Posted in memory of Michael R. Fronheiser who died on 4-14-2001. I always wanted to get this published… But I never really knew where to submit it. So here it is on my blog. At least it didn’t go to waste.
It happened while we were making love. Being newlyweds, we were always making love. My husband’s last moments were spent expressing his love for me, knowing that I loved him. People tell me that I should be happy about that. At least he didn’t die alone, right? We knew exactly where we stood with each other at that moment in time. No questions. It’s more than a lot of people ever get with their dead loved ones. But I find no comfort in it.
The fact that it happened while we were making love makes the betrayal even more bitter. It makes levity of his death, turning it into a scene from some stupid Hollywood comedy. It’s everyone’s favorite joke when facing the thought of their own mortality. “I want to die while having sex,” they pompously announce as though they were the first person to ever come up with the idea. “That’s the best way to go.”
My husband said it once too. A few weeks before he died, in fact. Not that there’s anything to that. People say that kind of stuff all the time. He’d probably said it before, but I had tuned it out. The last time stands out in retrospect because of its timing.
For some reason, I’ve never found this joke funny. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’d rather imagine my death as occurring in silence, away from the sight of those I love. I always thought I’d die when I was old, which was worlds away from the twenty-six year old I was then. I had fallen into the invincibility trap of youth. Though I had a fair idea of how life really worked, I never honestly believed either of us could die.
When people ask me how my husband died, I am usually vague in order to avoid the snickers and facetious grins that are sure to follow. Each jeer pierces my heart. That even one person could dare to find humor in what was possibly the worst day—the worst event—of my life drives me absolutely mad. But then, most of the people my age also believe the invincibility lie.
It was the Saturday morning before Easter. The forecast had predicted unseasonably warm weather for Northeastern Ohio. Mike and I were planning to meet up with a friend later to go bike riding along the towpath in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which was just about ten miles from our house. We were both training for the MS 150, an annual two-day 150-mile bike ride to raise donations for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Mike traveled during the week for his job as a software trainer. He usually came home on Fridays and left on Sundays. So Saturdays were generally our day, our time to spend together. As usual, he was scheduled to fly out the following day.
We woke that morning to yellow sunlight flooding our bedroom despite the blinds over the windows. Almost immediately, Mike slid his hands under my t-shirt and caressed my back. I leaned into his touch. His hands were always warm, but his gentle touch made me shiver. He’d taught me the sheer pleasure of skin against skin.
“You always wear too many clothes to bed,” he teased in my ear, impatiently tugging my shirt up.
Sex was always the last thing on my mind when I first woke up. I usually wanted more sleep or food or at least some mouth wash. I was more of the spontaneous mid-day sort of seductress. Yet he always managed to persuade me, however groggy I was, because eventually I would forget being hungry or having stinky breath. He knew how to awaken my inner vixen.
This morning, the tone of our love-making was gentle, sweet. Amidst the passion, our hands sought each other as if to find every possible way our bodies could connect. As our hands clenched, our wedding rings struck together with a small melodious ring. The sound thundered in my ears.
You better remember that sound, some omniscient voice cut into my thoughts. It is the last time you will ever hear it.
I tried to dismiss this utterly ridiculous thought, drown it in some dark spot in my subconscious where all my randomly fearful, insecure thoughts lingered. I had probably heard that noise a million times before when our hands clenched during our intimate moments together. But this morning, I noticed.
A moment later I had almost forgotten the thought when Mike stopped. He slumped against the head board, a dazed look in his eyes.
“Oh, no,” he said rather evenly. There wasn’t much surprise there, just calm recognition.
“What?” I asked, half a giggle still ringing in my voice.
“I can’t hear my heartbeat,” he stated. Again, nonplused. But yet, far away too.
I felt my smile fade, my own heart thumped in my ears. “Are you okay?” I asked tentatively.
“I can’t hear my heartbeat,” he repeated in a whisper. There was a note of panic this time.
