This column is going to be a little different from all the others I’ve posted. It is much more personal and relates an incidence regarding my wife’s death and how she communicated to me just before it happened. I’ve never related this story to anyone in detail, especially my thoughts on how I should have reacted to her message.
It was two days before Christmas, 2002. Donna had recently been released from a convalescent center following a serious leg fracture. She also had myotonic muscular dystrophy, which caused her to fall frequently. She had four leg fractures over a 10 year period.
I was frustrated. She was an invalid and a burden. I resented having to take her to the bathroom and bathe her. It was a hassle having to lug around wheel chairs or her motorized scooter whenever we would go out. The part that bugged me most was that she seemed to just expect to be helped without much gratitude. I don’t know.
I loved her very dearly, but I can’t say that I was in love with her. We married pretty much on a whim. The fact that I didn’t think I would have another chance if I passed up the opportunity to marry her didn’t help. Few girls showed much interest in me. Regardless, our 25-year marriage had its ups and downs, like any other, but as time went on and Donna became more and more of a burden as her disease progressed meant that the downs far outnumbered the ups.
About a week before she died, I remember becoming particularly frustrated after wheeling her to our small, wheelchair-inaccessible bathroom. I blurted out, “I just can’t do this anymore.” She didn’t respond. It wasn’t long after that when I was getting dressed in our bedroom and overheard our teenage son frankly telling his mother that she was about to die. I thought that seemed rather cruel, but I didn’t step in. I just listened. Donna responded that she was ready to go. It was not a hostile communication at all. They were just speaking very frankly to each other. I’m not sure why he felt she was about to die. After all, it was only a broken leg. But he seemed rather confident in his statement.
Then, on December 23, I took my son, daughter, and my daughter’s friend to Indianapolis to see the IMAX version of one of the Star Wars movies. On our way home, we stopped to eat at a sandwich shop and I took the opportunity to call home to check how Donna was doing. She didn’t answer. I thought it was odd so I called my mom to go check on her. When I called back several minutes later, Mom told me Donna was asleep and couldn’t be aroused. I assumed it was the medicine she had been taking for her headaches she had been having.
When we returned home, we tried to wake Donna, but to no avail. I knew at that time it probably wasn’t the medicine. We wet her face and she responded with head movements. It looked as though she was about to arouse, but she never did, so I called 911.
Then, she raised her left arm high above her head and pointed her finger upward. Mom was standing right next to her and I was watching from across the room. Mom assumed she was pointing at the poll lamp, gesturing that the light be turned off so it wouldn’t be in her eyes. Mom turned out the light.
But I knew the message had nothing to do with the lamp. Donna was telling us she was on her way to heaven.
She was a very religious person. We would often argue about religion. She was a fundamentalist; I was at that time a borderline agnostic. I had attended church for years and even been baptized, but I just wasn’t feeling it. She attended every Sunday and had found a church she really enjoyed. It was the same church I attended, which was not fundamentalist, but she loved the people.
But on the evening she died, I knew that she knew she was going to a better place and she wanted to let me know. I knew right away what she was telling me. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want my children and my fundamentalist mother to misinterpret my thoughts on Donna’s hand gesture. So I remained silent.
After she got to the hospital, she became completely unresponsive. She was still alive, but I knew she was gone by then. I remember hearing her snore loudly, and I knew that snoring while in a coma is a grave sign of impending death. A few hours later, after her CT scan revealed a massive brain hemorrhage, the plug was pulled and her body died.
To clarify, I can’t say for certain what she saw or felt when she was pointing her finger skyward. I believe that she was satisfied that she was going to heaven and was trying to tell me so. And whether it was real or just her dying brain synapses firing in response to elevated serotonin levels, who’s to say? I am fairly certain it was the latter.
But that doesn’t matter. In her mind, she was comforted in the minutes before her brain died. She knew she was going to heaven, and it doesn’t matter whether she really was or not. Either way, she was not in misery anymore. And, after a period of grief, I realized my burden had been lifted.
My regrets are that I didn’t treat her as well as I could have in the time before she died and that I didn’t just come right out and say what I knew she was trying to communicate during her final moments.
She officially died on Christmas Eve. I had bought her a necklace that had the birthstones of each of our children. She never got to see it, but she wears it in her grave. We spent 25 years together in a marriage that was not as loving as it should have been, mostly because of me. But I still miss her.