Thursday, September 17, 2020

The day he left our home

I always knew this would be an extremely difficult week for me, especially as the first anniversary of Nigel’s death gets closer. What I didn’t expect was all the weird ways it’s affected me. That included today.

On Tuesday, I talked about how doing a perfectly ordinary project, the sort of thing I’ve done several times over the past year, suddenly stirred up emotions I hadn’t expected. Those emotions turned what otherwise would have been a fairly lighthearted, even self-deprecating, post into one that was more reflective.

Later that same day, I published a post on the first time I talked publicly about what was happening to Nigel, and to our life together. If it hadn’t been for Facebook serving up a “Memory”, I may not have remembered all that, and if I hadn’t, then today would also have been much easier. Maybe. Even so, it helped me realise some things for the first time.

A year ago by date, on Tuesday, September 17, 2019, Nigel went back to hospital for the last time. He came home the previous Saturday, but was pretty miserable all the time. They only gave him paracetamol for pain/discomfort, and it didn’t really help (he was mostly profoundly uncomfortable, not really in any pain, fortunately).

On that Tuesday morning, he knew he needed to see the doctor to find out if they could do anything to make him feel more comfortable. I rang the doctor, but told them I couldn’t possibly get him to their office (he was weak and so very uncomfortable at the time, and I couldn’t get him down the stairs by myself). The doctor would try to come out, or else she’d send the practice nurse, which is what happened.

The nurse had helped Nigel the week before when I drove him to the doctor’s office. That day he was feeling very unwell. The nurse gave him fluids intravenously because he was dehydrated (he wasn’t able to eat or drink much). She was very kind and caring. I ended up driving him to the hospital because after waiting more than an hour, they checked and the ambulance was stuck in traffic (mainly) and they had no idea when it would show up. Nigel felt a bit better by then.

The morning of that Tuesday, Nigel sat on a plastic chair in the en suite so I could wash him (he didn’t want the doctor/nurse to examine him when he was “dirty” from not washing). I wasn’t very good at it, and he got frustrated with me. I’d have gotten much better at it if I’d only had more days.

The doctor’s office rang to say the doctor couldn’t get away, so she was sending the nurse. She arrived and took his vitals and sat down for a chat. She was again kind and caring. She asked if he wanted to go to hospital, and Nigel asked, “what would you do?" She replied, “I’d go to hospital.” The decision was made, and the doctor’s office organised for an ambulance to transport him.

The ambulance took a little while to get there, mostly because their GPS was pretty useless. They arrived and checked him out again, including using a mobile ECG machine. The backing paper for the contacts were on the floor and on Nigel’s nightstand the rest of the week.

They couldn’t carry him in a normal stretcher because our stairs were narrow and had a sharp 180 degree turn halfway down. So, they went to get their chair stretcher, and apparently had a newer version that was narrower. Or, something; my memory about that is a bit vague.

They helped him into the chair, and wheeled him down the hallway toward the stairs. Nigel’s brother and one of his sisters were there by then, and helped me, especially by looking after the dogs.

They wheeled Nigel down the stairs, slowly and carefully. They rounded the first turn, moved along to the second and final turn as I waited on a higher part of the stairs. As I watched them lower Nigel one step, then another step, slowly and carefully, I had a sudden moment of clarity: “He’ll never come back home again,” I thought to myself, and then quickly banished the thought. But, I knew.

Once outside, they helped Nigel get into the ambulance, and onto the stretcher inside. While they did that, Nigel’s brother and sister helped me get my things together, including a jacket, and one of them took Nigel’s bag (I’d packed it for him, though it was mostly still packed from his previous trip to hospital).

I climbed into the back of the ambulance and sat in the seat near Nigel, facing backwards. I was mostly focused on him—was he (reasonably) comfortable? Did it look like he might get sick (something he was worried about)? Nigel’s brother told me later that Nigel was looking off to the distance, as if he was trying to take in the view of the sky, the trees, everything at our home, for one last time. The doors shut and we headed out.

It was Nigel who noticed we were heading the wrong way. He’d looked out the window and realised where we were; I’d been too busy watching him. Once I got my bearings—I was riding backwards—I turned around to give directions to the driver: Their useless GPS was sending us the wrong, much longer way.

Once we were on the right roads, I could relax and focus on Nigel again. He was in good spirits, all things considered. When we got off the motorway to head to the hospital, we passed a KFC, and he joked about stopping to get some. The ambulance officer pretended to consider it.

We arrived at the hospital and I walked with them to the evaluation area. His brother and sister came round, and we visited with him. His sister happened to have a fan in the boot of her car, and went to get it for him. Over his last days at home, he found it increasingly difficult to stay cool. The Sunday before, he and I had taken a nap, with the deck door open and the air conditioner on cool—despite the fact it was still early Spring. That day was bright and sunny, and the air was fresh. Eventually, though, it got too cold even for him, and we closed up the house. But the air conditioner stayed on.

