(This is a piece from a year or so ago, actually, but I'm posting it at the request of a friend.)
I’m pretty much a straight arrow when it comes to the Commandments. Never been one to flirt with hellfire and damnation. Don’t care to dodge lightning bolts, either. And yet, as the silence lengthened, and it became clear that he had breathed his last, ragged breath, I held Brady's hand and sighed, “God, I loved him.” I wish I could say I was praying, but that would add another to the list of Top Ten Commandments broken for the afternoon. I swear more than I care to admit. But that “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” Commandment? I’m scrupulous about that one. I remember three slip-ups in my entire life—remember them vividly, in fact, because I felt guilty about each and every one. This time, however, my blasphemy took me by surprise, profaning an otherwise incredibly spiritual synapse between life and death.
6:02 p.m. August 7, 1992. We gathered in the bedroom of my apartment. Brady's parents, his best friends, and I surrounded the hospital bed that Hospice had delivered a few days earlier. The head of the bed lay against the window as lazy-summer sunlight washed over the scene. After a couple of days of wrestling my incoherent and writhing husband, I had been almost relieved when the onset of coma brought rest to both of our weary bodies. The labored breathing and the ritual of the family keeping a death watch, however, sustained the tension all day.
Now, with Brady's breath stilled, the group of us around the bed gradually eased our own breathing, relaxing tentatively into the emerging peace. An expectant silence filled the apartment complex. Word must have spread that Brady's death was imminent, because our neighbors seemed to respectfully keep their distance. The mortician was a family friend. A day or two later we joked morbidly with him while we planned the funeral, but on that evening he remained subdued as he and his assistant took the body carefully down the stairs.
Our son, Devin, came home from the babysitter’s after the mortician left, and my mother-in-law and I spent the evening alternating between toddler routine and shedding the trappings of illness and death. We sent the hospital bed away, poured bottles of medicine down the sink, washed bedding, removed the wheelchair, made phone calls, and hugged each other.
Years later and 2000 miles away, my young neighbor, Doug, wasted away with cancer. I remember glancing out my window one afternoon and noticing his wife riding her bike past our house—no helmet, wind blowing her hair back from her face. I knew immediately that Doug had died because I recognized that familiar, intangible sense of release surrounding his wife.
I had my own moments of release in those months after Brady's death, times when I’m sure my need for freedom jarred the sensibilities of family and friends who needed me to fit their own comfortable definition of “widow.” My parents worried as I headed cross-country, pulling all my possessions in a rented trailer behind my red pickup truck. Colleagues at work back-pedaled, embarrassed, when their questions about my marital status finally elicited an explanation they had not expected. As a 25-year old professional, smiling and independent, I was not exactly a poster child for grieving widowhood.
As a matter of fact, I failed to fit my own definition of widowhood. Brady should not have died just three years into marriage, after I discovered his faults but before I gained the maturity to discard the illusion I married and admire his true strengths. He should not have died muddled by brain cancer, forgetting how to tie his tie, impatient with the toddler who had become his playground rival rather than his son. He should not have died before I learned how to forgive him for youthful bad decisions that had left me feeling betrayed.
One night, in the midst of those long months of illness, I knelt with my son to help him say his prayers. At my prompting, he asked God to make his daddy better. I watched his blond curls as he prayed, wishing I didn’t have to cheat like this, wishing I could say the prayer myself with the same fervor and faith. Didn’t I owe it to my husband to feel desperate for a miracle? Even in the disillusionment of early marriage, I know I never wished for his death. But, being the realist that I am sometimes, I did recognize stage-four glioblastoma as his death sentence. As a mother of a young child, I had to prepare for the future. So I let Devin pray for the miracle, knowing he was too young to comprehend the burden I placed on him. I also knew that he was too young to lose his faith when no ram bleated in the thicket at the last moment to save his father as the Old Testament ram saved Isaac.
Brady had a birthday last week, his 42nd. Devin, now off at college in Brady's hometown, called for directions to his father’s gravesite. I can picture Devin standing in that quiet corner of the cemetery, poised in an awkward phase between youth and maturity. On that August evening, years ago, Brady wasn’t so many years older than Devin, a far cry from the middle-aged man he would have been today.
With the perspective of decades, I think perhaps a sigh, once seemingly blasphemous, has become a grateful prayer. “God, I really did love him.” And once again I breathe, no longer tentative about the peace.