During the Victorian era, there was certain mourning behavior developed for women. Concealing black clothing along with heavy veils of black crepe were supposed to be worn for two years by a widow. She was not allowed to exit her home without her full black attire and her weeping veil.
Well, thank heavens times have changed, however after two months of living without Steve, though I never actually wore the heavy black weeping veil, I continue to feel like it cocoons me.
Oddly, the day of Steve’s death replays in vivid technicolor in my mind. I continue to remember distinct smells. Smells of sickness mixed with sanitizing disinfectant. I was trying desperately to keep Steve’s surroundings germ free.
I remember complete detailed conversations with the Hospice doctor, nurses, friends, relatives, with Steve. I can hear him clearly calling my name and then feebly trying to express to me that he needed to get up or wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
I recall the immediate drop in temperature each time I walked in our bedroom to check on Steve, touching his face and brow and thinking how could he be so clammy and damp when the nurse was wrapped in a quilt to keep warm? His familiar gray t-shirts, now cut down the back for ease in getting on and off were stained with perspiration, as his weak, frail body was struggling to survive. The shuttered windows, kept out any sunlight, it was so drastic from the sun streaming through the windows in the rest of our home.
I still hear the whirl of the oxygen machine as it coursed into his lungs, yet that labored, shallow, rattled breathing was the sound that reverberated loudest through the air, now echoes in my memories.
I so wanted to curl up beside him and hold him close, but I sensed he was too uncomfortable to be touched. When I would brush my fingertips across his brow, gently pick up his hands and touch each finger as if trying to read poetry in braille, or softly kiss him he would murmur thank you, but there was a clinching of his jaw that told me my touch was too painful, so I would walk away not knowing where to go.
I have regrets about that day. If I had known it was his last I would not have busied myself with banal chores. I walked that morning instead of spending time with my husband. I watered wilting summer plants when I could have been soaking in my seconds with him. I made numerous phone calls to ensure I had nursing care to help me the following day when hospice was to leave. I journaled instead of sitting with Steve because I could find no place where I felt I should be--I have regrets.
The biggest regret that I replay over and over every night before I fall asleep is the hour before he left this earth. Steve’s condition had worsened suddenly. The Hospice nurse was making calls to bring in equipment to catheterize him and suction his lungs. I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed. Steve became restless, he was struggling to communicate but it was clear that he wanted all the “talking” to stop (he wanted the nurse to be quiet). I asked her to step into the living room to make her calls. Steve’s restlessness and agitation continued. He muttered to me it was time to turn off the lights and come to bed. Oh, this is my biggest regret, I relive it daily...if only I had stayed with him, if only I had turned off that light and climbed in our bed beside his hospital bed, then I would have been with him the moment he left this world...if only. Instead, I told him I would be “just upstairs, the nurse would be sitting in the chair by his bed and she would call me if he needed me for anything”...I turned off the lights, I spoke with the nurse to get an update on the equipment delivery and I went back to Steve.
He was sleeping but his breathing was so strained. I sat on our bed and I prayed. I asked God to have mercy on my precious husband, I asked that I had the confidence to trust God’s perfect timing. I asked for strength to persevere the upcoming days, weeks, months. His sister, Bonnie silently entered and sat beside me and we held hands. I knew her prayers were heavy on her heart as well. We silently cried and prayed as Steve seemed to sleep through this battle. I remember wadding up a pillow and curling into a fetal position, Bonnie laying beside me, still so quiet. The world and time stood still in that moment, fear and the unknown wrapped itself around us and we had only our faith to cling to for we were sailing into a dark unknown.
Finally, Bonnie told me I needed to go to bed. Steve would be needing me in the morning, without Hospice our days were sure to be long and difficult. Steve slept, I left to go to bed, quickly falling asleep. Bonnie stayed with Steve awhile longer before going upstairs, that was around 10:40 p.m. At 10:45 p.m. the nurse called and told me to come quickly. I let Bonnie know as I ran downstairs.
I entered our bedroom. All the lights were on and Steve was propped up with the nurse at his side. I felt immediately he was already gone but the nurse told me he was still with us. I cradled him, telling him how much I loved him, what a wonderful husband he was, how it was time for him to leave us, how I was going to be okay without him, his job was done.
Seconds later, another nurse arrived. A delivery person from Hospice was to bring the necessary equipment, but this nurse was on her way home and our house was on her way so she offered to drop off the equipment. We now had an LVN and an RN...a God Thing...most certainly. It was seconds later that Steve was gone. It was not a peaceful, natural death. It was difficult to watch and one I will never forget, but I truly believe Steve’s spirit had left his dying body before I entered that room and what Bonnie and I witnessed was his physical body simply shutting down.
The Hospice nurses, gently asked us to step out so they might clean Steve up and change his bedding. We made necessary calls and then were told he was ready when we were ready to see him.
Walking into that room, our bedroom and seeing my amazing husband lifeless on that bed was surreal. I knew in my head he was gone, but my heart was clinging to someone who had begun to leave me almost five years ago due to a brain tumor. I placed my head on his chest for the last time, but no longer felt the warmth of his body, no longer heard the beating of his heart or the sound of this gentle breathing. His fingers no longer found their way to my hair or the nape of my neck. Steve was gone...God had been merciful and blessed us all, he had taken Steve home. His timing was perfect.
I finally went to bed around 2:00 a.m. It was sometime during that night that I believe God must have gently placed that widow’s veil over my head because when I woke that morning and from then until today (two months later) I feel like I have been under this veil. It is as if I am concealed, protected, screened. I am shut off from reality, under a veil of fog, a screen from life. I feel numb, I can’t remember things I have done or said. I walk around the house doing mindless things that seem so important at the time, but the next day couldn’t begin to tell someone what I have done with myself. I can’t concentrate on reading, television, I have no idea or concern of current events. My circle of friends remains small, it takes too much energy to visit with friends I don’t know well. Large groups are off limits to me, they are overwhelming. Conversations are often left hanging in mid air, my sentences incomplete because I can’t remember what I was trying to say. People talk to me but my “veil” keeps me from understanding or even caring.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m continuing to live my life. I come and go. I do get together with friends, go out to eat, take care of grandchildren. I can laugh and enjoy myself and realize life, my life must go on. I’ve made plans for the future, plans to travel, to move eventually, to get a dog...but my widow’s veil remains firmly in place. I’ve tried to take it off, to leave the house without it, but it seems to follow me, to encase me, to shroud me.
Maybe there is something to that old Victorian tradition of not shedding the widow’s weeping veil for two years. Maybe experience be told, those who have gone before knew it would take time for a woman to fully grasp living life without half of who she had become. Maybe, just maybe accepting this invisible veil and thanking God for the cushion of its protection, concealment and screening is a gift, one to be recognized and thankful for.
God will know when it is time for me to lift my veil. God will allow me to begin to enter life day by day when the time is right. All I know is now my widow’s veil is firmly attached to me, perhaps because my mind continues to replay the day Steve left me and it is still painfully vivid. I pray that day and those memories will begin to pale and my memories of my finest moments with Steve will begin to grow brighter.
There is an African proverb that I have always loved, “As I go I am wearing you.” When I am eventually able to feel this about Steve is when I believe God will allow this veil to be lifted. I will be able to fully experience life in technicolor again and I will forever be able to wear Steve in my heart and in all that I am.
2 Corinthians 3:16 “but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”