Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions of Jeff's death and his physical dying process. Proceed accordingly.
One year ago tonight, I told Jeff "Goodbye." I'll always remember. I don't know why I felt compelled to pour my heart out and sob at his bedside that night, but I did. Literature on the "stages of dying" littered the hospice where Jeff spent his last days. They gently suggested that the dying know when it's "time to go." Likewise, those close to the dying know when it's time to say "Goodbye" and, so saying "Goodbye" wasn't a conscious choice that I made, but something I did instinctively.
Jeff was lying in his hospice bed in a hospital gown--the head of the bed was slightly raised and he was propped-up on a pillow. He had been in this position most of the day to receive his final visitors and despite having been lucid and alert for the better part of the night before and early morning had slipped into a deep sleep for the rest of the day and evening which was just as well. Whenever he was awake he was in terrible pain from gout that was affecting his left ankle due to uric acid build up from his body systems shutting down. His hair had gotten longer than he usually would have let it grow because he had been in the hospice for a month. He needed a haircut and I wish I would have had someone cut his hair before he died so that he would have been buried with the short, handsome hair cut I remember him having. No one knows--not even Jeff--that when I shaved his head after he had brain surgery, I saved some of his hair. As a side note, I also saved his leg brace and whole brain radiation mask. He was indignant about it at the time and thought it was weird I wanted to save them, but the leg brace is a perfect mold of his left leg and the mask is a perfect mold of his face--I saved them for no other reason than to keep some minor semblance of him.
On that last night, I pulled a chair up to the side of Jeff's hospital bed. We had started our marriage side-by-side and now it would end side-by-side. I was wearing a pink velour sweat suit with a maroon pinstripe down the side of the pants and a maroon long-sleeved T-shirt to match. At one point, he faintly and briefly opened his eyes and I remember being somewhat disappointed in the fact that this was what he saw me wearing for the last time and that this might be the image he would have of me through all eternity. However, Jeff had 20/600 vision (yes, you read that correctly!), so I'm sure I was nothing but a pink blur to him if he could see anything at all.
I sat next to him and cried and talked for nearly an hour. He didn't move or so much as blink the entire time. I wondered if he had heard anything I said. But, as I was getting ready to leave, I stood up and leaned over him and said, "I'm going to kiss you now" and he puckered up his lips to meet mine. I was relieved to know that he had heard and understood me. And I recall in that moment that I kissed him, how the smell of medicine overwhelmed me. He smelled like poison (probably because he was filled with it between the cancer and all the drugs simultaneously competing to kill it and numb it). As I walked out the door, I looked back at him--just in case it was the last time I saw him. And it was.
The next morning, on September 25th the nanny had just arrived and we were in the middle of our usual morning chaos. The kids were just beginning to file into the mud room on their way out to the car to go to school when the house phone rang. I answered it and the voice on the other end said, "Mrs. Dodd?" I said, "yes?" and she said, "it appears he has passed." She didn't tell me who she was or where she was calling from or who "he" was. We both understood. I said, "thank you, we'll be right there." It was 7:45 a.m.
I turned to the kids who were milling in and out of the kitchen and said, "that was the nurse calling. Daddy died." I don't think anyone said anything--they all intuitively got in the minivan while the nanny scooped up baby-Finn. Aubrey, Regan, Jack and I went to the Hospice. As we approached the room, the door was mostly shut and an ornament of glass and a pressed/dried flower hung on the door (the Hospice's "notice" that the person in the room is dead). Jeff was lying flat in the bed. The Hospice staff had arranged a tray of cookies and drinks for us. He was still tethered to his catheter and pain pump.
I walked eagerly into the room while the kids entered with trepidation and gravitated toward a couch along the wall of the room. I approached him from the same side I sat at the night before and laid my top half over his top half and cried. His chest was still warm and it seemed unreal that it did not rise and fall as it did when he was breathing. His eyes were almost completely closed, yet very slightly open. His jaw was lax and his mouth was partially open. I intermittently hugged him and cried and laid over him and cried--simultaneously distraught and fascinated by how visibly death descends upon a body. I comforted the kids. They refused to touch him.
While we spent time with Jeff, the Hospice continued to make phone calls to notify family. I don't recall who I called personally and who the Hospice called, but at some point, our priest, Father Charlie arrived. After praying over the body, he generously took the kids back home while I stayed to pack Jeff's things and wait for the body to be removed.
