Life After Death-Dealing with Terminal Illness
Signs of Dying
He stood in the kitchen, one hand holding up his black pants that were obviously too big.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, clearly alarmed with his sudden weight loss.
“I can’t eat,” he grimaced placing his free hand on his chest, “It hurts to swallow. I thought I told you that.”
My mind raced back through past conversations to when he mentioned that his golf weekend had been interrupted by a trip to the emergency room.
“I thought you had taken care of that,” I said with concern. “What happened?”
As usual, his medical follow up had been nonexistent. He rattled off reasons why he had not pursued seeking additional treatment, the top reason being that he couldn’t get in anywhere.
John was my best friend and ex-husband. Divorced for eight years we had remained close…in fact, he was my strongest support outside of my children. It pained me to see this Italian man, who enjoyed food as much as he did, unable to eat. Always a large man, his weight loss was significant.
“Call now,” I ordered, and refused to take any excuse despite John’s resistance not to.
After just two calls to local physicians, with my prompting him to mention the urgency of his situation, he was given an appointment that following Wednesday. I, in the meantime, was returning to California the next day.
“Call me as soon as you find anything out,” I said, “Promise?”
Standing in the frozen food department I received the call I had been waiting for.
“They found a tumor,” his voice said, still groggy from the anesthesia, “They did the biopsy and I have to meet with the surgeon on Friday.”
My heart leapt into my throat and I could feel every muscle constrict as fear raced through my body. “Take the girls with you.”
“No, I don’t want to bother them…they’re both so busy-I’ll be fine.”
“John, they’ll be able to ask questions that you may not think to ask. Please don’t be hardheaded about this.”
I later called my daughters to find out if their step-father had recruited them as support and was relieved to find that he had.
News About Cancer
The phone call from Christa, my daughter who is a nurse, came Friday afternoon as I was stepping into my session with my spiritual teacher.
“It was malignant, mom,” was how she began the conversation, “and the surgeon said it was inoperable. There was a tumor in his esophagus blocking the passage. He put a stent in to relieve the pressure and create an opening.”
Again, the return of the fear turned panic and a flood of tears. All I remember was my repetitive, “no, no, no,” as if that would make it alright, followed by uncontrollable sobbing during the entire session. My teacher sat with me, supporting me in the beginning of this grief that would be part of the journey. I had promised Christa that I would be there with them to the end.
“He’s sleeping now,” she told me when I said I had to call him, “its better if you call in the morning.”
The next morning, on my drive into Berkeley, I couldn’t stop thinking of the horrific news. As I parked in front of the hospital the phone rang. It was John and as I said hello the rest of the conversation was sobs from both of us. When I was finally able to compose myself I reassured him that I would leave California to be at his side. I could not imagine him leaving this world without me being there, but worse, I could not imagine me living in this world without him.
Coping with Death
The first night we were alone I sat at his feet and put my head on his knees sobbing as if my heart would break-for indeed it was. “I’ll never find another man who has loved me like you have,” I cried in self-pity.
He laughed his familiar laugh with less boisterousness, “Dee, that’s not true. You’ll always be my love, and someday we will be together again, but you will find someone else.”
“No,” I replied, wiping my eyes and gazing into his eyes with all seriousness, “you don’t understand; I’ve never been loved unconditionally like I have been by you. That is rare and I will never find that in another person in this lifetime.”
The Art of Dying
In the course of the next four weeks we fell into a rhythm, me taking care of him and maintaining my contacts with my spiritual teacher via phone, and him receiving care with increased periods of silence. He had withdrawn from all friends and family except for a few.
Along the way I experienced a distinct shift from the journey being about my loss to one of service and gratitude, aware of the honor and privilege I had as companion to John’s transition from this life to the afterlife.
When John’s journey to death first began he told me of his plans to have a living wake. He was unafraid of death and wanted to have a celebration that included all of his friends and family. Unfortunately, due to his severe symptoms he was unable to do this as he had envisioned. However, a day before he passed away, his discomfort had abated and he was open to receiving visitors.
They came as soon as I gave the call to sit with him at his bedside for a few moments, hold his hand, and give him their last words of love. They brought food, comfort, and support for each other. It was amazing to witness.
That evening he fell into a deep sleep and we were unable to arouse him. I knew the end was very near. The following day, as I went into my morning routine of care, I talked with him as if he were fully awake, even though he was still unresponsive. As I sat washing his face he began to move restlessly attempting to wake himself up. I sent my daughter to get her sister and other family who were in the other room.
We gathered around the bed as his gaze fixed momentarily on each of us enabling us to tell him individually how much he was loved and that we would be fine without him…sending him off without concern. When the last of us had spoken he closed his eyes once more never to awaken again.
In the course of John’s journey to death he had just three requests, which I was able to make happen: to stay out of the hospital, to remain pain free, and that we remarry. John and I were remarried on Sunday, September 25th, 2005 less than a week before he passed away.
Have I told you lately that I love you?
Have I told you lately that I love you?
John would frequently ask me this question, "have I told you lately that I love you?" followed by a big bear hug. He was a wonderful dancer and we danced often whereever there was music playing. He was a large, Italian man, but so light on his feet that when he took me in his arms I felt as if we were floating.
The story behind the photos
Although it was thunderstorming outside, our minister came to the house in a moment's notice. She understood the gravity of the situation given John's condition. We had a lovely ceremony and one of the things that we brought out was the original family wedding portrait of the four of us-all so very young at the time. It was fitting that our remarriage ceremony included the young girls who had been part of our first marriage, then ages eight and ten; now grown women with husbands of their own.
If you look carefully at these photos you will see the family portrait on the mantel behind Cara. Facing the portrait Cara is on the left and her sister, Christa, is on the right.
John died in the early morning hours of October 1, 2005. While my daughters and I kept vigil at his bedside, laying on the mattresses we placed on the floor in his room, I noticed his breathing had turned into the Cheynes-Stokes rhythm...often called the 'death rattle'.
The next thing I was aware of was awakening a few hours later to silence. I checked his pulse and then gently took his hand in mine savoring the time alone. Soon, I realized, that would all change as people began the process of funeral preparation. But for now...this was my last opportunity to be with my husband.
This Hub is dedicated to the memory of John, and to my two daughters: Cara and Christa, who kept vigil with me and served as support during the time of his journey to meet death.