Coming Up For Air

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 

41 thoughts on “Coming Up For Air”

  1. Trish, I was wondering when this post would come but I certainly hoped it wouldn’t come (not that I hoped you didn’t write it but that you would miraculously have no reason to). I am very sorry for your loss. I wish there was something I could say that sounds less hollow and more sincere. You are such a beautiful writer that your turns of phrase make my breath catch in my throat with emotion and wonderment. ❤️


    1. Thank you Laura. It means a lot to me that my words can move people. I was almost afraid to share this for fear that it was “too much.” But we need to see death, to see grief, to not hide.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a tender sharing of your husband’s last minutes. I hope you take care of yourself as well as you cared for him. I was with my husband when he breathes his last and your words brought back all those memories. I started my blog eight years ago thinking it would be about dealing with grief but quickly discovered that the best way to deal with grief, other than feeling it, was to realize that life goes on and that good things can come from even the worst of things. I think you’ve already discovered that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Everything is an opportunity for growth. I learned so much in this process — about myself, about death and dying, about my Dan, about how taboo all of this is. In this pandemic time, there are so many people grieving, and as a society we don’t talk about it enough or appropriately. Life does go on. And can be richer for the experience of being present with death.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love and grief are inseparable. You have borne your part well. You and Dan are in our prayers. Be well.


  4. Dear Trish,

    I am so sorry to hear that Dan is gone. My heart goes out to you. A very close friend’s husband is in final weeks of hospice right now, and from our frequent conversations, I am aware what an awful, wrenching time the transition out of this life can be, both for those leaving and for those left behind. Please take good care of yourself. If there’s any way that I can be of help, please let me know. When you’ve resurfaced, Teddy and I would be happy to see you and Dev.

    Love, Mindy

    Mindy Lewis Life Inside: A Memoir Dirt: The Quirks, Habits & Passions of Keeping House A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist



  5. Beautifully written. We can all only hope that people will remember us the way you remember Dan. I wish I had known him. But I kind of feel like I do by the way you have written about him.


  6. Ah, my eyes fill with empathetic tears. My own breath is tight. My heart space contracts and expands to let in your grief, your love, the journey on the grief train pulling up to fetch you at any moment of the day or night for a ride you did not know you scheduled. But the train knows and leaves with you, carries you to the next station, and deposits you to find your way home again and again. Love and Light abides even as we grieve.


  7. This is a tender, loving expression of how we deal with the last moments with a loved one (when we have that opportunity). My condolences on the loss of your dear life companion. I know you will be processing this – well, forever – but life will go on. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this experience.


  8. I pressed the “like” button because they do not have a condolence button. But obviously I do not like the sad news. I do like the beautiful way you write and how you told this part of your story. I really missed seeing your posts but knew the reason would likely involve bad news. From a distance it appears you and Dan were both fortunate to have found each other. All my best to you and your family.


  9. I’m so sorry for your loss. I love the way you described the Universe holding you as it is him. May it continue to do that and you feel all the presence of everyone you touch holding space for you and Dan as well.


  10. This is so beautiful, Trish. Having been present at my mother’s death and the decline leading to it, your words brought back—with tenderness, now—that time. It’s bittersweet, the death of one who struggled to live and the return to a more peaceful life of those left living. I am always glad for words that take me back to her. Thank you. And blessings as you tiptoe toward whatever your life will be next. Gretchen


  11. “Maybe death
    isn’t darkness, after all,
    but so much light
    wrapping itself around us …”

    -Mary Oliver

    I appreciate the heart-sharing you have done. You have articulated well the most precious of things. Thank you. Blessings *


  12. I’m so, so sorry for your loss, your beloved Dan.

    The honesty of your prose while facing unbearable loss and grief is humbling, touching, inspiring. I cannot imagine the journey you’ve been on, but I appreciate that you’ve allowed me this small window into your experience.

    May you eventually find peace and a place where your memories of Dan bring nothing but smiles.


  13. Sending love to you and yours during your time of grief and transition. Positive energy as you find the strength to move ahead, one day at a time.


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