(originally written August 1, 2011)
On July 13th, 2011, everything disappeared, and I got a brand new life. It was not a life I asked for or wanted. It was not a life I understood. It was the life that was handed to me, without warning. This new life hit me smack in the face at 7:00 am, when I was woken up by a ringing phone over and over and over. My husband had gone to work at 4:30 am that morning, and because it was so early, he never woke me up to say good morning. He wanted to let me sleep, so he would just leave. He had picked up a 2nd job at Petsmart, stocking shelves and pricing things, to pay off his recent; very expensive, dental bill so we could eventually afford monthly payments on a brand new car. That was our plan. To finally let go of his 97 Pontiac Grand Prix that had been giving us problems for a long time, and get a new car. He was going to quit the job as soon as the bill was paid off. He was trying to support his family. He was really exhausted. But he never once complained or showed any signs of something being wrong with his heart or health. Never. He had no side effects of any kind. He even played tennis on his one day off, 2 days before, and somehow found time to also volunteer for rescue shelter there and take care of the kitties. He took care of everyone. Especially me.
When I called Palisades Medical Center, they told me “get down here right away. It’s your husband.” Immediately, I knew that this was BAD and terrifying news. I knew, because I’m married to an EMT, who told me time and time again how the hospital never tells you someone died over the phone. They can’t. They have to tell you in person. I hung up the phone and got a car service down to the hospital, shaking the entire way and saying out loud to no one and to the universe: “No, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening…”
But it was happening. And from the second I RAN into the ER of that hospital … everything that happened next and since then is a blur, and yet very specific. Its in slow motion, yet seemed to go by in 60 seconds. You know on TV when they take the person’s wife or husband into a special room off to the side, close the doors, ask you to “please sit down” so you don’t faint, and then say a whole bunch of words that end with “Cardiac arrest … we tried to get him back … I’m so sorry. We did the best we could. He didn’t make it.” Yeah. That is exactly what happened. Except it wasn’t a TV show. It was me.
And I was the one sitting there, trying not to faint. Trying not to suffocate. Its a good thing they tell you to sit down. The animalistic cry that came out of me was a sound I have never heard before; but a sound that everyday since; I am now very familiar with. Me and the nurses sat in this little room and they asked me who can they call for me. My hands and arms were shaking. I tried to locate the phone numbers for Don’s sisters Karen, Marsha, Cynthia. I didn’t have any of them in my own phone. Still shaking. They handed me a bunch of Don’s things. His wallet. His keys. His phone. I had no idea how to use it. It kept beeping and making noises as I tried to figure out how to find a list of contacts. The only number I could remember in that moment was my husband’s, and my parents. I can’t recall how we finally figured out numbers, but we did. Everything is a blur. My life is now a blur.
I remember being in a tiny hallway next to the room because my cell phone was starting to lose signal in the room, and I attempted to call my good friend John. No answer. Holy shit. I have to leave this AS A MESSAGE? I had no choice. I don’t recall what I said, but I know I told him Don was dead and can you please gather up the gang and come to the hospital and be with me?
A slew of phone calls were made by the nurses. To Don’s sisters. To my parents in Massachusetts. I remember thinking: “thank god Don’s mother is already dead, because this might have killed her.” My mom got in her car and drove the 4.5 hours to NJ. And Don’s EMS brothers showed up too, held my hand, cried with me. They said: “Don was our brother, and our family. You are now our family. Not just today, but forever. You come to us if you need anything.” It gave me that same feeling of safety and comfort I always got from Don, them saying that to me. They helped me make quick decisions, like whether or not to donate my husband’s organs. For some reason, he hadn’t put it on the back of his license to be a donor,but I felt in my heart it would be something he would want to do. I remembered driving Ginger, our 3 yr. old kitty, to the vet ER in the middle of the night 2 years ago. She had thrown a blood clot, and the news wasn’t good. When the doctor showed us her x-rays, Don started crying instantly. He knew she wasn’t going to make it. He took my hand as he showed me her fate: “See, Boo? Her heart was too big, and it was cutting off oxygen to her lungs. The poor thing was dying this whole time and didn’t even know it. My sweet girl.” Later, when the doctor left us alone in the room after they had put her to sleep, Don cried into my arms as he said: “I wish I could give her a piece of my heart, because if it would help her to stay alive, I would do it in a second.” Knowing who Don was; recalling that memory; and with the support of his EMS brothers; I decided to donate his organs. The people from the Organ Donation Place had already called twice in the time I was at the hospital, and said they would call again in a few hours for my final decision. I felt like my soul had been ripped out, and I was so damn tired. My friends were on their way to come be with me.
