With fists, with words, with kindness
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On a Sunday night in January 2013, around 2 AM, my husband said, “Beth, you have to let me go.”
And I said, “I love you, Fernando, but I let you go.”
I said it clearly, in a loud voice, because I thought he might die that very moment, and I wanted our children to hear so they would come into the room and be with him. Our daughter, Kathryn, was asleep across the hall, and our son, Michael, was sitting up talking to my husband’s brother in the living room. Both children came into our bedroom and said, “Dad, we let you go.”
Or maybe they didn’t come in. Maybe it was the next night, when he actually died, that they told him, “We let you go.” I can’t be sure.
What does it mean to let someone go?
Sixteen months after Fernando died, I ran into my friend Susan in the hallway at work. She’d just lost her husband, and she compared it to being trapped in Dante’s Inferno, which she and her husband had often taught together. She felt as if she were slogging alone through a dark wood and couldn’t see ahead of her. “I just keep thinking,” she said, “my husband is dead, my partner is dead, my beloved is dead.”
I said I’d been “kind of out of it.” Not terribly articulate, but it was true. I couldn’t remember much from the recent past, and I couldn’t imagine the future. I also couldn’t imagine saying to myself over and over, My husband is dead. Maybe Susan was trying to make it real for herself, but it seemed a kind of torture. Blessed was the anesthesia of disbelief — and of wine, and of his leftover oxycodone, and of the Valium the doctor had given me so I could sleep.
“Why can’t two people just decide one day that they want to die together?” I asked Fernando in 2000. Death was on my mind then because my father had just died and my aunt Dorothy was in hospice and my mother had chronic lung disease and was trying to find a doctor who would promise to give her a massive dose of morphine if her lungs started to fail. She wanted to go quickly. She even quit taking her beta blockers, hoping her heart would give out first. In my family we are more afraid of dying than of death.
“If you ever want me to kill you,” I told Fernando back then, “I will.” This was not a joke. I would give him morphine, heroin. It would be painless. But, I said, he had to promise to do the same for me.
He wouldn’t. He was a Catholic — a “recovering Catholic,” as he put it, but a Catholic all the same. I came from a family of agnostics, although we considered ourselves Episcopalian.
After spending a day taking care of my mother, I would lie awake at night and worry aloud that I was a bad daughter because I didn’t want to take care of her. But neither did I want her to die. “Shhh,” Fernando would tell me, even though he knew I hated to be shushed. “She knows you love her.” His hand on my back let me fall asleep. This is one reason we get married: to have someone who can help us bear what we think we cannot.
When Fernando and I first got married, no one expected it to last, not even me. I remember thinking, as we walked in to see the justice of the peace, If it doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced. In our wedding pictures we both look miserable. It was 1974, and Fernando had cut his hair to chin length in honor of the occasion. I had hair down to the middle of my back and wore a long blue dress and a white sun hat he’d picked out for me. We’d bought our rings at a pawnshop, which seemed like a bad omen. Who pawns their wedding bands?
Later, looking at the pictures, I told Fernando, “I think if I’d said, Stop, you would have said, Thank you.” And he laughed and agreed.
Here’s how he’d proposed to me: After a fight with my mother, I had shown up on his mother’s doorstep, and his family had taken me in, even though there were already eleven people living in their small tract home on the south side of Tucson, Arizona. His mother was Catholic, and there were his sisters to consider. Fernando didn’t want to be a bad influence. He told me, “If you’re going to live here, we’ll have to get married.” That was it.
There was never any silence in that house, with eight children, the TV, the radio, the planes flying overhead, and the trucks on the freeway. We cooked and cleaned constantly. His mother mopped every day. Though the house was only a few years old, she had already worn the pattern off the linoleum. I got pregnant almost immediately after the wedding, and Fernando and I moved out, taking a few of his brothers with us. He worked construction, then started a house-painting business with his brothers to put me through school. He had no desire to go to college, although he’d always been a voracious reader. His buddies told him I would leave him as soon as I graduated, but I didn’t. I got a fellowship for graduate school, and we both left: packed up a U-Haul and, with five hundred dollars in our pockets, moved to California, where he got a job running a painting crew full of undocumented workers from Australia, New Zealand, and Wales. When immigration officers showed up on the job site, they would go directly to Fernando and ask to see his papers. The irony is, he was the only one born in this country. Later, at the bar, the other workers, with their thick accents, would joke that they were safe as long as they didn’t open their mouths.
