My first husband died eleven years ago, on the morning of December 23, 2010. In the days to follow, I released this personal account of his final hours, the story I must write. Please be advised, these paragraphs are graphic, detailed, personal, and mine. Read with caution, respect, and care.
These words hold my very heart.
"I can't stop shaking," he said in a text message. "I can't stop shaking, and my sinus cavities ache."
"Bummer, love," I wrote back. I sat at a Starbucks table, scrambling to think clearly and finish a writing deadline. "Need me to come home?"
I went back to my work, clicking away at my keyboard. I went home an hour later, I greeted my children, and I rounded the corner into the living room. There lay my husband, piled under blankets, shaking uncontrollably. Tremors. Rigors. Chills. Whatever they are. Violent is what they seemed.
He didn't have a fever. He had no runny nose, no cough. No nothing. Just these awful, horrible shakes.
His parents had just arrived into town from Chicago, and we were to meet them for dinner that night. Well, obviously we couldn't go. Or at least he couldn't go. Ever the party girl, I was not quick to give up the plan. Still, I called his parents to let them know we may need to amend it ever so slightly. I told his dad the plan, the symptoms, my mild concerns.
"You need to take him to the ER. I'll meet you there," his dad said. "I'm on my way."
Moments later, my mom arrived to watch over the boys, and as quickly as we could gather ourselves and mobilize his trembling body, we were in urgent care. Robb's dad met us there, and Robb explained his symptoms with great clarity. We waited for answers, but they gave us few. His vitals were fine. Pulse-Ox: fine. Heart rate: fine. Breath sounds: fine. A quick nose swab confirmed Influenza A, the only name for the dark cloud above us.
The doctor said, "Well, I'm sorry to tell you, your holidays won't be much fun. Robb, the worst of this will last about four days, and the whole virus takes 10-14 days to run its course. You won't die, but you'll feel like you're going to."
(Please read that sentence again. Because I've heard the words at least a million times.)
They sent us home with instructions and prescriptions. Robb lost his spleen in a sledding accident in high school, so he was at greater risk for complications. He was highly at risk, highly contagious, and to be highly quarantined. Lock him in the bedroom, let nobody near him, and ride out the storm. He'll be better by 2011. Promise. If he has any trouble breathing, call 9-1-1. But really, he should be fine.
Is what they said.
His dad took him home while I went to the grocery store to fill the prescriptions and stock up on comfort foods for my sweet, sick love.
Influenza. The flu. Quarantine. Isn't that so 1800's? Isn't there something they can do to get him better by Christmas?
I cried in the pharmacy department, amid the cold and flu meds. You see, I'm a party girl with big plans for a big holiday. Cancellations fell into place, plans fell to the floor, and my heart fell with disappointment. I suddenly came face to face with the heart of traditions. The meaning of Christmas runs deep and immovable, but it manifests in the traditions of a family. When you take those away... well, for better or worse, traditions and meaning are closely wed.
And I cried over the confusion of it all.
I got home to find him just where we had planned: safely in our bed, snuggled on his side. The lights were dimmed, football was on the TV, and he lay perfectly still. I came beside him to give him some meds, and he said, "No, no, baby girl. Stay away. You can't get this. I'll be okay. Check on me in a few hours. And please, sleep downstairs. I'll text you if I need you."
As I handed him his dose of medicine, he wouldn't let his fingers touch mine. He said, "I cannot explain how this feels. It's the worst pain of my life. You can't get this. Please, go downstairs."
His last living act toward me: protection.
Let me tell you this little secret... 12 years ago, when we first wrapped our hearts around this consuming love we fell hard into, we established an I-Love-You code.
Three hand squeezes: I. Love. You.
Two hand squeezes: You. Too.
At the time, I thought to myself, this may come in handy if ever he cannot speak. I can still tell him; somehow, I'll still tell him.
I checked on him throughout the night. He never, ever opened his eyes. But one time, as he sensed me near him, he weakly lifted his right hand. He patted the bed three times.
I. Love. You.
Around five in the morning, my phone rang beside me on the couch.
