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Where Do We Go Now?

Robby's death was imminent, but I was still in denial as it approached. I convinced myself we had more time and didn't truly listen to Robby's words when he tried to warn me how soon his death would come. I remember hearing, "I could die at any time now," and dismissing it in my mind as an exaggeration. My husband was still physically strong, making us coffee in the morning, taking out the trash, putting air in my tire when it was low, and making plans for the future. I didn't realize he was preparing me for a time when he would be gone, and I now experience pain and turmoil from missing his cues that we only had a month left together.

Of course, Robby didn't know an exact date he would pass. Still, I now listen to a voice message he sent me about not wanting a cable football package because he was only interested in one game, and then I can hear an almost inaudible, "and then I'll be dead anyway." I must not have listened to the last part while playing the message in between classes. Students leaving and entering the classroom are noisy, so it's not uncommon for me to only skim a text or miss a portion of a voice message until I have time to read or listen again later.

Looking back at our last two weeks, I see the end stages of the dying process. Robby began experiencing horrible nausea soon after starting morphine for pain management while on hospice. I encouraged Robby to try a different pain medication since opiates are well-known for causing nausea and vomiting in some individuals. Robby was stubborn and didn't heed my advice, so he continued growing sicker each day. I finally begged my husband to try something new after hearing him vomiting through the night for three days. I knew that if he didn't get to a point where he could eat again, we would lose some of the time he had left.

Hospice switched Robby to Dilaudid, and he felt great for a few days, finally catching up on much-needed sleep. I felt at peace knowing my husband was comfortable, but it was a short-lived break. On the third day of his new medication regimen, Robby complained that he was feeling overwhelmed. I noticed he was agitated about visitors (a symptom of withdrawal in the dying), and he told me that he wanted to die because he was nauseous again. I tried calling hospice to get advice on making him comfortable, but Robby's agitation had intensified. His speech was indiscernible, and his thoughts weren't making sense. I worried that he had taken too much of his pain medication, so I called hospice with desperation to help him calm down. The advice I received was to call 911 and have him temporarily admitted into the hospital to adjust his medication and find his comfort level. Of course, Robby didn't want to go to the hospital, so he chose to stay with his mom, a registered nurse and nursing director of an assisted living facility.

We were helpful that he could get his medications worked out and return home for the remainder of weeks he had left in life. We learned that Robby had a urinary tract infection, so he was placed on antibiotics in addition to a few new medications to reduce pain and decrease his agitation. I remember feeling excited that we had some answers to why he was feeling unwell, so I planned to take two days off from work to spend time alone together. I spent the night at my mother-in-law's home to make sure Robby received his evening medications as needed, but he seemed restless. My husband would wake and say he needed to use the restroom or go outside every hour. I would hurry to help him to the bathroom, but he would immediately turn around and go back to bed. I have since learned this phenomenon is called terminal restlessness, and our first hospice provider missed the signs.

By now, we had switched to a different hospice provider and had received better care. One of our nurses went to high school with Robby and me, so he visited us the next evening to deliver a prescription and discuss what I was observing. We began talking about terminal restlessness, and it became clear to me that we only had days left. My hope of spending those two days with Robby to hold each other and talk dissolved as his condition rapidly deteriorated. Instead, we held each other but with very few words exchanged between us. Robby could no longer communicate in sentences, and the words he could speak were difficult to discern. We held each other as much as possible, but I also had to make room in my heart to give other family members a chance to say their goodbyes.

I found myself feeling disconnected from reality and that it was all a mistake. Robby would suddenly get better and have another month left; that is what my heart wanted more than anything else. Robby stopped drinking water on the second day, and I could only get him to take a few sips from a straw. I knew at this time not to give a dying person water unless they asked for it because it helps the body enter a "euphoric" state and go through the stages of death more efficiently. I hated knowing what was best for my husband was the opposite of what I wanted for him. I wanted to feed him and make him drink water, but I knew that those attempts would be in vain and prolong his suffering. Instead, I swallowed my pain and did things that helped me feel I was honoring my husband while allowing his death to occur naturally.

