I occasionally hear people saying things like: I had the Worst. Day. Ever.
It’s not for me to judge how good or bad your days are, truly it’s not. But sometimes I think that people have no perspective on how bad a worst day ever can possibly be. So, for the record, here’s mine, as accurately as possible, from November 1996.
I’ve gotten several condolences from a recent post: I should clarify that Rick is very much alive, thankfully. He’s my second husband (my first was named Richard), but some people were confused and thought I was recently widowed. Thankfully, no.
Those of you who know me well know that I have a superpower: I can throw a fragmentation grenade on almost any conversational topic. This one is uncensored, it’ll be damn uncomfortable for you to read, but rest assured it was far more uncomfortable for me to experience. I have never before told this story in its entirety, though many people know pieces of it.
It would give me perverse joy if people would share this link when people are being stupidly dramatic about small problems.
The most important part? Not only did I live through this day, I’ve lived through about 6,000 more days.
A Tidge of Back Story
Richard and I met in 1993 in college. We moved in together in 1994, married in June 1996. He was a lot older than I was. I’d never been married before.
How many times had Richard been married? Good question.
I’ve decided that the only way to answer that is to say that I was wife n where n >= 4. It does seem n probably was 5 and may have been 6. During the time we were together, though, I was told, and believed, that n = 4.
Two wedding tips I’d like to impart: 1. Never get married on a hill cursed by a saint. No, I didn’t know that at the time. 2. Never exchange your vows over the Stone of Destiny if you have a bad one. Probably best to assume that you do.
Some time after midnight, my husband and I went to bed. Now, who did what to whom first was subject to whim, but on this particular night, he got to go first and I never got my turn.
No way to sugar coat this: the stress of the orgasm from the blow job burst an aneurysm, causing a hemorrhagic stroke. What causes the real damage in these kinds of strokes is that the brain will signal it’s not getting enough blood, the body will raise the blood pressure, and then the blood just pushes out of the site of the burst, causing more damage by compressing brain structure and depriving part of the brain of oxygen. Lather, rinse repeat.
When he tried to get up, he stumbled and then sat down on the bed. This is where I should have possibly realized something might have been wrong, but I didn’t.
I’m not sure how long elapsed between that moment and when I was intending to turn the light off and he urged me not to, his speech suddenly garbled. Probably it was somewhere between two and five minutes, but subjectively it feels like an hour. It couldn’t have been that long, though.
I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck, because I suddenly knew exactly what was wrong: Richard was having a stroke.
I called the ambulance, and they did the quick diagnosis. Blood pressure of 260/160, severely hemiplegic (loss of almost all movement on one side), and complete inability to speak by the time they got there. He could answer questions with a hand squeeze, though.
The Scarily-Appropriate Quote
A week before his death from a blow job, my husband wrote the following post to alt.angst as a followup to someone who said they hated sex.
Maybe, at the end of the day, it really would be best for all concerned if you did go and blow your brains out. I mean, if I hated sex, I would. Guaranteed, iron-clad, no-fooling, take-it-to-the-bank promise.
Getting to the Hospital
To this day, I don’t know why I drove instead of riding in the ambulance myself. I had the very practical thought of ensuring I had a ride home, I remember that much. It was snowing lightly, the first snow of the season, and I was drawn in by the patterns of the flakes as I pondered outcomes on the drive to the hospital.
Richard had once said that, should anything happen to him, he didn’t want to be taken to the local hospital, but I had vetoed that. He might not survive the trip to another hospital. We lived in rural Vermont, not a place with a high density of hospitals.
But it’s what we had, you know? So that’s where we were going. Better than trying to get through a mountain pass through the snow to the hospital twice as far west.
I worried. He wasn’t someone who could handle stroke recovery well. It was clear to me that it was Very Serious Indeed, and I feared how much our lives would change. Would I have to give up my job? I loved my career.
So, when I arrived at the hospital, they called local clergy for me. They’d asked about denomination, but the truth is, I was a Pagan at that point, and I didn’t know any Pagan clergy in the area. They sent a local Christian minister, and she was wonderful. She held my hand much of the night, and was there when the doctor came out to give me the prognosis.