Shock is paralyzing. All I could do was look at him, speechless. For moments, I waited for him to say more, to give me some instructions that told me what he wanted me to do. I couldn’t tell what was going on, nor how badly he hurt. Surely, it couldn’t be that serious, I rationalized. I thought he was okay. Maybe he had heart burn, indigestion, I didn’t know. I was dumb with fear, helpless.
I did the only thing I could think to do at the moment: I leaned down and tried to listen to his heart myself. But my ears were roaring with the sound of a raging river. My own blood rushing through the veins in my ears? His blood desperately trying to push through his own veins in search of oxygen? I don’t know. I will never know. Unable to determine what was going on, I looked back up into Mike’s face.
His face was blue—literally blue. Like how they described asphyxiation in health class. I had always thought that “blue” was some sort of metaphor for the condition; I had no idea that it was an actual description.
I jumped out of the bed. But I was naked. I had to find clothes. More time passed as I fumbled for my nightshirt and shorts. I don’t know why I did this. My mind could only force one thought through at a time and I was determined to get my nightshirt on before calling 911. In retrospect, it seemed like I wrestled with my clothes for an hour; in truth, it was probably no more than two minutes. Regardless, I would curse myself over these actions in the days and years that followed. I would always feel—and still feel to this day—that my delay cost precious seconds that could have saved Mike’s life.
My hands fumbled with the phone as though I’d never handled one before. I was like the main character in a horror movie, struggling to complete a menial task while the killer sharpened his knife in the next room. You always think that if it happened to you, surely, you’d move much faster. My brain was frozen dumb in shock. I was no better than the mocked horror movie character.
I don’t remember how the call was answered. The line clicked twice and suddenly someone else was with me in this nightmare.
“Something’s wrong with my husband,” I fumbled, my tongue huge and bloated in my mouth. The panicked sound that emitted from my throat revealed much more fear than I felt. “He was complaining about his heart.”
“Is he conscious?” the all-too-calm voice droned in my ear. The female dispatch operator sounded far too deadpan. I got no comfort from it. Why did they always sound much more sympathetic on television?
I forced my eyes to return to the bed and my husband. I didn’t want to look, but I did. His face was so dark—not blue anymore, but a dark, dark red. Like dried blood. His chest was jerking up and down, erratically punctuated by deep, gasping wheezes. It was the worse sound I’ve ever heard. It didn’t sound human at all. Suffocation.
“No,” I croaked. I felt like I should be crying, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to over-react. At the same time, I vaguely worried that the operator would think me completely unmoved. Crying was like admitting the seriousness of the situation and I didn’t want to do that. It was going to be okay. I kept telling myself that it would be okay.
“Is he responsive?” that other voice pressed.
“I don’t think so. He hasn’t said anything since it began.”
Passive as ever, she asked me to confirm my address. I gave the information to her, waiting for her to give me some sort of instructions like they did on Rescue 911. Isn’t that what they do? Wasn’t there something I could do?
“Okay, a crew is on the way. Are you somewhere where you can let them in?”
“Yes,” I replied impatiently. Where were words of reassurance?
“Good. Just hang tight. They’ll be there as soon as possible.”
As soon as possible? How soon was that?, I wanted to scream. I wanted something more consoling than a vague assurance that an ambulance was on the way. There was a click on the line as the operator hung up. Weren’t they supposed to keep me on the line until the ambulance arrived? This didn’t seem like how it was supposed to work.
Feeling let down, I set the phone on the night stand and let my eyes wonder to Mike’s convulsing body again. He was naked, as I had been, and it occurred to me that I should get his boxers back on. I found them in the bed sheets, towards the footboard, wadded up as carelessly as they had been tossed off. I slid his legs through the pant legs.
When I got to his waist, the task became much harder. I never realized how heavy he was. Not that he was a heavy guy; quite the contrary, Mike was very trim, healthy. But in all my previous experiences, I was dealing with a conscious Mike. When you are conscious, there’s always some part of you still holding your own weight. Unconscious, I found, there was nothing preventing his weight from bearing full force against the mattress.