We had two children by then and became friends with other couples in married-student housing. Over dinner Fernando would have discussions about history and international politics with Moshe from Israel and Hans from Switzerland. “Isn’t it funny?” he said. “Surrounded by foreigners, I feel fully American for the first time in my life.” Away from his family, he’d realized that we were a family, just the four of us. By then we’d lost the pawnshop rings, and I’d had one made for myself: a gold band with stars and moons and comets.
On that Sunday night in January 2013, I had not been sound asleep when Fernando spoke. I’d been lying awake next to him. I had loved him for forty years, ever since I was a girl of eighteen. I could hear my son and brother-in-law talking in the living room. Bernie, the brother my husband was closest to out of his four brothers, was staying the night in case we needed help. Fernando was over six feet tall, and to get him to the bathroom was not easy.
“Beth,” Fernando said, “you have to let me go.” He must have been gathering his strength to tell me this, because for most of the day he had been unable to speak. Was it the new prescription for Thorazine, or had the cancer gone to his brain? We didn’t know.
Bernie’s first wife, Martha, had died eight years earlier of lymphoma, and he was talking to my son about her. Kathryn, who was in nursing school, had promised her father that she would not let him die the way Martha had: in a hospital, hooked up to machines, swollen from chemotherapy, in a drug-induced sleep.
But his descent was so rapid — as if he had stepped off a cliff, is how Kathryn put it — that we weren’t prepared. Earlier that week he had been walking two miles a day with me and complaining that I was starving him. Then on Saturday he suddenly didn’t want to get out of bed, didn’t want to eat. He slipped in and out of sleep as he watched TV. We hadn’t called hospice yet; he hadn’t signed a DNR (“do not resuscitate”); we had no liquid morphine. Kathryn was worried he wouldn’t be able to swallow pills, and therefore she wouldn’t be able to ease his pain. We were afraid we’d have to take him to a hospital. We were afraid he would suffer.
Fernando was only sixty. He was going on without me, and I wasn’t ready. Having witnessed my mother’s death, I thought I was prepared for what would happen, but looking back I see that I was wrong.
That Friday, a few days before he died, a nutritionist told Fernando he could eat whatever he wanted. I had been trying to get him to follow a diet that was easy on the liver, since he had liver cancer, and on the gallbladder, since he had indigestion from the chemotherapy.
“Steak?” he asked her.
“In moderation,” she replied.
On the way home I bought him a baguette piled high with lean roast beef, his favorite. We shared the chips and then took our walk. All the way up the hill he kept saying, “See, I told you I wanted meat. You’ve been starving me.” I reminded him that we’d had pork loin two nights earlier, and that I’d just bought him a roast-beef sandwich. He said he wanted to stop and rest a minute — this was unusual — and I suggested we climb a little farther, to where there was a wall we could sit on and rest. “No,” he said, “I just told you I’m tired. I want to go back down the hill.”
“OK,” I said. “Fine.” I felt as if we had suddenly become a quarrelsome elderly couple, as if our old age had arrived that afternoon.
At night I would stand at the mirror and brush my hair and see a reflection of Fernando lying on the bed behind me. In the past he would have been watching me; he would have said something suggestive and patted the mattress beside him. But since he’d become so sick, he just lay there, sometimes with his eyes closed. He had been growing a beard. It was gray, but his hair was not. He was aging faster than I was, which made me feel young and vital, which made me feel sad and guilty.
