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What My Husband Said Before He Died

Kevin and I loved each other till the end, but it's the ugly, human moments that continue to haunt me.

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I don’t know what words were volleyed then, I don’t pretend that mine were sweet, it’s just that I’m tattooed with one scene, the before and after a blank. He took off his clothes this time and stood in front of me yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!” Not that I hadn’t gotten the gist of what 116 pounds looks like on a 6-foot frame, seen the bony collarbone jut from the collar of a T-shirt. But the spindly legs coupled with so many scars across his chest — the spot where the infected chemo port had been removed, where multiple chest tubes had been inserted to inflate multiple collapsed lungs — the bruises up his arms, all those shot veins from all those blood draws. A single image came to mind: a man crucified. The one I had worshiped, here living and unforgiving. Betrayal comes in so many forms.

Death, of course, would be the ultimate divide. Kevin held out so long, suffered so much for what felt to me like less than life. After close to four years, lonely and tired turned to isolated, exhausted, grief-stricken, but by sheer necessity, I was still on my feet. The care he needed, but didn’t want, only increased.

And still he almost never gave up the strikes for autonomy. The anguish Kevin felt when I insisted he get a bath (we did, among all the other reasons, still share a bed) gave him no special powers to perform the simple, but for him excruciating task. He believed he could measure his own morphine and all the other meds his parents and I needed a spreadsheet to track. I took them away. I let in the nursing aide. I was the bad guy. He didn’t argue, just seethed helplessly. But I couldn’t control his dangerous propensity to hobble to the bathroom and stay. Hiding from us or lost I don’t know.

One middle-of-the-night trip, I waited, afraid to intrude. Horrified when I realized it had been nearly two hours, I knocked, went in and found him crouching on the floor in a corner, shivering. “Aren’t you cold? Come to bed,” I said lightly. He nodded and as casually as I could I steered him back. These mystery ventures, a drooping eyelid, the fight to find a word — or, conversely, the sudden concern over an oil pipeline in Seattle, suggested brain metastasis. Soon after, he chose to move to our residential hospice facility, craving peace that I couldn’t provide, having no volume or volatility control for children. Maybe it was a respite from me too.

The Monday morning we had arranged for an ambulance to take Kevin there my son woke with fever that I masked with a heavy dose of Ibuprofen, buying enough time for him to get through the morning at school. The nurse would call, I knew, and I’m sorry if anyone caught whatever he had, but I was sure it wouldn’t last as long as a little boy’s memory of watching his father carried away, leaving home for the last time.

While I was managing the bed-to-bus scramble, Kevin had somehow gotten up and dressed himself in his nicest jeans, button-down shirt and loafers. Yet when I found him upstairs he was in despair, asking me over and over, “What am I going to do?” I have no memory of how I responded. I want to remember that I said something perfect but all I’m sure of is my single, wrenching thought: You are going to die.

He came down on his own and greeted the EMTs, helpful and polite as they got him out and into the ambulance. I climbed in and held his hand as we drove, watching gold and russet mingling with October blue sky as it all streamed into the distance behind us.

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