“Misha,” I crooned, using my nickname for him. “I need to get your boxers on.”
I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I said it anyway. Hearing my own voice out loud brought me comfort somehow, made me feel real.
“Mike, the ambulance will be here soon,” I promised.
There was no response, but I felt a little less alone. I yanked on the boxers, pulling them up as close to his waist as I could get them.
In those next torturous moments of waiting, I paced. I bit my nails. I reassured Mike that help was on the way even though I wasn’t all that sure. I paced some more. How long had I been off the phone? Mike’s chest movements slowed, and then stopped all together. Our bedroom fell utterly silent.
“It’ll be okay,” I chanted over and over again to cut the silence of the room. My eyes were still dry. “It’ll be okay.”
I began to hear the distant whine of sirens, almost imperceptible. It was 9:30am on a Saturday so there wasn’t the usual murmur of cars moving on the busy road outside the window. Like thunder in an advancing storm, the wail of the sirens grew louder as the seconds passed. Soon they were on my street. Then just outside the front door. The sickening toll of salvation.
I left the bedroom when the paramedics began to resuscitate Mike. I saw them pull out the defibrillator paddles. I couldn’t bear to watch. I just hoped they would do their job and he’d be okay. I busied myself with gathering all the medication Mike had been on. Having asthma and severe allergies, he required a daily regimen of medications. It was really his only physical weakness, and he didn’t like to admit it to himself.
I was the fastest white guy on the track team, he had boasted to me on several occasions, a proud gleam in his eye. He ardently took care of his ailments, but he didn’t let them prevent him from doing the things he loved the most. Like the pole-vaulting he’d done in high school and college.
I thought that maybe he’d had an asthma attack. I’d never witnessed an asthma attack before, even though my own mother had asthma. I hoped it was something as simple as that. People survived asthma attacks.
It was a long time before they carried Mike down the stairs on a gurney and wheeled him out the back door. By that time, I’d managed to think clearly enough to grab my address book. Some logical part of my mind, almost rational now that I had left the reality of the bedroom, told me that we would need the numbers to contact family. It was probably my smartest move all morning.
One of the paramedics hung back to walk me out the door. He didn’t seem too communicative, but I kept waiting for him to tell me something about what was going on. He only said, “Where do we take him? County or City?”
“City,” I replied immediately, remembering my bout with food poisoning a few years back. Mike had said to me back then that the county hospital was closer, but a “chop shop.” Of course, a hospital is a hospital, and taking him to County probably wouldn’t have made any difference. But my mind, in its frozen state, could only make decisions from habit and learned mantras. We never went to County. It had to be City.
I followed the paramedic team as they rolled Mike’s stretcher across the strip of lawn that was our backyard and into the back of the ambulance. Dave, the neighbor from two doors down, stood outside the gate to our porch, shirtless as usual despite the chill of the April morning.
“What happened?” asked Dave as I passed him. This was the first of many times I’d be asked this very question.
“I don’t know!” I snapped and pushed ahead. I was afraid he’d try to engage me in a conversation. It felt as though he were intruding on some private moment. I focused on my goal of the ambulance without looking at him.
I started to walk towards the back of the ambulance. My paramedic tugged me by the elbow and directed me towards the cab. I looked back, confused. On television, the spouse gets to ride in the back of the ambulance.
“Listen,” my paramedic said. “You have an important job. You need to watch the traffic and make sure we’re clear. Let me know if you see someone who isn’t pulling over.”
At the time, those directions somehow made sense. Looking back, I realize how ridiculous they are. I was being treated like a child, given a meaningless distraction to occupy my mind from the situation. And it worked. My eyes stayed on the road, though I did not say a thing to my paramedic as he drove.
One of the guys working on Mike in the back opened the curtain between the two compartments.
“Ask her if he’s taken any drugs we should know about,” he shouted over the loud rumble of the ambulance as it and all the equipment bounced with the grooves of the road. I’d never realized ambulances were so bouncy.
My paramedic, not missing a beat in his battle with driving, repeated the question as though I hadn’t heard.
