Saturday, June 9, 2012

I'll Cry If I Want To

It had been an exceptionally pleasant birthday. My grades were turned in, and I was done for the fall semester and almost ready to write some very belated Christmas cards. Jennifer, as a Baylor student, was also finished, but Jeremy had to catch the bus to school, so at 6:45 a knock sounded at the door and cards and gifts were presented. I then went back to sleep and woke up when I was truly ready. Barbara later claimed to have slept through the whole thing: an ominous sign, perhaps, because she always remembered these early morning intrusions.

When I finally got up for good, I found several dozen birthday greetings on Facebook. I resolved that this year I was feeling so good to have recovered from two abdominal surgeries in a row that I would respond to each one individually. I kept that resolve until after 5:00.

Later that morning I had to go up to Baylor to deliver a few things, and Barbara, Jennifer and I went to the Clay Pot (a Vietnamese restaurant near campus that I love) for lunch. Returning home, I responded to several dozen more birthday greetings and watched Barbara make peanut brittle - the latest installment in her annual marathon of Christmas baking. The plates were already being assembled to deliver to friends and neighbors, and the German chocolate cake that she had baked twice for me the day before (the oven was accidentally set too high the first time) was waiting for us to devour it after dinner.

At 5:00, Barbara had put on the cashmere sweater I bought for her a few years ago and a nice set of earrings that were much older than that. Her perfume and lipstick had been applied, and we were ready to go out for dinner together. The long-delayed Christmas tree that we had bought the day before was ready for the kids to decorate while we were gone. Then we would all eat cake and perhaps drink some eggnog while watching the lights around the familiar ornaments, the skirted angel blinking white on top.

Barbara had gone downstairs, and I lingered to finish dressing. When I walked down a few minutes later, she was sitting on the bottom step changing her shoes. She was suddenly feeling dizzy, she said, and had decided to opt for more stability.

Sudden attacks of dizziness were nothing unusual for Barbara, so I took that in stride and took her arm to help her out to the car. She was having so much difficulty, though, that I decided she needed to sit down on the couch for a while. I felt her forehead and it was clammy, even though she complained of being hot, so I asked Jennifer to bring a thermometer. It showed nothing unusual, but she was now complaining of feeling nauseous. Making a quick decision, I decided to play it safe by bringing her to the emergency room. This time I got her to the car, and with the kids along for moral support, we set out for Providence Hospital, a five-minute drive away.

Gentle reader, please understand that we had made this trip many times before. I had brought Barbara to the ER so many times, with such a variety of complaints, that it had become simply a ritual of life. Sometimes the results were benign, and we returned home. Sometimes they were catastrophic, as when she suddenly lost her hearing in her one remaining good ear (also accompanied by serious dizziness). Always we returned home and life went on.

As we drove to the hospital, Barbara (so typically for her) apologized to me for ruining my birthday. She was sensitive on this point, since her own birthdays had frequently been marked by disaster (her 23rd birthday present: a brain tumor diagnosis), and her first husband had been killed the day before her brother Scott's 25th. It was OK, I assured her. After we figured out what the problem was, we would go out later in the week.

As we pulled into the parking lot in the ER, Barbara asked Jennifer to find a wheelchair for her, as she wasn't sure she could walk steadily. Jennifer works at Providence as a transporter, so she knew just where to look. We arrived at the desk and filled out the requisite paperwork, and I dutifully presented my debit card for the $50 copay. Because of Barbara's medical history, I insisted that she be seen as soon as possible. "Oh, that breeze feels good," she said as Jennifer wheeled her into the waiting area. She was still feeling hot.

We did get taken back quickly, and Barbara described her symptoms and answered a few questions. It was only at this point that I began to get inklings that this ER visit would not be like the others. Her responses were becoming slurred and confused, and she complained of numbness in her tongue. Because of her nausea, the doctor in attendance decided she should be placed under anesthesia so she would not be at risk of choking on her own vomit. The children and I were ushered from the room and into a family waiting area.

As we sat there nervously, I told them that I was now reasonably sure their mother was having a stroke. Jennifer said she was certain that was what was happening. It had happened before, which was why she took a blood thinner every day. I was trying to imagine what kind of impairment would result from this one, and whether it would be permanent. Just some more data to crunch in the seemingly endless stream of disabilities and setbacks we had encountered over the previous dozen years.

The first sign that things would be truly different came when, nervous from our prolonged wait, I found my way back to the ER proper and encountered a neurosurgeon looking at the results of her CT scan. (She couldn't have an MRI because of the cochlear implants.) There was a lot of bleeding from her right cerebellum, he said (the exact spot of her tumor), and a large clot was accumulating around the base of her brain. She was, in fact, having a cerebral hemorrhage - and, irony of ironies, the blood thinner intended to save her life was preventing the blood from clotting until it puddled around her brain stem and gradually choked off all hope that she would ever regain consciousness. By the time I even realized what was happening, the woman I had loved and cherished for nearly 24 years was gone. She would linger for three days on life support, but her peaceful-looking form on the hospital bed was just a hollow shell, all essential brain activity having ceased that first night. I never had a chance to say goodbye.

In ten days it will be the half anniversary of that awful night, and I will be 56 and a half. I am writing this because I am going to have to start thinking about how I will handle my next birthday, and I need all the help I can get. Every time I log onto Facebook or open the calendar on my phone, I am reminded of whose birthday it is, and I constantly wade through the endless stream of birthday messages to friends and the pictures of happy couples enjoying blissful, special days together. And I am reminded that even 25 years after her first husband's death, Barbara could easily be consumed by depression as the fateful anniversary approached.

So I am wondering, wistfully, if I will ever have a happy birthday again. I hate to say this, lest it make me sound shallow, but the thought torments me. I lost my wife and my special day all at once, and the two losses will be inextricably bound together for the rest of my life. That makes it so much worse.


  1. I don't know what to say except that you will get through it and that there is another side, in this world, to get to after such a tragedy. I lost my husband to both similar and different circumstances almost six years ago, actually longer, but as you note sometimes you don't realize the exact moment of loss. Anyway, I have a new life now, filled with joy and bliss that I could not imagine. All this to say there is hope. Be of good cheer. Best of luck to you, Anne

  2. Like Anne-Marie, I don't know what to say, Robin. I can't begin to imagine all that you and Barbara and Jennifer and Jeremy have been through. i'm glad that you write about your experience, both for your own sake and to help your friends get a small window to your pain, your thoughts, your love. Though your time together was cut way too short, you sharing your story has made it clear that you and Barbara shared experiences and depth of love far greater than most people ever have the opportunity to know. Thank you for sharing that with all of us. Thank you for sharing your human-ness. Though it seems like such a trivial, helpless thing, please know that you, Jennifer, and Jeremy are in my thoughts and prayers.