adrenaline pumping through my veins to keep me awake and alert for days. Where was he? Which hospital? But they didn’t know. Maybe Jacksonville, maybe Gainesville. Two cities, both about an hour’s drive from where I was, Gainesville to the south, and Jacksonville to the east. I couldn’t rush off to the car and go find my husband because I didn’t know which direction to head.
And I wasn’t going to know for two hours. Waiting and doing nothing was the exact last thing I wanted to do at that moment, but I was offered no other choice. So I waited. I made phone call after phone call. Hospitals and ambulance dispatch centers. Someone had to know where he was. It seemed so unreal. Here we are in the information age, and all of these people with all of their phones and radios and computers couldn’t tell me which direction a helicopter had taken my husband. The truth started to sink in slowly. I realized bit by bit that things must be very bad. The only possible explanation for the absolute lack of available information was that the people who actually knew what was happening were so busy trying to save his life that they hadn’t had a chance to pass on an update. I thought through the scant information I did have, over and over again. He’d had a heart attack…that was bad. He was in stable condition…that was good. He was in the hands of the best medical care around. There was still hope. People live through heart attacks all the time. Two hours later, one of my phone calls would finally gain me the information I needed. “He’s here. Gainesville. He’s being treated in the ER.”
At long last, I knew where he was. It would take an hour’s drive, but then I’d be there. I’d find him. And a doctor would explain to me, in detail, exactly what had just happened to my life. I was so hopeful when we finally arrived. I walked under those glowing red letters with Cat into the lobby of the emergency room, knowing that at any moment now, I would finally see my husband. Talk to him, maybe. Make some decisions together. The receptionist in the lobby confirmed that Dove was, in fact, being treated somewhere behind the big doors to her left. “Great. Finally. I want to see him.” She looked down at Cat. “I’m sorry. You can go see him, but you can’t bring her.” She pointed to a sign behind her that stated in clear, bold letters that because of COVID-19, no visitors under the age of 18 were allowed in the ER.
I had mentally prepared myself for a range of different scenarios, but this eventuality had simply not occurred to me. I had to go sit down. This was not my life. This was a scene from some badly written medical drama on TV. After hours of anguished anticipation and confusion and uncertainty, I had been right on the verge of reconnecting with the man I loved. This time, he was there, on the other side of those double doors. He hadn’t been whisked off to some other mystery city. I had found him. But then at the very last moment, one final barrier had been thrown in my path. And what was it this time? The far-reaching impact of a global pandemic. If I had been watching this scene on TV, I’d have shaken my head. “Nah, that’s too much. That’s just not realistic.”
But this wasn’t a TV drama. This was my life, and I needed to live it. I mentally ran down the list of people in the area who might be willing and able to take care of Cat in the middle of the night while I managed this crisis. Even in that moment, I felt a surge of gratitude for having a robust support network filled with love. My sister groggily answered the phone after the 3rd or 4th call, and once I explained the situation, she readily agreed to take care of Cat for however long was necessary.
The dramatic scenes continued relentlessly. One scene in particular had a distinct familiarity to it. It’s a classic – the tragic and tension-filled moment when the doctor walks out of a back room and sadly breaks the news to the family that in spite of their best efforts, there was nothing they could do. The patient wasn’t going to make it. Turns out, that’s exactly how it happens sometimes. And now it would be my turn to live that scene out, in my assigned role as the stricken family member. I sat alone in an empty waiting room, my mind swinging back and forth between frantic racing and utter emptiness. Behind the double doors in front of me, they were doing another test. Not a cardiac test or intervention this time, but a CAT scan of his brain. Maybe this time, there would be real answers. I lost track of time. I don’t know how long I had been waiting when the doctor emerged and walked toward me, her face filled with compassion and concern. Before she spoke, I knew the news was nothing good. But finally, I was going to learn what had happened. Dove had had a heart attack, yes, and they’d resolved that. But the heart attack turned out to be a mere symptom of a much more serious problem. An undetected aneurysm had ruptured in his brain stem, and the bleeding had been sudden, severe and catastrophic. The stroke had caused the heart attack, along with a host of other devastating symptoms. The best medical treatments in the world were useless in the face of something like this. There was nothing anyone could do. In the blink of an eye, my husband was gone.
And that was it.
But of course, it wasn’t the end for me. On some level, it certainly felt like I had died along with him, but in spite of how things felt, my life marched on, day after day. One story ended, but the next began. First came the chaotic and dramatic story of managing the immediate aftermath of this sudden and unexpected death. Sign papers, make decisions, talk to doctors and social workers and the hospice team and everyone else. Then the exquisitely painful process of breaking the news to family and friends. In time, my life settled down into a new routine of sorts, and then came the story of grief. Of looking around at a world that was filled to the brim with things and routines and people that just relentlessly reminded me of what I had lost. Dove is gone, and in his place I have discovered a new companion. The grief. It’s always there, always at my elbow, reminding me that something beautiful is irretrievably gone from this world. That where there had been wholeness, now there is nothing left but brokenness and loss. And now, instead of embracing my husband, I embrace the grief. When I feel the next wave of grief start to approach, I run towards it. I know there will be pain. I know there will be anguish. But I’ve also come to a new understanding of what grief is, and what it can do for me. Grief is the bridge that allows me to move from one story to the next. I’ve also learned that grief is a verb. It is something I do, an action I take. I don’t have to grieve. If I choose to, I can avoid the grief for a long, long time. But without the grief, there is no forward motion. There is no change. There is no new story. When I embrace the grief in spite of the pain it brings, it opens a path for a new story to unfold. I grieve for my husband, and then I find new ways to connect with the people who are still in my life. I grieve for the joy that I lost, and then I find new sources of joy. Things will never be the same, this is true. One story is over. But, as time goes on, new stories begin to unfold. And I will carry my memories of Dove and the things he taught me and the love that we shared forward into all the new stories I tell with my life, and in that sense, our story will never, ever end.