Archive for the ‘Death and Dying’ Category

How Others Responded, Part 2

July 22, 2012

“Counseling wisdom is that it takes five years for life to start feeling normal again after the loss of a spouse,” a woman I knew said.

How do you respond to a statement like that? My husband had been gone for more than fourteen months at the time. Her statement was not unlike a curse. It came hurtling across the internet and into my email inbox as a prison sentence she seemed bent on imposing: three years and ten months more before you will be okay.

But I already felt okay. I’d experienced an energetic shift at the anniversary of Howard’s death. There were still moments of sadness (as there always are in life), but I was back. The concept of “normal” seemed ridiculous to me, not simply because I’d never aligned with statistics for the “normal” person, but because what normal is changes with major life events. Including the death of a spouse.

Actually, there was something more to her pronouncement than a sentence. It felt like a judgment, a way of saying, “Don’t try to fool yourself. You’re in denial and you’re suppressing grief if you think you’re okay. I’m a member of the psychology community. I know better than you.”

Of course, I’m overeducated in the field of psychology, with two degrees in it. Psychological generalizations and labels had been among the things that had disenchanted me with psychology. Too much of the field seemed divorced from the “psyche” in psychology—the soul of it. When I became a shaman, I realized that while I couldn’t deny the impact of psychology on my thinking and life, it was shamanism that spoke to the soul-based way I lived.

That woman’s reaction was a bit more blatant that others after my husband’s death, but it was one of the classic reactions I got: Know that you will be devastated for a long time. In fact, you may never get over it. There were four other reactions: Discomfort over the death; heartfelt sympathy for my loss; surprise that I wasn’t over it yet; and, genuine acceptance of however I was dealing with it. It was a relief to be with people who were grounded in that last response and could radiate it. These four basic reactions remained the fundamental reactions I got from people throughout the first eighteen months after my husband’s death.

Many people expressed heartfelt sympathy when they first heard of Howard’s death, and they expressed it again when they were face-to-face with me. A few people avoided me. A few rallied to support me. But over time, it seemed to me that the fundamental mindset that a person had about life and death came oozing out when I responded to their question, “How are you doing?” Some people seemed permanently fixated on the pain of loss. The woman who pronounced that it would be five years before I felt normal again appeared to me to be one of those. Others projected a kind of fearlessness about life, an understanding that tragedy happens, but life wins out for the survivors of death—if they let it. Maybe because I fall into that latter category, I appreciated that reaction from others most.

It wasn’t that this latter group pushed me to be perfectly fine when I wasn’t. On the contrary, as a whole, they were better at assessing exactly how I was feeling and accepting it more than others. More than anything, they didn’t lay a judgment on me about how I “should” be responding to the death. Their response to my response allowed me to relax into exactly who I was when I was with them.

If there is something to be learned from all of this, for me, it is that we cannot really make assumptions about how anyone will handle the death of a spouse. And the person who has experienced the death cannot make assumptions about how others will respond to them, as survivor, or to the fact of the death.

So what can any of us do for another when they lose a loved one? We can bother to pay attention to how they are and what they need—reading it in what they say, what they don’t say, and what they project—instead of making assumptions. And we can send them waves of love, from our heart to theirs. Does anything else really matter, anyway?

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Advertisements

Shedding Energetic Debris

May 14, 2012

The beginning of the end had happened at the beginning of Thanksgiving week in 2010, so it would have been a fair assumption that the holidays were going to be difficult for me in 2011. But by October, I thought I was going to be fine during the holidays and planned to spend them alone.

That was October.

November 1st came and I was not so fine. The idea of being alone Thanksgiving seemed like the plan of a crazed woman. Howard had almost died the night before Thanksgiving in 2010 and I’d spent Thanksgiving cooking a huge turkey with all the fixings while he slept through the day. The cooking had kept me occupied. At the time it seemed a better idea than, say, drinking Jameson and pacing the floor. A year later, I suspected I might be drinking Jameson and pacing the floor if I was alone Thanksgiving of 2011.

When Cindy Morris invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her and her roommates, it was like a postcard from God informing me that my plight had been noted and taken care of. Cindy had been such a solid friend during Howard’s last days, not to mention the months that followed, and here she was, turkey baster in hand, looking after me one more time. Being looked after by someone else had been such a rare occurrence throughout my life that she seemed like some combination of Mother Earth, Mrs. Santa Claus, and all of the Greek goddesses, all rolled up into one person.

It was one of the best Thanksgivings I’d ever had.

But right around Thanksgiving, I began having problems with my gut. Since my gut was reliably healthy, it got my attention. What in the heck was going on? I might have had little experience with being taken care of by anyone else, but I was very good at taking care of myself. I got plenty of sleep, ate healthily, exercised, meditated . . . leaped over tall buildings, bent steel with my bare hands . . . . Okay, maybe I didn’t do those last two things, but I took good care of myself. And my gut was suddenly the gut of a sedentary, junk food eating, hyper-stressed burnout.

As I meditated one Sunday morning, right before going to my massage therapist (David Kochevar), I was told that the problems with my gut were coming from debris in my energy field. And it wasn’t even my own energetic debris. It seemed I’d somehow accumulated some of Howard’s energetic debris during his last six weeks of life. It had been time-stamped to come into my awareness for release a year later . . . and it was now time to dispatch it. I was told by guidance to have David work on my midsection. That would do part of the job.

Fortunately, David is a kindred spirit. Our appreciation for the workings of Spirit—if not the specifics of our personal theologies—tended to dovetail. He had not only been my massage therapist for most of his career, but he had become one of my favorite people in the world. I knew he would take what I’d been told in stride. He did. And I walked out of his office a new woman.

But I knew his work on me was only part of what needed to be done. I wasn’t quite sure of what constituted the rest. I decided to do a shamanic journey, and while I was quite capable of journeying myself, I wanted Antonio to drum for me. Journeying with Antonio was always a richer experience than journeying on my own, just as those who came to me for shamanic journey work had a richer experience journeying with me than they would have attempting to journey on their own. I always likened it to massage: You can massage yourself, but the involvement of another person’s energy makes being massaged by someone else a very different experience than massaging yourself.

I scheduled the journey with Antonio, only to cancel it within a week. I told myself I was crazy to think I could fit a journey into an already over-booked December. But it was more than that. The timing wasn’t quite right.

During another morning meditation, I asked my “council” (a council of spirit guides I often meet with in meditation) what I needed to do to clear the remaining energetic debris, and I asked for their help. They not only agreed to help, they wanted to accomplish the deed right then and there. I was a bit taken aback. Excuses raced through my mind, but really, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I had no idea why I was balking. What, exactly, would make me ready? When did I think I would be ready? I took a deep breath and told them to lead the way.

