Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Friday Strikes Again
“How many times can a heart be shattered and still be pieced back together? How many times before the damage is irreparable?” – Gwenn Wright
Ten years ago today, I lost my love. Ten years ago today, on a Friday, the grey clouds of loss and pain rolled back into my life. That day has been playing through my mind all day today. Even though I was teaching today, the day was still playing on a loop in the back of my mind. I’m not really in the present today. Today, I’m back there.
It seems all fairy tales have their ending, most of which go something like, “and they lived happily ever after.” Mine did not end so blithely. For seven months and twenty-three days I was married to my Prince Charming, but nothing was ever so pat as happily ever after.
Although Curt was Violet’s stepdad, he quickly became the always-there father that she needed. He adored her, and she adored him. He was there every day, playing with her, supporting her, loving her. Even on days when he was in such pain from his back injury, he would lie on the couch and still manage to devise a game for them to play. It was a joy to watch them be father and daughter. We became a family so quickly that it was hard to believe that it had not always been so. But, once again, winter and tragedy were to be intertwined.
On Wednesday, February 16, 2005 Curt had a “procedure.” For all intents and purposes it was a back surgery, but in the jargon of the day it was called a procedure. He was nervous about this one, not because of the doctor or the hospital – indeed, he never gave his doctor anything but the highest of high praises – but because of a feeling he had.
That day began with a trivial discomfort of my own. I was three months pregnant, and continually nauseated, but I awoke that morning to a full-blown case of Pink Eye. Great. Somehow, the three-year-old child didn’t get it, but the mother did. I put some generic drops in my eyes hoping they would help and taught my classes at the college as usual, then I zipped to the hospital in Hialeah to wait with Curt and his father for the procedure. It was a long wait and Curt was becoming antsier by the minute. Having not been able to take any medication prior to this surgery his back felt, he said, as if it were on fire and sitting in the waiting room chair was pure torture.
Finally it was Curt’s turn. After that, things moved much faster and we were able to be home by mid-afternoon. The doctor was pleased with how the surgery went, and he was optimistic about the results. It was a huge relief.
Curt was in tremendous pain that evening, but that wasn’t unusual after someone fiddled with his back. He took his pain medication; as usual, he self-medicated. In other words, no one gave him his meds. He gave them to himself. That night was a sleepless one for Curt. He could find no release, no way of sitting or lying that would ease the pain enough to induce sleep. The next day, Thursday, began a downward spiral.
I didn’t teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I was able to spend the time at home with Curt and try to take care of him. He was not an easy person to take care of because he was always trying to take care of everyone else. Despite the doctor’s orders to stay in bed, Curt kept getting up and down to get some thing or another for himself. I chastised him repeatedly, but he said he felt guilty asking me to do things for him when he knew how tired the pregnancy was making me. He just wanted me to rest. After explaining over and over that I would rest better if I knew he would stay put, he finally promised to take a nap.
Around midday, I checked on Curt, and I was not happy with what I found. His pain level still ranged around the “hideous” level despite the oxycontin. When I spoke to him, his answers made no sense to me. I returned to the den to speak with his father about this, and he said he had observed it as well. Unfortunately, there was little we could do.
As the afternoon and evening progressed, so did Curt’s incoherence. Words and phrases issuing from him made less and less sense. Close to four o’clock that afternoon, when his dad had gone into Miami to pick Violet up from school, Curt wandered out into the den and began to roam around. I asked him if I could get him something but he said – in a vague sort of way – that he was only looking for his paintbrush because he had missed a spot in the bedroom.
We had never painted the bedroom. It was painted before we moved in.