Short version: he was clinically dead, but, because of how they had to manage declarations of death, it would take several tests over a period of 24 hours to declare him so. He was not responding in any way to pain. I actually felt relieved. I had a relatively easy decision to make. I went in to see him, and saw the bruises where they’d tried to provoke a response. Saw that there didn’t seem to be anyone “home” as it were.
“Have you considered organ donation?” the doctor asked.
The minister said that her father had always wanted his corneas to be transplanted after his death, “so he could continue to look at pretty women after he died.” Sounds like a good reason to me.
Organ Donation, The Process
Now, I personally have always been pro-organ-donation. Most of the ways people die don’t permit donation: cancer, heart attack at home, any infectious disease, etc.
The process of organ donation, from the donor family perspective, is done as a phone call with a local medical person, a phone volunteer at the organ bank, and the donor family member.
It is a horrific phone call to be a part of. There’s no way to sugar coat the difficult questions about travel history, sexual history, etc, and what the dearly departed’s disease risk for the transplant recipient is. The hospital is going to put that organ in that body. You think sex carries disease – think of cutting a person open and dropping someone else’s bits in there with only a phone call and a few lab tests to try to make an educated guess about go/no-go. Of course, the alternative is certain death, so possible life sounds pretty good about then.
Because a transplant can kill a recipient right quick. There’s no way to screen for everything, so they do as best they can in as little time as humanly possible. Every moment spent, the organs are more and more likely to become unviable.
It’s an hour, maybe two hours, I can’t remember exactly. It’s so many questions and such weird questions. Because I read so much immunology for fun, though, I got that these questions weren’t intended to be rude or nosy. They were necessary, but difficult. Tough, but fair. There were just so many of them.
And you couldn’t just say you wanted to donate everything. Apart from the major organs, there were requests for other parts for experimental transplant or transplant research that, by law or custom, had to be specifically enumerated separately. I remember discussing saphenous veins, but that is one of the few I recall.
Let’s make this clear: I apparently didn’t know how many times my late husband had been married, let alone have accurate information about his sexual history. Given that the liver transplant recipient is, apparently, still alive, one hopes that the history I provided was accurate enough.
The Exes and Kids
One of the other things I believe in: Richard’s three kids should have the opportunity to say goodbye in person while he was still technically alive.
I called Beth, wife n-2, first. She was the mother of the eldest two, one of whom was an adult and I didn’t have contact information with me as he was at college. So I called her, and we reached the eldest, and she brought the middle kid along.
Then I said I was going to call Barbara, wife n-1. It’s one of the few things I remember verbatim from that day. Beth asked, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
I replied something along the lines of, “I’m sure I don’t, but I feel I should.” And she said okay. But I got her point: she knew, and I knew, that I would regret having done it. But, as I said, it wasn’t about what I wanted. I wasn’t going to deny the youngest son the opportunity to say goodbye, and whether or not he came was up to his mother. Barbara.
I can’t really get into all of how difficult that relationship was (nor do I wish to waste any more of my life on it), but let’s just say that I never fully appreciated how much my parents tried to act like adults until I met Barbara and saw her tactics. Therefore, I’ll pick one incident that kind of encapsulates the sort of relationship we had.
Whenever Richard and I bought presents for the kid, she’d want them sent home with him and then they’d never come back. So she wanted us to basically supply her household, then the kid would have nothing when he came over. Not happening.
Tired of the arguments and knowing how much Barbara hated bugs, I got an idea. I went and bought a Creepy Crawlers set for the kid, and, dutiful stepmother that I was, I sent them home with him.
Yes, the toy came back! Surprise.
So despite the fact that she’d moved out and they’d gotten a divorce, Barbara was frequently trash talking me where other people we knew could hear. I was constantly hit by a barrage of this within a few days of any new event, usually from several different people. She was Richard’s one true love, yada yada.
Had it just been her and no kid, I wouldn’t have called to suggest that she come to the ICU, trust me. But there was a kid and he had a right to say goodbye, and she was obviously going to accompany him. So she did take him into see Richard, and I sat out there in the waiting room with Beth.
At some point, the kid came out, and she was in there alone. And Beth asked if I was okay with that.