If I cried, I did it in the backyard while he was napping. One day while I was out there, I thought: I’ve tried so hard! The research, the coordinating of care, the double-checking of every doctor’s recommendation, the reading about clinical trials, the careful planning of trips so we could spend more time with our children and grandchildren — I had been so brave through it all. But then I realized: This is not a test. No one is grading you. It’s not even about you, really.
When I came back inside, Fernando was up from his nap and had seen me in the yard. “You should cry more often,” he said. He knew I wanted him to comfort me, but there was no comfort for this.
Only now, many months later, have I managed to think about other times in our lives. The memories I can summon are snapshots, memories of memories, like the night we first brought Michael home from the hospital: when I woke up the next morning, Fernando was sitting in the rocking chair in his jeans, shirtless, the baby against his bare chest. I can see that. And I remember how, whenever Kathryn complained of a cold and didn’t want to go to school, Fernando would take her to the convenience store and buy her little packages of kleenex and cough drops, and then she would go. I remember how sometimes he would call me on his way to work and say, “Beth, you have to get up and see this sunrise.” How his face relaxed when we went to the ocean for his sixtieth birthday. How he ate a pot brownie at Kathryn’s house on our last Christmas and danced in the kitchen in his pajama bottoms and sweat shirt. “I am so happy,” he said before we fell asleep that night. And he meant it, even though he was dying.
Had he lived, he would have taken his grandchildren to Rome and given them a tour of the Coliseum. Had he lived, we would have visited our friends in Israel. Had he lived, we would have gone fishing more often. I can project him into the future much more easily than I can summon memories of the days before his illness.
That last Friday night before he died, when Michael arrived from LA, Fernando told him that he wanted thick, juicy hamburgers and tacos the way his mother used to make them, the hamburger patted onto a corn tortilla and then dipped into hot oil. He wanted cheese on the burgers and pico de gallo and guacamole with the tacos. And french fries. And a grilled cheese for lunch. And fresh beans! With bacon! He wanted all the things the chemotherapy had prevented him from eating but that the nutritionist now said he could have.
On Saturday morning I heard the kids get up and leave for the grocery store to buy the foods he’d requested. Fernando got up, too, but instead of going down to the kitchen to make breakfast for himself and coffee for me, as he always did, he just used the bathroom and crawled back into bed, complaining that he was cold. I scooted over next to him, pressed my chest against his back, and rubbed his arm. I fell back to sleep, and when I woke, I asked if he wanted breakfast. He didn’t think so. It was ten o’clock. Fernando never stayed in bed that long or skipped breakfast. I got up, but I didn’t know what to do. I was standing in the hallway in my nightgown, crying, when the kids came in from the store with several pounds of hamburger we would never eat. Michael looked alarmed, but Kathryn had seen me like this before. “He’s OK,” I said. “He hasn’t . . . It’s nothing. He just doesn’t want breakfast.”
I am stoic, so when I say I was crying, I don’t mean sobbing. I didn’t want Fernando to see me upset, because he might have thought I had no hope. And if I had no hope, how could he have any? And if he didn’t have hope, how could he possibly get well?
Driving home after the doctor told us Fernando had a year to live, Fernando asked if I was OK. I told him I was angry at the doctor for delivering the bad news in such an impersonal way, and he said, “Didn’t you see? His hands were shaking. It was hard for him.” I hadn’t noticed. And I wondered: how had Fernando been able to notice?
“Do you believe him?” I asked. “How can he be certain?”
“I don’t know,” Fernando said. “I just want to go to LA before the surgery. I want to see the boys play soccer.” He looked at me. “It isn’t time to tell the kids yet.”
“OK,” I said.
He went back to work. I didn’t know why. I thought he should have stayed home with me. Fuck work. Fuck his dull, boring job in a paint store, where no one was half as smart as he was. What a waste of his time, that job. What a waste of his life.
One day, months before the diagnosis, Fernando told me that a man who was probably schizophrenic had come into the paint store. The man was talking to himself in the second person: Then you went there, and you did this, and they looked at you funny. Suddenly he turned to Fernando and said, “You’re going to be dead within a year.” This spooked Fernando, but I tried to dismiss it, saying the man was likely still talking to himself; he thought he was going to be dead in a year. But to Fernando it felt like a prophecy.