Our dear friend, Tony, came to be with me at the Hospice. He had also sat with me in the waiting room 13 months earlier when Jeff had emergency brain surgery. This time, he brought me some plastic boxes for packing. I started in the bathroom. At first, I started packing toiletries like Jeff's deodorant and travel toothbrush before I realized these things would never be used again. Instead, I threw them away--thinking Jeff would be far more impressed with my efficiency than my sentimentality.
Meanwhile, nurses and doctors came and went. I asked how Jeff had changed positions--he had been sitting up the night before and was now lying flat. She explained that he died sitting up, but they have to immediately lie people flat or the rigor mortis will make it difficult to lie them flat later for their funerals, so the nurses had laid him flat as soon as he died. A doctor came in and took his pulse and pronounced him dead and completed some paperwork.
When the room was quiet and we were alone, I inspected his body. The backs of his ears and palms of his hands and back of his neck turned splotchy and purple (a condition I would later learn is called "lividity" due to the blood in the body settling and no longer circulating). His arms and hands were stiff. As I hugged him, his body felt unnatural and unresponsive.
It was a nice, sunny day.
It was approximately 10:30 a.m. when the funeral director arrived to remove the body. They arrived with a navy-blue bag unzipped and open on a gurney. They were dressed in suits and the two of them (one by his head and one by his feet) lifted him by lifting the corners of the bed sheet he was lying on. It surprised me that when they picked him up--sheet, pillow, catheter, everything--went into the bag. They started to zip up the bag and just as the zipper got to his chest, I stopped them and kissed him one last time on the forehead. They then zipped the bag over his head and placed a quilt over the bag. Then, they wheeled him out and that was the last time I ever laid eyes on him.
I finished packing his things and went straight home. The scene was remarkably normal and upbeat. Both of our nannies were now at the house and the kids were busy and playing, as usual. There were already flowers on the kitchen table from the Murphys next door. The next couple of hours were a blur, but at 1:00 p.m. or so, I went to the funeral home with my friend, Robin, to arrange the funeral. Later that day, I met again with Father Charlie to do the same thing. And by evening, family started to arrive from out of town.
And earlier that day, I posted Jeff's final blog. Self-aware and eloquent, it was probably the single most meaningful and important thing he ever wrote--except maybe for the private letters he wrote to me and the kids before he died. I have tried to continue the blog in an effort to chronicle our life after his death and as a means of lending hope and guidance to other young widows. I think it has served it's purpose.
As you are well-aware, I have been winding down the blog with fewer and more infrequent postings because I thought the one-year mark is a good stopping point. All the anniversaries and highlights and memorable occasions a year brings have been met face-to-face and I don't know what more to say about them in the second year or the third . . .
Also, I feel like it is time to close this chapter of our lives and move on. We are no longer mourning. Our lives will never be the same, but we have found ways to keep living and be happy. Jeff's death has given us so much--people have come into our lives we would have had no opportunity to know but for his death; my children have developed enviable resilience and independence. Of course, it's been a lot of hard work. It is sometimes paralyzing to raise four children alone and I am constantly aware of the sacrifices we all make in order to fill the hole Jeff left in our lives. I must work harder. The kids must do more to help me and each other. Yet--our "new" life is surprisingly happy and relaxed.
So, tomorrow begins a new year and we will embrace it not as a day to ruminate on the unfairness of life and all its misfortunes, but as a day to celebrate our successes and the progress we've made in the past year. Just as a baby learns to crawl and then walk--each milestone is celebrated as progress toward a better existence and not lamented as indicators of an infanthood left behind. We will mark the day respectfully--I'm sure we will visit the cemetery and share our memories of Jeff and we will all be a little sadder, but we'll be OK.
This blog has been one of Jeff's enduring gifts to me. He started when he first learned his cancer had returned and I continued it after his death. It has served as my unique brand of personal therapy, but has also provided glimmers of affection and understanding through all the thoughtful comments you have left. My relationships with many of you have become more meaningful because of our communications through the blog, and without a doubt, I will miss your Comments the most. Nonetheless, I have to see if I can get along without it and I hereby declare a "normal" friendship with all of you--which will necessarily require nurturing through traditional means such as e-mails, phone calls, and direct contact.
However, I reserve the right to resurrect the blog at any time and without notice. In fact, it is likely I will still post here from time to time just because it is such a convenient forum for far away family and friends. But, if so, I may elect to rename the blog and revise the format so that it no longer focuses on our tragedy, but instead emphasizes the comfortable and beautiful normalcy into which we have settled.
So, thank you for walking this path with us and for all of your contributions along the way. As I type this, it is now 11:59 p.m. on September 24th. Ooops--now it's midnight and officially September 25th. So, I'm going to stop typing and keep living and loving and smiling . . . .