Note to Readers: The following is a deeply emotional post and may be difficult for some to read.
Today, Dec. 7, 2015, is the fifth anniversary of the day we lost Jim’s battle with pancreatic cancer. Ironically, it was a battle we didn’t know we were fighting. We knew we were in a very serious conflict with something in his body, but we didn’t know it was a mortal battle, nor did we know the name of the enemy until the morning of the day he died.
It was a Tuesday morning. I had not slept well, which had been the pattern since I’d had to take Jim to the emergency room from our Thanksgiving table about 10 days before. I called the nurse’s station, which also was my habit, wondering how Jim’s night was going. It was 4 a.m. The male nurse in critical care said they were keeping Jim comfortable, that he had been bathed, and that he seemed to be holding his own. Although he did not speak to Jim’s case specifically, the nurse said he had seen some pretty sick folks come out of worse condition. That gave me hope.
Jim was being treated for acute pancreatitis. The intention was to get him stable enough to transfer him to Portland where there were some pancreatitis specialists.
Jim could no longer speak, nor could he eat or drink; he was getting liquid nourishment and fluids intravenously. He could not walk; and toxins accumulating in his brain were causing him to be agitated, so he was sedated. Biopsies to that point had been inconclusive and we were awaiting a new set of biopsy results.
Encouraged by my 4 a.m. conversation, I did not hurry to the hospital in the morning. I typically went early in the morning and stayed all day, only running home long enough to let the dogs outside. I was on my way there shortly after 9 a.m. when the nurse’s station called me. Was I on my way? The doctors wanted to talk to me.
An eerie feeling swept over me, my stomach suddenly felt ill and I knew in the depth of my soul we had turned onto a dark path. I felt bereft, without really having cause yet. I know the exact spot where I was when my phone rang. I pass through that spot multiple times a day now, and I still feel that initial pang of loss each time.
At 9:30 a.m., I found myself listening to a team of doctors deliver the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It was advanced and had spread to other organs, which were beginning to shut down. I was told Jim had maybe 24-48 hours left to live.
Jim was conscious in a way he hadn’t been for a couple of days. By sheer will, he forced himself to become lucid enough to face his verdict. He’d refused his sedation because he was waiting for me. The doctors left to me the task of telling Jim his fate. For better or for worse.
I looked deep into Jim’s eyes, and feeling like I was dying by the minute myself, I told him we had lost and that he didn’t have much longer. I told him the enemy’s name and that I was going to have the nurses remove all tubes and needles that were not dealing with his pain. He had hated all of the trappings associated with critical illness.
He looked anxious at first but I kissed him and touched his face in a way that was so familiar to him that it calmed him immediately, and I promised him I would stay beside him and see him home. He trusted me to make his decisions. He settled into the news. He could not speak. He could not tell me in words what was in his heart, but I didn’t need them. My heart heard his, loud and clear. I looked into the eyes of my soulmate and we knew each other’s truths. He would love me forever, and I him. That was all that mattered in the end. Love never dies. God promised.
I asked a nurse to call Jim’s daughter, and we delayed strong medicines until he could see her. I made a few other calls. Family and friends gathered in his room. Some came and went. The Palliative Care folks put a pink quartz heart in each of Jim’s hands: one for me and one for his daughter. Our minister came and prayed with us. His daughter and I told Jim that he could stop fighting. It would be OK. We would be OK. And we stood vigil, as organs shut down, and life quietly slipped away
A few minutes before 3 p.m., I felt a kind of knowledge, then peace, and knew he was gone. Everyone else eventually cleared out and I was alone in the room with Jim’s body. I am not sure what happened between when I felt his soul leave and when we were alone. The nurse, whose name was Julie, stayed with me.
I suddenly feared I had not done enough to meet Jim’s wishes. He hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital, let alone stay there. He had wanted to come home, but we had no time to get the elements in place so he could do that. Hospice would not kick in until it was official that he was terminally ill. It is my one regret. But Nurse Julie reassured me I had done all that could be done, and there could have been no more. We weren’t given time.
I clutched the little pink quartz heart that still held the warmth of Jim’s life, wishing with all of my heart that I could flow healing into that body and Jim would be back to share my earthly time with me. Healthy and vibrant.
There are gaps for me in the last 10 days of Jim’s life, so I assume I have blocked details from my memory. But little pieces keep trickling out; fragments that one day will make a whole picture. Family members and friends who would come sit with me. Hours of sitting in the dark because the light bothered Jim’s eyes. Periodic doctors’ visits. Hospital smells. Professionally evasive answers to my pointed questions. Ministers in and out. Palliative Care. Devoted and caring nurses. Hours that all blended together and culminated in that horrific moment from which there was no turning back.
Time doesn’t heal; it gives you the benefit and wisdom of distance. It gives the mind a chance to find a way to reconcile events and cope with its new reality.
My memories of the first few days after Jim’s death are even more sparse, but I do remember sleeping with that pink quartz heart clutched in my hand every night, a ritual I maintained for nearly three years. It still lives under his pillow on our bed, and I check every night to make sure it’s there. It helps me cope.