What happened?

A question I usually hate, not because I shy away from recounting Zack’s hospitalization and death, but because the fact that people ask it implies that there is any sort of justice in the universe. That there is a cause, or a reason, that this happened beyond random chance; any narrative that makes sense about it, anything to learn from it; that it’s even the part of the story that’s worth telling.

I realize they’re just asking “how could this happen?” but I’d literally rather tell you about how he organized his socks (a subject on which he had Opinions) than have you think the manner of his death is anything but the least important thing to remember about him.

All that being said, I’m finally writing it in brief because the first thing I want to know when I flail around on the internet looking for writing I can empathize with, looking to know I’m not alone, is what the hell kind of Widow Creds does this person have. It’s not about how their spouse died but about the widow’s narrative. Can I relate to their situation? So, all 0.3 readers of mine, here’s the backstory.

Zack was hospitalized for suspected pneumonia in June 2018, one month shy of our 9-year wedding anniversary. He died after a week in the MICU at Albany Med.

He was my best friend since freshman year of college, 16 years ago. He had congenital heart and lung issues that didn’t stop him from delighting in life and resiliently handling everything it threw at him. We were the world to each other and devastated doesn’t begin to describe how I feel now. Being prepared for the unlikeliness of having many retirement years together didn’t make me prepared for him to die when we were 34 and our son was 18 months old.

The weekend of Father’s Day he has what seems like a fever and mild illness with no particular cough or congestion, which leads to significant trouble breathing, which leads us to our primary care doctor who takes one look and sends us to the ER, where they admit him and start antibiotics and treat for severe ARDS. June 19, 2018 is the last time I see him conscious because they put him on mechanical ventilation.

There’s no clear inciting incident for the illness, though the doctors ask about anything that might guide treatment decisions, especially after cultures don’t help them narrow down the antibiotic choices much. I still think about it even though it’s unproductive. Was it some bacterium in his home oxygen tubing? His surgery in January? A dental cleaning?

For several days his vitals are up and down and I don’t really know enough to understand his prognosis and I read all the papers I can, so I can go over his labs with his nurse and ask intelligent questions in morning rounds, so I can understand what we’re facing. I still don’t let myself believe he’s not going to be in the 50%, or 30%, or 20% survival rate. Want to believe that because he’s been lucky every time he’s brushed shoulders with death that that means he’ll be lucky now. Just studiously ignoring the logical fallacy.

When people ask What Happened sometimes they mean “why didn’t he get better in the hospital?” Yeah, I don’t have an answer either.

The fact that he’s an interesting case means he’s been on a first-name basis with experts on his conditions and I’ve been calling directors for their recommendations and making sure they’re in touch with his doctors up here. I have met the attendings and the cardiology folks and the infectious disease experts here and done my best to prove to them that I am both intellectually capable of comprehending the jargon and emotionally capable of frankly discussing his condition. As if there’s some scrap of information I can offer that will improve a treatment decision; as if by force of will I can make the universe give him to me.

By the 22nd we’re looking at transport for ECMO. Ultimately, three institutions say no. He’s not a transplant candidate due to sepsis, and it’s a bridge therapy, not a destination. No one will start it if there’s no path to recovery. They try to start dialysis here as some last-ditch effort to keep the acidosis under control while we wait in vain for antibiotics to work. They prep him for it, but they can’t keep his blood pressure high enough. For some reason they shield me from the term “septic shock” and I don’t make them say it even though we all know that’s what they’re describing.

The evening is a blur. Doctors and nurses tell me when they’re leaving as we switch to the night staff. One kindly presses me to think about the fact that the default will still be for them to do CPR if his heart stops right now and I say I’m not ready to change that.

An hour or a few later, after they can’t get the dialysis started, I tell them shakingly but carefully, choosing my words precisely, “I would like to withdraw my request…”

I sign that part of the MOLST form and take some time to sit with his body as machines try to force it to work.

Then I sign the rest and they stop the pressors and under my hand, his heart stops beating.

December 31

I really hope no one expects me to say the word “happy” today.

I hesitate to say that 2019 can’t be worse, given that I was just thinking we’d finished out the 2018 without any more death or serious harm coming to anyone in my social circle and then heard this morning that a childhood friend (we haven’t kept in touch well but I worry about them) got in a bad car wreck. So I won’t jinx myself when I can easily brainstorm 20 ways things could currently be worse for me, even if most of those events are only worse when added on top of the crumbling foundation that is widowhood.

New Year’s Eve used to be my favorite holiday. I don’t like crowds and couldn’t care less about the ball dropping. I love making fun of how silly it is that we act like a calendar date changes anything (“Happy arbitrary Gregorian boundary condition,” to quote Eric Meyer). But I also love something about the pause for evaluation and reflection. I often used to watch the Twilight Zone marathon on TV, drink root beer floats, and write myself a letter, to seal and reopen a year later, about what had been and what I wished would come. Not goals or resolutions, but hopes.

I’m not sure if I can do that anymore. I pretty much say all the time what my only hopes are – that is, survive until anything seems less bleak. I’m emotionally incapable of imagining I can actually handle this grief for another year.