"I need you."
I raced up the stairs, and I found him sitting up on the side of the bed.
"I can't... I can't... I can't.... slow down. I can't slow down.... my... breathing.... I can't..."
"Oh, God. Oh, God. I'll call 9-1-1. I'm calling 9-1-1, baby. It's okay. It's okay."
I speed dialed my mom: "Mom. I'm calling 9-1-1. Come for the boys. Hurry."
I dialed 9-1-1.
"9-1-1. What is your emergency?"
I scrambled through my dresser drawers, throwing on clothes as I spoke. "My husband. My husband. He has Influenza A, and he cannot breathe. Please send help. Please send help. Please help me."
"Of course, Ma'am. What is your address?"
As I told her, I saw him fall off the bed into a heap on the floor. I screamed to him. I screamed to her. I screamed. "Please! Please help me! He's not conscious! Please help me now!!"
"Ma'am, please stop shouting. Please listen to me."
"Tell me what to do! God help me! Help me! He's not breathing!" I knelt over him, screaming.
For a moment, he opened his eyes, and in a valiant, courageous effort he pushed himself to a sitting position. He leaned against the wall, rested his head back... and he found me with his eyes.
His eyes found mine.
And I watched the color drain from his face. With his eyes on mine, his face turned gray.
I screamed for him, over him, to him. She told me to lay him down, this woman in my ear who talked me through. I tried. I really tried. But he's a big man, that husband of mine. I laid him down as best I could.
She told me to clear his airway, to make sure nothing blocked it. Just as I had learned in eighth grade health class, I cleared his airway with two fingers. And he bit me.
I pulled my fingers free, screaming for help, screaming, screaming.
"Feel for air from his nose," she said. I felt only stillness.
"Feel for a pulse," she said. His neck was a stone.
"Begin chest compressions," she said. I pounded on his chest, with everything in me. He was gray and unmoving. Still, I pounded.
My mom walked into my bedroom to find me kneeling over him, pounding. "I think he's gone, Mom! I think he died!"
"No. No. Don't say that. The paramedics are here. In here, gentlemen, in here."
They came in with a fury, these men on a mission. In no time at all, my bedroom was filled with at least six men, maybe eight, getting to work.
I jumped out of their way, and I jumped in the air. "Please fix him. Please fix him. Oh, God, please fix him."
"Ma'am, you need to leave the room please."
They ushered me downstairs, safely out of their way. My parents paced in the kitchen and made phone calls all over the country. "Please pray. The paramedics are working on him now. We don't know. We don't know. We don't know."
I gathered my Scripture cards, the hand-written 3x5 companions I've carried in my purse for more than two years. And I will tell you, here and now, the Lord quieted my heart with a peace that passes understanding.
I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
your Protector will not slumber.
Indeed, the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep.
The Lord protects you;
the Lord is a shelter right by your side.
The sun will not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will protect you from all harm;
He will protect your life.
The Lord will protect your coming and going,
both now and forever. ~ Psalm 121
Again and again, I read those words. Long moments passed. So many. I heard the sounds of rescue upstairs. The sounds of great efforts. The sounds of courageous men doing all they could do.
An officer came into the kitchen. He said, "Are you his wife?"
"Ma'am, we've been working on him for forty minutes, and we're doing all we can. But there is no heartbeat or breath sounds, and there have not been any. We're going to need to tell you he has passed."
We're going to need to tell you. As in, not yet, but soon we'll need to. I have since learned that they said it this way to ease the news. Just in case I may fall to the floor and they would have a second patient on their hands, they wanted to break it gently. We're going to need to tell you.
My wise and brave mom looked to him and said, "Is that the final word? Is he gone?"
The officer looked to me. "Yes, Ma'am. I'm so very sorry. He's gone."
Have you ever wondered what you might say if a police officer tells you your husband has died? I never imagined it this way, but I simply said, "Okay."
And I looked at the hand-written card in my hands.
I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He is gone. Okay. My help comes from the Lord.
Robb's dad and brother arrived, swooping into the house with the urgency we all felt. They looked at me... I shook my head. "He died."
