Reading about loss, you learn that there is a different experience when the death is sudden and unexpected. While losing someone you love is a terrible thing no matter how it happens, there are opportunities to put things to rest when death is predicted. Not everyone takes advantage of that time to say what they need to say or make every minute count, but at least they have a chance. With sudden death, that chance is stolen. It is hard to imagine which is worse, having the time and not using it, or not having the time at all. Either way, what is left unsaid or undone weighs heavily on your heart.
Butch’s death was unexpected and yet not unexpected at all. It was his fourth heart attack.
The first time, he was having symptoms for several days but wrote them off to indigestion. When he told me, I wanted to call 911. He wanted to go on a bike ride with his best friend the next morning and then go to the doctor. I suggested that he call his best friend and tell him what was happening. His best friend told Butch to hang up and call 911. He called the help desk instead and they told him to hang up and call 911. He drove us to the hospital, where he told them, “My wife thinks I am having a heart attack.” He was in surgery in less than two hours and home in a couple of days.
A year later, he and his best friend rode their bikes to Folsom. On the way back, Butch mentioned that he was either having indigestion or problems with his heart. Rather than go to Kaiser Morse Avenue, where there was a hospital, he rode to Point West, where there are only medical offices. He went to the pharmacy and announced that he needed to renew his prescription for nitro glycerin because he might be having a heart attack. They happily renewed his prescription without offering to call 911. I arrived at home from work and, not finding him home from his ride as expected, I called to get his ETA. He casually announced that he was sitting in the hallway at Kaiser waiting to see if the nitro worked or if he just had indigestion. My commute home took me right past Point West but he had not called for a ride. I told him to have them call him an ambulance but he said he would ride his bike to Morse Avenue. I told him that if he left that building before I got there I would kill him myself. He threw his bike in the back of the pickup and drove us to Kaiser. He was in surgery in less than two hours and home in a couple of days.
The third attack was bad. He and his best friend rode to Davis. He announced that they should eat lunch because he was either having indigestion from being so hungry or he was having problems with his heart again. So, they ate a leisurely lunch. He went to the bathroom, came back out on the patio and dropped dead. Fortunately, they were next door to a fire station and across the street from a hospital. Because he was in such good shape, the rescue workers decided to keep shocking him well beyond the normal limit. After 13 shocks, he was resuscitated. He had quadruple bypass and was assured that he should be fine for 20 years, because his heart was very healthy, if you don’t count the terrible arteries, and those had now been replaced with veins from his leg.
All of that set the stage for his death. We counted on those 20 years. All of us, including Butch, hoped he had not used his nine lives. Even after the incident, we all clung to the belief that he could come back like before.
I left for our family vacation in Tahoe on a Thursday morning in January. He was already gone duck hunting when I woke up. His hunting buddy later reported that he looked terrible after dragging a cart full of duck decoys back to the truck. He apparently slept most of the time until I saw him in Tahoe Saturday night. We were in Tahoe to rest, so it did not seem unusual that he did a lot of that. He had been looking forward to snowshoeing with our son. They spent Tuesday afternoon snowshoeing. Only later did I learn that as they left the course, he told our son, “If your mom asks where my nitro glycerin is, it is at home on the dresser.” When our son scolded him that he had promised me he would carry it everywhere, he replied, “If it is my time to go, that’s just the way it is.” Oblivious to all of that, I packed most of the unused food in our plastic bins so he could load the truck that night for an early morning departure. He picked up the first bin, carried it down three flights of stairs, walked back up the stairs, picked up the second bin, and dropped on the balcony outside the door. It took the fire department over 10 minutes to get there. Despite our son bravely performing CPR the whole time and it taking only 3 shocks to get his heart going again, it was too late. He lost too much oxygen; his brain was gone.
As I replay the script for that week, I find myself thinking that if I had known any of that in time, I could have forced him to go to the doctor. I could have emailed his cardiologist. I could have checked to be sure he had his nitro before going snowshoeing. I could have checked to be sure he was really OK after their outing. I could have had our son load the car. I could have knocked on all the doors around us and found the RN who came out when the ambulance arrived. I could have done something. The rewriting of the script extends even farther backward over time, now including that I should have contacted his cardiologist rather than his GP with my list of concerns over the last six months. I should have known that our GP would be fooled by Butch’s jock lifestyle and his 20,000 paces per day as a truck driver and ignore the complete list of the symptoms of heart disease I provided over the months.
It is safe to say, that everyone who loses someone close to them has a list of regrets. If we can just retell the story the right way, then someone pushes the rewind button and it plays out the new way, with them staying alive. And when the rewriting of the script loses its allure, the more personal regrets rear their ugly heads. Those seem even worse. Did they know how much we loved them? Did they know how important they were to us? Did we appreciate them enough? Did they feel loved and cared for or overlooked and unimportant? Did we listen when they were trying to share themselves with us or did we miss those opportunities? When we hear the fond stories others tell, we wonder if they knew that others admired and cared for them like that? Did they know that it mattered so much that they were alive? The list goes on and on.
Becoming us without them means laying down our end of all those ropes. No amount of retelling changes the fact that we are powerless over their being gone and nothing we do will change that. It means accepting that we did the best we were capable of doing every day of their lives. What we understand now cannot be used to change anything about the past. As long as we are focused on what we did not do, or say, or know, or understand, we cannot move forward. Even worse, we will be squandering the time we have been given. We have today, this minute, to do a better job with the people that are standing right here, right now. We can live with our eyes wide open in a way we could not before. We can savor the shared moments we are given now because we understand they are precious gifts. We can wring the most out of each second knowing it could easily be the last. It means allowing the richness they brought into our lives to shine as we live the life they would have wished for us.
Letting go and moving on is the hardest thing we will ever do and it is exactly what they would want,