“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”Maya Angelou
He stood on the corner of the four-lane, divided city street, hunched over, his arms tightly wrapped across his chest. Thin and white-haired, he was a fragile figure, standing against the bitter cold winds of early December that lashed at his back and blew his hair into his face. He was dressed in khaki pants and canvas sneakers and a white, long-sleeved cotton or polyester shirt. The temperatures that day were in the teens, the wind chill estimated in the low single digits.
He had no coat. No coat, and no hat. No coat, no hat and no gloves.
I sat at the red light, warmed by the heater in my two-year-old van and by my warm winter coat with its cozy hood at the ready. My lined leather gloves were nearby. Safe from the bitter cold. I was headed home to Minnesota after a 3-hour drive from Madison, Wisconsin, where my world had been broken into a thousand, million pieces early that morning as my beloved had drawn his last breath. The man who was my soulmate, my best friend, my everything, had died just hours earlier.
Arrangements had been made to bring him home. What had begun as a trip together had become a lone return to a world that had grown strange. Hollow. The world as I had known it for the past 22 years was forever changed. Forever less.
Geographically challenged as I am, I had been doggedly focused on not losing my way on this unfamiliar trip. I had to get home so that I could plan a funeral.
I sat at that stoplight, still trying not to be overtaken by the pictures of that shadowed ICU where we had spent 5 days; not to hear the echo of the words of the 3 doctors on the last day.
“Mrs. Hendricks, Dwight has lost the circulation in his lower left leg and foot.”
I had known what that meant. I had known that the decision would be only up to me. I had so dreaded having to make a decision that was ambiguous, that had more than one option. Deciding whether the love of my life would live or die.
Now, I knew the answer as soon as the information was dispassionately spoken.
The doctors had quietly and compassionately laid out all the options, but there was only one that mattered. He was 81 years old. There would be no amputation. There would be no surgery to try to open the blocked artery. He had been on continuous kidney dialysis for 5 days. The only thing that needed to be done was to disconnect the machine that had been keeping him alive, three days a week, for the past 13 months.
I had been constrained so far by my shock.
Then, I had heard my words as if they were echoing from some faraway, imaginary place, outside myself. Quiet. Composed. They would mean a quiet and painless death.
“Turn off the machine.”
I sat on his bed for hours, then, talking to him quietly. Praying. Watching him. Watching the monitor. Waiting for the wavy lines to straighten. He had been given a strong sedative for the excruciating pain that accompanies artery blockage, so there would be no last words that he would utter. We had spoken them all earlier.
He was so frail, this vital, outgoing man, so quiet. Just awaiting his time.
I played his favorite two hymns on my Nook, sung by his favorite gospel singer, Wintley Phipps: “It is Well with my Soul,” and “Just As I Am.” With each one, his eyes opened in disbelief, his mouth dropped in amazement. At the end of each one, he settled back into rest. Waiting.
I told him it was alright for him to go. At 12:37 am, I watched his last exhale, waited for the next breath, and held my breath waiting for the long, high-pitched sound from the monitor that would tell me. Like in the movies.
There was only the silence. There was no more inhale of precious, earthly, life-sustaining air. It was over.
Everything that had held me together in those 5 days in the ICU let go. Every thread of courage, every longing of hope lay motionless in that sad, dark room. And I became someone I had never known before.
I wailed into the night. “Keening,” they call it. The male nurse that had taken care of my beloved the past 3 days came into the room and rested his hand gently on my shoulder. The sound of my grief, that indescribable rending of the frail fabric of life, that knows no boundary, cut through the darkness like a long, sharp knife. Finally, it was done.
When I left Madison in a daze some hours later, I had taken his red, down-filled jacket which was still filled with the aroma and the shape of him, and I set it upright on the passenger seat, as if I could keep him with me for the long, frozen ride home. His gloves were in the pocket. The hood was attached for the coldest of winter.
As I spotted The Man Without a Coat, I thought of that hooded jacket, sitting within reach, the warm gloves in its pockets. He needed it. I should give it to him. Dwight could no longer use it.
I pondered how I could get it to him safely, across two lines of traffic. Or could I just call out to him and have him come to get it from me?
I looked over at the coat. That coat that was Dwight’s invisible presence to me. The light of my life, who was gone, but still as close to me as breath. I hesitated, looking back at the shivering, freezing man. I reached for the coat, hesitating again. I still had not grasped ahold of it. Almost…almost.
I looked up and saw the man running frantically across the four-lane street, now out of easy reach. The light turned green, and I was the first car in line.
I drove on. I couldn’t let go yet. But I wished that I had.
His image has sometimes haunted me in these eight years since. Related by our different griefs, we would never know each other in the end. I look for grace in the everyday of life, but this would not be that kind of day.
Grief is its own kind of taskmaster. It makes us weak before it makes us strong. I had just begun.