This essay is one of the two runners up in the 2013 Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction competition.
If my adorable husband, who died at our home on Fireplace Road on May 24th, had read the title of this piece, he would have said with his usual wit, that he wanted national acclaim for his handsomeness. But this entry, I would have explained, laughing, needed to be about the East End.
I learned from this handsomest of men that the East End is not only a grand place to live, it is also an excellent place to die. I also learned that we can choose not to suffer while dying. My husband never chose to suffer, about anything. He liked to be comfy. With the help of East End Hospice, which, according to experts in such matters, is exceptional, Jim was able to come in for a soft landing. Finally, I learned that the East End is also an excellent place to grieve. The especially cozy sense of community, which offers the opportunity for hugs from friends at the supermarket, the dry cleaners, the yoga studios, allows for a sense of belonging which is so essential to warming the chill of grief.
In addition to the devoted staff at East End Hospice, I knew that I, as a committed hypochondriac who had been “terminal” all my life, would be an excellent source of support for my afflicted husband. For me, every shower was always going to be my last, every cup of delicious morning coffee my final brew.
Our foray into the diagnostics of dread and doom had resulted in two “top” Manhattan neurologists guaranteeing that Jim’s condition was irreversible. Jim wanted to abbreviate his interval of decline. I didn’t want to be apart from him so we decided we would, romantically, “check out” together. We considered carbon monoxide. We envisioned the engine of our car running until someone, perhaps the LIPA person walking up the driveway to check the meter, noticed that there was a hose from the exhaust pipe tucked into one of the windows and found us drooped, deceased, inside. Not only would this be traumatically horrifying to our discoverer, the additional veto of this strategy was based on the fear that I might stop breathing first and Jim would be helpless, alone. This would definitely not be comfy.
The garden held some hope. I knew we had some lethal perennials so toxic even the deer wouldn’t eat them. Foxglove slows the heart radically enough to kill. Aconite is (according to Google) the queen of poisons, accelerating the heart fatally. Jim, ever practical, noted that unless one knows exactly how to administer such a substance, we might both wind up in the hospital blind with enormous headaches but nowhere near deceased. Not good!
Also not good if the plant poisons worked but I died first. Then who would take care of him in this vulnerable condition. He’d rather die than have a stranger take care of him. He’d rather die than go to a dinner party.
The illness had begun a June ago, with weakness in one leg, then, a dropped foot that flopped around. Then it was the other leg. Then the abdominal muscles stopped working so he couldn’t sit up by himself. He couldn’t put on his own socks. When the progressing muscular decline raced upward to his hands and arms, he had had it. He was a painter, a fisherman, a “gizmologist” who loved to make things, and he could no longer knead bread or hold even a pencil, or a piece of popcorn, much less a brush. Things were falling apart faster than he could lower his standards. I knew he would die of terminal boredom before his breathing was impeded and swallowing became impossible. We both knew he would refuse feeding tubes and breathing apparatus.
We discovered quite serendipitously an organization called Compassion and Choices, which counsels people over the telephone on legal “end of life” management. They coached us about how and when to involve hospice, and the methods that could be utilized to help Jim swim with the tide, only faster, while at the same time remaining comfy. This appealed. Our helpers in that organization were very impressed with the cooperative, forward-thinking spirit of East End Hospice. The May morning that the hospice nurse and social worker were scheduled to pay us an “informational” visit, I wheeled Jim to the sink so he could shave and ready himself. He turned to me and said, “I look too good for hospice. They might reject me and not be willing to help! I’m not going to shave, I can look stubbly that way.” Remember, he was the handsomest man in America. His blue eyes (on forms asking for eye color he would always write “compassionate blue”) were sparkling, his complexion rosy, his silver hair sprang gorgeously from his head and feathering down the back of his neck charmingly, as always.
He was wearing a black T-shirt. He said, “Get me a white T-shirt and some coffee.” I did. He spilled coffee down the front of the T-shirt so he’d look like one of those men in the Price cartoons in The New Yorker, with the bare light bulbs hanging over a disordered table upon which sat a scary-looking cat. Then he asked me for some flour, which he sprinkled all over his black cotton Puma sweat pants. He looked quite schlumpy and waited for the hospice people in a wheelchair instead of reclining on the sofa. They spoke with us about how medications could help him be comfortable when the time was right, and to let them know when that was.
During the weeks leading up to the hospice visit, we’d spoken at length about his plan to stop eating and drinking. He often remarked that we only lease our bodies anyway, and that he didn’t mind dying…that he’d had a lovely life, had painted enough paintings and caught enough fish. He just didn’t want to suffer.
He expressed gratitude thoroughly and often for my support of his plan. I would have done anything to help get him out of the torture chamber his body had become. It was the last act of love I was able to lavish upon my lovely husband. I was eager to go join him in the plan, but again, feared I would fade first and leave him alone, helpless. We decided I’d better stick around until he was tucked away.
On a Saturday morning, when the family members from afar had visited, Jim stopped eating and drinking. My husband excelled at everything he chose to do, even looking disheveled for hospice. He had been dead to his own life for several months before he actually left it. I had grieved these losses of function with him. There was a pulling feeling in the center of my body as I’d watched him struggle with the simplest movement. So we were able to grieve together in advance of his physical departure. By the time Mr. William Deering Yardley Jr. arrived in a blue suit and tie with his American flag lapel pin at 4 a.m. to wheel Jim gently away, I had already experienced the lowest dip of the grieving curve.
What I learned being with Jim was that death is natural, as natural as an exhale, as natural as a cry from the maternity ward. Also, Jim is not any deader than I am, he is just not in this room with me (though his ashes are). He might just as well be fishing in Accabonac Harbor or Gardiner’s Bay. He might just as well be in a poker room in Atlantic City playing Holdem.
I watched him take his last breaths, shallower and quieter as midnight, and then the morning minutes accumulated. Seeming even handsomer, even younger as his breathing quieted, I sat with him concentrating on his every inhale, every exhale. I knew hospice would come if there had been panic or unease in his breathing. I whispered to him that I was memorizing the shape of his earlobes, the silkiness of his hair, the texture of his skin as I stroked his forehead. I imagined, as I watched his face, that I could see where he was going, that he could see where he was going and he was concentrating with great focus on getting there. And it seemed as though it seemed to him to be a place of great appeal, full of stillness. Each fading breath punctuated another paragraph of my love for him.
It was a privilege to be with him throughout our 30 years, this man who loved solitude and inspired a blessed stillness with his presence and with his paintings. Take a breath. Allow the exhale. Notice the stillness at the end of the exhale. Rejoice with me in the stillness that was Jim’s legacy.
Eve Eliot is the author of Insatiable, a nominee for the Best Books for Young Adults. Her Attention Shoppers: The Woman’s Guide to Enlightenment was named one of the Ten Best Spiritual Books by Spirituality & Health magazine.