I explained this to Curt and sent him back to bed with a full glass of water. While his physical rambling ceased at that point, his verbal ramblings continued. He asked me why I draped a polka dot blanket over the television. I hadn’t, but the medication was making him see strange things. Finally, around 7:00 p.m., his dad and I went in to talk to Curt about his incoherence as best we could. As his father spoke to Curt, I casually picked up his bottle of oxycontin and began counting it. Math never having been my strong suit, I admit it took me an absurd amount of time to calculate how many should still be left in the bottle. I counted, then recounted twice to make sure I truly was reaching the correct answer. As his dad was talking, he looked over at me. I saw the question on his face; he didn’t even have to ask aloud. I told him the numbers as they stood and how they should be. Curt had taken far too many, which, we assumed, was causing this dementia. And oxycontin was not his only medication. He was taking several – four, to be precise.
Somehow he had gotten off track, gotten ahead of his medication schedule. I casually palmed the bottle and did not put it back in his briefcase. I didn’t want him to take any more. His dad and I finally convinced him to let us take over the medications, just until his incoherence improved. We left the room and I placed the pill bottle on a shelf in the den. I wasn’t trying to hide it from Curt; I simply didn’t want him to see it and for some reason think it was time to take more.
I decided to sleep in the den that night. I knew that Curt would feel guilty that his coughing and tossing and turning would keep me awake, and I wanted him to be comfortable. So I let him have the bed and I adjourned to the den. At about 11:00 that night Curt once again wandered out into the den. He was in his t-shirt, gym shorts, and bathrobe and wanted to know where his hair dryer was.
“Why do you need it tonight, Honey?”
He looked at me as if I were insane. “Because my hair is dripping wet and I won’t be able to sleep until I dry it.”
But Curt had not showered. His hair was not wet. His mind was still playing tricks on him to the point that it forced him painfully out of bed and further away from sleep. I was exhausted myself, and was becoming somewhat cross. I didn’t get up from the couch, but called to him to get back to bed and get some sleep. Thankfully, as he turned to go, shoulders rounded, head hung down like a puppy in trouble, I told him that I loved him, and I would see him in the morning.
Those were the last words I ever said to him.
He went to bed, but I know he passed a rough night. I heard him coughing through the night but knew if I went to him it would make him feel terrible for keeping me awake. Finally, around 5:00 in the morning, the coughing stopped and I could hear him snoring. I sent a quick prayer heavenward that he would finally get some sleep, knowing that sleep would help him feel better faster than anything else could at that point.
In the morning, I arose from my somewhat compact position on the sofa and proceeded to get Violet up and dressed for school. While I was getting her ready, Curt’s dad went into our room and checked on Curt. He was still sleeping, laying on his right side. His dad and Violet left, and, as I was feeling quite nauseated, I went quietly into our room to get one of my Phenergan tablets. They made me sleepy, but they took away the nausea, and I blessed my doctor for prescribing them. Curt was still lying on his right side, one leg thrown over the side of the bed and his arms wrapped around his pillow. I could hear him breathing as I tried to open the pill bottle and tip a pill into my hand. Naturally, when I most wanted to be quiet, the opposite happened. I dropped the entire bottle of pills onto the bedside table causing enough noise to wake a deaf man. But Curt slept on. His breathing was ragged, and did not sound at all easy. It sounded very labored, like something in his chest was loose and rattling around. But he was breathing. I managed to get my pill out without further incident, peeked at Curt once again, and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind me.
It was 8:00 in the morning, Friday, February 18, 2005.
I was sitting on the couch – lying on the couch, more like, as the Phenergan had kicked in and made me drowsy – when his dad returned just before 9:30. He asked me if Curt had gotten up yet or if I had heard from him. No, I said. Not a peep. Then, in jest, I added that I had checked on him just over an hour ago and he was still breathing. He chuckled and went in to check on his son. I heard him say Curt’s name, softly, then with more urgency. Suddenly I heard him cry out, “Quick! Call 911!”
No, my mind said. No. No. Not again. Not my Curt.
I snatched up the phone, dialed 911, and, though I didn’t want to, I went into the bedroom so I would be able to tell the operator what was wrong. His dad had turned Curt onto his back and was vigorously shaking him, trying to rouse him into consciousness. But Curt wouldn’t wake. I told the operator we needed an ambulance, quickly. She asked me where he was.