And they did. When we were done, I knew that the debris was gone. I felt clearer, more myself, than I had felt all year. And I realized that I had postponed the journey because it was not to take place until the anniversary of Howard’s death had passed. I scheduled it for December 30th, the day after the anniversary.

I spent Christmas alone, at peace. I wasn’t quite so serene on December 28, the day before the anniversary of Howard’s death. The death ceremony, his final hours, the coma he lapsed into . . . it all occupied my mind and surrounded my heart like an old memory, both painful and beautiful. The 29th felt less constrictive, and it seemed fitting. Howard had been released from the constriction of his failing body a year earlier on that day.

I was ready to journey on the 30th. It was a beautiful, profound journey (and, perhaps, a story for another time). When January 1st, 2012 came, I felt ready to reclaim my own life . . . a life richer and deeper because of my travels with Howard as he made his way from life to the great life beyond, a life I embraced fully because I was happy to be among the living, happy to continue my Earth walk, thrilled to see time spread out before me like a carpet of flowers. I was back.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Visitations

April 16, 2012

Some dreams are more than dreams—they are visitations. Numerous times, I asked Howard to visit me after he died. That request was sometimes made in jest, but even then, I had no doubt he knew I really wanted him to make an attempt to contact me once he crossed over.

Just a little less than six weeks after he died, he visited me using a dream as the vehicle. This was certainly not the first time I’d dreamed of him since his death, but his appearance in the dream was so vivid, so real, that once I drifted up from sleep, I knew he had contacted me. And it was more than contact; he gave me a sweet and wise piece of advice in the form of a question.

In the dream, I am trying to find a man’s telephone number. We had met and been attracted to one another. He’d suggested we get together and we’d made plans. It is now the day we’d arranged to meet. But I don’t know what time we are to meet or any other details. So I want to contact him. My friend Cindy has taken a call from him but hasn’t given me his number. I realize that it is too early to call her for it, so I am online, trying to find contact information on the man.

As I sit at the computer, I sense that someone is in the room, to my left. I look up and to the left, and I see Howard standing nearby. We just look at one another for a moment.

“Do you always wake up smiling?” he finally says.

The question gives me pause. I cock my head to the right and think. Have I done that? Did I do it that morning when I awoke? I decide I like the idea and realize that I usually do wake up happy.

“I guess I do,” I reply.

I turn back to the computer. Some part of me feels guilty about looking for the telephone number of another man, especially with Howard right there, but I realize that Howard is dead and it is actually okay for me to be doing this. I turn to look at him again and he is gone.

When I drift up from sleep, I realize that this is no ordinary dream, but a visitation from Howard. I also realize that his question is really not so much a question as a statement: Wake up with a smile on your face. Be happy. Carry on with your life. I suspect he is also encouraging me to wake up and accept the possibility of romance at some point when I’m ready.

His fundamental message is simple, but very important to me. It becomes a kind of mantra: Wake up smiling.

Later in the year, in October, I have another visitation during a dream.

In the dream, I have been sleeping and awaken. I’m troubled by something that happened before I went to bed and get up, deciding I won’t be able to return to sleep immediately. I walk through the house, noticing that some things are out of place, not put away by me before I’d gone to bed. Worse, I see that I have inadvertently left the front door open with my keys in the lock. I pull out the keys, shut the door, and return to bed, admonishing myself for my carelessness. Someone could have walked right in. I return to sleep.

I awaken (in the dream) and realize that I’d actually been dreaming earlier and hadn’t really gotten up. I can sense that someone is in the house. I get up and go into the guest bedroom. The light is dim, but I can see a form on the bed. I walk over to the bed and realize that it is Howard lying there. I lightly touch his chest and realize that he is solid, not ghost-like. He rouses.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. Then I bend down and kiss him on the lips.

“Soon I’ll be going into stasis,” he replies.

Without his saying anything else, I realize that he is telling me that when he goes into stasis, he won’t be able to contact me again. Somehow, I also know that “stasis” means that he is transitioning into a new form and will be going somewhere new.

When I drift up from the dream, the sense of how physically close I have just been to him is still palpable. I consider the word “stasis” and realize that the meaning of the word in the dream visitation is not any definition with which I am familiar, so I pad down to my office, pull out the dictionary, and look up the word. Sure enough, I see a definition that is consistent with this concept of being between one form and another.

But . . .

Time passes. I have recounted the dream to a few people—including Howard’s sister, who has a BS in nursing and, therefore, understands the concept of stasis. No one has ever heard of the definition from the dream. I find it all curious, so I eventually return to the dictionary and look up the word again. The definition I’d seen that morning in October is simply not there. I know I was fully awake when I looked for the word. I know what I saw. But now it is not there.

I laugh and shake my head. It seems that Howard was very clear about what he meant when he used the word. And he was not going to let the mere fact of a waking reality definition get in the way of his dream visitation definition. So when I looked up the word that morning after the dream, I saw what he wanted me to see in the dictionary.

It was so Howard, so like him. I knew he’d managed to hover nearby for just a bit that morning, even after I awoke.

He may be off somewhere, in another form, but he still manages to whisper words of encouragement now and then and he still gives me his opinion when I ask for it. But . . . there have been no more dream visitations.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Things I Missed

April 2, 2012

By fall, I had grown accustomed to the word “widow” and to the fact of widowhood. I found myself referring to Howard as “my late husband,” a term I was sure would make him double over in laughter on the other side. In his best Jack Benny imitation, his left hand cupping his jaw and his right hand supporting his left elbow, I imagined him saying, “Well!” in mock frustration, then arguing that his timing had always been impeccable.

I missed “my late husband” in many ways, and not the least of them was his goofy humor. He didn’t pull out the Jack Benny often. More often it was his East Indian guru—an irreverent imitation of Deepak Chopra—or his Transylvanian vampire version of the song, “You Do Something to Me.” I may or may not have had the power to mystify him, but he had the power to make me laugh every time, without fail, with his Transylvanian vampire rendition of that song. He’d done a little standup comedy in his youth and he not only chose to look at life with humor, he chose to take the events and happenings of our everyday lives and use them as material. My job was to roll my eyes and fight to keep from cracking a smile. A tiny drawing of an egret would be accompanied by “Egrets? I’ve had a few.” He was willing to do slapstick but preferred taking the ordinary and putting a little twist on it. If all else failed, his answer to practically everything was, “Let’s all get naked.”

