Imagine one end of a string tied securely around your heart and the other end tied to your loved one miles away. You’re connected. Now imagine what happens when your loved one’s spirit suddenly, without warning, leaves their body. That’s what happened in the first morning hour of Oct. 16, when I was jolted awake simultaneously by the sound of my parent’s address coming through the emergency pager my volunteer firefighter husband keeps in our bedroom, and a parent’s sudden death.
As I sprang awake, I gripped at my chest. My heart was gone. Following that trail to where my loved one’s soul flew, far in the heavens above. But they let go, sending my broken, bloody heart back to earth, where I waited with held breath for it to return. THUMP! It landed, and began pounding wildly as my head spun and mouth tingled with the sensation of imminent vomit.
Unresponsive. Code blue. These are the words from the pager that slowly found my ears. It was as if I were moving through Jell-O. Words solidified, movement inhibited, time slowed.
My husband was perched up in bed, torn between his wife in shock, and his duty to emergency response in our small town. Of course he would stay. We both stayed. Glued to that bedroom, unable to make a decision or take action as we slowly comprehended that our world was dramatically changing. My heart heaved in my chest as I began to pace back and forth across our worn carpet and hardwood hallway floor.
“My dad has to go first. If mom dies, dad will lay down on the floor beside her and die, too. I can’t lose both of my parents at once.” These were the first words I remember telling my husband, who answered back, “The call was for a 71-year-old male.” How had I missed this? How didn’t I know. But I knew. My father’s health had been deteriorating for years, and we’ve had a few late-night ambulance scares. But this time was different. I knew. I knew.
I left my husband home to care for our sleeping girls, his face wary and full of love. “Please, please be careful.” He wanted so badly to come with me, but after losing our baby late last month, our poor girls have been subject to drastic schedule and caretaker changes, and I couldn’t bear the thought of one more interruption. “I will.” I kissed him, and drove off into the dark.
During the 10 minute drive to my parent’s house, I couldn’t help but think of another cold October night, 14 years ago. That night, like tonight, I drove in the dark to my parent’s house, uncertain of what tragedy might lie ahead. That time, it was my heartsick father who met me on the front porch, wrapped me in his arms, and sobbed, “Your brother killed himself today.” This time, it was an ambulance coming down my parent’s quarter-mile long highway, with no lights or sirens. It turned south. Where no hospital or help would be. Back to town, empty.
As the gravel met my tires on the driveway, I knew my father’s dead body would await me in the house. I drove in slow motion, pulled to a stop, and was met with my sister and her husband who wrapped me in an embrace. “Dad’s gone.”
When they say people pass peacefully in their sleep, they’re not talking about what they leave behind. Emergency workers, friends we’ve known for years, shared sad eye contact and gave their condolences. They’d tried so hard, even after my mother had been administering CPR to her soul-mate of 48 years before they arrived. Oh…mom.
I sat down on the floor beside her in the living room, where they’d moved my father’s body to better perform their duties. She lingered near his head, his body covered with a blue blanket, blue beginning to creep up into his right ear and cheek from lack of blood flow. I embraced her. “I’m so sorry mom. I’m so sorry,” I said with tear filled eyes. There was no numbness of my emotions. Just raw sadness.
“He’s still warm if you want to say goodbye.” My mother stroked his hair and face, and so did I.
More family arrived. Last rights were given. The funeral director came. The sheriff took photos and did paperwork. And when everyone was gone, only myself and my sister remained. At 4 a.m., we decided to get some rest, knowing the next few days would be a blur of activity. With my sister on one side, and me on the other, we put my shell-shocked mother to bed. I stroked her hair as I would a baby, watching her eyes flick open from time to time, with the realization that he was gone. Really gone.
I felt like I was sleeping on a trap door that morning. I would just start to drift off and the door would swing open, leaving me in a free fall of sadness and disbelief. But even in her grief, when my father’s heart stopped and ours broke, my mother gave me comfort.
“We’ll get through this. We’ll be okay.” And we are. Somehow, miraculously, we are.