“On the bed,” I whispered. “It’s a waterbed.” I don’t know why I felt it necessary to add that, other than I wanted her to have whatever information she might need.
“I know this is hard,” she said, “but I have to ask: Is he beyond help?”
“No!” I shouted into the phone. “He is NOT beyond help. We need that ambulance here now!”
“Get him onto the floor on his back so you can start CPR.” She was so calm. It infuriated me.
I relayed what we needed to do and we each took one of Curt’s feet to pull him down. Near the end of the bed, his dad took Curt’s right arm and leg, and I took his left. We pulled him over the foot of the bed, and as we did so, his head thwacked painfully on the footboard. I knew he would not thank me for that lump when he woke up. We began CPR, with Curt’s dad breathing for him and me doing chest compressions. At first we couldn’t get his chest to rise, but eventually the air his dad was breathing in him took effect and gave us the illusion that he was breathing. I was talking and muttering the entire time. “No, Curt. Come on, come on. Breathe for me. Just breathe. Just breathe. Breathe. Show me some sign. Come on, Baby. Hang in there. Don’t leave me.” I had quite forgotten the 911 operator on the phone, but she was still there, keeping up a steady stream of instructions.
My mind flashed back to the night Sam died. I remembered shrieking many of those same things to him. And I remembered something else. At one of my Glory Babies support group meetings, another mom, Traci – a nurse – told the story of how her baby boy died. She said she looked in his eyes and just knew he was gone. His pupils were fixed and dilated. For some reason, that came back to me as I was pounding on Curt’s chest. I leaned up and pulled open one of his eyelids. There was no response in his eye. No pupil contraction at the light that was glaring above him. No movement of the eyeball. No flickering of the eyelid. Nothing.
But maybe it doesn’t always mean what Traci said it meant. We didn’t stop our CPR. We kept going. The paramedics arrived and took over. They shunted us out of the room and closed the door. They closed the door! That was hard. They cut me off from the man I loved. Separated us by closing a door.
I discovered I was hunched on the floor, crying, sobbing, trying to breathe. I heard his dad on his cell phone behind me calling Curt’s mom. I heard him say, “Our boy’s in trouble. You need to pray.” They rang off, and we each just sat, lost in our thoughts, lost in the monstrous situation that had exploded in my home. His phone rang. It was Curt’s mom calling back to see if there was any news. No. No news. The paramedics were still working. Pray. Just pray.
The bedroom door opened. I looked up, hoping against hope to see the paramedics tired but pleased, but they were not. Tired, yes. But there was no pleased look on their faces. They carried Curt on a backboard, his hands taped together over his stomach to keep them from slipping off, his feet crossed at the ankles. He was so very still, so very blue.
They wouldn’t let me ride in the ambulance.
We arrived at the hospital quickly, somehow found a parking place with no trouble, and hurried into the emergency room. But we didn’t get to see Curt. They brought us to a small room. One with three chairs, a computer, and some hospital equipment. It wasn’t the death room like I had experienced with Sam’s death, but it might as well have been.
I was still holding out hope. I was still clinging to a shred of possibility that he had made it, that the paramedics and hospital staff had been able to bring him back. A doctor and two nurses finally came into the room. They began talking to us, but they didn’t tell us how Curt was doing. They asked about his medications, about his frame of mind, his mood, our home life. Then they said they found some pills lodged in his throat, which would be consistent with a suicide attempt.
Suicide? This was absolutely unreal.
Would that have been possible, they asked us. No, I answered them quickly. Don’t even think that. Don’t waste time on that speculation. We’re having a baby. It’s what he wanted more than anything. And he would never willingly leave Violet or me. As much as he is our world, we are his. Then came the words I never wanted to hear again.
“We did all we could.”
Did? Could? All past tense! No! I was silent, but my mind was screaming, raging that it couldn’t be true, but all the time the doctor and nurses were there assuring us that he was, in fact, dead. It began to sink in, and I began to cry. His dad sat slumped in his chair, his head in his hands. His own brother had died just the week before. It was the first loss he had experienced. And now his son.