But before all that happened, I was there alone. Waiting. Pacing. Dazed. I kept walking back and forth, as if that might change what they had told me. Maybe if I kept moving, none of this would be true. Just keep moving. A thought that went through my head: “I have to call Don.” There was no logic to my brain. I don’t know how I was standing up. And then they asked me if I wanted to “see” him. I had to see him. He is my husband. My life. My love. Please bring me to him.
I sat in the hospital room next to him, and I held his hand, touched his face, his hair, and talked to him one last time. Hugged him as tight as I could, one last time. He looked like he was just taking another nap. It didn’t seem real, except for the tubes coming out of his nose. That made it real. I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t want to leave the room ever. Leaving that room meant that I had to do the next thing; and that I had to continue to hear people say that he was dead. Please stop saying that. Please. He just left for work 2 hours ago. How can he possibly be dead? We were just sleeping in the same bed next to one another, and he was perfectly fine. There is no way he is dead. I leaned into him and kissed his forehead as I touched his hair again. “I love you Boo. I love you so much. I love you. I’m here. Please don’t be gone. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” I don’t know why I was apologizing; it’s just what came out. I slowly took his hand and put it in mine, and then wrapped his arm around me. I faced him, and I just cried and cried.
”Let us know when you’re ready”, they said. When I’m ready? I will never be ready. How can I be ready to walk away from him forever? There is no such thing as being ready when your entire life and soul disappears in an instant. In a flash. When you wake up, and you are a widow. A widow. What kind of obscene word is that? That’s something you say to an old lady. I’m only 39 years old. Am I ready? I will never ever be ready.
I told him again, I love you so much, probably twelve times. It never felt like enough times. And then, at an undetermined, random moment, I got up and walked out. I wanted to stay with him forever; but there was a part of me that still didn’t comprehend what was happening. “I’ll just see him later”, I thought to myself. Later. Maybe he will come back to life, just like on my favorite soap “General Hospital.” Or maybe it was his evil twin that had died, and not really him at all. There had to be some explanation. Whatever it is, he can’t really be dead. In my confusion, I waited in the halls of the hospital ER. Nobody bothered me. Life went on. Doctors treated other patients, and I disappeared into the crowd of people.
Sitting down somewhere; I posted a status update on Facebook, similar to those I had seen many times about other people dying. Someone’s mom or grandmother, or a good friend. But this time, it was me… posting a death notice about my own husband. I was letting everyone know that he had died. Heart attack. I think my update said something to the effect of: “This is the worst day of my life. My husband went into cardiac arrest this morning, and he is gone. I cannot believe I am typing this. RIP my beloved husband…Don Shepherd.” I clicked SEND on my phone. As I walked to the restroom down the hall, my Blackberry immediately started buzzing with emails, texts, messages. Modern technology and social media had gotten the word out in seconds. I remember thinking that the last time my phone beeped that furiously over and over again, it was because a video I did on YouTube was going viral. Don and I were celebrating and laughing each time my phone vibrated.
I sat down to use the bathroom and started to cry. Endless calls started to come in, but for whatever reason, I only picked up two of them. Meg Chandler, one of Don’s dearest friends and one-time EMT partner, called me. I was talking to her from inside the bathroom. The only thing I recall is the both of us crying as she said, “Oh Kelley … oh no … is it true?” We cried together and I could feel her heart breaking over the phone for the loss of her friend. Dianne called too, my childhood friend and next door neighbor. I picked it up. I don’t remember one word I said on that phone call. Just remember wanting to hear a human being speak. I was so numb. My phone kept ringing, buzzing, making noise. It was the noise of something life-changing. It was the noise of death.