“Drugs? Just his allergy medications. The ones I gave you.”
“No,” my paramedic said. “Not those kind.”
“No!” I was shocked at the suggestion. “He doesn’t do stuff like that. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.”
I glanced down at the paramedic peeking through the curtain. He looked back at me incredulously. Then, he slid the curtain shut again. I was left with a feeling of guilt not unlike the time I told my dad that the pack of cigarettes he found in the glove compartment of my college car belonged to my best friend. In this case, however, I’d told the paramedic the truth. He just didn’t seem to believe me. Maybe I was just paranoid, maybe the question was just standard. Yet I felt as though I were being blamed. Maybe I was to blame. Could he tell that I hadn’t called 911 the instant the attack began?
The ambulance was noisy and I couldn’t hear what was going on in the back. I didn’t know what they were doing to Mike. I kept picturing him waking to those austere men, hoping he wasn’t scared. I just wanted to hold his hand so he’d know I was there, that he wasn’t alone. Though just a few feet and a curtain separated us, it felt as though he were on another one of his business trips. I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t comfort him. I felt completely and utterly useless. Whatever was happening to him was beyond my meager first aid knowledge and my ability to do anything to help.
Dammit, Misha, I silently screamed. I was on the verge of tears I still wouldn’t let come. Crying wouldn’t help. I had to keep myself in check, though my insides were twisting into knots. Dammit, Misha, don’t you leave me here. I’m too young to be a widow.
I felt myself blush with guilt at the thought. Why was I always jumping to the worst case scenario? It was going to be all right, I told myself. They’d fix him. That was their job. He’d be fine.
Regardless, the thoughts continued to form words in my head.
Dammit, Misha. I love you. Don’t leave me here. Fight. It was the silent prayer I repeated over and over all the way to the hospital. It was probably the first—and only time—I had prayed in my entire life.
At the emergency entrance to the hospital, I was again immediately diverted from following the Mike’s gurney to its destination. About a year prior, I’d taken a different ambulance trip to this very emergency room when Mike threw his back out. That time, I’d been allowed to follow him to one of the segmented rooms where I’d waited with him for several hours until a doctor finally got the chance to examine him. The contrast between this trip and that one blared before my eyes. Everything was familiar, yet wrong.
I was escorted to the intake desk where I gave the all-too-cheerful secretary Mike’s insurance information. Her manner, a stark contrast to my turmoil, confused my senses. I wanted to be calmed by her demeanor because I thought perhaps she knew something I didn’t, and that I was, as I suspected, being a bit irrational. My stomach was tossing itself into knots.
Another attendant entered the room and looked right at me. “I’ve got good news,” she said.
My heart jumped into my throat. I knew it!, I thought with relief.
“He’s going to be fine,” she said with a smile. But before I could respond, she wrinkled her brow in thought. “You’re the mother, right?”
“Huh?” My heart drummed a single, loud thud that popped in my ears.
“You came in with the 13-year old boy…?” she continued.
The secretary interjected, “Oh, no. This is Mrs. Fronheiser. She’s in here with her husband.”
“Oh.” The attendant blushed. “I am sorry. I thought you were the mother.”
With that, she was off, leaving the chaos she’d created behind.
I tried to bury my disappointment by making light of the situation. “Do I look old enough to have a 13-year old?” I asked in mock disgust.
“Well, no,” admitted the secretary with a chuckle.
“I’m only 26,” I stated. Too young to be a widow.
Stop! chastised the voice on the other side of my mind. Everything is okay.
Between my inner dialog and the urgent need for information about my husband, I could barely concentrate on the terse conversation with the intake secretary. I distractedly gave her the information she needed while anchoring my eyes on the green and black glow of her computer monitor. I just wanted to get through this paperwork so that I could join Mike at his bedside, hold his hand, feel the reality of him. Even if he were unconscious, just the connection of our two hands would bring me comfort. And I didn’t want him to wake up alone.
