It’s been a year and I still cannot answer that question. I asked it many times. Every time I heard about someone in my position- losing someone they loved.
How, I wondered, how do you go to bed in the same bed and wake up in a room that is thick with their dreams, open the closet and see their clothes, their dirty socks on the floor, their hair on your pillow…. How do you go to bed and wake up without them?
The night before he died we slept peacefully in bed together. He was quiet. No vomiting. When I woke up it was dawn and he was sitting up at the edge of the bed. It was hard for him to walk, so we put him in a wheelchair and took him around the house. A tour. He was conversing gently now and then. Not to us, but to them…the others he could see. The nurse came and while he was sitting, looking out at the garden and the gentle rain, she told me that he was going.
It was time.
After she left we settled him on the sofa and I went into the kitchen and tried to make some toast. A thin arrow of pain shot through my heart and I lost all breath. A friend helped me to the floor and I sat in a L shape, like a doll. Looked at my shaking knees. In my head all I could see was a cheesy Hallmark image of a cupid piercing a heart with an arrow. The arrow had no tip or tail- just a long, thin arrow straight through from front to back. That question I can answer. What is it like when your heart breaks?
The day passed. People, tea, laughter, light rain. Friends, food. In the afternoon a friend, Treva, had organized a treatment- a blessing, a letting go. I felt him relax in my arms. Almost. You see, he didn’t want to go. He wanted to live. And sometimes, when I say that, people ask, ‘Well, doesn’t everybody?’ and the answer is “No.” Some people are ready, they want it, embrace it. But he wanted us. Me. The kids, the desert, more food, more travel, more friends, more years to do everything in his head- which was a rabbit warren of ideas. Maybe less work…maybe more...
That evening, surrounded by friends, the firelight and candles, he died in my arms. Curled up on the sofa together, my hand on his face, the other on his heart. It was the most beautiful moment in my life. Such searing love and pain combined. When I looked up the room was weeping, the skies were weeping but my eyes were dry.
When he had asked me to marry him - in a pizza parlour in Dublin - he didn’t say “Will you marry me?” He told me he never wanted to spend a day alive without me. He wanted me by his side till the day he died. I interpreted that as a proposal and accepted.
I accepted. And we were together, just like planned.
But still, the question I cannot answer is how do you go to bed that night? Without them?
After he died we moved his body to the bedroom. Some comedy ensued. In my widow grief moment I thought we could lay him out on the dining room table. Way too Irish wake for my friends who were helping me carry him. Instead we lay him in bed and covered him. I sat by his body. After the fire department, and the police, the coroner. They all gave a date and time of death, so in the end his death straddled Pi…some infinite number around 3.14. I followed him to the street and into the coroner’s van. Good bye good bye good bye on the red street slick with rain.
And then? I went to bed. JB stayed, slept curled up on the little sofa because Robert the dog wanted to lie stretched across the sofa where his master had passed. Arum slept in our bed, in the pool of warmth where William had lain. Roibhilin, brave little soul, slept in his own bed with his tears. And me? I don’t remember.
When someone you love dies, you will only ever see them again as a memory, a dream. Perhaps a visitation. A sign. But the line of reality is broken. And, because we were together for nearly 25 years- the last half of my life now also seems like a dream. And the last year? I don’t know. I did something. Moved forward. Did something else. Slept. Ate. Had a love affair with Netflix…. got here.
What I am now learning to accept, is that if that was his story, if that was his arc…how lucky I was to have spent it with him. This glorious, irascible, maddening, brilliant, noisy, loving creature that graced us with his presence on earth and gave me undying love. I carry him in front of my heart like a fragile egg.
Asvadz Hokin Lousavore my angel. I love you back.
I’d never though about a shroud until March 2018.
We’d had the conversation a year earlier, with the diagnosis. Stage four adenocarcinoma of unknown origin. We fought it with everything we had and kicked it to the kerb. We named it Figge and I talked to it - told it I loved it, that I knew it was a living thing looking for a place to thrive, but that the two of them could not live in the same body- they both would die. I told Figge to swim free, out into the ocean, the universe, unharmful to anyone, unharmed itself. It worked. He became healthy again. Put on weight. Was rogueishly, dashingly handsome. With all the supplements and organic foods and sleep and diet and acupuncture, chemo, immunotherapy and, and, and… we were winning.
And then suddenly we were not.
When it attacked the second time it came like a tsunami. As if Figge said, “OK you’ve had your brief respite, your honeymoon, your chill and Netflix afternoons, your cozy naps and afternoon strolls and delicious meals, now I’m gonna bitch slap you back into hell on earth.”
The details of every day are sharp in my mind. I cannot share without being graphic; suffice to say he did not eat a single thing after Christmas lunch until the day he died. Eleven weeks. He vomited every single hour of every single day except his last. That day he was calm. Peaceful. But I am ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to that early conversation, a year before.