I missed our conversations. He was erudite, smart, and philosophical. We agreed on many things and disagreed on many others, but we never lacked for interesting talk. His head for facts and my head for concepts gave us one nicely balanced mind between us, and he was one of the few men I’d ever been close to who could keep up with me intellectually. The fact that I didn’t want to talk politics and he didn’t want to talk metaphysics didn’t hamper us. There was always something to ponder aloud and roll around so we could get a good look at its many sides. And we were always as happy talking about the birds at the feeder or the flowers coming up in the garden as we were talking about the meaning of life. In fact, it could be argued that we viewed the birds and flowers as inherently meaningful components of life.

I missed having a companion who was at much at home at the opera as at a Rockies game. I missed dinners on the lower deck, under the flowering crab. I missed trips with him to bookstores and antiques stores, and I missed having a beer or glass of mead with him at Wynkoop Brewing Company.

I missed his unique stride, which was just a tiny bit bow-legged and always taken with the kind of casual confidence that made him look as if he owned the turf on which he tread.

I missed our morning ritual. As I put on makeup and styled my hair, he would stop outside the bathroom or dressing room door and wait until I paused what I was doing to turn to him. Then he would say, “You’re gonna look pretty today, aren’t you?” or “Are you putting on your fascinators?”

I missed his calling me “Little One,” sometimes emphasizing the word “One,” as if to say, “Forget the first three wives, you’ve always been the one.”

I missed that particular brand of loyalty and integrity he shared with a few other remarkable men I’d known, a commitment to what was right and true, with no apologies for loving America or staying true to his friends or being just a tad bit conservative. Well, okay, maybe more than a tad bit conservative.

I missed the fact that he knew as many lyrics as me and I even missed his annoying habit of playing fast and loose with lyrics, changing them at will if he couldn’t quite remember all of them or if he just wanted to be perverse.

I missed his native view of the world, a way of seeing things so different from mine that it was sometimes startling to me.

Often, something would flit by on the screen of my consciousness, something that caught my attention because of its absence, or caught my attention because it called up a fond memory, or caught my attention because a sight or sound or smell or internal sensation reminded me of that particular uniqueness that was him . . . and was gone.

That the particular uniqueness of any human cannot be replaced became something I came to understand in the same way we come to understand the uniqueness of a sunset or a spring day. That uniqueness is there and then it is gone. Nothing can replace it. It, and everything else, is fleeting and gorgeous and just a little sad . . . because it is fleeting and gorgeous.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Widowhood 101

January 22, 2012

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be fine.” The naïveté and hubris of those words are breathtaking. But, then, I’ve had some time to learn just how wrong I was about it.

I had lost both of my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, beloved animal companions. I thought I had some experience with death. In fact, I did have experience . . . I just didn’t have experience with losing a husband.

I made that pronouncement within days of Howard’s death. I used it as a shield against the pain I saw reflected in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. Even when they said little or nothing, their eyes were a mirror of the grief I held and refused to admit to others. I’d already been through the hard part—the long process of his dying. If I’d handled that, I was certain I could handle what came next. As it happened, I was right . . . and also just a little wrong.

Within twenty-four hours or so of my husband’s death, I’d packed up most of his clothes and shoes (with my sister’s help) and handed them off to my friend Gretchen Minney for donation to the Birds of Prey thrift store. If anyone but family and close friends had known how quickly I divested myself of his clothing, they would have been stunned. But I’d had a long time to plan the chain of events following his death. Months later, I saw the wisdom of it. If I’d waited, I might have clung to more than the few things I kept. It was a good move.

I also wasted little time rearranging the house. It was a relief to have the hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and other accoutrements of end-stage cancer out of the house. Just looking at them made me weary. I moved furniture around, too, and got rid of a few pieces. I needed to reclaim my home for the living, so I bought a comfortable reading chair for my bedroom, moved Howard’s leather wing chair from the living room, replacing it with something new and comfortable, and rescued my small secretary from sickroom status.

Within a month, I held the post-death party I’d promised to have at the house. It was something of a homecoming for Lakewood PD people with whom Howard had worked in the 1970s. Many others came, too, including some of my friends, colleagues, and clients. I was grateful for that. Still, it was something of a blur. I fortified myself with champagne to serve as hostess—rather than crumbling widow—and got through the day.

My friends and colleagues in Boulder Media Women sent cards, many with checks. It was more than a thoughtful gesture, it was a gesture that saved me from worrying about the cash I needed to live on for that first month following his death, a time when I was completely unable to even contemplate work.

For the first several months after Howard’s death, I moved through my days, attending to the administrative and mundane details that had to be managed. I filed the will. I got Howard’s name removed from the vehicle titles. I battled with the annuity company to distribute the funds coming to me in a way that would benefit me optimally over time.

I learned a thing or two in that battle with the annuity company. Those who have just lost a spouse are easy prey for questionable behavior on the parts of those who have something to lose by that death. If I had folded in my grief, it would have cost me a good deal of money—at least a good deal of money for a simple woman with limited funds. Howard had worked hard for that small bit of money he’d tucked away and I refused to allow it or his efforts to look after me with it to be disrespected by problematic practices on the part of the annuity company. Besides, I knew I would need those funds over the next few years.

They gave IRS citations I knew didn’t apply. They blithely argued that they simply couldn’t do what I asked. The agent who had sold the policy—one of Howard’s oldest friends, a man who considered him a mentor—had difficulty believing that if the company said they couldn’t do something, they could be wrong.

I called in my own version of the “big guns”—my longtime broker and financial advisor. I’d always been a minor client, but he rose up to offer support as if I were a major account. Ultimately, I didn’t have to press my broker into service. My tenacity got the case taken all the way up the chain of command to the highest levels of the company for a decision. They agreed to distribute the funds as I requested. I wondered how widows and widowers with less tenacity dealt with these things. I was sure I knew the answer: many didn’t—and got run over by big companies during the most vulnerable time of their lives.

But I didn’t expect the fog that hovered over me. Hadn’t I removed the cords that connected Howard and me during the death ceremony before he died? What was this miasma enveloping me? I was a shaman; I read energy. What in the world was I experiencing? It took a while to understand. Howard’s energy field and mine had overlapped more than I had ever guessed. He was gone, but remnants of that field remained and the part gone felt like a black hole. It felt a little like being blindfolded, spun around, and set loose in a room that was completely familiar but disorienting because it wasn’t being experienced in the usual way.