As we finished up, I began to move in my seat. I was hoping they’d take me to him now, but I suspected I was going to have to wait in the gloomy room beyond the intake desk where all the people with less immediate illnesses and injuries waited their turn for treatment. However, before I could gather my things and move on to the next room, I was intercepted by a lady in a casual pantsuit.
“I’ve got it from here,” the newcomer said to the secretary. She then turned her eyes to me and extended her hand.
To this day, I don’t remember what her name was. I am not good with names and my brain was already in a sort of meltdown. The only word I retained from her introduction was her title: the chaplain. And that is the name I have always used to refer to her in my memory.
“We’re going to go to a quieter room,” she said as though this were the most normal thing to do in a hospital.
But I knew better. I’d been to the emergency room enough in my life—both as a patient and in support of someone else who was a patient—and I’d never been taken to a separate room. I didn’t even know the hospital had separate rooms, besides the rooms for the patients. People in movies weren’t taken to separate rooms. I started to feel light-headed.
“So, what’s going on with my husband?” I asked tentatively. “Do you know?”
“I don’t know. They are working on him, but I couldn’t see what was happening,” she replied. She was lying. I knew it instantly. I could just feel it. She didn’t even bother to try to make it sound convincing.
The room to where I was lead wasn’t any more impressive than the waiting room. It was the typical dully lit white-walled room for which hospitals are famous. Bright, uncomfortable furniture left over from the 70s lined with the walls, leaving the middle of the room completely bare. An old, pea green, dial telephone with a worn number pad sat on a cheap end table made of particle board and wobbly metal legs. I immediately took a seat on the couch next to the phone, folded my arms across my chest protectively, and put my feet on the beat-up coffee table in front of the couch. My eyes fell on the door the Chaplain closed behind her.
“It’s been a busy morning,” she commented. “Some days are like that.”
I didn’t respond. I had nothing to say to that. Something about my husband being a part of an abnormal influx of patients into the hospital bothered me.
I felt the Chaplain’s eyes scanning me up and down. “How long have you been married?”
I knew it was a tactic to distract me. Yet I fed into it. I needed to talk.
“A little over a year,” I replied.
“You have any kids?”
“No,” I said somewhat defensively. “We’re waiting.”
“Well, that’s a good idea,” the Chaplain said. “You’re still young.”
“We like to travel,” I said as if that explained everything.
The door opened and a pudgy woman slipped in. She glanced around the room nervous, didn’t meet my eyes. I can’t remember her name either, but she introduced herself as a social worker (which I had trouble believing given her state). I suddenly felt as though my head was being pushed under water.
The Social Worker didn’t say much. She occasionally added a comment or two, but she seemed more uncomfortable in the room than I did. The Chaplin quickly filled her in on the situation: wife is young, newly married, no kids.
“I’m not religious,” I stated evenly to the Chaplain. It was a warning to her that I didn’t need her to start in on any Bible-thumping. I also just wished she and her social worker friend would leave the room.
“That’s all right,” she said with the typical happily-Godified smile all religious people seemed to have. “I’m just here for support.”
“Well, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”
“That’s fine,” she affirmed.
The Social Worker picked up the conversation. “So what do you do?”
“I’m a technical writer,” I replied.
“And your husband?” prompted the Chaplain.
“He is a software trainer,” I replied. Is? Was? I suddenly couldn’t figure out what verb tense to use. Again, I felt bad for thinking that.
The Chaplain again. “You like to travel. Where have you been?”
“A lot of places. The Virgin Islands. Mexico on our honeymoon…” I said, slightly distracted by the mental image of the cruise to the western Mexican ports. “We want to go to Europe sometime.”
We want? We wanted…? I want…
The drowning feeling was getting worse, pressure was building in my ears as I sunk deeper. At the same time, I could see the faint shimmer of the surface light ahead of me. I wanted to swim towards it, but I couldn’t move.
“I hope he’s okay,” I said, looking helplessly at the door.
The Chaplain nodded to the Social Worker. “Why don’t you check up on him.”
The Social Worker slid quickly out of the room, seemingly grateful.