Another day an older customer came in and gave Fernando a ring with a cross on it that he’d had blessed at the Vatican. He said, “Here, you need this more than I do.” Fernando kept it in his pocket.
Sometimes on our walks I would tell Fernando I couldn’t pray, and I didn’t know what that meant. Did it mean I was willing to give him up too easily, or did it mean I didn’t believe he was dying? When the doctors had first found the cancer, they’d thought it was stage I, and surgery would get it all. After the surgery they said it was stage IV. Every time we went to a doctor from then on, we received more bad news. Some nights, as we got into bed, I’d say, “I knew it. I knew it was a tumor. I knew it was malignant. I knew the surgery wouldn’t work.” And Fernando would sigh and say, “Let’s not talk about this now,” because night was when he prayed.
The surgeon said to Fernando, “Your liver is as bumpy as a toad.”
The radiologist said she couldn’t help because Fernando’s portal vein, which carries 75 percent of the blood to the liver, was nearly occluded with a tumor. He had grown six new veins to compensate. She said, “The main freeway’s been shut down for years, and you’ve been taking the side streets.” If he didn’t die from cancer, he would die from liver failure.
“It’s heartbreaking, really,” the oncologist told me. “He is so healthy otherwise.”
“Live and let live,” Fernando told me. “That’s what I tell the tumors: ‘I’ll let you live inside me if you’ll let me live.’ ”
He had almost died from hepatitis C when he was twenty. At six foot one and 120 pounds, he was so weak his sister had to open the door to the doctor’s office for him. He knew exactly how he’d gotten it: shooting up with an addict who had just returned from Vietnam. He said, “Right after I got off, I looked at him and saw his eyes were yellow, and I knew. Oh, man, I knew.” Fernando’s eyes had turned yellow, his shit had turned white, and his piss had turned black. The doctor wanted to put him in the hospital, but Fernando knew his parents couldn’t afford it, and so he went home to die. But his mother made him steaks. She rubbed her hands together and put them over his liver and prayed. His mother laid her hands on him and cured him.
Now he was dying, and his mother was dead, and although Fernando believed that she had passed the ability to heal on to Kathryn, he didn’t want our daughter to try. He said it would be too much of a burden. “But if God has given her a gift,” I asked him, “how could it be a burden?” So he let her try, and when she did, tears streamed down her face. Later she told me, “All I could do was pray he wouldn’t suffer.” Then I understood the burden: It wasn’t that she would feel pressured to heal him. It was that she would realize there was no hope.
Fernando and I were at the beach, standing at the sea wall, looking out at the ocean. That’s when he told me that, every time someone he loved had been seriously ill, he had prayed for them to get well, telling God, “You can give them some of my time.” He asked me now if I thought it would be wrong for him to ask God for that time back. No, I said. First of all, God is not an accountant. And second, why would God punish him for being generous? I never would have prayed for God to take time from me, I told him. And it was true. I wanted to live to be a hundred. He was hoping for at least one more year.
He had almost died from hepatitis when he was twenty. He had grown six new veins. In a way, he had been fighting for his life our whole marriage. We’d had forty years together — forty years we weren’t supposed to have, with two children and two grandchildren.
One late afternoon on our walk I said, “Maybe we’ve already had our miracles.”
It was that time of day when the setting sun threw pink light on the mountains. He walked with his hands behind his back, as if deep in thought.
“I still want another miracle,” I told him.
“Maybe,” I would say, “you just have to envision a future.” And he would look at the travel books I gave him and say: Florence? Nice? Barcelona? And we would sit together with the laptop and plan a trip.
But sometimes he would say (oh, so patiently), “Beth, you can’t live without a liver.”
Other times he would say, “I am dying because of the mistakes a twenty-year-old made.”