They bolted up the stairs. The police stopped them. I could not see them, around the corner in the stairwell. But I heard them. And it is the sounds of mourning that do not leave my mind.
I listened again when his mother arrived. There are no words for these sounds, I assure you. And if there were, I would not write them.
The officer came to me. "You may see him now, Ma'am. You don't have to if you don't wish to, but you may if you would like. And I must tell you, this is your last chance."
Of course, I will see him. Of course, I will see him.
His dad traveled the stairs with me, and together we entered my bedroom, now an absent scene with remnants of urgency, panic, and medical intervention. My bed was wrecked; pillows were strewn all over. The carpet was wet. Medical paraphernalia was scattered all over. In the midst of it all, there lay my husband. He was intubated, with my bed sheet covering him from the chest down.
I was carefully instructed not to lift the sheet, and I absolutely obeyed. They had done all they could, and I am confident my bedroom was an operating room. What hid under that sheet need never enter my mind.
I knelt over him, and I wept. I cried for many things, for his life, for his death, for his sons, for his wife, for his dreams and mine. I cried for things I don't even know yet. My father-in-law held me and said, "I'm so sorry, sweetheart. I'm so sorry, sweetheart."
I didn't wish to look at Robb's face. It didn't look like him. But I looked just long enough to confirm one thing: he looked just the same when his eyes were locked with mine. He died with me.
He died with me.
I rubbed his prickly head, the shaved cut I loved so much. And I thought to myself, Remember this. Remember this. Remember this.
I held his hand, the only part of him that still looked like him. His fingers were cold and white; his fingernails were purple. But it was his hand, the very hand I held on our first date, on our wedding day, as we prayed over each meal together, as we sat together in church, as our sons were born. I kissed his palm. I slipped his wedding ring off his finger and onto my thumb.
I kissed his forehead.
"I'll love you forever, Robb Williford. I'll love you forever."
There are many things I do not understand, and there are many questions in my mind. But I am confident of three things:
- He died fighting. He pushed himself up, he leaned against the wall, and he fought to stay alive until his eyes held mine.
- He died knowing I was fighting for him. He heard me screaming for him, to him, for God, to God. He knew I fought for him, with his dying breath.
- I know where my hope and my husband rest: with the Lord Jesus Christ. I may have no idea how to walk the path of tomorrow, this week, or next year, but my hope is sure. I will see my husband again. And in the meantime, I long to dream of him. I'd love to hear him laugh.
My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.
~ ~ ~
Eleven years have come and gone.
My then-preschoolers are now almost-grown men who wear suitcoats and go to work and tie beautiful bows on the gifts they give to the girls in their lives.
I have written likely a million words, as I have learned the healing comes in telling the story a thousand times. I have emptied my cup to comfort others with the comfort that was given to me.
A well-intentioned someone asked me recently, "Can you see why it happened now?"
I can see other things.
I can see the fruit that grew in every season, even the ones that felt cold and empty, pruned to nothing.
I can see the beauty from the ashes, the phoenix from the flames.
But I will never understand why it happened that way.
Nadia Bolz Weber released an achingly beautiful essay this week, where she said, "Maybe the really outrageous act of faith on Mary's part was trusting that she had found favor with God. This, it seems to me, is a vital and overlooked miracle of the Annunciation story."
Evangelist Brent Carr wrote,
"She was 'highly favored' but was almost put away by the man she loved the most.
'Highly favored' but she was rejected by every person in Bethlehem.
'Highly favored' but she laid on the dirt floor of a barn and gave birth to a baby she carried nine months.
'Highly favored' but in the middle of the night had to leave all she knew and move to a strange town because God said so.
"Favor never looks like favor at first.
Favor sometimes takes you through frustration, failure, and fear.
You want to be favored of God?
It may be in the darkest night or deepest valley.
But there in that place where no one sees you and you feel like no one understands,
Whisper to yourself:
'This is only the beginning and not the end.
This will turn out for my good and His glory.
This is because… I'm favored.'"
~ ~ ~
My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.