“Where do you live?” the Chaplain continued to press.
“Stow,” I said. “But we want to move to Colorado. We like to climb mountains and ski.”
I just couldn’t stop myself. I felt like the more I said about my life with Mike, the more I could keep him in it. If I just kept talking, kept affirming all of our plans and ideas for the future, everything would be okay. I could submerge that pessimistic voice in the back of my head, the one that kept spouting false prophecies. It was a twisted nightmare I was having with myself. I just had to talk myself through it.
“That’s really exciting,” the Chaplain said, smiling encouragingly. “My son moved to Alaska—just up and left, after graduating from college. He loves it there. He says he’d never move back.”
“Too cold.” I even mustered a slight smile. “I couldn’t take it.”
“But it’s beautiful country up there, I hear. Probably like Colorado. But I’ve never been there either.”
And the small talk went on a few more minutes. I felt like I was being torn in two directions between utter calm and complete fear. My patience was wearing thin. I kept picturing someone of authority bursting into the room, telling me it was a close call but my husband was all right and I could go and see him now. I saw myself walking into the large, partitioned area of the emergency room towards a bed on which Mike lay, his eyes grinning up at me even if the rest of him looked worn.
It’s okay, he’d whisper hoarsely. It was a close call, but I am okay.
Misha, don’t ever scare me like that again, I’d reply with relief. I love you.
He would give me a tired, but assuring smile. I would take his hand and squeeze it. What did I tell you, Fritzy? Tiggers always bounce.
He identified with the character Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. It was his typical response to anything that happened which might appear troubling to someone else. His training as a pole-vaulter made him capable of surviving falls that could seriously have injured most people. He consciously applied the same principles to survive the emotional falls he’d taken in his life. In truth, he did have the amazing ability to bounce where others would belly-flop. I guess I believed, like he did, that he was unbreakable.
I kept focusing on that scene, knowing it would come. I kept telling myself that I was being completely irrational in thinking that something was really wrong. We were young. We still had plenty of chances. Bad stuff like this never happened to me. It would turn out okay. I always found ways to cheat the rules of life. I would cheat this out too. I was smart, a hard worker; only good things could come to me.
I tried desperately to convince myself that everything was normal, despite what it looked like. I tried to rationalize being in a separate room from the rest of the emergency room clientele. It’s just precautionary because it’s a serious problem, I explained to myself. But he’s fine. You’ll see.
I tried to find a reason, other than a solemn one, why a chaplain and a social worker had been sent to babysit me. It’s because they think it’s a domestic dispute, I thought. They want to make sure I didn’t hurt him.
None of these explanations added up. I didn’t want to see the facts in front of my nose. My mind kept finding ways to explain around them:
They’re offering prayer services just in case I think it will help.
They’re just making sure I am not alone.
It’s just someone to talk to so that I don’t have to be alone in a hospital when my husband is unconscious.
I rationalized until I could rationalize no more. And then I waited, vaguely stumbling through polite and meaningless conversation with the Chaplain. Waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to give me some piece of information about my husband. It was a continual game of “beat around the bush.” Why couldn’t one person just be frank with me?
The door opened. I don’t know how long it had been since the Social Worker left, or even how long I’d been in that room.
A middle-aged balding man dressed in sea green scrubs entered the room. The Social Worker, worn and broken-down, followed close behind. A second woman followed at her heels and closed the door behind them.
The man nodded nervously, didn’t meet my eyes. “Mrs. Fronheiser?”
I nodded affirmation.
The man introduced himself as the doctor who was working on Mike. He asked, “Can you tell me what happened this morning?”
I sighed, confused. I summarized the ordeal as best as I could.
The doctor thought to himself for a moment, and then he asked, “How much time passed between your husband’s loss of consciousness and when the ambulance arrived?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know… five minutes? Fifteen? It seemed like a long time.”
He shifted in his chair. Still no eye contact. “I am not sure, but he may have had a brain aneurism.”
But he’s okay, right? I wanted to ask. I just waited in silence for the doctor to continue.
