The New Normal

As you know, Bob, 2020 was the year to end all years. We’re all shocked at the relentless horror show, and we’re glad it’s over and we can look forward to many changes for the better.

But that’s not what I came to tell you about.

For the past three years, I’ve been remarkably silent everywhere but Facebook. This time, for me, has been one long 2020, merely capped by the disaster that was this past year. Three years ago last Sunday my husband died.

People like to say “passed away,” or “expired,” but that’s not what happened to Dale. He died. Suddenly, without any real warning. Of course, had there been any warning he would have been in the emergency room at the time, but instead he was asleep in his bed. In a single instant his life was over, and so was mine.

Dale had the flu. Just plain flu. He’d been out on the road and returned home just in time for Christmas. In thirty-six years of marriage Dale never missed Christmas even once. Even in 2001, the year he drove for the Trans Siberian Orchestra, whose whole schtick is Christmas music, he made it home on Christmas Eve because the tour had a show in Nashville on Dec. 26. He came home, exhausted from the overnight drive, and that night eight musicians and the tour manager came for Christmas dinner.

Oh, yeah, the flu. Dale had been out with The Grateful Dead (now aka Dead and Company,) and came home sick. That wasn’t unusual. Music tours were bad for giving him the crud. He usually had a flu shot, but that year he’d forgotten. No flu shot, and no pneumonia shot. But it was just the flu.

He was home for a little over a week, I think. He was scheduled to return to the road on January 4 with Imagine Dragons. He was still sick the day before, but turning down work during the off season took a chance that there would be no more work until spring. He had to go.

But on January 3, when he tried to sleep before the tour, he was having trouble breathing. We discussed options. I asked if he wanted me to take him to the ER, but he said if he could just get some sleep he’d feel better. So he went to bed early, and I went to the living room to watch TV. If I’d known what pneumonia sounded like, I would have made him get dressed and taken him to the hospital.

A few hours later, I went to check on him. As I entered the room, I thought he was breathing easier because I couldn’t hear it. I thought that was a good thing. I headed for the bathroom, but stopped because I’m a mom and I like to make sure everybody is breathing. I said his name, then poked him. No reaction. I poked him again. No reaction. I shook him, and he didn’t move. I thought he was fooling, because he was in the habit of playing that very game. I said, “Not funny,” then shook him again. Only then did I realize the truth.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no…” I ran around to the other side of the bed and tried to pull him up, wake him up, get him moving. He was limp. For a moment I just stood there, trying to think of what to do. What were the authorities going to expect from me?

I ran to the kitchen and called 911. “I think my husband is dead.” The operator sent me back to the bedroom and guided me through CPR. Weirdly, that gave me hope even though I knew it was pro forma procedure. I heard my daughter in the hallway, and called to her. “Come help me!”

Nikki came, and took over the CPR while I let the firemen in the back door. After that, my brain turned to slush. I could only do what I was directed to do; thinking was…risky. Somehow I ended up with my coat, out in the ambulance. We stayed in the driveway for what seemed like forever while they worked on him, and hope grew. Finally we went.

Lights and sirens aren’t exciting. Speeding down the main drag while traffic pulled over and stopped to let us by wasn’t even interesting. It was a horror, and I wanted to hide. I clutched my coat, and it was the only thing grounding me to reality.

At the hospital emergency entrance I got out and didn’t know what direction to go. Nikki was there. Then the gurney came from the back of the ambulance, and I saw Dale had not changed. That was when the slim hope died and I knew he was gone.

They took him to a room, and Nikki and I went to another room. Our son, Travis, arrived. We waited. About an hour later they called time of death. We were able to go to where he was and say goodbye.

In grief counseling, I heard stories of long illnesses and how one’s life changes in that experience. There was some discussion about which is less bad: sudden death or long illness. I still don’t know the answer to that. I didn’t have months of knowing the end was near and getting closer, but on the other hand I didn’t get to say goodbye and tell him I love him. Many things went unsaid. Loose ends dangled. The following year was a nightmare of red tape and explaining to people over and over that my husband was dead. No cash on hand for a funeral, and the guy in charge of the Memorial Gardens where Dale’s parents’ and brother’s graves are was unconscionably insensitive. Every bit of future we’d hoped for evaporated in an instant. I had no clue who I was anymore.

It has taken three years of exploration, studying, figuring out where he ended and I began, and I’m still taking baby steps. I foster cats now because I can’t stand an empty house and I love the cats like they’re family. I do artistic things with model horses. Covid has stunted the development of any plans. But it’s a new year and many things are changing.