“The beauty of it is, I’m in shock. Let her say her goodbyes. I’ll be pissed off about it later. I can’t process it now.”
I wasn’t, however, expecting to hear keening like a Wagnerian soprano come out of the ICU room from the waiting room where I sat. Beth and I both rolled our eyes at Barbara’s drama.
Me, I’d been Scandinavian (not obvious from my name, but I’m half Swedish/Norwegian ancestry; my grandfather’s first language was Swedish) stoic pretty much all night. I had cried some, but not as much as you might think as I was mostly in shock. “You’re taking this really well,” the doctor had said. Well, yeah, only insofar as I was glad that Richard wouldn’t live a life he’d be miserable with, and also that my choices were pretty clear to me and thus relatively easy. I had to make a metric ton of decisions at a time when I was least capable of doing so, but, weirdly, they were not difficult decisions for me to make because the “right” choice seemed clear at all points.
The weekend before had been one of the kid’s visitation weekends. There had been a show about cryogenics on TV, and Richard had watched it while the kid was in the room. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“He won’t understand it,” Richard said confidently.
I gave up on the point. I just didn’t want the nine-year-old to have nightmares, you know?
So there we were, about a week later, and the kid sits on my lap and looks up at me. “Are they gonna freeze daddy like they did on TV?”
What do you say to that, you know? So I explained that cryogenics was really theoretical at this point, and I explained about organ donation and that we were going to do that instead.
Meanwhile, the snowstorm had gotten worse, some of Richard’s friends had come by to hang and say their goodbyes, and the eldest son was still trying to make it up from Middlebury.
So I’d been through several rounds of calls with the New England Organ Bank about logistics. Basically, they had to figure out what transplant hospital to transfer Richard to.
Here’s where it gets interesting: the process of declaring someone dead depends upon what equipment they have. Essentially, this hospital didn’t have either an MRI machine or a CT scanner at the time, so they had to rely on a series of EEGs given over a 24-hour period.
However, the organs would degrade too much by then, so they wanted to know: did I mind if they airlifted him to a different hospital so they could declare him dead sooner?
I can’t make this up, really.
Truly, I understood. The entire point was to be able to save someone else’s life or health, and that meant doing it as quickly as possible. So I gave all the permissions needed. The helicopter would be coming from Dartmouth, but they were not yet sure if they were going to transfer him to Dartmouth or Burlington, Vermont. They were still working on potential matches for the transplant list and to see who could be contacted and available. Meanwhile, the snowstorm was getting worse and worse.
In the end, the eldest son did make it in time to say his goodbyes before the helicopter came, and I’m glad of that. It wasn’t a given, though.
I remember watching the helicopter taking off, wishing I could be on it and could be there with him for those last moments. There would have been no room for me given all the equipment. I knew, given some of what I’d been told and my ability to read between the lines, that he was in far worse shape than they were telling me: his heart was failing, and they’d had to work to keep it pumping enough to keep everything going so the other organs didn’t fail. They had to sacrifice one organ to have a chance at the others.
Frankly, that depressed me more than anything else.
Organ Donation, The Result
So, the only major organ I know was donated was his liver. I received a letter from the son of the transplant recipient. His heart was enlarged and was probably gone. They didn’t have a match on-list for his lungs. He had early stage kidney disease and a pancreas infection. They were looking for a cornea recipient.
Still, a liver’s a big deal, and I’m really truly glad I could help someone.
What Hurt the Most
A friend drove me home and other friends drove my car home for me as I was obviously in no shape to drive after such a stressful night of no sleep. I think I got home around noon.
I sat down at my computer, and, in doing so, saw the yellow stickie I had on the upper left corner of my laptop screen. It had the phone number of the Concord NH police department.
About a year and a half earlier, Richard had left me for someone else for 2-1/2 weeks. I’d asked for him to come back, and he had.
Normally, my view has been this: if a relationship’s broken enough that it ends, it should stay ended. However, part of his problem had been that I’d been unwilling to consider getting married, mostly because I wasn’t really big on state-licensed relationships as a concept. (As a result of the whole fallout from this day, I have done a one-eighty on this point.)