The doctor and nurses left us alone in our little room. They said we wouldn’t be able to see Curt until the homicide detectives had come and gone from the hospital. Homicide detectives…? Oh my God. So we waited. I borrowed his dad’s cell phone. I had to tell my family what had happened. My mom answered on the fourth ring.
“Mom?” I could barely get that one word out. My voice didn’t sound like my own.
“Hi, babydoll!” I tried to say something but I couldn’t. I just cried. “Karen?”
“Yeah…Mom…” I couldn’t say the words. I just couldn’t. To say it out loud would make it real, make it final.
“What’s wrong? Karen, tell me what’s wrong.”
“Curt…Curt…Curt died. This morning.”
Silence. Then, “What?”
I explained as best I could, my sentences broken, my voice cracked and shaking. She was in utter disbelief. Out of the blue, her newest son-in-law was dead. I don’t remember a lot of the conversation with her, but I know that she wanted Violet and me to come home to Texas as soon as possible. I told her that I wanted to bury Curt next to Sam and Curt’s dad agreed with that. She rang off, and I knew she would get the word to the rest of the family, sparing me the necessity of calling and having to say those horrible words again. At least for now.
We waited. In that little room, we waited for almost three hours. The detectives finally arrived. They took care of whatever business they had with Curt, and then came to see us in our little death room. They asked us questions over and over. Finally they were satisfied and told us they would be going to the house now to look around and gather any evidence they might need. Evidence? Just to help in the investigation, they said. Investigation? Yes, there would have to be an investigation. He died outside the hospital (though the death certificate would later state that he died in the emergency room) under suspicious circumstance (i.e., the pills stuck in his throat). It was like a nightmarish episode of CSI Miami – being questioned by police, having those police go through my house, looking for some sort of clues as to why my husband, my beloved, was dead.
One of the nurses came to us after the detectives left. We could see Curt now. I had to see him. I had to, so that I would know it was true, that it was real. I had to be able to say goodbye, hold him, rest my head one more time on his chest. I wanted my chance to stroke his hair, hold his hand. I wanted to see Curt by myself. This was something I had to do alone.
He was in a small, curtained cubicle. He was so discolored. But he was my Curt. The man I loved more than anything in the world except for Violet. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming again. I talked to him, told him how much I loved him, how much I already missed him. I promised to take good care of our baby, that I would make sure the baby knew how wonderful Curt had been. That I would never forget him. I hugged him. I stroked his hair. I held his cold hand in my own, wishing I could give him warmth that would bring him back to life. I rested my head on his chest. He always felt so solid, so steady. That feeling was still there and I never wanted to give it up. I saw him there, lying on that gurney, and still – somehow – I just couldn’t take it in. No. This wasn’t really possible. It wasn’t really happening. It was so difficult to give him one last kiss, to let go of his hand, turn, and walk away from him, leaving him in that hospital cubicle. I returned to our little room to give his father space to say his own goodbye to his son.
Then it was over.
We left the hospital and went home. The homicide detectives had finished and we could go in. I knew I would have to sleep in that bed, live in that house, exist without Curt ever being there again. It was hard knowledge. When we got home, I stripped the bed. His pillowcase had blood on it, and so did the sheets. It had soaked through the pillowcase and stained his pillow. The sheets I washed. They had been a wedding present and somehow made me feel more connected to Curt. Curt’s pillow I had to throw out. I just couldn’t take the thought of scrubbing it. I washed the sheets and put them back on the bed. I sprayed some of Curt’s cologne – Obsession for men– on his side of the bed so that it would still smell like him.
I had put off what could not be put off any longer. I had to call Curt’s friends, our friends, and tell them what had happened. I made many phone calls and saying the words never got easier. Then I had to call my department chair at the college and explain to him. I would need at least a week off. He was so understanding, so supportive. He said getting a sub would be no problem, and if I needed him to, he would arrange a permanent sub for the rest of the semester. I thanked him, hung up, and packed suitcases for Violet and myself. We were going back to Texas.