A lot of the details after we arrived at the hospital are a bit fuzzy for me, but eventually Nigel told us to go home for the night. At the time, and despite my moment of clarity, I was still thinking they’d stabilise him, make him feel better, then send him home again. If I’d had any idea what was really happening, I’d never have left him. I spent the next two nights—his last two nights—in his hospital room with him. By that time, I pretty much understood it was almost over, and I didn’t want him to die without me being near. I was there right up until the end. I know he knew that.

I remembered living through all that, but I don’t know that it I’d have had such a strong emotional reaction to it if it hadn’t been for that Facebook “Memory”. My reaction was strong: Yesterday evening I was sitting watching TV, remembering September 17 last year, and sometimes crying. There was nothing on TV I wanted to watch, and I thought about watching a YouTube video, but I realised that with the way I was feeling, it probably wasn’t a good idea. I watched an old movie instead.

I went to bed later, and once in bed I kept breaking into crying fits—loud, gut-clenching sobs, but not wailing. Just very deep sobs. I had trouble falling asleep, but when I did I slept well enough—though not actually enough. I hadn’t expected to be so affected the night before today, but I wasn’t surprised, either: Nights are always the worst for me. I’m most vulnerable then because nights are so cold, and dark, and silent, and lonely.

This bad patch had a good aspect, though, because it led me to a deep realisation. Whenever there’s been any sort of crisis, I’ve always switched into what I called “crisis mode”, in which I’m (unusually) focused, clear-headed, and able to see and make clear and logical decisions quickly. I was always proud of that ability (for lack of a better word), and Nigel told me more than once how he admired it, since he couldn’t do that in a personal “crisis”.

But I realised last night that this supposed “ability” has always been a fraud: It was my psyche’s way of protecting itself by (nearly) completely shutting down my emotions. It was how I was able to have my moment of clarity, then in the next second switch my focus back to what was happening in front of me. It wasn’t that I was “focused, clear-headed, and able to see and make clear and logical decisions quickly,” I’d simply turned off my emotions, and that was the logical result of doing so.

Over Nigel’s last days, and even on through his memorial the next week, I was oddly disconnected. At the time, and for months afterward, I assumed that was because I was just in some sort of shock. While I think that was part of it, I also think the main problem was that I’d shut down my emotions when I went into “crisis mode”.

Over the next six months, I continued turning to that ability to remain “focused, clear-headed, and able to see and make clear and logical decisions quickly” as I finalised Nigel’s estate, found a place to live in Hamilton and prepared for that, shifted into the new house, and sold our house in Auckland. All of that happened, I now realise, because I was still operating in that “crisis mode”. It explains why lockdown, coming hard on the heals of selling our Auckland house, was so very difficult for me: I suddenly had nothing to be “focused, clear-headed, and able to see and make clear and logical decisions quickly” about. That’s been true, more or less, ever since: I’d lost the only thing that for me qualified as “purpose”, like Joe Biden talked about last month.

I realised all of that only because of what that Facebook “Memory” set off a couple days ago, and it actually helped me put things into a larger and better perspective for the first time all year. On the other hand, up until that point I was thinking about how “well” I felt, even considering how the week was bound to get harder as it went on, as it drew closer to that horrible anniversary. That “Memory” shook things up—in this case, I think, for the better.

This morning another reminder popped up, one totally unrelated to what I went through last year. I was reading an article about the “important” parts of Apple’s product announcements this morning. I thought about how Nigel would have watched it live (he was almost always up by 5am, anyway), and he’d have been excited by the new Apple Watch and iPads—something I can be so sure of because he always had been, and because he wanted what was announced last year, but they weren’t actually available until after he’d died. Still, for a time he was excited about it, as he always had been, and I was happy for him—and probably mentally tabulating how much all of that was going to cost. We both had our roles!

Last night was not a good one, but today has been better, and part of the reason for that was thinking about how Nigel would react to Apple’s announcement. It was a reminder of how things used to be, and how good they were, before this time last year took all that away. A year ago today, was the day nigel left our home for the last time, but I was partly wrong that he wouldn’t be back: “My Nigel got to come home one last time, and we were all together one last time”, as I put it the morning of his memorial. It was one of the best decisions I made back then. That was one time I let my emotions into the picture, just a little bit.

This time has affected me in weird ways, including today. But because of it, I’ve also learned and grown so much. Documenting it will help me remember it correctly, too, which is also good. Nigel would absolutely hate seeing me in so much pain, but he’d also be glad that I managed to find something good in it. It’s what he’d have tried to do, too.


Jason in DC said...

Thank you for sharing this. I know it wasn't easy. The firsts after a death are the hardest at least that's the way it's been for me. Time makes the pain a little less sharp.

This is my little piece of advice and it's helped me through bad times. There will be tears but try and remember something about Nigel that will bring a smile to your face. The tears will eventually go away but the smile will always be there.

Ann said...

I am blown away that it's a year already. Hugs, Arthur.

Arthur Schenck said...

Jason: Absolutely! The thing about the Apple announcement is exactly the sort of thing that (still) makes me smile, because I know how excited he got about them. Even if it was a minor upgrade, he'd regale me with all the things that were brilliant about it. It was endearing—even if I didn't always share his enthusiasm!

Ann: Thanks. It IS hard to believe it's been a year, and for me that's mainly because in some ways I've been bracing myself for this all year long.