Courtenay died on November 22 at 9 in the morning. He was in a hospice facility, where he’d been for a scant 53 hours. I was not with him. That is a source of pain.
On October 2, I wrote in my journal that he’d been ill, another lung infection – pneumonia? a worsening of his CPOD? – but that prednisone and antibiotics had brought him back. I wrote that I had arm-wrestled the Angel of Death, who had let me win, as he had many times in the past 17 years. “I know you could win any time you wanted,” I wrote to the Angel. “I know it’s an illusion that I have won, but I am grateful.”
The seven weeks that followed were a steady decline, just one I refused to acknowledge. Or perhaps I thought the Angel would keep letting me walk away from the table with another victory. On November 18, my poor darling lost power in his legs, but he was agitated and couldn’t stay still. I finally, on the 20th, agreed to hospice care away from the home he’d lived in for 61 years. The hope was that medication would calm his agitation and he could return to the house he loved.
The hospice nurse called and said, “I’m sorry to tell you that Courtenay made his transition.” I knew as soon as I saw the number on the screen that he had died, but the phrasing was so strange I didn’t instantly understand it. Then I screamed, “No, no, no,” even while I started pulling on outdoor clothes. Leashed the dog, texted his sons, called Marzena, who loved him like a daughter . We met in his room at the hospice center. The next 4 hours are not a blur but they are painful and private. We had to move his body out by 1 p.m. because of the rules of the hospital where the hospice is housed. We were greatly aided and supported by the hospice staff, who let us stay with him, holding him, until the last possible moment. They escorted him out with gongs, with psalms, with the Mozart clarinet concerto. I wanted to fling myself on the body and scream and tear myself apart, but could not.
We had a funeral service on the 25th, Jewish, in our home. Beautiful and overwhelming. Courtenay’s favorite poem, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.” So true to him: “a bride, married to amazement, the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” My own favorite: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. “Our two soules, therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach but an expansion.” My beloved Eve read that, a heroic effort to make it through to the end without breaking down.
It turns out there is no pre-mourning. Over the last 5 years, he gradually lost many of his great capabilities, the problem-solving, the insights, the understanding of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics and how they are at work and play in the natural world that surrounds us. He became bewildered by simple things and there was so much loss that I thought the ultimate loss would not be so devastating. There is no pre-mourning. The ultimate loss is still a grand piano that drops from the sky onto one’s head.
I have a shrine in the living room: his ashes with emblems of his loves – a photo of him with one of the dogs he adored, the Go stones for the game that was his passion, pool balls – another passion. (Two weeks before he died he did the equivalent of running the table in the arcane version of billiard-pool he and his friends played). I still need something to signify his love of ships and sailing. I figure the room is full of photons and electrons. I talk to him at the shrine.
I walk the lakefront with the dog, who was inseparable from him for four years and is as bewildered as I am. I watch the ducks in the cold water, the grey air, and take solace in knowing that I am connected to a web of nature, of plants and animals where we all keep going, putting one little webbed foot in front of the other, valiantly braving the cold.
It turns out mourning is physical. It is exhausting, but one feels it in the body. In my case, it’s a heaviness in the stomach. When I imagine going shopping, or traveling, or any of those things, the heaviness increases and tells me to stay put.
The least thing can make the chest constrict. Also I am bewildered: I want him here, but memories also stir the more recent griefs: he was the most competent man I ever knew, the most moral, the kindest, the most brilliant but in the last years he relied on me to mediate every aspect of the surrounding world. It was never a burden but it was always a grief.
I am on an express train moving at too fast a rate from the place I want to inhabit, the world where the Angel of Death let me keep winning our arm-wrestling matches. People in my house for the last 8 days interrupted my grief and I am angry that I let those precious days close to the station be taken from me.
I have always hated my legs – they look fat and wobbly. Almost every day for 47 years, Courtenay said to me, “You have beautiful legs.” At the hospice, I lay in bed with him, holding him, singing the ballads he loved. The last words he said to me were, “Your voice is lovely and your legs are beautiful.”
He never in 47 years complained of pain, despite crippling RA, a leg broken in 7 places, cancer and radiation therapy. He never wanted novocaine when getting dental work, no nerve blocks when he needed hand surgery. The last 4 days the pain was too great for his stoic heroic heart. I should have stayed with him, holding him, but I did not. I was the bustling Martha, trying to set up in-home care, imagining he would come back. I was walking the dog and writing emails and not knowing I should not have left his side. That is a pain I can hardly bear.
The journey so far.