Today is a day for VOY 11:59, appreciating that the accuracy of a legacy is irrelevant, and appreciating the rare moments when I’m able to look forward with anything but exhaustion, when my cookies do taste like something.

fake memoir title #3

“Is it healthy to cling to your closest living friend for constant emotional support after the death of your spouse, and other stupid questions”

I’m mostly just grateful to have someone not flinch at witnessing the depth of my grief. Grateful to have someone to smooth the edges of my broken heart gently back into place day after day. But I have times where I still worry it’s a burden. That by the chance of having been our oldest mutual friend they’re now stuck with inheriting the role of my protector, like some sort of platonic levirate remarriage. I guess I worry it’s a duty, something you shouldn’t expect people to put up with for ages.

And really, brain? If you were talking to a grieving friend, you’d say that sounds completely normal and you should rely on people as much as they ask you to. Someone needs to tell you to stop worrying about everything.

It was someone’s job, but unfortunately, he’s dead.

The score at 6 months

Well, the clock has just turned over to Christmas Eve here, which means it’s officially past Zack’s 6-month deathiversary.

I’m writing this, so you can presume I survived thus far.

I don’t think I was wrong, though, in assuming I’d meet the criteria for complicated grief at 6 months. It doesn’t magically get better; this time was the blink of an eye. I don’t know how that’s even an expectation that any sort of “recovery” would be possible by now. I’m less impaired than I was, less constantly in utter distress, so I’ll take it.

I lit a scented candle tonight, briefly, that someone gave me after Zack died. I guess as a sort of “let’s take a moment so I can reflect on being proud I’m surviving and very slightly improved at functioning on average” thing.

It felt weird because I have in the back of my head still that we don’t touch candles in the house, after Zack came home from the hospital on oxygen in January. I haven’t lit one in 6 months except my kid’s birthday candles. It felt bad to do it, as if it’s an admission that he’s not here, that my house is no longer filled with compressors and tanks, that I don’t have to remember those safety concerns on a daily basis. But I guess it’s time to light a candle if I want to light a candle. Time to admit that I can find some tiny moments of restoration-focused activity in between all the loss-focused time.

Let’s take score.

Foxhole conversions: 0
Obituaries written: 1
Days I didn’t want to have to live through this: 184
Days actively suicidal: 0

Intentional injuries: 0 unless you count self-sabotage in the form of serious procrastination, overdoing it when I do get up to move furniture etc., spitefully staying up too late, a vicious cycle of avoidance and failing to concentrate on work and then feeling incompetent, and punching a wooden urn. I suppose these count as maladaptive grief coping strategies and not really injuries.
Unintentional injuries: 1 fingertip sliced with a bagel knife and about 100 head bumps, stubbed toes and other minor clumsiness but that’s not a vastly increased rate for me

Photos looked through: 23,847

Giant bins of things to donate or give away: about 8
Things actually donated: 0
KVM switches successfully set up: 1
Pieces of home network and homelab equipment that I understand enough to fix when they break: 0
Times I thought I cracked my phone screen but it was actually just the screen protector: 2

Times I’ve used Zack’s kitchen stove: 0
Hours spent assembling a toy kitchen: 6
Times I regretted taking my toddler out in public: Really only the time I had him with me when I went to pick up his birthday cake and he cried “I want cake!” for an hour straight and would not eat his other snacks
Interstate trips survived: 2
Parties held with the help of Zack’s fraternity brothers: 2

Weight lost/gained: negligible overall
Days where the largest chunk of my calories come from cheese, donuts, or other junk: ~125
Cases of scurvy: 0
Hangovers: a lot fewer than you would think
Times I vomited: 1
Times I was vomited on: 2
Pairs of glasses scratched: 1

Times email/text reminders saved me from forgetting to pay an important bill: at least 10
Times internet, electric, gas, web hosting, or other important services were cut off: 0 (not sure how I achieved that)
Other Death Chores and accounts I still need to deal with: don’t want to count. 15 lists full of cards in my Trello board.

Seasons of Star Trek Voyager watched: 2.5
Days where I noticed myself being able to handle daily life for several hours: maybe 10

Weeks I was able to work a full 40 hours: 0
Weeks I at least worked my full scheduled hours: 4?

Nights of enough sleep: Ha

the last day of innocence

Today is 6 months from the last blissfully ignorant day of my life. I feel like it’s been weeks, like the world is moving on around me. I am confused by what season it is when I wake up. 

6 months since we thought you just had a little cold that you’d get over soon. You said you were starting to feel better, that you’d probably go to work the next day, Monday. And I said, sarcastically, I’ll believe it when I see it. If your fever isn’t completely gone you’re calling the doctor in the morning. And you insisted you’d prove me wrong. 

You didn’t prove me wrong. 

You were almost always right. I still owe you a souffle, from a long-forgotten drunk giggly debate over something. I never learned to make it. I’m sorry the ramekins are still sitting there unused while I can’t even recall what the bet was that you won. 

I wish I had been wrong. I wish it had been just another day of our beautiful, happy, boring, mundane life getting in the way of ever having to have time to make a souffle. 


Yesterday I punched your urn. 

It didn’t help. 

Today your great-uncle died. 

4th death in less than 4 years for our family, though thankfully you never had to see the pain of the last two of them. 

Today was not a good day.