I know you would read this and find this whole letter silly and pointless, given the circumstances, but people always advise in similar situations that writing such a letter can be beneficial for processing difficult feelings, so I hope you’ll excuse this letter that you would undoubtedly find idiotic…
Today is my husband’s birthday, and instead of planning a great celebration and baking him a cake, I am sitting here, crying over my keyboard, because it is all I seem to be able to do today. Two weeks and four days ago, you died, and while plenty of tears have been shed since then, today seems to be particularly hard. I think it’s because today is the first morning I’ve woken up in my own bed, in my own house, and have begun to settle back into “real life” in a post-Suzy world. I am unpacking the few belongings of yours that I took from your house, things that for the most part have no real monetary value, but things that I would find to have a practical use, or things that are nicer than what I already own, or some things that are simply beautiful items that will remind me of you when I see them.
But I wonder, will I ever be able to use those buttons I filched from your extensive sewing notions box? Because right now, I can’t even pick them up. I can wear your shoes, ones that never even made it out of the box (I thank you for having big feet like me), but somehow, touching these random items, these things that you packed away and kept, to be used again someday or to be held for your own sentimental reasons or kept simply because you seem incapable of throwing away anything of even slight value… it guts me.
I packed the suitcase full of these things, the old teapot napkin holder that the boys had such fun playing with, the brass pepper grinder, the scarves, the box of sewing notions, a few cookbooks, and I did so with all practicality of the mother who is about to fly across the country alone with two four-year-olds. But somehow, unpacking these things, putting them into use in my house, stowing them away for my own family to someday uncover after I pass away, it slams against me with guilt and anger and sadness and frustration, and all I can manage to do is cry and write about it.
You had three full dresser drawers of socks, sorted by color and style, stuffed to the absolute maximum drawer capacity. You had a closet filled with boxes of patterns and fabric and buttons and elastic and patches and hooks and thread, my god, the boxes of thread, and you hadn’t sewn a thing in at least a decade. You had two identical designer brand, crazy-expensive fuchsia tank tops hanging in your closet with the tags still on, clearly never worn. If I have learned anything from your death, it is that I want to purge my belongings so that I do not leave this sort of mess for anyone else. And yet, I just brought a suitcase full of your crap to mingle with mine, beautiful crap, but crap none the less, crap that I will never be able to throw away because it was *yours*.
I have had this conversation too many times over the last couple of weeks as I have dealt with the practicality of death, the closing of phone service, the unused gift cards, the airline ticket reservation changes, et cetera:
“And your relationship to the deceased was…?”
“She was my mom’s best friend, my second mother.”
And this explanation doesn’t seem to suffice, to give significance and gravity to the requests I’m making. I don’t explain further, because I shouldn’t have to, but without the details, people don’t recognize the validity of our relationship. You never married. You never gave birth or adopted, no kids of your own. I don’t know (nor do I particularly care) whether this was your choice or whether life simply dealt you a hand full of career-prestige, amazing travel, and the love of friends, but a hand lacking in the kind of relationships that our society (wrongly) recognizes as The Only Important Ones. It does not matter at this point that you did not have a husband or partner or children– it matters that you had family-of-choice, that you had children in your life who loved you very much (yes, at points they even loved you more than they loved their own mother), that you had friends so dear to you that there was never even a second thought about sharing your homes with one another, your lives with one another with such a level of intimacy that one would be lucky to have with an actual blood-relative.
But how would I explain that to the ticket agent at the airline who cares not a whit what our actual relationship was, only that you are not *technically* immediate family, and so I forfeit the right to make a penalty-free ticket change. I don’t believe in “woo”, but I like to imagine your spirit sitting on my shoulder, laughing as I informed the agent that you were closer than any immediate relatives I had and that I would gladly hang up and call back and lie to the next agent that you *were* actually blood related, since they would never know the difference. Because you *were*. You *were* more “immediate” than the majority of people who fit that technicality of “immediate family”.
Your final days were not good to you. You were sick, but exactly how sick, we were unaware. I am so angry at you for not advocating more staunchly for your own health and angry at myself for not insisting that you take yourself to a hospital to get the care you needed. You were still lucid enough to remember important practical details, but apparently not enough so to actually force your doctor to recognize exactly how sick you were feeling. I don’t know if you just weren’t admitting to yourself the severity of your symptoms, or whether things really did take such a fast turn for the worse.
Your health had been suffering for a long time, a lifetime of living in a body that simply did not respond to your efforts to “fix” it, so the fact that you died was not a surprise, but the timing was definitely a shock. You had been transported to the hospital via ambulance because you couldn’t put weight on one leg, and there was suspicion that there may possibly have been a stroke, but even the EMTs were pretty sure that wasn’t what was really going on. When you arrived at the hospital, they didn’t even place you in an “urgent” room. But at some point after your arrival, your heart stopped beating, and it took over 45 minutes for them to restart it.
I’m still confused by exactly what happened. Even though I talked with multiple nurses and heard accounts from multiple doctors, I’m still not sure exactly what happened, or even whether or not earlier intervention would have saved you. I do know that it was too soon, that there was still a lot more life for you to experience, but in spite of a doctor’s early report to my parents that you would “probably pull through this”, when I saw you the day following your cardiac event, it was clear that you were gone, that the dialysis machines, the blood pressure medication, the ventilator were doing the work of keeping your body alive.
There was no way to know what your brain was receiving or not, but I do know that you put a high value on dignity and correctness and mental capacity, and those things were clearly missing when I saw you. Your body was making movements, but nothing intentional. It was gut-wrenching to watch your body in this state, not knowing whether you were hurting or sad or whether you really did have some element of consciousness that would want to continue. Our best guess afforded by medical science was that you were not aware and that should you actually manage to pull through this incident, the quality of life you would have would be so severely compromised as to be not even worth living. It was a difficult decision to make, but a clear decision to me that to continue on in such a way was the last thing you would have wanted.
I am not a spiritual person, and resources for processing end-of-life emotions are sorely lacking outside of a religious context. I don’t believe that there is some element of you remaining. I don’t believe that your consciousness has passed on to another realm where it mingles with other people’s consciousnesses. But I do know that with the end of your existence was the end of the pain and suffering you had encountered before your death, and that is a comfort to me.
Being with you, touching your arm, holding your hand while that hand still had an element of life, being close to you while the machines were systematically turned off, the medications discontinued, the ventilator removed, a hand on your body while it quietly quit functioning– all of it was shockingly surreal. I’m still processing it. It’s a feeling that I imagine will never leave me, that is horrible and sad and wonderful all at once.
I am glad I was able to be there to provide whatever comfort I could to your body and whatever remained of your mind. I am glad that you died surrounded by your family, that we were there for you and for each other. I am glad, remembering the incredibly special person you were. I am glad for the love you gave me during our lives together. I am glad for the love and friendship you gave to my mother for so many decades, and for the love and friendship you gave my father as well. I am glad we were able to have had you in our lives for as long as we did, though I still grieve that it wasn’t longer.
Most of all, above everything, I hope that you never doubt how loved you were, how important you were to so many people, and how much I already miss you.