Thursday, September 05, 2013, 7:00 AM
A little over thirty-six years ago I woke up in bed alone like I did today. I puttered around the house alone like I did today. Got dressed and got in my car alone like I will do in four hours. And thirty-six years ago I drove to a restaurant which I will not do today.
Thirty-six years ago with much excitement I told the waitress and some guys sitting at the counter in that restaurant, “I’m getting married today!” I was eager for others to share my joy. I was happy beyond belief and could not keep my happiness a secret.
Turns out that happiness was understated and too restrained. The marriage I was about to enter on August 23, 1977, would become the best marriage on the planet. Vicki and I somehow put together our lives in a such way that it resulted in nearly non-stop bliss. Even allowing for a touch of exaggeration in my overly optimistic, selective, and hyperbolic memory, few would deny, Vicki was the best wife ever.
In four hours I will drive alone to church to attend Vicki’s funeral. She died four days ago. I will not be stopping at any restaurants. I will not be telling any waitresses that I’m bursting with joy. And I will not be looking forward to the day’s events like I did in August of ‘77.
Like our wedding day, I have little responsibilities. Fewer, in fact. My only task back then was to say “I do” and kiss the bride. Today all I have to do is show up. Thirty-six years ago Vicki and her team organized our wedding day in such a way that all she had to do was show up, look beautiful, say “I do,” and kiss the groom. Today a team of helpers and friends, including our five grown children, have organized her funeral in such a way that all Vicki has to do is let us honor her memory.
I looked forward to our wedding day for eight long months, the time between getting engaged and getting married. I’ve dreaded this day for six long years, the time between getting the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and attending her funeral. Unlike a marriage that begins on a definite date, I never knew when Vicki would take her last breath. We’ve had many close calls and I’ve said goodbye to her on many panicky occasions. As this wicked disease gradually destroyed her mind I experienced many mini faux funerals. She not only kept on breathing after each near death experience, she kept on smiling, humming, singing joyful noises, and jabbering her word salad. She handled this disease better than me.
When her organs started shutting down nine days ago I started a bedside vigil. I loved visiting her during her two years in the nursing home because I loved her. But as her breathing became more labored, her eyes became less focused, and her morphine injections increased I had to fight the urge to flee the horror of saying goodbye for the last time. I somehow overcame my gag reflex, keeping a garbage can close by in case my nausea turned to vomiting. I was determined to resist my death avoidance impulse.
I held her hand on our wedding day thirty-six years ago and during this disease told her over and over, “I will hold your hand till death do us part.” During our courtship she once told me in a poetic and romantic way, “I never knew what hands were for until I held yours in mine.”
When I had to run home to feed Zelda the cat I told our kitty, “If Vicki passes away while I’m here feeding you I will never forgive you.”
I spent Vicki’s last two nights in her room. My sleep was fitful, not only because nurses came in every four hours, not only because her oxygen machine made a racket, and not only because I set my phone alarm to wake me every ninety minutes to tell her I loved her and change the washcloth on her fevered brow, but because I loved hearing her snore. We haven’t shared a bedroom in over five years and hearing again the sound which at one time drove me crazy was now music to my ears. I wanted to cling to every last vestige of life she had.
On Sunday morning I left her room so aids and nurses could attend to her needs. I sat for a short while with a friend who brought me coffee and then returned alone to Vicki’s room. Her breathing was still labored only now intermittent. The space between breaths lengthened. I pulled my chair up close, raised her bed so she was at eye level. I grasped her bird-like hand and told her, “I never knew what hands were for until I held yours in mine.”
Her breathing became less frequent. Her feet were cold. I squeezed her hand tight. She took a breath. I told her for the millionth time, “I love you.” She took a breath. I told her for the millionth time how much her children love her. She took a breath. I told her, “I’ll be good.” She took a breath. I told her with deep sobs how much I’ve missed her for six years and how much I will miss her. She took a breath.
I looked to heaven and said, “Lord Jesus, into your hands I commit her spirit.”
She never took another breath.