If I had known it was Jerry’s last day, would I have done things differently? That day was so chaotic, so unreal. When Emilee and I finally pulled up to the hospital’s emergency room, I parked the car and we walked over to the entrance. I recognized the paramedic, who was standing at the back of the ambulance, which was now empty. We watched as he slowly closed the doors. Then he turned to me.
“He was calling for you on the way here. He’s inside with the doctor.”
The rest of that day seemed like it was happening in a slow-motioned dream. Jerry’s doctor approached us and asked Em if she would help one of the nurses celebrate her birthday. She was led down the hall to the nurse’s station, while the doctor and I went into Jerry’s room. I can’t quite remember it all. At some point I must have called Jerry’s brother and sister-in-law, because they were there. We stood together next to Jerry’s bed, and we watched his chest rise and fall, and listened to his labored breathing. We didn’t say much. They left and took Em home with them, where she spent the night.
I stayed with Jerry, and we were left alone for a while. I noticed that his breathing was slowing down. As I looked at him, I was filled with an aching guilt, knowing that he had called out for me in the ambulance. He must have been confused and scared, not knowing what was happening to him. He needed me, and I wasn’t there to comfort him. It felt like I’d let him down. I didn’t say good-bye. I thought we had more time.
What would I have said to him anyway? Would I have told him the truth? That I was so sorry, but in my bone-weary body I had already started to let go, that I’d already started to grieve? That over the past two years of doctors and surgeries and medications and treatments, of watching him slowly waste away, I was now relieved?
Or would I have told him how scared I was? And that I needed him now more than ever to help me face a future without him? I don’t think I would have told him that I thought I was ready to move forward, to begin a new life that didn’t include cancer and caregiving and exhaustion and death. That I knew I would be okay, that we would be okay. Maybe I should have told him that last part. It might have made it easier for him to let go.
I know I would have thanked him for his courage and his commitment, for holding onto his life – our life – for as long as he could in order to give our young daughter memories of him.
Where were the operating instructions for all of this, anyway?
After I’d picked up Em and brought her home, I somehow found the words to tell her that her dad wouldn’t be coming back, that he had died. She screamed and sobbed and ran into our bedroom and to our dresser and began pulling open the drawers that still held Jerry’s things.
“No, it’s not true. He’s not dead. He’s still at the hospital!”
And there it was. The first of what felt like a million moments to come, when it would be up to me to find the answers, to make the decisions as the only parent. The crushing weight of that truth almost knocked me off my feet. It was all on me now. I looked at Em and silently asked for divine assistance. I knew I had to somehow convince her that he was gone. She still pictured him in the hospital, like he had been so many times before. Only this time he wasn’t coming home.
Before I knew what I was doing I picked up the phone and called the mortuary. It was after hours, I knew, and a long shot, but someone answered the phone. In a shaky voice I asked if we could come by. The man on the other end of the line said yes, of course, as if he were asked that question all the time. Maybe he was.
I drove us the short distance to the mortuary, and when we arrived we were taken to a small room and left alone. Jerry’s open pine coffin was sitting in the middle of the room. And there he was, wearing the clothes I had brought over earlier that day – his jeans and flannel shirt, and his well-worn work boots. His clothes were way too big for him. As Em and I looked at his still body, I suddenly realized that in all of my earlier confusion I had forgotten to bring socks for him. I guess it really didn’t matter, though. I leaned over and kissed his cold brow. He was gone.
I thanked the attendant and Em and I made our way back home. We had barely made it inside the door when Em turned to me, eyes wide and teary, and began sobbing. We clung to each other, and I comforted her as best I could.
“But I didn’t get to kiss him good-bye!”
This time I didn’t hesitate. I walked over to the phone and made a call, and we found ourselves back at the mortuary, where Em leaned over and kissed her daddy good-bye. A few days later we buried him at a nice cemetery, the one on the hillside overlooking the river.