I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word “widow” yet, but I was beginning to understand what it meant.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Moving into the Mystery

December 28, 2011

“Pittsburg,” is the only part of what he says that I can make out. He sits up, trying to muster the strength to do what I know he cannot: move from the bed to the commode next to it. He has asked a question that I cannot decipher, except for the word “Pittsburg.” I can think of no connection to Pittsburg, no conversation we’ve had about the city—nothing. Either I, in my weariness, am just not putting together something obvious or he has drifted farther away cognitively. I consider the possibility of the former but suspect it’s the latter.

I have given him his morphine and I eventually get him to lie back down, but he sits up again almost immediately. I tell myself that if I could get a bit of Adavan in him, he might be less restless, but he won’t take the Adavan. I call Antonio, thinking that he may be more successful at it than me, but before Antonio can get to the house (a thirty-five minute drive), Howard is down and has taken it. I call Antonio’s cell to tell him that he needn’t come, but he insists on coming anyway.

While Antonio is at the house, Kristen, the hospice angel of a nurse who had helped get him back into bed the previous night (Christmas night), calls. She had promised to follow up and is fulfilling that promise. She manages to convince me that we can get a hospital bed into the room without removing the queen-sized bed and her description of how we’ll manage it makes sense to me. Howard needs the restraint of the sidebars and I need the ability to move the bed up and down.

It is a stroke of luck that Antonio is with me. Kristen has ordered the bed and it arrives in less than an hour and a half. Kristen continues to behave as if she has angel wings. She comes to the house and the three of us manage to move Howard from the guest room bed to the hospital bed—no small thing because even though he has lost a great deal of weight over the past month, he is still somewhere around two hundred pounds . . . of dead weight.

Howard is semi-comatose and cannot help at all in this process. That’s the downside. The upside is that he also cannot fight against it. He has refused a hospital bed up to this point because it represents death to him. But it can no longer be avoided and he is, indeed, close to death.

In a moment of overwhelm, I call my sister Maureen, who has offered to drive out from Illinois to help with Howard’s care, and tell her, “I give up. Come on out.” But after we have Howard settled, I think, I can do this. Nevertheless, I’m glad she will be on her way. I’m not sure she will actually make it before he dies, but I will be relieved to have her there with me.

And now the waiting begins. The next couple of days are a blur. I consider what should be done before Howard dies and call his sister Ann and his three sons, not simply to alert them to the fact that he is close to death, but to give them a chance to say whatever they want to say to him. He is beyond words now, so he won’t be able to talk to them, but I can hold the telephone up to his ear and they can talk to him.

They all want to do this.

With each, I hold the telephone to Howard’s ear and tell him that he need do nothing, just listen. I’m fairly certain that he can still hear, even if he cannot talk, and I want to give him permission to just listen and not struggle to even try to get words out. But he does try to get words out with each of them. He’s unsuccessful at this except with his oldest son, Jim.

Jim makes his peace with his father and it brings me to tears as I hear what he says over the extension. Then, quite miraculously, really, Howard gathers the strength to say what Jim and I later agree is, “Okay.”

Once his closest family have had a chance to speak to him, there is really nothing more for me to do but try to administer his medication and wait. He hasn’t lost the ability to swallow yet, so I am able to give him his liquid medication. I do my best to make him comfortable and wait. I’m restless.

I talk to Antonio on the 28th and he tells me he’s coming over to do ceremony. He and his wife, Helena, come. I welcome their calm strength. Even though I’m a strong woman myself, I can stand outside myself just long enough to realize that the one leg I always have in the other realms, as the shaman I am, has actually pulled more of me into those realms than the part of me that is on this side. I’m unbalanced, too much in an altered state and too little grounded. Ceremony is actually the best thing for me, whether or not it is something Howard would want if he were lucid enough to state his preferences.

The death ceremony we do is so magical and so what is needed that I’m less restless afterwards, more at peace. [The details of this ceremony can be found in my March 28, 2011 post, titled “Death Ceremony.”]

No more than a couple of hours after they leave, my sister arrives. I make dinner for us and, not long after we sit down to eat, I hear something coming from Howard that I’ve never heard before—a gurgling, gasping frustration. I tear into his room with Maureen on my heels. We get there just in time for me to hold his body up as black ooze issues from his mouth. One eye stares at me and the other has rolled back. He has entered a coma.

Maureen and I clean him up, which takes no small effort. The sheets must be changed, all of his clothes must be swapped out, and his adult diaper must be changed. Mo (the diminutive I’ve long used instead of my sister’s full first name, Maureen) has just arrived to be swept into the most difficult kind of help to provide. I had told her, before she came, that she would have to be tough to manage this. She hasn’t even had dinner before she’s put to the test.

We have to cut off some of his clothes because the combined strength of the two of us is not enough to effectively move him. And I’m not about to call hospice. This is sacred duty; I need to perform it and Mo is willing to join me in it. His clothing is insignificant at this point because he won’t be wearing it again and getting him clean and comfortable is what is needed.

Mo and I struggle so much to get the job done. We take sides on either side of the hospital bed and try to manhandle the sheets and clothes without doing harm to my poor dying husband. Eventually, I look up at her, start to laugh, and tell her we’re like the Keystone Cops. We’re clumsy and incompetent, moving about with too little purpose and using too much effort, but we manage.

When we’ve finished and return to the table, Gretchen Minney calls. She’s just returned from spending time with family out of town and I can hear in her voice that she is jet lagged and weary. She wants to know how Howard is doing and when I tell her, she insists on coming over, even though she’s barely put doen her luggage.

Dinner shifts, becoming almost a celebration. It’s an odd celebration, but it does seem like one. I’ve opened a bottle of champagne. I’ve made a good meal. Gretchen, Mo, and I seem aligned in knowing that Howard is about to break the bonds of human form, step out of his body, and step into the mystery. And that is a very good thing.

Finally, Gretchen leaves and I settle Mo in my bed. The only other option is the bed in the guest room and I’m the only person who should be in that room on death watch. She retires, as do I. I lie awake for a time, listening to Howard’s death rattle. The hospice nurse had prescribed drops that sometime eliminate the sound, which she has told me can be quite disconcerting. The drops have worked until now. And I now understand what she means. I’m too weary and too relieved that the end is near for a mere death rattle to rattle me much. I fall to sleep and sleep like the dead until I awake with a start at around 1:35 a.m.

I look at the clock and realize I’ve missed giving Howard his morphine and Adavan on schedule. Then I realize that the death rattle is gone. I leap from bed, go over to him, and can hear that he is still breathing—softly, gently. I give him a small dose of morphine, thinking that it is probably unnecessary, and I pull up a chair and sit next to him, rooting under his covers to take his hand. It won’t be long now. His breaths are so infrequent that I think he is gone more than once, only to hear him take another breath. His sleep apnea over the preceding several years has, thankfully, prepared me well, and I am not jarred by the sporadic breathing.