More silence. More waiting. All eyes in the room were on our conversation. Seconds ticked away as my mind soared. I knew what was coming, I could feel it. But I wasn’t at all prepared for the truth of the words.
“Mrs. Fronheiser,” the doctor uttered quietly, staring at his own feet, “your husband died.”
The world came to a grinding halt around me. Or so it seemed, as I sat there, just waiting to hear the next beat of my heart. Motion blurs obscured the walls like the background of Munch’s painting, The Scream. A dirty shade of yellow just passed over my eyes like someone pulling down a shade. The lights seemed dimmer. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
No, I thought defiantly. This is a dream. It’s not real. You’re still sleeping.
“No,” I moaned as if making a sound could tell me where reality lie. I can fix this. Just let me start the day over again. My mind was full of illogical thoughts. I kept thinking that I could change the outcome if given the chance to run through the morning again. Somewhere I had taken a wrong turn, selected the wrong choice. My thoughts raced to every detail of that morning.
Dead. Mike couldn’t be dead. We’d been in bed just an hour ago, making love. I could still feel his lips warming mine and his fingers running through my hair. Our hands had been intertwined. I’d felt his breath on my face. He couldn’t be dead. Not so quick, not without warning. He’d just been here, alive as ever. And now, they told me, he was no longer here. How could things change like that so suddenly?
This is not my life, I told myself. This is some other reality. I am not here.
The room truly seemed to dissolve around me simply out of the mere suggestion. I may have closed my eyes—I am not sure—but I lost visual image. Static pounded in my ears, matching the heartbeat I couldn’t feel in my chest, and dizzying me. I knew I should cry, but I couldn’t. It was like wanting to vomit because you felt sick, but only getting dry-heaves.
I wanted to be left alone. I was aware of the people in the room, though they were silent. I wanted to run away, go some place where I could think without an audience, where I could beg the Fates to rewind the morning and let me start over.
Someone touched both my shoulders and I yanked away. “Don’t touch me!” I yelled. “I am not like that.” The last thing I wanted was to be hugged by some strangers who did not know me or Mike or anything about my life other than what I told them.
“Okay, okay,” a voice came back. The Chaplain.
I open my eyes against the waves of static crashing in my head. I was curled sideways on the couch. I didn’t even remember moving. The room still looked dim and off-color in my eyes.
“Now, Mrs. Fronheiser,” the doctor—he was still there?—said. “The nurse here has some things to go over with you. I know you don’t want to do this now, but you have to.”
“Mrs. Fronheiser,” the nameless nurse interjected, “do you want to donate his organs? If so, we need to know quickly.”
“Donate his organs,” I again echoed dumbly. I was so confused. What if they just thought he was dead and they were wrong, and they started cutting up his body….?
“Mrs. Fronheiser?” someone prompted.
I blinked. “Can you… use… anything?” Everyone sounded like they were speaking to me through a phone made of tin cans and wire.
“Some bones, some ligament tissue… his eyes…” she stated. “Stuff like that. Not any major organs, though. We can’t use those.”
I couldn’t imagine it. I always thought it was a good thing to be an organ donor, but I never knew I would have to make the call. I didn’t know what Mike would have wanted. He wasn’t an organ donor on his driver’s license out of an irrational fear that a hospital would harvest his organs while he was still alive. For a moment, I entertained this fear too, wondering if he really were all right and I was being lied to in order to use his body for someone else’s life.
I thought about it all for a moment. We’d never discussed organ donation. Or funerals, burials, or anything else related to death. I think I’d told him once that I wanted to be cremated. He probably would have known that much. He’d never told me what he wanted, except that once he said he wanted to be released to wander in a backwoods wilderness when he ceased to be “useful to society.” Romantic ideas of the young. I had pictured wandering the wilderness with him when we were both old and grey. What was I supposed to do?
“Mrs. Fronheiser,” the nurse prodded. “We are also going to need to release his body to the coroner since we don’t know how he died. You need to sign this release.”
