No, it’s not the question that leads to “life, the universe and everything.” (That was for all the Douglas Adams fans)
The question I’ve struggled with, and until just last night didn’t have the courage to ask, was one that’s haunted me for two years. Just a little more than two years, I guess you could say.
The day Andrea died wasn’t just a wash of grief and loss. For me, that day was filled with a great deal of panic and fear. That fear hadn’t really every left me until a very long discussion I had with my oldest daughter, Abbi.
Let me give you some perspective. Andrea, my now late wife, was ill. Not lingering, cancerous, genetic or otherwise ill . . . she caught a cold. That’s it. The cold went into her chest on a Friday/Saturday night at the end of March, 2011. By that Tuesday she was in the hospital having a hard time breathing. She had an infection on her leg that turned into cellulitis because her circulation was poor and her immune system was fighting infections on several fronts. By the time Thursday morning had come she was on a respirator.
I had a lot of things to contend with that week. My kids were still in school and as far as I knew Andrea was going to come through. I didn’t want to tell the kids their Mom was on a breathing tube because I’d seen what affect those have. Due to the infection in her leg, that was spreading, the kids couldn’t come into the hospital room. By Friday night, March 25th, she appeared to be coming out of the infection. By this point I thought it was okay to tell the kids that their Mom seemed to be responding, particularly to the sound of my voice. She squeezed my hand. She moved her eyes.
Here’s where my ultimate question comes in. I told the kids their Mom was doing better. I admitted to them she was on a respirator but she was starting to breathe more on her own and the machine was doing less work. If it continued to improve they’d be able to take her off the respirator.
But Saturday morning they called and asked me to come to the hospital. No mention of whether it was bad, just that Andrea was “in some distress.” When I got there . . . let’s just say what it was. She was dying. No ceremony, no Doctor House moment of miraculous salvation. Her kidneys, lungs, possibly other organs had failed. The pneumonia had turned to sepsis, poisoning her blood and taking down her body. She’d been without oxygen to her brain for so long even if they managed to revive her they weren’t sure how much of Andrea was actually in there.
When they asked if they should continue…and I told them to stop…I broke down. Not just because she was gone, though that was immediately what I thought. Believe it or not, though, the most immediate, panic-inducing thought was this: “the kids will think I lied to them.”
That’s right. In our home, particularly to Andrea, lying was the 8th deadly sin. You could probably murder someone and she’d have been forgiving but lie to her . . . you were in trouble. In the swimming, swirling white fog of immediate grief I was getting dizzy from loss and then from the horrible realization that I had to go home and tell the kids that their Mom wasn’t coming home. Worse, they didn’t get to see her before she left. But most terrible to me was the worry that they would be angry with me because I told them she was getting better.
Then last night Abbi and I had a very long, very emotional conversation about a myriad of things. 99% of those I will never tell another person, and it’s up to her if she does.
But I told her I always worried that the kids thought I had lied to them, that I deceived them into thinking it would be okay and it got out of control. I hadn’t, I truly thought Andrea would get better, but I was so scared for two years they were mad at me for that.
“No, Dad,” Abbi said, tears streaming down her face. “We never thought that, Dad, not ever.”
It was both liberating and confusing for me, mainly because I’d worried about it for so long.
“But I told you she was getting better. . . ”
“But Dad, we knew you were trying to help her. And…” Abbi was having a hard time with the conversation, and it was hard to get it out…”I had thought about this before, Dad. If you had died first, I don’t know if we’d have been able to cope.”
Abbi broke down there because she felt guilty for even thinking that. I don’t know what would have happened if the roles had been reversed, but it’s not worth speculating. They weren’t. We both felt the relief that things truly weren’t as bad as we’d thought.
The guilt we feel, you see, is not a survivors guilt. It’s that we didn’t just survive, we’re actually doing really well. Maybe better than we would have been in other circumstances. Things aren’t perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. I still live check to check. I still worry about the kids and whether they’re coping.
But knowing the answer to the ultimate question, the one that weighed so heavily on me, was liberating. The moving on and living we’ve done hadn’t been for nothing.
We’re thriving, and now we’re even more together than before.