I have a headache and after some minutes, I get up to take something for it. The combination of stress and champagne have left me with a head that doesn’t quite feel like my own and it is distracting. I want to be clearly focused.

When I return to the room and wait for the next breath, there isn’t one. He’s gone. I look at the clock and see that it is ten minutes of two and I’m startled by the knowing that he’d awakened me so I wouldn’t miss this moment. He knew I wanted to be there and he woke me up so I could be. What a blessing! I thank him, even though I know he’s not actually there any longer. In fact, he has mostly been gone for days. And the death ceremony had helped the rest of him go.

I think about something he’d said, sometime over the last month. “I don’t think we told each other we love each other enough.”

He was probably right, but we had told one another often enough and we’d shown one another in many ways. And he’d given me this last gift of love—waking me so I wouldn’t miss his death. What is enough when it comes to love? There is never enough when it comes to feeling the love, murmuring the words, acting in love. But I’d come to the knowing, years earlier, that any instant of love is not lost, but reverberates on in the universe—onward, outward, past the farthest reaches.

And I feel it, right then.

And I continue to feel it.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

I’ll Miss You when I Die

December 24, 2011

Howard had accepted morphine. He’d also accepted oxygen, though he hadn’t used it much. Trisha, his hospice nurse, had managed to convince him to accept things I couldn’t have gotten him to even entertain. I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse—just a shaman. His faith was in allopathic medicine, and he trusted Trisha.

That said, he didn’t trust his hospice nurse assistant much. He felt treated like a nursing home patient with Alzheimer’s by her: disrespected, assumed to be losing his mind, treated like a child. The first time or two she came to the house, she’d gone into his room, bent down over him, greeted him, and asked him if he knew who she was and what day it was. It had infuriated him. He’d finally barked at her—and even dying, his bark could turn a pro football player into a shriveling nincompoop.

What he hadn’t accepted were a walker and a commode in the bedroom. He’d fallen multiple times, once in the middle of the night and another while I was out for a quick coffee with my friend Lisa Niederman, at his strong encouragement. Not only did he feel hovered over, he also knew I hadn’t left the house in days, and he wanted me to have an hour of freedom from the hovering.

The first fall happened in the middle of the night. I’d been awakened by what had sounded like porcelain being crashed into but didn’t intervene, knowing that doing so would only make him angry. In the morning, I discovered that he’d kicked the ceramic wastebasket as he went down. He’d managed to get himself back to his bed and hours after the event, as he told me about it, he made light of the whole incident. The second fall, the one that happened while I was out with Lisa, had left him so weak he had to crawl his way back to the bedroom. This he admitted sheepishly when I returned home.

I wasn’t the only person who hovered. Diana Wilson was coming on a regular basis and on one visit, she asked how he was eating and was very concerned when I admitted that he was eating very little—the occasional bottle of Ensure, the rare carton of yoghurt, and little more. She seemed to think that he could not build strength if he wasn’t eating when, of course, it was no longer about building strength, it was about the body going into dying mode.

On another visit, she saw music CDs next to the bed and seemed to think she could cheer him up if she played some music. I wanted her to back off. He would fall asleep within minutes of her leaving and any music playing would inhibit my ability to keep track of how he was doing through the baby monitor. Besides, the look he gave her when she offered to put music on was his if-you-insist look, the one he used when he was agreeing to something he didn’t want, just to please the other person.

But when she suggested that they do some drawing together on her next visit, I’d pretty much had enough. He weakly went along with the idea, as if it were a possibility when, actually, he could hardly find the strength to pull himself up in bed to talk with her. It appeared to me that she wanted to believe he wasn’t as bad as he was. As she was leaving, I asked her not to bring up drawing again because he was closer to death than she realized and had barely enough in him to receive visitors, let alone draw. I knew what I was saying pained her, but it needed to be said. And she conceded.

On yet another visit, I found myself eavesdropping on their conversation through the monitor. I couldn’t hear well, but the conversation seemed to have turned to dying. He told Diana he thought he knew what it was like to die. He had her attention on that one, I was sure of it. Later, he told me she’d moved in closer to hear what he had to say. “I think you just forget everything. You forget the next thing you were going to say.” Listening from the kitchen, my heart lurched.

Diana then said that some people who’d had near death experiences had reported being in a tunnel and seeing a while light. This was certainly not news to Howard. Not only was he married to a metaphysician who spoke freely of such things, but he had a strong—though strongly denied—metaphysical side to him, too. She asked if he could see a white light. His reply was, “I forgot.”

He was making a joke with this statement. He’d already said that he thought the dying person forgot the next thing they were going to say and he’d delivered the punch line like the standup comic he’d been in his youth. I had no idea if Diana had gotten the joke.

But I could also see beneath the joke. Howard was losing cognitive function and occasionally forgetting what he was about to say next in mid-sentence. When it happened, he first got a confused look on his face, then confusion morphed into fear and fear morphed into annoyance—all within the space of a few seconds.

The falls became more serious. He took out one of the towel racks and a bit of drywall with him during one. I couldn’t get him up without help. Howard swore at me when I said I was going to call hospice. He did not want them coming; did not want them to see him in that condition. I told him that if I couldn’t call hospice, I was going to call Antonio. He swore at that, too, but I knew he would view help from Antonio as less humiliating than help from hospice. Antonio not only came to the rescue, but returned the following day and repaired the wall and remounted the towel rack. During another fall, the combined strength of both Antonio and me could not get Howard up and I ran next door to beg my neighbor to come help us. I was sure my neighbor would be shocked by the state of things, but he pitched in without a flinch.

Finally, Howard accepted the idea of a walker and a commode in his room, though he wouldn’t promise to use either. Within twenty-four hours of their delivery he said to me, “I think I’m about done. I can’t get to the bathroom and I can’t use this.” He pointed at the commode.

“I know,” I replied. I did know that he was, as he put it, about done. And I wasn’t going to pretend otherwise.

One night, after I crawled into his bed to nuzzle him, he was weeping a little and taking deep breaths in an attempt to quell it. I said, “You know, you waste a lot of energy trying to keep from crying,” to which he replied, “I know.”

Clearly, we both knew a few things we weren’t talking about much. But one thing he said stopped me in my tracks. “I’m going to miss you when I die.”

I laughed in response and pointed out that he’d be on the other side; he wouldn’t be missing me. On the contrary, I would be missing him.

