My dear and loving wife was taken from me on my 56th birthday. Barbara did not leave me. I know what it is to be left—to be dumped like a bag of trash that is no longer useful. The damage to your ego is enormous, and of course there is a grieving process as well. You wonder how you could ever have loved somebody who turned out to be such a &@$@!!! You lick your wounds, you indulge yourself, and of course you eventually move on.
This was different. The massive cerebral hemorrhage came as a thief, stealing in upon the shadow of a 33-year-old cancer and snuffing out in mere moments a life that had ridden perilously and courageously through that shadow, brakes off and headlights dimmed, into a future of steadily diminished hopes. There was no chance to say good-bye. As we drove to the hospital, she was still apologizing to me for spoiling my birthday. The pain came later; her last words were “my head hurts so bad” and “my tongue is numb.” As the children and I were ushered from the room so they could insert a breathing tube, she spiraled down into the dark coma from which she would not awaken.
For the next three days, she lay in the ICU, and I held her and kissed her and spoke to her while I waited for her relatives and mine to arrive and join me in that anguished vigil. I told her that she had not been a bad mother to our children, as I knew she believed she had been, because she could not hear their recitals and take their telephone messages— because since her deafness they had instinctively and understandably come to me first when anything was amiss. I told her that her example of brave survivorhood in the face of the grimly unknown—the aftermath of a massive dose of radiation that had been intended to prolong her post-cancer survival to two years, if possible—was the best role model they would ever witness: that she had been the best mother I could have hoped for to my two nearly grown children. I told her that I loved her more than anyone could ever know. Finally, I told her that I was ready to let her go.
The organ donation people came in on Thursday evening, and the surgeon flew in at two the next morning. An hour later, while the children and I lay sleepless in our beds (we had all awakened at 2:30), he removed several of her organs for transplant and research. She was finally at rest. To my astonishment, she was only the 103rd organ donor in Central Texas this year.
As remarkable and generous as that gift was, though, it is not the gift about which I have chosen to write. That gift was given in stages, as we progressively lived through a series of medical reversals that changed both of our lives unalterably. The worst was the onset of total deafness just hours before we had planned to drive to Texas and pick out a new house. It was the death of our previous ease of communication, of our ability to enjoy music together, and of so much more. We grieved it in tandem, bearing each other up in a partnership of shared sympathy that was largely unimaginable to outsiders: to those who didn’t belong to our nation of two, bound together in mutual loss. We both understood that we had experienced a death, and that we could live through it only with severe discipline and infinite patience with each other. Somehow we grew, and discovered things in ourselves that we hadn’t known were a part of us.
What I told Barbara on Thursday night was that because we had faced the death of a shared life together hand in hand, I was now ready to face it alone. I told her that this was the gift we had given each other, and that my time had come to redeem it.