I told Susan, the friend who’d lost her husband, that in the sixteen months since Fernando had died, I’d felt his presence more often than I had his absence. “Maybe I’m still in shock,” I said. She said that denial is a coping mechanism. Susan was older than I was and had once been my teacher, so I thought she was probably right. Maybe my inability to believe he was gone was an attempt to cope.
But when I’d said I still felt his presence — was that true? It seemed as if I were talking about a belief in the afterlife, which wasn’t what I’d meant. I had told him to wait for me, and I believed he would, but I didn’t believe that I would see him again in a sunny heaven or sitting at Jesus’s feet surrounded by sheep and small children, or that we would have our bodies again, or even that we would be recognizable, individual spirits with memories, identities, consciousness. I didn’t know what I believed exactly. I just knew he would wait for me. It didn’t seem possible for me to be eternally separated from him.
I still felt him like a warmth around my heart at times. I might be turning on the garden hose, and there he would be. One night I was crying in bed — crying so hard I worried I would have a heart attack. (This is actually why I wouldn’t give in to crying: my heart always felt as if a fist were clenching it, and I was afraid it would stop beating.) I couldn’t control my sobbing, and I felt him get into bed behind me. I felt his arm thrown over me. I even felt his hard-on against my butt. And I wondered at the strength of his spirit: how strong must it have been to manifest itself so vividly?
I did not tell my friend Susan this. Nor did I tell her about the time I got into the car and said out loud, “Have I told you lately that I love you?” And then, when I put in an old Van Morrison tape, it stopped in the middle of a song, and there was a grinding noise as if the player were eating the tape, and then the song “Have I Told You Lately” came on, right at the beginning, and I was sure Fernando was in the car with me, but I couldn’t see or touch or hear him.
Once, in the middle of the night, I heard him say my name loud enough to wake me from a drugged sleep. Sometimes I could feel him standing behind me, just as certainly as you can feel another person’s body when he is close enough to kiss you on the neck.
I didn’t quite understand the separation of the spirit from the body — the finality of it. When my four-year-old grandson asked me, “When is Tata going to be alive again?” I thought, Exactly. That is the question. Where is he?
For a few years before his diagnosis, Fernando dreamed repeatedly that he was in a gray place with people who had passed on. Every time he dreamed about the gray place, it frightened him. He believed it was a portent of his own death.
One night he dreamed he saw my mother in the gray place, and he said, “Margaret!” And she came up to him and put one hand on each of his shoulders and pushed him. She pushed him out of the gray place, and after that, he didn’t dream about it again. My mother knew I needed him.
“If I turn yellow,” Fernando said, “that means I have a week, maybe ten days.” I asked if he wanted me to call his brothers and sisters when that happened. “No,” he said. “Why call them? I know they love me.”
“But what if they want to see you?” I asked.
That Saturday before he died, I asked again if he wanted me to call them, and he said yes. And so Kathryn and Michael set about the task of phoning his father and his brothers and sisters.
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so it was a three-day weekend. For those three days it was as if he were present at his own wake. People brought food and sat in the dining room and got out the photo albums and told stories. They visited with Fernando and then went outside and cried or talked about how awful it was or smoked a cigarette or drank a beer. They came inside and ate and took pictures of the old photos with their cellphones. The children ran around. We watched football. I talked to Fernando’s sisters, feeling as if I were performing. His sisters thought he should go to a hospital and be fed through an IV, but Kathryn said no; she had promised to spare him that. He wanted to stay at home, to go quickly.
“There is nothing we can do,” I said.
His sister asked, “Couldn’t he have broth?”
So I made broth. I put my hand on his cheek. “I am giving you broth,” I said. I didn’t want him to choke on it. I put some in an eyedropper and tried to feed him, squeezing it under his tongue. We wrote down the times when we gave him his pills. Someone brought swabs to moisten his mouth. He was still in the living room, so this must have been either Saturday or Sunday. I put his medical records on the dining-room table, where everyone could read them. We still didn’t have a DNR. Hospice wouldn’t come until Monday. Kathryn had to help him move his legs when he wanted to lie down on the couch. She told him what she was doing before she would do it, but he couldn’t understand her words.