The nurse shoved a clipboard into my hands. I stared blankly at the paper, unable read it. This was happening too fast. I was feeling smaller and smaller by the second. I fumbled with the pen, managing to scrawl my name on the designated line.
“Are you going to donate?” pressed the nurse.
My mouth was dry, speechless.
“Perhaps,” interjected the Chaplain, “she’d like to see her husband.”
“Would you like to see your husband, Mrs. Fronheiser?” asked the nurse.
I didn’t want to really. But I knew I had to, or none of this would be real to me at all. I would keep thinking that it was a big mistake, that there had been a mix up and they had the wrong man, the wrong wife. I didn’t want to believe any of it.
I nodded numbly. It was all I could do. Coroner, donating organs, stroke—this is was all too much. Static continued to undulate in my ears. Little did I know, but this dizzying noise would continue to plague my brain from that moment forward whenever I was experiencing stress. Three years later, the static still pounds my ears from time to time, a harbinger of an arising situation I can’t control.
I slowly entered the small, empty, and isolated room. The only light in the room streamed from the hall through the window on the door, and Mike’s shirtless body lay on a gurney in the shadows. Lifeless, he was neglected there, his would-be saviors having moved on to the next patient in need.
He would have looked like he was sleeping, except I could see that his chest wasn’t moving. His body and his face were randomly splotched with red patches—his blood, no longer moving, pooled. Someone must have closed his eyes. He couldn’t have been like that.
The tears I’d sought so desperately suddenly pushed themselves out of my eye sockets. These tears were not driven by sadness, but instead a rage like none I’d ever felt before. I felt the rage climb like fire through my legs and push up my body to my head.
“YOU BASTARD!” I shouted, feeling and welcoming the anger that bubbled in my veins. It felt really good to scream. Even if my anger was directed at the person I loved most in my life. “How could you do this?! How COULD you!”
I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kick the walls and stomp my feet. I wanted to pull all my hair out. I wanted to punch those stupid, useless, glowing panels on the wall.
I continued, “Dammit, Misha! You’re a fighter! You were always a fighter. You said we could beat anything. Why didn’t you beat this?!”
I glared hard at the unmoving body on the bed, demanding it to tell me why it had let go. What had I done to make him give up? The naivety of my age led me to believe that we could conquer anything, even death itself, if we held onto life with all of our strength and refused to let go. Therefore, I reasoned that something I had done had made him want to leave.
“What did I do?” I demanded aloud. “What did I do to make you leave me? I know I was a horrible wife. I could have been a better wife! I am SORRY.”
Another incongruent belief I’ve always held: The word “sorry” could erase all mistakes.
My shouting echoed off the walls, probably reverberated out of the room and into the halls for all to hear; yet, my shouting stirred no reaction from the body on the gurney. The anger gave way to sadness; the sadness to self-defamation. I began to helplessly list all the things I was sorry about in our marriage—any fights we’d ever had, all the times I’d worked late when he wanted me to come home, the several times I neglected to call him when I was staying out late with friends. I was begging, bargaining my apology for his life. I kept thinking I could get him back if I just said the right things. Someone was trying to teach me a lesson, I reasoned. And now I knew how important he was to me. Lesson learned.
I approached his bed and threw myself against his chest. His body felt cold and stiff. How soon the body lost its temperature. His skin still smelled vaguely like the man I’d slept next to for the past three years, though with the stale odor of a hospital melded in it.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
My tears made puddles on his unmoving chest.
“What am I going to do now?” I whispered. “What am I going to do?”
For the first time in my life that I could remember, I felt completely and utterly helpless. The unconquerable faith I had in myself to surmount all of life’s obstacles drained from my veins and oozed onto the white-washed floor of the hospital room. I watched my dreams—the dreams I had of my life with Mike—evaporate into the air. There would be no trip to Europe, no Colorado, no daughter named Sabine Patrice and no son named Korbin Michael; there would only be me and the fading memory of a dream I had once when everything seemed possible.
At that moment, I passed from whimsical youth to the reality of adulthood.