I open the box, a small one, about eight inches square. The return address surprises me; I do not remember having ordered its contents. Inside are the usual plastic mini airbags, meant to cushion the package contents. As I pop them, a habit acquired during the year of pandemic Amazon deliveries of all sorts of goods that I would normally purchase at a real store, I can’t help but smile. It seems I can’t escape from the hissing sound of oxygen escaping.
The package contains two trach ties made of soft fabric and Velcro meant to hold in place the tube in my husband’s neck that allowed him to breathe, to live for six more weeks after his third emergency room visit in as many months. I throw them in the trash. They have arrived too late.
The oxygen concentrator that occupied our living room just feet away from Dan as he lay on the couch has been returned to the medical supply company. I can still hear its rhythmic purr as it sucked room air in and exhaled pure oxygen through tubing attached to a nasal cannula on Dan’s face. It was a reassuring sound, unlike the raucous growl of the suction machine used to clear phlegm from his airway. That’s gone too, picked up by a different company.
You see, one week ago today my husband Dan, my dear sweet Dan, neither purred nor growled. Instead he made the same popping noises as these bits of packaging, these allegedly biodegradable air sacs, as I pierce them with scissors.
I had been warned about the way that at death’s door he would gasp for air despite the trach, despite the oxygen concentrator, despite my willing with all of my being and he with all of his that his lungs would continue to work, that his heart would continue to beat. In just a few short minutes the pulse oximeter on his left index finger flashed neon green in a steady descent: 89, 84, 73, 77, 62, 50. Then zeroes. Nothing but zeroes.
In those last minutes I do not know where his mind was, what he could hear, how he felt. In a calm voice I told him how much I loved him, reassured him that he had been a wonderful husband, brother, stepfather, papa Dan, friend. I reminded him that he was a creative, kind, loyal and brave soul whose life and work had mattered. I told him not to be afraid. I told him I would be alright. It was all true, except maybe that last bit.
No, even that last bit. I will be alright, in my own way, in my own time. The universe is holding me as it is him. I am being lovingly tended to by family, friends and the four-leggeds who share this home with me. The cats stood vigil by his side until the undertaker arrived. The dog curled up on Dan’s sneakers when he returned home after his six-week exile.
Now it is time to be alone. The round-the-clock nursing staff — no matter how solicitous– sometimes made me feel claustrophobic. The endless hospital and doctor visits, the hospice folks, the constant deliveries of supplies, drugs, equipment – done. So many strangers, when all I wished for was quiet time with Dan, back in the life we used to have before he went out of remission, before we had to be so strong, so public, our mundane private life becoming a case number.
Now it is time for loneliness. Can it be a penance for still being alive when Dan is not? I welcome it. As Joyce Carol Oates writes in her memoir A Widow’s Story, “… an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.” A small solace for the loss of my partner, of the future we thought we had, of my identity as a wife (now a widow). But a solace nonetheless.
Rest in peace and in power my love.
Daniel Collins Fish
January 8, 1950 – May 14, 2021