“Dad,” she’d say, “I know it’s hard.”
Once, as I was giving him water, he held up his hand and said, “Beth. Stop. Please.” I think he meant: Stop pretending. Stop trying. Stop hoping. This is it. Finally, in these last moments, can’t we just admit it? I’m dying.
And I laughed. I don’t know why. Maybe I was relieved that he was telling me to stop, or maybe I just loved that he could still respond, could still say a few words, could tell me what he wanted.
On Sunday we saw the hawk. I sat next to Fernando on the couch, and we saw it perched in the mesquite tree in the front yard. It seemed like a sign. Fernando had told me several times that whenever he went to visit his mother’s grave, a hawk would fly down and greet him. I think he felt the hawk was a messenger from his mother, that its presence meant her spirit was near. When we used to go on walks, he would always spot hawks.
On my very last walk with Fernando, that Friday, we were not even a block from the house when I noticed a hawk in the crotch of a paloverde tree. It had a mouse in its talons. “Stop,” I said to Fernando. And the hawk flew straight toward us, so close we could feel the air from its wings.
When we saw the hawk in the mesquite tree on Sunday, I said, “I don’t think you’re going to the gray place. I think you’re going wherever your mother is.”
That night we had to sit Fernando in a dining-room chair on top of a throw rug and then, pushing the chair and pulling the rug, slide him from the living room to the bedroom. We called it a “Mexican wheelchair.” As Fernando and I got into bed, he said, “I am not going to die tonight.”
© Frank Lavelle
In the hallway at work, Susan told me that she and her husband had gotten to talk about everything before the end, and for that she was grateful. I told her I felt gratitude, too: for a good death, for forty years, for my children and grandchildren. In the sixteen months since Fernando’s death, I had been cultivating gratitude. But, standing there, I wondered if he and I had talked about everything. There was so much that had passed unspoken between us. Sometimes I’d thought I just knew what he wanted, but what if I’d been wrong? This worried me, now that I couldn’t ask him. What if I hadn’t understood him, or he hadn’t understood me?
I said to Susan, “I feel like we are not yet untangled.”
When Kathryn and I went to San Xavier Mission to light a candle in Fernando’s memory, I started to pray for his spirit to be free, and I imagined a hawk soaring. But then, in my prayer, I said, No. I am not ready for his spirit to be released. I still need him near me.
That’s when I understood that I hadn’t known what I was saying on the night before he died, when I’d told him, “I love you, Fernando, but I let you go.” I still don’t know what that meant. You can let the body go, because you have no choice, but the body isn’t everything.
Maybe that’s why we say, “I lost my husband.” My dreams, right after Fernando died, were always of losing him: I was on a train trying to get to him, but I didn’t know where he was, and my cellphone wouldn’t work. I wasn’t sad, only bewildered. I was sure I would eventually find him. Then one morning I dreamed we were making love, and he got up before I came, and I said, Come back here. I’m not finished. But he wanted to put the menudo on the stove and start the coffee. Come back here, I said again, suddenly angry. I heard him rattling the pots in the kitchen. I am so mad at you, I yelled, I could stab you in the heart!
In one dream he was sitting across the room from me, at the foot of the bed. Beth, he said, I had been very sick for eight years.
When I woke up, I knew it was true. The last time he’d undergone a treatment for hepatitis C, in 2004, the doctors had taken him off the drug, because it wasn’t working. He had seemed tired after that round of treatments. He had never fully recovered. And then I remembered: when my mother had died in 2006, I’d said, “No one else gets to die for at least six years.” Why had I said that?
Recently I dreamed Fernando was sick, and for some reason I was moving him from hotel to hotel, as if I didn’t want him to be found. When I finally got him into a room and lay down on the bed next to him, he seemed frail. We were stretched out, facing each other. I could feel his breath on my face. We kissed, our lips touching quickly, as if there wasn’t much time. And then I handcuffed my wrist to his so they couldn’t take him.
