It’s hard to believe a year has passed – this surreal experience feels simulaneously like just yesterday and a lifetime ago. In the months of processing the emotional madness, I wrote the start to the story of Cary’s First Death.
I am met with a body ravaged by an invisible storm of symptoms impossible to diagnose by any non-medically trained mind. Muscles contract infinitely beyond control, eyelids flutter involuntarily, veins and vessels just beneath the surface paint the naked landscape midnight, marbled purple from head to toe. A combination of blood and saliva foam at his lips, spilling over uneasily like a forgotten pot boiling on stove top. The breaths come slow, shallow, challenged.
Without thinking, my phone is in hand. I collect myself through left-brain logic and dial 9-1-1. “My husband needs medical intervention immediately. He is non-responsive. He was released from the hospital after knee replacement surgery just over 48 hours ago. He has been miserable since he’s been home, and now he is unconscious, bleeding from the mouth. Please, now. Please, I need help.” The moments hang in suspense, every tick of the clock a thousand opportunities to over-analyze, to unabashedly regret all the infractions and short-comings of a wife I embody, and to give-into the weighty temptation to panic. The air is thick with winter fog trying to creep in from the outside and the steam still lingers from my bath within.
Thank god for government and taxes and the calm voice of reason and expertise instructing me on the line. I shall never again forget or take for granted the veil of privilege we reside beneath in developed countries. “I am sending back up now. Put your phone on speaker and place it on the bed. You need to move him onto the floor. He needs to be on a flat, solid surface. You need to open his air way.” She instructs rhythmically. I am suddenly a scared first grade student intoxicated with the need to please. The dragon-like Ms. Uchida stands at the front of the class, and I quiver beneath her intimidation tactics. Yes, give me orders, tell me, wise one, precisely what I need to do to please you, avoid humiliation, and to rescue my best friend.
Attempting to roll two hundred thirty-five pounds of dead weight, slippery and sticky with perspiration, is rolling a pyramid brick uphill in loose, Egyptian sand that relentlessly pushes back with the sheer force of gravity. I am suddenly heated, sweating and riding a bus through the Costa Rican country side. I am 23, a broke graduate student traveling on a shoestring budget. Perhaps the blondest, fairest most-misplaced rider on this cheap public transit, I can’t help but observe it exceeded US safety regulations for maximum capacity about a dozen passengers back. We bounce and lunge at a snail’s clip down a half pot-hole ridden, half dirt thoroughfare toward a rain forest paradise. The heat is oppressive; the stench of sweat and stale leftover lunches intensifies, and I am haunted by the useless, recurring thought that everything takes longer in the heat. Just get us there.
I wedge myself on the bed behind his shoulder blades, press my back against the wall, and heave him toward the opposite edge. Unwilling to accept his inability to hear me, I repeatedly ask for his cooperation. “Whatever you can do, baby. Whatever help you can give me so I can help you, I need it now. Please let me get you onto the floor. Work with me. Anything you can do to help… I need to get you off the bed safely.” My breath quickens as my heart pounds. “PLEASE! Please help me to set you down. Please keep listening to me. Please keep breathing. Anything you can do. I need it, Cary!”
I tell the dispatch I am struggling to follow through with her order. “He outweighs me by nearly 100 pounds,” I explain, “And he has no clothes on for me to grasp, I was preparing him to bathe because he hasn’t showered since he was admitted to the hospital Thursday morning. It’s been four days.” She can hear the rushed pace of my breathing. “Keep yourself safe. Don’t over exert to the point where both of you will need medical help. That will defeat your efforts.” She responds calmly and sternly.
I am confident I can do this, and I am sure I am in better physical condition than she can gauge over the phone.
A breakthrough comes as I momentarily contemplate defeat and consider surrender. His feet and knees finally, abruptly drop to the floor. His upper body leans lifelessly, strewn over the top of the mattress, and I am finally able to lie his torso down, stabilize him flat on his back and tilt his head up and back to free his airway. A hundred minutes have passed in this time warp of deluded reality, and I give myself an instant of credit.
