Have you ever held someone you love in your arms as they die? It is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy.
I met J in my mid twenties. There was an instant chemistry, though we were from opposite sides of the tracks. I was the good boy from an old family, she grew up with a single mother living up in the North of Canada. She was older than me, had been married and divorced, and that rough girl background was all part and parcel of the attraction. I was the nice boy, safe, a harbour in stormy waters.
We both fell hard and fast in love, and within months were living together. We even bought a house together. Well, I paid for it as well as helping finance her florist shop. The first years where great, happy even. The differences though, did start to wear through. Looking back I can’t say if we would have stayed together or not, but something happened that locked me in. She fell ill, Chrohn’s disease. For those that don’t know it, the disease is not generally life threatening, but its ugly, painful, even humiliating.
I couldn’t leave, wouldn’t be the one to walk out on someone in the midst of a harsh illness. The relationship went through a hard dark place. We both did things that hurt each other, things I am deeply ashamed of and was equally harmed by. Only people in love can really damage each other in quite that way.
Yet love can also win through. We talked, and one weekend went away. Off to another city to visit some friends. I can’t say what changed, but that weekend our relationship healed. She was still ill, but she reached out a hand and I took it. From despair I hoped, thought we could get through this.
We came back home both really happy. That Monday will forever stand out in my mind. J had a troubled love hate relationship with her own mother. They bickered in a way that was both shocking and amusing. Said mother was also a florist and had watched the shop over the weekend we went away. J came back and found her mother had raided the till. I can’t remember why, I might not have ever found out. All I knew is this, I came home from work and J was in a towering rage.
I knew how to deal with these, help her, talked her down, got her to the point where she laughed at a joke. We ate, cuddled in front of the TV, where back to happy. J was a night owl, I an early bird. Our pattern was that I’d go to bed, she’d come in and lay beside me as I fell asleep (sometimes more than lay beside me, but that’s what couples do). This time though, I remember it like it just happened. She jerked like she’d fallen asleep and then suddenly woken up. I laughed and hugged her, but she didn’t respond.
Sometimes you just know that something is wrong, know it deep in your bones. I can’t tell you how I knew, but I jumped up and turned on the lights knowing she’d had a stroke. Sure enough she looked up at me with one eye, but couldn’t move enough to sit up. Couldn’t really talk other than shout “No,” when I said I was calling an ambulance.
I ran to the phone, called an ambulance and threw on some cloths. It arrived in minutes, though it felt like hours. The two men confirmed to me what I thought out in the hall away from her, and bundled her off. I had to jump in my car and follow.
The next days are odd memories. Some crystal clear vignettes, but all jumbled up. I can’t exactly remember the order things happened in, and there are patches of time I can’t account for. I remember sitting in Casualty with her mother and brothers waiting for news, but I can’t remember calling them. I remember being told she was settled and well, but not being told the diagnosis. I remember sitting by her bedside after she’d been admitted and saying good night, but don’t remember going into the room.
I remember by Dad suddenly appearing, but don’t remember how he got there. Given at that point we lived an hours flight apart, that was quite the achievement. He’d dropped everything to be at my side. To me that still defines being a loving parent. Just being there.
I especially remember getting the call early in the morning saying she’d had a second stroke and having my dad physically remove me from the driving seat of the car so he could drive. I remember the waiting, the god awful waiting. We had to get moved because J’s mother was wailing and moaning and disturbing the other patients.
I remember the madness of watching her struggling to breath, unconscious, not there. I remember the sirens going off, the mad rush of people in green running around us, removing us from the room. Another stroke, a third, had hit.
And oh, I remember the doctor telling us she was gone, her brain was dead, that only the machines sustained her and please could they have the organs. I remember her mother and brothers turning to me to make the decision to turn the machines off, her mother saying she could never be the one to decide that.
I remember walking to her bedside, shadowed by my father but not her family. They couldn’t bear it they said, but I couldn’t bear not to. I couldn’t let her go alone into the dark. So I sat there, crying, holding her hand, holding her as her last breath left her lips, as her heart pumped one last time. I remember… her.
There was a time in my life when I compulsively told everyone I met this story. When the need to remove it from my brain with words was all consuming. Yet you live, you put one foot in front of another, and you go on. All around you people are there, showering you with love in their need to help. Showering you with their need to not be you.
I’ve always wondered if I could bear to write this, to post it to the world. So far I’ve always stepped back. You don’t actually heal from that sort of thing, but the pain does ebb. You live, you put one foot in front of another, and you go on. You find new joy in life, even new love. Life continues to have meaning and purpose.
So, there’s another out there who just lost the one she loved. She may or may not read this, but I write it for her. It helped me to once be taken aside and told just that. That you live, you put one foot in front of another, and you go on.