On the third day, I gave Robby a bed bath, applied infused lotion with frankincense to his skin, washed his hair, cleaned his face with a charcoal mud mask, and gave him a massage. I then "brushed" his teeth with sponges to apply a moisturizer to his tongue that prevents cracking, applied chapstick, and placed his bonsai tree near him with a candle and his favorite palo santo incense. These acts of love were all I knew to provide him with any comfort and communicate my love to him. I couldn't help but think that each thing I did for him would be the last, and I often broke into tears. I spent as much time as possible sleeping with Robby on his final day, mostly because he was still trying to sit up and interact. I would tell my husband, "it's okay, baby. I'm really tired, and I want to take a nap with you; let's lay down." I just wanted him to relax and not feel anxious.

A friend came to visit and played guitar for Robby, and we watched Robby's body react to the music. Sometimes, it seemed Robby was playing along in his consciousness because we could see his hands and fingers moving. I did fall asleep for a short time at the end of my husband's bed because the music also helped calm my nerves. I awoke and went through another process of applying lotion and giving Robby a massage, but I noticed the bottoms of his feet were turning yellow. My heart immediately felt a pang as I realized this was a sign of death within the next few hours. We began calling relatives and telling them to come back to the house, but we thought several more hours ended up only being two at the most.

The experience of watching my husband's death is something that will always haunt me, and I still can't process it fully. I watched him draw his last breath, only never to exhale again. Robby's heart continued to beat for several seconds, so in desperation, I quickly grabbed my husband's face with my hands and kissed him as I felt his consciousness slip away. I opened my eyes and watched my husband's eyes fade away, and I prayed for God to take me, too. I felt so connected to my husband that not only did it feel like I was dying with him, I wanted to die, and I begged for it.

When the next few moments passed, and I realized I was still alive and my prayer was unanswered, I, along with his mother and step-mother, began the process of cleansing my husband. I took an orchid flower from a plant Robby had gifted his mother and placed it in his hands at the center of his chest. I covered his face with a cloth embroidered with our monogram "RNM" when we first began dating. I cloaked Robby's body with a fabric I had used for our daughter's Easter photos earlier in the year, and I blew the smoke of palo santo over his body to bless him.

The final hours I spent with Robby's body are a blur, but I know that I laid next to him on his hospital bed. I finally got up to make sure I had something to eat because I knew I wouldn't have the energy or headspace to care for myself later. I heard a knock at the door and then watched the men representing the funeral home walk into the living room; they were there to take Robby's body so that he could be cremated as he wished. The representatives removed my husband's wedding band and handed it to me, so I immediately placed it upon my left thumb.

We quietly walked outside the back door and around the house to their vehicle parked in the driveway. I watched as the men loaded my husband's body into their hearse and drove away. I didn't know it then, but my sister-in-law captured a photo of me watching the hearse driving down the road while I cried, feeling half of my soul ripped away. Later, she sent me the images, which I now keep reminding me of the love Robby and I shared for one another. I know he would have reacted similarly if our places were reversed. The photos also serve as a reminder to my consciousness that my husband is, in fact, gone, although I still can't seem to accept it.

I come home from work, checking to see if I find him standing in our shed or sleeping in our bedroom. It disappoints me every time he is not home, even though I know he died. Two days ago, I picked up Robby's ashes from the funeral home, and I felt a strange sense of happiness. I had my husband back. Of course, I still think broken-hearted, but we are together again, so I feel less anxious. The urn I purchased for Robby hasn't arrived yet, but I'm taking the time that I'm waiting to clean and organize the house. My daughters and I are preparing for Dia de Muertos, so we have a space cleared for an ofrenda in our living room. The memorial is in three weeks, just before Dia de Muertos, which I planned purposely.

The girls and I are using our cultural heritage to process the loss of my husband and honor him in a way that is both beautiful and accepting of our circumstances. Rather than deny what has happened, we embrace it and allow ourselves to feel all the emotions as they occur. We aren't suppressing ourselves in any fashion. I'm still coming to grasp the finality of my husband's death because it still feels that I'm waiting for his return home. I'm a science teacher with complex beliefs and many questions, but I find solace in the faith in an afterlife. After all, I know there is a psychological benefit to such thoughts. Whether the afterlife exists or not is still up to debate within the scientific community, but I sleep with an open mind each night. If my husband visits me, I will be receptive to the experience, regardless of whether it is subjective or coincidence.

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