After we went to San Xavier, I confessed to Kathryn that I hadn’t been able to pray for Fernando’s spirit to be free. “I’m too selfish,” I said. She said she hadn’t prayed to God at all; she’d prayed to her dad. “Was that wrong?” she asked. I said that if she believed God is in all of us, then, when she prayed to her dad, she was praying to God.
One night, shortly after Fernando died, Kathryn and I were sleeping together. Just as I was falling asleep, she asked if I had touched her forehead. She’d felt someone touch her there, the way her dad would have done if he were tucking her in. I told her it wasn’t me. It must have been him. And I rolled over and felt sorry for myself that he hadn’t visited me. I closed my eyes, and in a vision — not a dream — I saw my mother standing in a dark place, holding a lantern in one hand and opening a door with the other. Through the door I could see light, and I understood that he had gone there, to the light place. My mother was letting me know.
On Monday Fernando stayed in bed all day. He didn’t go to the living room. So if I remember something that happened in the living room, then I know it was either Saturday or Sunday. If the memory takes place in the bedroom, then I know it was Monday. That morning the hospice nurse came, and I signed the DNR, and she explained the use of the morphine and the sedative and what to look for to tell whether death was near. Then Kathryn, Michael, and I all went back to the bedroom with the nurse, and she asked if we had any scissors. I got a pair, and we cut Fernando out of his pajamas and put a hospital gown on him. “I’m cold,” he said. “I can’t feel my legs.” I asked if he was afraid, and he said no.
Outside the bedroom, the hospice nurse told Michael it could still be days — weeks, even. I started to panic then. What if Kathryn and I couldn’t take care of him by ourselves? Wasn’t there a bed for him in the hospice? No, the hospice was evidently a service, not a place to which he could be taken. And if we took him to the hospital, doctors would prolong the dying process. Michael and my brother-in-law Bernie had been helping us move Fernando, but they couldn’t stay. “We can’t move him by ourselves,” I told the nurse. And she said sometimes an eighty-five-year-old woman has to take care of her dying husband by herself. “How does she do that?” I asked. The hospice nurse said she didn’t know.
At one point that afternoon I decided to lie down next to Fernando. I realized it might be the last time I would lie in bed with him. It was possible he wouldn’t make it through the night. I was lying on my side, my hand on his arm. Tears were sliding over the bridge of my nose and into my ear, which reminded me of being a little girl. The sun was streaming in through the window, and I was listening to him breathe. I could hear other people in the house, family members, and I thought, I’m just going to lie here and pretend I’m asleep. I’m not going to share him with anyone today. They can come in and say what they want, but I’m going to stay here.
I wanted to scoot even closer to him and throw my leg over his legs and my arm over his chest and put my head on his shoulder, which was how I always fell asleep. But I was lying on the wrong side of him, and he was so swollen with fluids I was afraid I would hurt him.
Yesterday morning I looked up from an article at the breakfast table and wished I could read it to Fernando. What I miss most is his physical presence: touching him, feeling him touch me, kissing, sex — we always had great sex. But I also miss our conversations, our walks, those long Sunday-morning discussions we used to have about fate or politics or something we’d read. He was a much faster reader than I was. He’d say, “Hurry up and read that. I want to talk with you about it.” Such a pain in the butt. Is there something wrong with me that I don’t seem as bereft as some widows, that I’m handling it so well? That’s what everyone says: “You are handling it so well.” I know he is dead. I just can’t believe we will be separated forever. Whoever wrote, “Till death do us part,” didn’t know what he was talking about.
I read a few years ago that a mother carries her children’s genes. We all know the child carries the mother’s genes, but when mothers are tested, their blood also contains their children’s genes. And the second child carries some of the first child’s genes, and so on. All of this genetic material is circulated through the amniotic fluid in the mother. And so Fernando’s genes are inside of me, because I carried both his children. (Actually three, since there was one miscarriage.) When I say, “I feel as if he is still alive inside me,” maybe it’s because he is still with me, not only in memory or in spirit, but literally in my blood and in my cells.