“I want to be buried with you.”
“Well, me too, but that may take some time…”
“Just take me with you.”
“We’ll have to cremate you then and I’ll keep your remains until we can be buried together when the time comes.”
“In the Armenian cemetery in no man’s land in Cyprus…”
“Wherever you are…”
“And don’t waste any money on a fucking coffin, just to burn it.”
And that was it.
The day before he died I spoke to lovely Rachel North, his friend and colleague who, like many friends had moved in over the last days and taken over the washing, the caring, the cleaning, the kids, the dog walks, the phone calls while I… while I… while I, what? While I helped him die peacefully in my arms surrounded by friends and rain and music and soft candlelight and a bereft dog at his feet. And lovely Rachel called and found a mortuary in Los Angeles who fit my brief.
Simple. Caring. Some place that would allow us to witness the cremation because that’s what we wanted, and in the USA they usually take off the body and cremate it and send you the remains and we came from England and Cyprus and Africa and Armenia and all over, where we like to witness that moment.
I said no embalming. His poor body had endured so much, I wanted it left natural. Peaceful. They agreed. I said no coffin. I would bring a shroud. They agreed.
At first I did not want to see his body. He was gone, after all, and what was left was such a shattered, ruined shell. But then we had to wait until everyone could gather from different parts of the world to say goodbye. It took a while. I began to feel the need to tell his body I had not forgotten him, out in Van Nuys in a refrigerated locker in a mortuary, so I called them.
Of course I could come. They would prepare him for viewing and I could say goodbye when I dropped off the shroud.
Two darlings came with me to buy the cloth. Marianne Jean Baptiste and Akure Wall. I name them here because they are angels. We went downtown to Michael Levine’s. I knew what I needed. Ten yards of cloth. I knew what he’d want. Dark blue, indigo linen. We found it immediately. A whole bolt of cloth is twelve yards. I took the whole bolt and another piece- a beautiful dyed mudcloth in indigo and cream; thick woven blanketing. I stood and wept as I chose it, my angels by my side. They sidestepped me at the cash register and paid from their own pockets. We went for lunch. I picked at a some leaves, drank strong coffee.
At home, I unwound the whole bolt and infused it with frankincense and let is rest. I cut two yards from it to make a dress I could wear later.
The ladies at the mortuary sent me a surprise email. Instead of just viewing him and dropping off the shroud, would I like to come and wrap him myself? Yes! Could I bring a friend? Of course.
Akure and I drove out to the valley. I went in to see him alone. Tiny. A broken bird, it’s wings clipped. It was no longer him. I was happy I saw him. He was truly gone.
Then, four of us. Two on each side. We lifted his limbs gently, his lower half, white, pure skin like a baby’s. The upper half discoloured by cancer and chemo and intravenous infusions. I wanted him to look noble, graceful. My warrior. He’d fought so hard- his last breath an inhale, a sudden white light sparking and searing from his eyes at the final second. We covered his face, went down the length of his body underneath and back up again. Another piece cut and wrapped around him from the feet up. The mudcloth would cover him later, when people came.
He was beautiful again. Indigo linen, fit for a king. I was happy. Not happy, cathartic. Afterwards I ate a huge burger- probably my first full meal in months. Akure and Marianne exchanged phone calls - they'd been clucking around me with food for days, sliding plates under my nose. They approved.
I took the two yards I’d kept and made not a dress, but a pair of swingy palazzo pants I could wear a lot. That and a wrap top. I wore it to our son’s graduation, the frankincense mingling with my scent. People say "He is with you." "He's watching you." I don't know. Apart from one time, two weeks after he died, I have not seen him.
I was lying down, sleeping off a horrible headache, facing his side of the bed. He walked in, lay down next to me, his face inches from mine, glowing with health. At first I gasped. "You look so healthy! So beautiful!" His face was full, young, handsome. His eyes bright blue like a summer sky. I panicked. "Did we fill you up with too much fluid. Did we overdo the TPN?" He gave me an expression, as if he were face palming, like he was saying "No, stoopid! Think again." I panicked even more. If he was healthy it meant I would have to watch that horrible decline again. "I can't do it," I said. "It broke my heart." He looked sad, turned his head into the pillow and closed his eyes. I woke up with a start. Since then, not a word.
I think his soul is sleeping. After the way he fought, I'm not surprised. I'm waiting. Patiently. Maybe he'll come. I dunno. I do know that I now fit his jeans and we share a shroud.
I have no problem writing. It's stopping I find hard. And editing? Ouf! Again and again with the pages until I bore myself with my own words. So... maybe a blog where I just drink my coffee and go howzat then?