But later—much later—that comment reverberated through my mind. Could he miss me when he was gone? Would he? And if so, what would that be like?

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Sacred Space

December 7, 2011

I wasn’t exactly sure when it happened, but sometime in December of 2010, I realized that my home had become a church.

I had always taken care of myself and my appearance, but now I found myself taking special care to dress well and attend to my grooming. I traded in shoes that clicked on my wood floors for those that were as quiet as . . . well . . . a church mouse. I became more attentive than usual to the cleanliness and neatness of the house and I wanted only soft music playing. I felt calmer, more congruent, and more at peace with myself than usual and I found myself speaking in hushed tones. I carried myself with a kind of dignity I had never before noticed. And then one day I realized that I had made sacred space of my entire surroundings. It was clear to me that Howard was nearing death and the very air seemed charged with all that was holy.

It wasn’t that my husband was a particularly “holy” man. He was a man, with all the idiosyncrasies, charms, failings, peculiarities, gifts, talents, and personality eccentricities of a man. But that was actually the point. He was human and he was dying and I seemed intuitively bound to treat this moment in time as the significant and ephemeral instant of magic and mystery that it was. He was my husband and, therefore, important to me. But he also seemed to stand for humankind itself and the essential goodness of humankind.

So my house had become a church without my consciously making it so. And the space seemed poised, waiting for something important to happen.

This is not to say that there was little activity. In fact, there was so much activity, it was sometimes dizzying. Hospice is a blessing and an army of help, but that help rings your doorbell on a fairly regular basis and has to be let in, communicated with, attended to, and put in interactive mode with the dying party. That dying party was Howard and he remained intent on being entertaining—that is, when he was not being a curmudgeon. He carried both with no apparent paradox.

Apart from hospice, friends began to appear at the door. The word had gotten out—through the phone lines, Internet, and thin air—that Howard didn’t have long. He had refused to allow people to see him in bed, but one day, Joe Schalmoser stopped by without notice and Howard allowed him into his sanctuary, where Joe found him propped up in bed. A month earlier, Howard had been downright rude to Cindy Morris—a friend of mine who had become his friend, too—when she followed me upstairs as I announced her arrival. He’d refused to be seen at all. He simply had not been willing to allow anyone to see him in any kind of compromised condition (as with an open bag of Depends nearby). And now he was welcoming Joe into his bedroom, treating his bed like a throne.

Then Pat and Mary Ahlstrom—old friends from the early Lakewood PD days—came by. He had softened to the idea of people seeing him in bed and with their visit, he softened further. He now wanted to see people more than he wanted to appear to be something other than he was—a dying man. Diana Wilson came on a regular basis. She had been a dispatcher at the Broomfield Police Department when Howard was chief. Years later, they connected again because of art. They were buddies and my sense was that she understood, very clearly, that the chances to see Howard were running thin.

Tom Deland, Broomfield’s chief of police since Howard left the post, came and brought his two deputy chiefs with him. It was an act of respect.

A woman who had been his paramour years before I was in the picture came to see him. She had been important to him and there was still an easy intimacy there. She’d also had cancer and knew what she was seeing in him.

She was one of the few who did. It was excruciating and frustrating to me that many of his friends and some of his family still did not seem to understand that he was dying—and going quickly. Those out of town just couldn’t see what I was seeing and Howard did his best imitation of a robust man when he talked with them on the phone.

When I wasn’t tending to the revolving door and Howard’s needs, I found myself doing things I did not want to do at all, but knew needed to be done. Like calling All-States Cremation to see what they needed from me before Howard’s death. I talked with them and faxed them information surreptitiously, which was not difficult since Howard slept when he had no visitors. And he hadn’t been downstairs to my office since the day I brought him back from his last transfusion.

I also called the assistant to my Raymond James broker to get some money because I knew my attention would not be on work for some time and any monies coming to Howard via direct deposit would stop, abruptly, with his death. Early in December, I finished an editing project and energetically shut off the flow of work so I would not be distracted by potential clients I knew I would be unable to serve until sometime after his death.

I had no time for clients anyway. Everything—and I mean everything—took more time than I would have thought. The incoming telephone calls, the visits, tending to Howard, the updates on his condition for family and friends, keeping the house and yard tended to—everything took more time. When I was in my office, I would sprint up the stairs to his room, two floors above, every twenty minutes, just to check on him. Even after my friend Helena Mariposa sent me a baby monitor so I could keep tabs on Howard more easily (one of the best gifts anyone can give to the caretaker of a dying person), I continued to wear a path up and down those stairs, just not quite as often.

Just making sure that I was there if Howard fell or otherwise found himself in a fix took time. If he had to go to the bathroom, he slowly and painfully pulled himself up in bed, swung his feet over the edge, sat for a long time to rally his strength, hefted himself up, and slowly, over many minutes, inched his way to the hallway bathroom, which was just steps outside the guest room door. Then it was half an hour before he made the slow and treacherous trip back to his bed.

Everything took on an enhanced level of difficulty and we were both behaving like Olympic gymnists, taking on the difficult moves and intent on mastering them.

But I was also on the receiving end of some remarkable acts of kindness. Out raking leaves in early December—thanks to cottonwoods that held on to their leaves like Scrooge clutched his money purse—I felt overwhelmed. I’d already raked and bagged at least twenty-five bags of leaves earlier that fall. The prospect of more sucked the life right out of me, but head down and shoulder to the project, I started in.

Then neighbors from across the street called over to me. “You look like a lady in distress,” Glenn teased. It must have been that obvious. He and his wife Kathy came over, rakes in hand, and the task was accomplished quickly. They hadn’t known that Howard was dying until I told them that day, barely able to hold back the tears.

Heather McBroome, who had been doing shamanic work with me for several years, stopped by one day, wanting to help. When you are in the thick of crisis, you can’t even readily see what someone else might be able to do for you. I told her the only things that really needed attending to were things no one else would want to take on, things like taking Howard’s truck in for an oil change.

I have no idea why it seemed urgent that this task be done. He certainly wasn’t going to be driving that truck again. Perhaps I knew I would and that it would be a long time before I’d have the presence of mind to get the oil changed. Heather didn’t blink. She took the truck in for an oil change.

Some of my friends—most notably Antonio Arguello, his wife Helena Mariposa, Cindy Morris, and Gretchen Minney—understood what was happening perfectly and were rock solid support. There was support, too, from Boulder Media Women colleagues, clients, old friends, and new friends.

