As I slowly faded away on the couch with the T.V. blurring to white noise and Aurora’s, our 13-year-old Maltese, furry back arched against my leg, Sue whispered softly into my ear, “Why don’t you go up, babe.” I gradually opened my eyes but in the haze I didn’t see her. For a brief moment I was confused. So I dragged myself up the stairs—Aurora following right behind—and slid into bed. Sue would repeat those words almost every night as she spot-checked me to see if I was still awake. She, on the other hand, would stay up for a few more hours channel surfing and then finally retire after I was already asleep. Tonight was different though. Because Sue, my wife of 33 years, died last September—one year ago at the young age of 58.
On the last Friday of August 2016, Sue woke me up at 4 a.m. bent over in pain. As I raced to the ER challenging the police force in every town to go ahead, try and catch me ’cause I’m not stopping, I prayed to God that this was nothing, just another minor setback in a decade filled with chemo and radiation. After being admitted to the cancer center, the first few days looked very promising but midweek everything went south and Sue was brought to the ICU with only a few days left to her life. And to add more heartbreak to a situation that was painful enough, the wedding of our oldest daughter, Kara, was exactly one week away.
Kara and her mom had spent the past year meticulously planning every detail of her wedding, handcrafting table decorations, escort cards, posters and photographs to create a unique and personal aesthetic that only her mom could dream up. But now Kara was filled with despair; she had to accept the reality that her mom would not be attending the wedding.
So on Friday, September 2, one week after Sue was admitted to the hospital, family members and friends squeezed into her room, many of them spilling out into the hallways of the cancer center. Someone, and I’m not sure who, thought it would be a great idea to hold an impromptu bedside wedding. One of Sue’s six sisters drove an hour to pick up Kara’s wedding gown in New Jersey, while another sister found a nearby liquor store to buy a case of champagne. An uncle of the groom walked in with a cooler generously stocked with snacks and drinks. The entire nursing staff at the cancer center created a runner out of bed sheets that serpentined its way through the hallways and then dotted them with rose petals. They also bought many floral arrangements for decorations. As one of the nurses brought out wine glasses for the champagne, the groom was nervously swapping shirts with one of Sue’s nephews.
A few hours later the bride donned white. The groom’s mom and all of the bridesmaids were already there; the only thing missing was a priest to officiate the ceremony. Unable to find one, someone finally located a justice of the peace nearby, who rushed to the hospital within 30 minutes. Shouts of “Come to the wedding” rang out throughout the cancer center as the nurses invited colleagues and patients. Strains of “The Bridal Chorus” filled the air like a heavy veil as the procession began with the bridesmaids followed by me, the father of the bride, escorting his daughter down the hallway and into her mother’s room where at the foot of her bed Kara’s hubby-to-be, Matt, anxiously waited with the justice of the peace. It was a bittersweet moment, and as I watched the young couple exchanging vows, my hand gently cradled the hand of my wife, unconscious at this time. The bride and groom kissed, and champagne was poured as tears of joy and sadness filled the room, my heart flooded with grief.
After everyone left, I asked the nurse if she could slide Sue over a bit so I could lie down next to her during the night. By this time I had been up for 72 hours, adrenaline still pushing through my veins, and I knew sleep wouldn’t come easy. I closed my eyes for what seemed like a second and was jarred out of my sleep. When I opened them it was now four o’clock in the morning. I quietly talked to Sue while stroking her hair for quite some time but then something happened that rocked me out of my sleepiness. She opened her eyes. And it startled me. She had been unconscious for a few days now, and no one was expecting her to ever wake up. Her hazel eyes were staring a hole right through me, and I instinctively uttered the first thing that came into my head. “It’s okay, babe. You can let go now.” In the space of a minute, her breathing slowed and eventually stopped. She was gone.
I think about that night almost every day. It haunts me at times. I knew it was Sue who jolted me out of my sleep. She wanted my attention and she got it. And when she opened her eyes, I was mesmerized and stared deeply into hers. I keep asking myself, Why did I let her go so quickly? Why didn’t I talk to her, ask if she could hear me or how she was feeling? I guess my instincts took over at that point. Sue looked to me for permission. Permission to let go. It was a powerful moment filled with grace. I was there at the exact moment she took her last breath, and I will never forget it.
They say when you die your life passes before your eyes. Well, I don’t
know if that’s true but when Sue took her last breath our life together rushed through me like a wild river. Every moment was resurrected and sharply focused. Words of affection, of regret. The good, the bad and the ugly. It was all there.
Losing someone you’ve been attached to for over three decades is like losing a limb. I can only imagine what an amputee feels like but this phantom pain that gnaws at me all day and night has got to be pretty close. Ours was an even deeper connection seasoned with years of writing, recording and performing music. When she zigged, I zagged, and that balance has been rocked by a seismic shift. There are so many automatic reflexes that I can’t seem to quell. Like when something interesting happens during the day, my first thought is, “I can’t wait to tell Sue.” Or when my kids update me on their lives, I want to immediately share it with their mom. I often reach for my cell phone to text her, only to remember there’s no one else on the other end of the line. And that void, that nothingness that exists out there, triggered an extremely profound and overwhelming feeling in me after she died—the fact that no one is expecting me.
When I was traveling in Copenhagen last year on business, I felt as if I was out in space, untethered to anything or anyone. Because my life back home was suddenly blown apart, it really didn’t matter if I took the return flight back, did it? I could have stayed in Denmark and started a new life. No one was expecting me. Okay, so I still had two daughters, my mom and many close friends, but I have to admit I never felt so adrift and alone in my life. A broken man, crippled inside.
There’s a secret language that partners possess that only they know. A kind of shorthand distilled from years of living together, breathing the same air. Jokes, nicknames, idioms, movie references—all that stuff that only we knew. And now I’m the keeper of all those once shared experiences, and I’ve got to say it’s a lot of responsibility tending to all that history. Because I’ve lost my one and only witness, over time, I’ve started to question everything. I began keeping a journal to capture my daily activities and thoughts so I could be certain they really happened.
And how much I miss the physical pleasures—the caress, the hug, the kiss and especially having my back scratched. The absence of the tender physical touch from another human being has lately made me feel empty and lifeless. I dearly ache for those days when I would come home from work and Sue would hug me for what seemed like forever. She would never let go first, and I loved that.
It’s another lonely old night sitting on the couch with Aurora stretched out against my leg. As I start to fade into the twilight of sleep, I wait in hope to hear Sue whisper in my ear, “Why don’t you go up, babe.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR-----------------
Glenn John Arnowitz is a musical and visual artist, writer, actor, speaker and painter who is always looking for new ways to scratch that insatiable creative itch. His artistic journey began with his first John Gnagy Art Kit, a subscription to MAD magazine and seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and continued along a twisted path through music, design, theatre and writing. Glenn has contributed articles to various design publications and blogs and is a frequent presenter at design conferences. As a musician, he has spent the past four decades performing in clubs, festivals, concert halls, on radio and T.V. including MTV, NPR and Good Morning America. He has produced music for Showtime, The Movie Channel, PBS, A&E and his compositions have been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles. www.bigcow.me