I need to quit procrastonating or else the booze will wear off and then I’ll just be hungover. I’m only one drink in but still…
I have to tell this story. I have to write it out because I never have. I have relived it over and over and over. Nearly every day. I keep thinking that if I just write it then maybe I will stop seeing it every time my eyes close or my mind wanders. This is going to be a yucky, bus wreck kind of post. Feel free to rubberneck.
I wish the ending were different. Like if Titanic would have missed the iceberg or the letter got to Romeo in time. We all know the ending but we watch anyway, hoping for a different outcome.
So I’m telling the story. How I remember it.
I spend a good part of the day (Saturday) not at the hospital. I had showered, napped and eaten. Monica and I drove around for a while and ended up at Panera for a bowl of soup. I kept saying “Is it bad that I want to sleep in my own bed? Is it bad that I don’t want to go back?” I really very desperately wanted a night away from the hospital. It was crushing me. And his whole entire family was there. He was well tended to. I felt, well, out of place. Like in a “Well, my job here is done” kind of way.
I finally got back to his room right before 9pm. I had been in and out but mostly out all day. The pastor had been there…both of them…the oncologist, Stephen’s uncle had come from St. Louis. When I got there, the room emptied. It was dim as it had been all day. Nobody opened the curtains that day. The light of day would have told us too much I think.
I put the side down on his bed and got in with him. I laid my head on his chest and listened to it rattle. The noise from the oxygen was almost deafening to me (he was getting 8L through his mask at this point…that’s alot). He could barely wrap one arm around my back. We didn’t talk. I tried not to squash him. We layed there for I don’t know how long. Ten minutes? Twenty?
David walked in. David is Stephen’s younger brother. David. Who has never found what he was looking for. David. Who was a rock and a soldier for his mom, his brother and me. David walked in to get his jacket and got all embarassed. “I’m sorry…I’ll get out of here.” Stephen pulled off his mask and said “Yeah, cause we’re making out in here!” We all laughed.
Our tender moment was over. He asked me for some lip balm. His lips were really dry. He was getting fluids but not alot and the oxygen did a number on the dryness of his face and lips. He asked me how my day was and how Monica’s trip had gone and if Alex was in town too.
You can say no if you want to but I really want to sleep at home tonight.
“I need you here. I rest better knowing you are here.”
“Don’t be mad.”
I’m not. I just didn’t know if you had an opinion. I will stay. I am going to try and sack out in the other bed though okay?
“Okay. Can you keep my mom and dad out of here for a while? I’m getting tired of them playing doctor every other minute.”
Can do. Who do you want in here?
“David can stay. I want you here. I’m just tired. Really, really tired. I got no rest today. And everything hurts.”
He was in pain. Lots of pain. He was essentially paralyzed from the waist down but his arms and hands and neck and shoulders bristled in pain. It was a nerve pain. He described it to me as feeling kind of like when you fall asleep on your hands and they feel not like your own and all stabby and on fire. Except worse. He was on a jacked up amount of morphine that he controlled. Or I did when his hands stopped working around midnight.
It was around midnight that he napped. We all left the room and camped out in exquisitely uncomfortable waiting room chairs. We talked about nothing. I don’t remember what. I remember wanting to take two xanax but Jill stopped me and said the dose was too high and I’d pass out. At 1am I decided to lay down in the other hospital bed. Jill said that she’d go sit with him. He was asleep.
I fell asleep clutching my cellphone (sidenote: it would be almost a week until I didn’t sleep with my phone). I had taken my contacts out and brushed my teeth. I think I seriously thought that I’d get at least three or four hours. I was only asleep for an hour but it was the deep, dreamless sleep that only comes to those who have been awake for the better part of two days. From my sleep I hear his voice:
“Where is Jennifer?”
I’m right here baby. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and found my shoes and looked at the clock. 2:15. I got it, Jill. Go take a nap. She left the room without saying anything. She was wrecked too.