So he’d left and taken up with someone else, and she was, to put it mildly, crazy. After his return, she kept stalking us. She’d be out drunk at night and call over and over and over. There was the “I’m pregnant” ploy. The “I have a social disease” ploy (I told her to have her county health dept call our health dept). She got thrown in jail for skipping on a hotel bill. She was in the hospital for some neurological thing. I spent one several-hours-long phone call talking with her husband, who was a lawyer in Maine. I really felt for him; he loved her despite the crazy. What I’d seen was only a small fraction of what he had. I felt sad for him. I hope he’s found a better situation for himself.
So she’d moved to Concord, New Hampshire and had drunk-dialed enough that I’d practically memorized the phone number for the police department. I knew several of the watch commanders on a first-name basis.
Seeing that yellow stickie, though, brought home the fact that there had been a year and a half of difficult times thanks to her. Times I shouldn’t have had to endure.
And, at that moment, I realized that the biggest mistake I’d ever made was taking him back. It shouldn’t have been my pain to deal with. Suddenly, I wanted her to feel everything I’d experienced during the day. I wanted her to be the one who’d suffered through all that.
It shouldn’t have been me.
But it was.
And that’s what hurt the most. Still does.
The Final Guilt
Three weeks after Richard died, I happened to find his wallet in a jacket pocket. I wasn’t looking for it at the time, just happened to reach for my jacket and notice the bulge in one of his.
I pulled it out, pulled out his driver’s license, and noticed that Richard had elected not to donate his organs.
So now I got to feel guilty over not only accidentally being the proximate cause that killed my husband, I got to feel guilty over unintentionally defying his stated wishes and saving someone else’s life.
About that Method of Dying Fantasy
We all die. Sure, some ways are better or worse than others, and whether one is better or worse for a particular person is partly based on who they are and what they fear.
However, I will tell you that death from sex doesn’t look very fun at all. Typically, the symptoms of stroke (or heart attack) start before the orgasm is complete, meaning you get all the bad, but not very much of the good. Most of the times, you never quite get there.
Unlike many other forms of death, most people – including myself prior to this event – have never considered what it’s like to be the surviving party in this exchange. What it would be like to feel that you’d been the cause of someone else’s death, especially if it were a spouse. You can tell yourself ten thousand times (as I have, easily) that it wasn’t your fault. Intellectually, you can know this. Emotionally, you will always feel that your intellect is wrong on this point and it really is your fault.
The bigger thing is that sex is no longer safe on a really fundamental level. I’d just watched someone die, and there was no way of not fearing for my own death. I was unable to enjoy many of my favorite movies for about a year. Anything with any kind of steamy sexy scene was completely off the table. It was just unwatchable.
I don’t know if you can even imagine what it’s like to have no, and I mean zero, sexual fantasies for over a year. That every time your mind started to go there, the image of your spouse dying just slammed in, vetoing everything. Add to that that that’s the only image you can recall of him because it is the emotionally strongest moment – that slice of time after you realize what happened but before the paramedics arrived.
And I well and truly wish the phrase “mind-blowing orgasm” would die in a fire.
I have seen one. I never want to see another.
I do seriously want to thank my friend Chris for being the person who, about 18 months later, was the person who was there for me when I needed to break my fast. Because it does take a special person to listen to all that shit and work through it with you, and he was really there for me.
Coda: Getting Through It
About a month before he died, my husband made me promise that, should anything happen to him, that I would marry someone else and be happy.
There were days I couldn’t imagine it. Oh so many days.
But there were also many days when the fact that I’d made the promise was the only reason I got out of bed at all.
After I began dating, there was a point when I felt the obligation to marry and Rick wasn’t ready yet, and I was afraid that I’d have to move on despite how much I loved him. Because, somehow, the obligation carried more weight. Thankfully, we worked past that.
Overall, though, that promise is what kept me going much of the time. I had to take care of myself enough to make it to that eventual point.
So, overall, I’d urge that those of you in relationships make similar requests. All too many widows and widowers die in the first year after their spouse or SO dies. It’s unimaginably hard. Give the person something to fight for and it might help them, as it helped me, get through the darkest times.