But Howard’s sister Ann was right there at the center. She and Howard were very close. I knew that what was happening to him was felt by her five hundred miles away in Ogden, Utah. Through the ether. Through the blood. Through a lifetime of energetic connection. I called her regularly to keep her abreast of what was going on. She’d been a nurse for many years, so we could talk in a kind of shorthand. Then regular calls became daily calls. I didn’t want her to be blindsided when he slipped away. But in truth, I also needed her. I needed to talk to someone else who loved him, I needed a witness to what was happening who had a deep heart connection with him. That would be Ann.

I’d always loved Ann and, over the years, I’d come to feel that she was my sister, too. But that sisterhood took on a new depth. I didn’t want to burden her with the details, but there was something important in sharing them with her. The details allowed her to be there with us. And she could not be there physically. She’d had polio as a child and that had developed into post-polio syndrome, decades later. She could get around, but she couldn’t get around easily, and there was no way she could handle the stairs in our house. I knew that it pained her to know that her big brother was dying and she couldn’t be there with him.

And I needed her, even if only by phone. I didn’t have to explain my exhaustion to her, didn’t have to explain my tears. She understood the term “incompliant patient,” which was the precise term that described him, and she understood it not simply because she had been a nurse, but because she knew her brother. I felt that Ann and I were bonding in the most intimate and painful of ways—through the dying process of someone we both loved.

That was sacred space of a kind, too. The space between me and Ann, me and Howard, me and my friends and family—it was all becoming sacred space. I knew it was a little like holding one’s breath—it couldn’t last forever. But much of my daily experience, it seemed, was becoming one ongoing experience of holy communion. I was hyper-focused on Howard and his process, under the kind of stress that one is mostly unaware of while experiencing it. I was sometimes exhausted, sometimes manic with energy, and sometimes cranky. And yet, everything took on a quality of sacredness and every interaction had become one of holy communion.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Specters and Human Angels

November 27, 2011

Sometimes when Howard slept, I could sense that much of his essential nature—his soul, if you will—slipped out of him and stayed out until he awoke again. One evening, the sense of it was so powerful, I felt he was already gone, already dead, even as he lay sleeping in the next room.

Late in November, I awoke in the middle of the night and sensed that the entire upper level of the house, the bedroom level, was filled with spirits. I could identify some: my council of guides, my mother, what I sensed were his guides and some of his ancestors. Others I could not identify. These specters returned, again and again, over the coming weeks. When I first sensed my father, I was surprised. While my mother had adored Howard (and he her), my father had died long before Howard and I met. They hadn’t known one another. Then I realized the sense to it. Like Howard, my father had been in the military. Like Howard, he had been an intellectual and a writer. Like Howard, he’d enjoyed chess. Of course he was there. They were going to be great friends on the other side. I was eventually able to discern what I thought were Howard’s parents and his cousin Jack among the ghostly visitors. It was comforting, and it was also telling. I knew that they were all there to help him with the process of leaving his body.

I was happy to take comfort in whatever form it came. After years of bucking up, I cried every day, multiple times a day. I mostly kept it from Howard, but not always. He didn’t question it. He knew his time was short. Some nights, I crept into bed with him, put my arms around him, and just lay with him. Sometimes we talked; other times we just soaked up one another’s presence. And sometimes we wept together. Those were sweet times, those nights. There was a deeper level of intimacy than we’d had in years—maybe a deeper level of intimacy than we’d ever had. It wasn’t about words and it wasn’t even really about physical proximity. It was about the partnership, the unstated contract between us to be partners during this pilgrimage to his death. The unstated understanding that we were what we had been saying for years: best friends. And best friends sometimes just witnessed one another’s lives. I was his witness.

He slept most of the day every day. He could no longer get up and down the few stairs from the bedroom level to the living level without a struggle. He only struggled to do so once or twice a day, mostly to get to the kitchen. I was happy to bring food to him, but he needed to demonstrate to himself that he could still make the stairs. He made one effort to sit in the living room, then asked for a chair in the bedroom. Antonio helped me move a comfortable one from the journey room (the room in which I did shamanic work with people) in the lowest level of the house up to his room. He used it only a few times, but just having it there made him happy.

Everything was beginning to make me nostalgic. I turned on the television to find an episode of Globe Trekker on Fiji. We had been married in Fiji. Another day, the movie When Harry Met Sally was on. I smiled and cried because it was one of many movies he liked a good deal. And while Howard often referred to the house as my house—an accusation more than anything else that I’d arranged it according to my own tastes and needs—everywhere I looked in it, I was reminded of Howard and our life together. It was as if he were already gone. And in some ways, he was. He was slipping further away from me every day.

Yet, a few days after Thanksgiving, he asked if we were going to see the new Harry Potter movie. He had almost died days earlier and he was completely unable to get down the series of stairs that led outside. Still, he seemed to have told himself that he could do this. When I finally got ready to return the borrowed oxygen tank to the cancer center, he said, “I’d like to go with you.” Again, it was a physical impossibility for him. Did he sense that he would never again see the nurses and doctors who had been so kind to him? Perhaps, though it did not occur to me at the time. What did occur to me was that he was becoming farther and farther removed, mentally, from his physical reality. Getting to the bathroom was a major undertaking. Leaving the house? No chance.

Finally, in the last days of November, he agreed to hospice. But even here, he insisted on doing it his way. He slept until he had just enough time to get himself up and together before they came to the house to meet with us. He dragged himself to the shower, dressed, and struggled his way downstairs to the dining room because he did not want them to see him as an invalid. He did not want hospice to see him as an invalid.

The meeting was a negotiation. The hospice staff quickly determined what he was made of and that he would need more than their respect, he would need their agreement to participate in the hallucination that he was not the dying man they saw before them. They stepped up. They’d done this before. He had feared that bringing in hospice meant he would no longer have access to blood transfusions. I knew that he’d already had the last one he would need in this life, but it was an important consideration in his mind. They assured him that it was not beyond the realm of possibilities and that it could, in fact, be done at home.

At one point, during the discussion with hospice, he said, “Maybe I’ll just disappear . . . leave the house, drive away, and not come back.” It was a threat. He wanted them to know that he was still in charge. He wanted them to know he’d already had enough of his body betraying him, before signing on with them, and he didn’t want nonsense from them (or me).

Of course, he would have needed me and a couple of strong men to get him downstairs, outside, and into his truck by this point. Still, I had no doubt he could still drive if he could be helped to his truck. Where would he drive to? No question about that. He would be off on another adventure. Maybe the trip to Alaska he’d been sorry to have never made. No Thelma and Louise action from him. Never.