Poet Angie Estes writes, “In paradise, / Dante says, we will have only a memory / of having had a memory.” As the spirits’ memories of this world dissipate, as their ties to us lessen, as their visitations become fewer and farther between, is this when our grief starts to wane? What will still bind us if the grief goes? Are we afraid to stop grieving, because it means we’ve stopped loving?
Another poet, Aleda Shirley, writes, “my dead / have their own dead to find & so must disperse.”
As I write this, Fernando’s father is dying in an ICU.
When Fernando’s mother died, she waited until everyone had left the house except for his father, and then she said, “Something passed through me,” and she closed her eyes and took a few breaths and died. I believed Fernando was capable of orchestrating his exit this way. He would go when he was ready.
Fernando died on Monday night. Before he did, he turned in bed and with great effort said, “Beth. I have a place.” And that’s when I asked him to wait for me. I said it might be years, but it wouldn’t seem so long to him. I told him I was happy he had a place and wouldn’t go to the gray place. Both our children were in the room, so he could see all of us. Sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t give them each time to be alone with him, but it felt right for the four of us to be together. I sang him some of the songs I used to sing to the kids when I was putting them to bed. I remember Kathryn putting her hand on my back, and Michael behind her, as if they were giving me their strength so that I could sing without my voice breaking.
I remember putting Fernando’s hand over my heart, and my hand over his. I remember him raising his arms so he could breathe. I remember his eyes. He had been asleep all day, but now he was fully awake, and in his gaze I saw all his love, all his faith, everything he wanted to say but couldn’t. I felt a part of me rush out to him, as if to comfort him, or to go with him. He looked away. I could see that it was hard for him. When he’d told me I had to let him go, I hadn’t realized that he’d been trying to let us go, too.
My favorite essays in The Sun tend to be about married couples. I am twenty-four and dream of getting married someday, and these essays either give me hope, as Beth Alvarado’s “Stars and Moons and Comets” [December 2014] did, or provide fodder for my deepest fears, the way Lauren Slater’s “Bloodlines” has. I watched my mother go through two divorces: the first from my father, who came out of the closet in his late thirties, and the second from my alcoholic stepfather. I finally have the courage to say that I was emotionally abused in past relationships. I have also had partners, even ones who abused me, show me kindness and love.
I’m currently dating someone who seems like a good man. We’re still getting to know each other, but every time I’m with him, I wonder if he’s the one. I just hope I can be as brave as the married people who write for The Sun.
In ten months I will marry my partner, lover, and best friend of more than six years. Being engaged to him has been one of the happiest times of my life, but now that we are approaching marriage, I find myself worrying: What if he gets cancer? What if he dies in a car accident? What if I don’t have a chance to say goodbye?
Marriage is a dramatic act of faith. How do you love another person completely and without hesitation, knowing that you could lose him or her at any moment? I am not practiced in letting go, and this sense of groundlessness feels strange to me. I need to become more familiar with it.
Beth Alvarado’s essay “Stars and Moons and Comets” [December 2014] left me in tears. It is a beautiful example of how we can love fully in this short life so full of uncertainty. I hope to be as open-hearted and brave as Alvarado if I am ever faced with losing my husband. Until then, I will try to love him well every day.
A few weeks ago I woke up alone in my house on Christmas morning for the first time in my life. My children are grown, and my husband, Bryan, died from liver cancer on December 12, 2013. I sat down with my coffee and the December 2014 issue of The Sun, hoping to find a connection.
What I found was Beth Alvarado’s essay “Stars and Moons and Comets.” She, too, had lost her husband to liver cancer in 2013, and reading about her experience helped me feel a much-needed bond. When I finished, I was weeping, not only from sorrow but from a newfound feeling of being part of the web of humanity. I planted Bryan’s favorite wildflower that day in his memory, enriching the soil around the seeds with his ashes.