Minutes or hours later, I can’t recall, my friend’s car pulled up. John, Jessica, and Kevin. I was standing outside the Emergency Room, and it was hot. My hands were sticky and sweaty, and I felt weak. I saw Kevin get out first. The night before, we had gotten into an argument via email. He had wanted space from all of us to figure out his life, and I didn’t understand. Reading Kevin’s emails the night before, Don understood. He said: “If he needs space, let’s just give him some space. Sometimes people just need to be alone for awhile.” As soon as I saw him getting out of that car, none of that mattered anymore. It just didn’t matter. The three of them walked toward me so slowly. It felt like two hours before they finally reached me, before anyone spoke. There were hugs, and words, and awkwardness, and everything was different. Our little group was missing a member. The puzzle had a missing piece. I felt like I was betraying Don by leaving him there in that hospital, lying in that small room alone. Dead.
As we took John’s car to the Petsmart where Don was working when he collapsed; there were a lot of silent tears. We were all collectively heartbroken, and nobody knew what to do. We arrived at Petsmart, where I spoke with some of the employees that were there when it had happened. Everyone was sad and talking in hushed tones. Someone told me that the manager who had found Don on the floor was sent home because he was too distraught to work the rest of his shift. I had to pick up our car. Don’s baby. His 1997 Grand Prix Pontiac that he had driven to work that morning. He loved that car. I got in with Kevin in the passengers seat, and just prayed that it would start. “Please just get me home one last time”, I said over and over in my head. Our car was always breaking down. Kevin asked me if I wanted him to drive it for me, but the car had no power-steering, so I wanted to be behind the wheel. At that very moment, driving that car felt like being a part of Don again somehow, and I wasn’t about to let that go.
We got back to our apartment, and we sat. I couldn’t stop thinking how wrong it felt to be just sitting at home in our apartment when Don was lying there dead. Couldn’t I do something? Sometime later my mom arrived. By that time, the apartment was filled with friends and food. I felt so loved, so tired, and so overwhelmed. There was panic and confusion inside my head, and my heart wanted to shatter into a million pieces right there on the floor. My head started to pound, and I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t DO anything. I didn’t understand what was happening. I heard the voices of my friends around me, talking, laughing uncomfortably, trying to find something to say, trying to make things okay through potato salad and baked ziti. Rodney, Andrew, Vanessa, John, Jessica, Kevin, Marina, my mom; and then later that night; Shawn … everyone offering me fruit and sandwiches and water. At some point, I excused myself to use the bathroom and began to silently cry. I had to get away. I had to be alone. Our cat Autumn was sitting in the bathtub, and she looked up at me sadly, searching desperately for answers. We stared at each other, not knowing what to do next.
Marriage is the most wonderful, brilliant thing I ever did. Marrying Don. We were family. There is nothing as beautiful as a marriage. Marriage is like a secret between two people that nobody else ever fully understands. I will carry with me that secret for the rest of my life. I will miss his hugs, the way he smelled, his awesome laugh, the way he would pout with his bottom lip at me when he wanted something, the way he called me “Boo” even in a text message, his music that would fill the house, his smiles when the cats would leap on him and love him, his annoyance and hatred of all things NJ, his little boy energy and face when I took him to the US Open for the first time, walking on the Cape Cod or Florida beach with him and holding hands, his vows on our wedding day, how he made me laugh so hard I cried on a bus ride from Newark airport one time, his endless all encompassing compassion and love for me, for life, and for everyone. I miss him so much that it aches inside and outside, everywhere, every single second. He is inside everything that I do from now on. On July 13th; I awoke to a new life. I am a different person than the one I was on July 12th. My perceptions are different. My world is darker. My heart is changed. I don’t understand any of this, and I will never ever be ready to let him go.