We sat in a tiny holding room in the back corner of the Emergency Department waiting for an update from the Doctor in charge. I was so familiar with the Emergency Department because that’s where I spent most of my time at work, ironically “sitting” with suicidal patients who posed a risk to themselves. It was my responsibility to not take my eyes off of them for a second, to remove anything from the room they might use to harm themselves, to literally follow them into the bathroom for their own safety. The irony was not lost me.
On the short drive in, following the ambulance, I kept saying “there was so much blood, there is no way he is still alive…there was SO much blood.”
I’d had to change out of my clothes before I left because I had blood on my pants, but I wasn’t allowed to go into our bedroom because it was considered a crime scene(thats a phrase I never thought I’d have to use.) I dug through a basket of clean laundry I had left in the kitchen and found a pair of jeans, and then went around the corner to change in the hallway, because again, my bedroom was a crime scene.
As if it weren’t enough that I couldn’t go into my own room, we also had to get my sleeping kids up and out of the house so the police could start their investigation and conclusively determine that James’ had killed himself with a single shot to the head, and that nothing more had happened.
I left for the hospital with my mom while my dad stayed behind with dozens of cops, firefighters and paramedics and began to carefully peel each kid out of their safe, warm bed and into the car so they could sleep at my parents house.
All the while, there was James, self-inflicted GSW to the head, in the back of an ambulance where I was quite confident he’d already been declared dead.
When we pulled up to the ED and got out of the car, a team of social workers, police, and hospital staff were there to meet me and shuttle my mom and I to a waiting area. “We don’t know your husband’s status yet but let us know if you need anything.” I asked for a cup of ice water and a bag to throw up in. I feel like those two things should come standard in any “distraught wife” situation.
We waited for what felt like an hour, social workers and chaplains and victims rights reps came in and out. They gave me pamphlets about grief and said “we don’t know if he actually died yet, but we’ll give you this to hold onto, hopefully you won’t need it.” They would sit down next to me, have no idea what to say, and so we’d sit in silence that was occasionally punctuated by a question.
Them- was this intentional?
Me- how do you accidentally put a gun to your head?
Them- do you have any kids?
Me- yes, 3.
Them- *painful pause* oh God…how old are they?
Me- 1, 3 and 4
Them- *longer painful pause, more stunned silence* ….. *stare at me with no words until one of us broke eye contact*
Finally, after over an hour, a doctor came in, introduced herself, and sat down. A tiny part of me was holding out hope that she’d walk in and say, “this has been a crazy misunderstanding, he’s actually fine and you can come on back and see him!”
Obviously, that’s not what happened. The first thing she told us was “this is not a survivable injury, and your husband does not have any brain activity.” I already knew, I’d seen it, I was the first one on the scene 5 seconds after it happened. But hearing that made my entire body go numb and my ears start to ring m…this couldn’t possibly be my real life.
“But,” she paused, “he is an organ donor, and we’re doing everything we can to keep his body alive so he can still donate.” She explained that they had given him the maximum amount of blood products, his heart had already stopped twice, and it was looking unlikely that he would even survive long enough to be a donor.
But by a true miracle, and with the help of about 100 IV drips, he stabilized and was moved from the ED to the ICU.
I cannot possibly convey to you what it was like to walk into a room where my otherwise healthy, strong, fit husband was laying lifelessly in hospital bed. His head was wrapped but still bleeding, his ventilator was breathing for him, dozens of meds were doing the job that his brain and body couldn’t do anymore. Keeping his heart beating, his blood pressure stable…but none of this was to save him.
They were keeping him alive, sure, but not so he could hug his kids again, or eventually be well enough to go back to work, or live to tell his story to help others. They were keeping him alive for the incredible purpose of donating his organs, and his life cut short, to those who needed it. It was his last physical earthly contribution, the last thing he could ever do with his body to help someone else.
He would never be able to wrestle with his 4-year-old again, but someone else will. He’ll never be able to kiss me and tell me he loves me again, but someone else will. He will never tuck his kids into bed again, sing them songs, read them books in silly voices, or play hide and seek with them, but because of his donation, someone else will.
This kept me going for the next three days as I sat with him in the ICU while organ recipients were notified and doctors flew in and began the huge job of orchestrating the symphony of surgeries that was scheduled to happen Friday morning.
All the while, James was dead. He was officially declared brain-dead about 12 hours after his self-inflicted injury. His time of death was announced at his bedside and sent out to start printing his death certificate. But he was still warm, still breathing, the machine next to him beeped with every heartbeat. For being dead, he seemed very NOT dead, which is a mind F all of its own.
The days between Tuesday night and Friday morning were torture. My kids were with my family at my parents’ house, asking repeatedly to go home so they could play with their friends, and obviously not understanding why we couldn’t. They missed me, they didn’t know at that point what had happened, they didn’t know their Dad was dead yet, they just wanted ME, and all I wanted was THEM, to hug and squeeze them and never let go. But on the other hand, my declared-dead/looks-very-alive husband was in the ICU, and it seemed like any good wife would be by her husbands’ side until the very last moment. It was my last chance to ever hold his hand, or spin his wedding ring around his finger, touch his tattoos that he loved so much, or kiss his cheek.
As much as I was thankful for the ample opportunity to say goodbye, it was another layer of pain having to be away from my kids in the lowest point of my entire life. That first night, I finally went “home” to my parents’ house to sleep for an hour around 4 am. I crawled onto the air mattress where my quietly snoring 3-year-old Josie was sleeping and pulled her into my chest, her fuzzy blonde curls in my face.
The reality of being a single mom, a widow, the fact that my toddlers now had front row seats to a bonafide tragedy, had just barely started to dawn on me in that moment, and it was unbearable. I didn’t sleep at all, I just held that little girl and cried until she woke up a couple hours later.
Those three days felt like a gift at points and a punishment at others. Now that at least THAT shitty part is over, I can look back and appreciate that I got to feel his warm skin, kiss him, talk to him, hold him and put my head on his chest to hear his healthy, strong, 27-year-old heart beating, all the way up until it was taken from its lifelong home and placed in someone else’s body, where it’s still beating now.
Making our way through life often requires us to hold opposites at the same time. My husband is gone, the father of my children is gone. He made that choice in a moment of utter despair. I loved him, and I’m mad at him sometimes for leaving me and 3 tiny kids to pick up the pieces. I weep for him because his mental illness was so painful that this was the only viable option, and I weep for myself for enduring so many years of pain, isolation and fear. Absolutely nothing in life is as black and white as we want to make it. Learning to live in the in between, in the nuance, is where we start to learn and explore and understand what it’s like to be human. To love, lose, get mad, forgive, redeem, and begin to put those shattered pieces back together and form our new, imperfect lives.