“Do you still have the lip stuff?” I do. I put some on his lips and stole a kiss. He looked at me with gratitude but didn’t smile. The only light was from the hallway and even that was dimmed for the hospital night. How’s things? “Everything hurts and I can’t get comfortable.”
So I adjusted pillows and lowered his head a bit. He wanted a sip of water so I got that for him too. “My shoulders hurt. I have a headache.”
I reached behind him and started massaging his very tight and tense shoulders. He didn’t say anything but I could tell that it was helping. “Everything hurts.” I know. “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.” I’m fine. This is what we do, right? “I know you never wanted to see me like this.” I love you. “I love you too.” He pulled his mask away and I got one last kiss. He closed his eyes and I massaged his shoulders and up his neck. He started mumbling…everything hurts…it hurts. Should I stop? He opened his eyes, looked at me and said “No.”
And then, right in my arms…with me perched on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night…he had a seizure. It was much like the first (and only other) one he’d had back in August when I flipped out and called the ambulance. I knew what it was instantly. The humming. I yanked my hands away as if he were on fire. I know I didn’t cause it but, honestly, that was my first thought. It wasn’t a big, jerky seizure. I rang for the nurse.
I wish I could remember his night nurse’s name that night. She was fantastic. She flipped on the light and did an assessment and asked me a few questions. She turned up his oxygen and watched him for a bit. I called Bill in from the parking lot (he and Suzy were sleeping in the camper) and woke up Jill. We all stood there and watched him for a good fifteen minutes. He seemed to be coming out of the seizure. The nurse said that he’d probably be really tired and that it was a blessing in disguise. He could sleep now.
Jill and Suzy (for the record, Bill’s former and current wives) went to the waiting room. Bill and I sat at Stephen’s bedside…it was nearly 3am…and had a two hour conversation about Stephen. About him as a child. About how proud he was of him. About the littles. He expressed that he still wanted to be part of the girls’ lives after this was all over. I assured him that I had no intention of taking them away from anyone. All in all, we talked for two hours. In that time, Stephen must have fallen asleep; the seizure was over. I’d like to think he was listening to us. I’d like to think that he knew that everything was, in fact, going to be okay. Bill and I talked for over an hour.
At 4:30, Bill decided to go back to the camper for some shut-eye. He was claiming the morning shift since all the women were up all night. So Suzy, Jill and I sat up in the waiting room for a while and chatted about nothing. Or maybe it was something but I don’t remember. We talked until almost 6. Stephen slept in his room, alone.
I wanted a nap. I was fading fast. Jill was too. Suzy had slept the first part of the night and said that she would sit with him. I crawled into the other bed in the room and passed out.
The next thing I know, a light turned on over his bed and the nurse says “You might want to get up. This is it.”
What? I got into my shoes and rubbed my eyes.
“He’s going fast.”
What? “Yep, this is it…I’ll go get Jill” Suzy says to me.
I rubbed my eyes again and saw his sats plummeting….68…55…40…Jill’s in the room…32…
The nurse turned up his oxygen.
Don’t prolong it. “He’ll be more comfortable.” Oh.
A few seconds later, the flashing heart on the monitor stopped. The nurse put her stethoscope to his chest. “one….two….” He gasped and it reminded me to breathe. “That’s normal.” I know. Oh, how did I know?
She looked at him, took the mask off his face, turned off the oxygen. “6:58”
It is finished.
And there he was. Still wearing “Old Blue”, his favorite TKE shirt. Mouth open. Bald. Lips spread.
Bill walked in the room 10 seconds later. Stephen died with his mother, his stepmother and me at his side. At 6:58am on a fall Sunday morning.
One year ago this night.
The sun rose just as I was getting off the elevator to go outside and make the calls. I was outside for more than an hour when the church bells in the neighborhood started tolling. And reminded me to go back inside. To kiss him goodbye. For the last time.
One year ago. This night.
Stephen Henton Kreitz
2.15.75 – 10.7.07