The Contest: Life and Death

The following essay was my submission to a recent magazine contest about my most significant life change.  I didn’t win the contest, but writing the essay was cathartic and reminded me of a life-changing lesson this life change taught me:

“So now, I have you with the doctor at 2:00 p.m. next Tuesday.  And what could I say would be the purpose for your visit?” the receptionist waited for my reply.

“Well, I don’t know that I could put it all in just a few words, but according to the stress test in the back of Glamour magazine, I’ve already committed suicide.”

Of course that wasn’t exactly true.

I did have a vague memory of having taken one of those magazine tests that assign numerical stress-equivalents to life-changing events.  As I dialed the counselor’s office and recalled the past eight months, I calculated that I had almost certainly maxed out the numbers.

Of course I hadn’t committed suicide yet, or even tried to.  But I would have said anything to get an appointment with a counselor.  I was desperate.  I knew I was in trouble.

My life that day by the numbers: In the previous eight months, I had completed my master’s degree (not a bad thing, but still a stressful thing); I had finally gotten pregnant after years of infertility diagnoses and treatments (a wonderful thing); my husband had died, and I had moved from the house in the woods where I had been blissfully happy into a small apartment with hear-through walls and day-glo orange carpet, where I sat day after day waiting to give birth.

Yes, there was a black hole in the middle of that time.  My husband—my gorgeous, charismatic, charming, genius husband—had died.  Driving in the dark, he had missed a curve and stopped head-on into a tree.

In the frame of my memory, on that sparkling September day with its autumnal sun and pellucid sky, I was carrying a big yellow bowl and heading out to pick jelly grapes.  I heard tires on the gravel driveway, and when the car came into view, I saw my friend in the back seat and one of my husband’s law partners in the front beside a policeman.

I didn’t even have to ask.  But I did.  “Is he dead?”

“Yes.”

I turned away, opened the screen door, and stepped into a house that would never be my home again.

We had been together twelve years, married for nine.  We had experienced so much with each other—finishing college, his studying law while I taught school, and the early years of making our home in a house we bought almost exclusively because it had fireflies in the front yard.

After the first few years, when we had our home and money in the bank, we began to want a family.  More specifically, my husband began to want children.  Charles loved children.  He attracted them like a Pied Piper.  In earlier years, he had loved leading his younger brothers in adventures, camping, hiking, exploring, just boys together.  I knew that’s what he wanted again.

He and I never talked about whether we would have children; we simply assumed it would be foundational in our real, adult lives.  After all, that’s why I had faithfully taken birth control pills for years—to manage when, not if.

So when it didn’t happen as expected, we wanted answers.  I cannot count the number of times I drove back and forth to my gynecologist’s office, to be prodded and tested.  There was no consideration that the problem might be my husband’s.  I knew it must be me, and I felt I was failing him.

Then joyously, thermometers and charting and fertility drugs and double vision and an ovarian wedge-resection later—my husband announced to me that I was pregnant the morning after.  With his melting smile, he said, “Last night I heard one of them say, ‘Boys, I finally found it!’”

Some time around Valentine’s Day, I pushed my car out of a snow bank, drove to the doctor’s office, and heard the good news confirmed.  We were ecstatic; he for the son he longed for, I for pleasing him.

All summer we waited and I expanded.  Cautioned against car travel, I rested the days in a big brown leather lounge chair, nestled like the child in my womb, doing what my faith tradition calls “devotions.”  For hours every day, I read and memorized Bible verses, and prayed for my husband, myself, and our child.

In late August Charles went to the beach and came home wearing a yellow beanie with a top propeller.  “For him,” he said, still with that smile.  And he told me about sailing a red kite out over the ocean.  “We must have had a mile of string on that thing!  And then the line snapped, and it just disappeared.”

If I had known, I might have heard that as a warning.

But I didn’t know.  So the crash, and the gravel, and the door slammed, and there was no going back.

Since then I have experienced other losses and other griefs, but none like that.  In the counseling sessions I now lead, I sometimes try to help others by giving them this image: Learning of the unexpected death of the person you love most in the world is like having your best friend walk up and hit you in the stomach with a baseball bat.  Your vision goes black. You feel pain.  You feel nausea.  You feel betrayed.  Then you feel nothing.

My friend was afraid the news would induce premature labor, so she called the emergency squad right away.  Neither my heart rate nor my blood pressure showed any sign of the trauma.  She was amazed.  I wasn’t surprised.  Life as I knew it had come to end.

In the two-dimensional reality of early grief, at my next appointment with the obstetrician, I asked him to deliver the baby by Caesarean.  He declined.  I replied, “Well, you’ll have to, because I’m not having this baby.”  Why struggle to realize a dream once you’re cold awake?

But even when the mind can no longer imagine and the heart can no longer engage, cells keep dividing, blood keeps flowing.  Life will go on.

Thirty days after my husband died, our son insisted.  My water broke and very slight pains began.  My sister drove me to the hospital.  I lay in the birthing room all night and the next day, wondering why it wasn’t hurting more.  Was the baby as numb as I?  Hour after hour, I sucked ice and prayed.  And when my words dried up, I recited the one Bible verse I could remember now in this barren place: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I was no longer aware of the clock ticking or the people coming and going around my bed.  I simply said those words over and over, silently in my mind, hissed between clenched teeth, half the words with an in-breath and the other half breathing out.  I had no answers for the questions.  I had no regrets or expectations.  I felt alone in the world with only those words.

Nearly twenty-four hours later, when the doctor came to check, even after a labor-inducing injection I had dilated only one centimeter.  He should have believed me.  So soon after death, I could not will myself to give birth.

I was wheeled into the operating room for a Caesarean, and I saw the anesthesia mask being lowered.  I remember thinking, “I have to say it one more time. ‘I can do all things . . . .’”  Then the picture went black.

Next, even through still closed eyes, I could feel warm light, and I heard someone say, “You have a son.”  Charlie was due on his father’s birthday, but he took his own time.  With his birth, my heart started again.

Suffering and death cannot be stopped.  Pain cannot be avoided.  Death is inevitable.  But life is more powerful than death.