Despite my temporary success, his labored breathing grows increasingly distant and dramatic between exhalations. The blood and saliva once foaming at the corners of his lips now spew outward and upward with each shallow wisp of air he manages to pass through his lips. Blood splatter decorates the walls like a crime scene, and I am suddenly watching The Staircase on my living room couch with Cary by my side. The evening is calm as the defense mounts its case against the obvious likelihood of a repeat offender – this woman is not the first Michael happened to discover in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs with blood splatter to suggest serious cranial injury.
A few moments pass, and the emergency dispatcher detects no audible breathing from her end of the line. She questions his state as I hold on to my fragile composure. Emphatic in my defensive, protective tone, “He’s still here. He’s still breathing.” I respond. He is holding on, I convince myself. “Where the hell is my help?! I need back up!” Panic is trying persistently to breach the levy of my logic and my thin ability to stay focused.
I grasp tightly to the single comfort of knowing that I am only seconds away from trained medical professionals taking over his care. I follow the dispatcher’s every direction diligently as instructed, “Leave your phone with me. Run to the door, turn on your porch light, and leave the entrance unlocked, unobstructed.” They are one minute out. “Yes, ma’am,” my first-grade-self says back to her.
The heavy boots pound under the announcement of uniformed men rushing through our modest home, down the brief hall to find my husband, still unconscious and inching ever closer toward death. I am simultaneously swept up by a gratifying sense of relief and struck by the very real severity of the situation. Multiple people and pieces of equipment move in and out of the space. Vitals are checked; commands are shouted. A stretcher, carried by two formidable firefighters on either side, lift my husband, stark naked and more vulnerable than I have ever seen him, out of the house. They finally reach the promised sanctuary of an ambulance.
I know now he is in the hands of highly trained experts; their mission is well intentioned and governed by urgency and expediency. I suddenly find myself sitting in my eighth-grade jeans on a confirmation retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is late spring, and we are discussing the meaning of Jesus in our lives. We set a chair out to invite him to join our conversation. I search for something, anything meaningful or profound to share with my peers, and is if by miracle a sunbeam penetrates the thick, layered blanket of old growth redwoods overhead. It lands directly and seemingly deliberately on the empty seat in our presence. It brings light and warmth and the most compelling invitation to embrace faith, and I whole-teen-aged-heartedly do.
Fast forward 25 years. Hello, faith. I know it’s been a while but I am still here, and I need you now.
It is a see-your-breath, frigid December evening. A steady drizzle gives way to bouts of rain, and the flashing ambulance lights pierce the fog and proudly boast to the neighborhood we are in crisis. A drug overdose, maybe they assume. We live just beyond the (once) epicenter of the methamphetamine capital of the world, and he is a musician after all. Are all creatives more susceptible to chemical dependency and addiction or only some, I have never pulled my neighbors but I can guess how public opinion may swing on the matter. Or a heart attack; he is north of 50 now. The absence of police should rule out the possibility of domestic violence. But who knows how many impassioned arguments have been audible to passersby outside of our home; I really don’t have time or care for speculation now.
Blood splatter needs to be cleared away before my daughter gets home. The dogshit my 12-year-old pug couldn’t contain in his bowels when his home was invaded by an army of first-responders needs to be cleaned up. I need to make calls. Hard, heart-wrenching calls to report the shocking news. They come in this order: my sister, my mom, Cary’s dad. Each one cementing the reality more than the last.
The ambulance is still here. The guys, with unfaltering calm and confidence, told me several minutes ago to follow them up the hill to the nearest hospital. But there is no vehicle to follow because the paramedics are still working on Cary in the stagnant ambulance directly in front of our home. And none of them will make eye contact with me. None of them will offer an opinion or prognosis. I only see a coordinated effort of emergency care administered through a series of chest compressions, commands, and demands for more medicine and the swapping of devices.
None of them want to be the one to tell a 39-year-old woman she has lost her husband, and I don’t blame a single one.