Unbeknownst to him, hospice and the nightly cadre of spirits were preparing him for his next adventure. No escaping to have an adventure on his own. Not this time.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

Cheating Death One More Time

November 18, 2011

If Howard wanted to be the inconspicuous recipient of a blood transfusion, collapsing at the hospital entrance was not the way to do it. The medical staff crowded around him like a pack of vampires on a warm body. I could do little to help. He was already annoyed with himself and with them. I did not want to say or do anything to make matters worse. I stood back while they attended to him, wondering what the split in their attention was between fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath versus mitigating hospital liability.

He was taken to the emergency room, as opposed to the ambulatory care unit where he was to receive his transfusion. We were in for a long day. There is irony in coupling the word “emergency” with that particular unit in a hospital because there seems to be little urgency to the treatment received there. But on this day, the emergency room was bustling. On our way to the hospital, we had passed a serious looking accident, not half a mile from the medical center. If you’re going to have an accident, being close to a hospital is genius. By the time Howard was ensconced in a treatment room, the human wreckage had arrived at the hospital.

Still, they were living up to my expectations, at least as far as my husband was concerned. He was not a priority and we were mostly left alone for long periods of time. Ultimately, the medical staff wanted to admit him and keep him tucked away in a room at least overnight, thereby providing me with an opportunity to demonstrate that I could be trusted on the “no ambulances, no hospitals” pledge. He and I were a united front: no admission.

Hours—and endless frustration—later, he was placed in a private room in the ambulatory care unit and they were beginning preparations for his transfusion. Even as an outpatient, he was going to be there all night. The transfusion would take that long, not only because they were going to give him four units of blood, but because he had to be given saline infusions after each unit of blood. This would, of course, put a demand on his already overworked urinary track. Fortunately, there was a bathroom right outside his room. Unfortunately, he was hooked up to a monitor because of the earlier incident. In theory, that meant he would need to buzz an attendant every time he needed to go to the bathroom. In practice, I knew he would simply rip the sensors off, thereby setting off alarms, and struggle unassisted to the bathroom.

It didn’t take him long to prove me right. It was not only going to be a long night for Howard, but also for the ambulatory care unit staff. After helping him order some food, I made my escape. My presence all night would be of no help, and I was not keen to be an observer to the paces he was going to put the staff through. It had been morning when we made our way to the cancer clinic and it was now past sundown.

In a moment of stress induced practicality, it occurred to me that I should make a stop at Gretchen Minney’s house on the way home. She had some of my canning jars and I needed to collect them. I called to see if she was home. She was. I told her I would swing by to get the jars on my way home from the hospital. Hospital—the magic word. That was all I needed to say. By the time I reached her house, she had a plate of hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of champagne waiting for me, along with an open heart and a willing ear.

Every once in a while, a friend not only proves herself, but demonstrates her keen understanding of your precise needs. Even the best of friends do not often manage that, but this was one of those moments. It had taken me ten minutes or so to get from the hospital to her house, yet all was waiting for me when I arrived.

Awards are given for all manner of heroic acts, but never for an act like this. How would it be submitted? How could it be described? I couldn’t say that she had saved my life. Technically, she did not save my life that night. But I would argue that a glass of champagne, some nibbles, and the simple act of bearing witness to a story of crisis are highly underrated as life saving measures.

I was gravely worried and with good reason. When I brought my husband home the next morning, he went to bed immediately and slept most of the day. The following day, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving, he was no better. In the past, transfusions had perked him up and brought color back to him. This transfusion had done neither.

That night, he was uncomfortable to the point of admitting it. His entire body was rebelling and in pain. Breathing was especially painful. He had been prescribed Ambien to help him sleep and oxycodone for pain, but had taken little of either. Now he asked me to bring him both. My husband, the stoic, was moaning and I found it unsettling. I couldn’t imagine how bad it had to be for him to be moaning. This was the man whose pain measurement was based on the level of pain provided by a gunshot wound. I gave him the requested medications, climbed into bed with him, and held him. After an hour, he felt no better and he looked scared.

I knew I needed to act and I knew whatever actions I took would be further demonstration—or the lack of it—that I could be trusted to follow his wishes. I asked if he wanted an ambulance. He was adamant that he did not. I had to honor that, but I also had to do something. I told him I was going to call Antonio. He fought against it, wanting no one to come, but it was either an ambulance or Antonio.

Antonio, the shaman to whom I had been apprenticed, was not only a shaman, but a nurse. He had urged me, over the last few months, to call him—night or day—if I needed his help with Howard. It was after 11:00 p.m. and I was ready to take him up on his offer. I called to find that he was still awake. I explained the situation and I think he must have been getting his clothes on, preparing to leave, before he hung up. I knew, from years of driving between my house and his, that it was a thirty-five minute drive. He arrived a good ten minutes earlier than it should have taken him. He had clearly ignored the posted speed limits all along the way.

I crept into Howard’s room to tell him that Antonio was with me. Howard was delirious and nearly incoherent. He muttered, “No, no. I’m asleep. I’m asleep,” thinking, in his confusion, that I had called an ambulance. I explained that it was Antonio, no one else, and that he had come to see if he could help.

I had never witnessed Antonio’s work as a nurse and was stunned by his ability to gain Howard’s compliance and trust with little more than a few well chosen, calm words. Well . . . that and summoning up the kind of energetic power few but those of us who practice shamanism can muster. He took Howard’s vitals. Blood pressure: 60/40. Pulse: forty beets per minute. Respirations: almost undetectable.

Antonio met me outside the room and told me it was unlikely Howard would make it through the night. In fact, he thought Howard would pass very soon. We sat, side by side, on the cedar chest at the foot of my bed in the master bedroom. And we waited. I had some Jameson’s I’d bought to make hot toddies with and I got each of us a slug of it. He might not have needed it, but I did. Years of treatment and months of declining health had skidded, abruptly, to a stop early Thanksgiving morning.

But after an hour, Howard was still among the living. Weak vitals, but still alive. Antonio went home, expecting that the next call from me would be the call to say that Howard had passed. He had no sooner left than the moaning began again. I called his cell and asked what to do. He suggested I give Howard another small bit of medication.

Sunrise found me exhausted and anxious . . . and my husband still alive. Thanksgiving Day. It was not clear to me if I should be grateful that Howard was still alive—my immediate instinct—or sorry he hadn’t passed during the night. And there was no way to know if he would make it through Thanksgiving Day.

What I did was so predictably Melanie-in-survival-mode that I saw it for what it was, even then. While Howard remained semi-conscious, at most, I made stuffing, baked the twenty-two pound turkey, and otherwise carried on as if there would be someone other than me to eat Thanksgiving dinner. And I gave thanks for everything good and true in the world.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall