My world turned upside down with one phone call. Because of it, I am constantly battling to not hate the life I have. My healthy, 39-year-old husband called me from work. He was performing a root canal when he felt ‘off.’ He asked me to drive him to the hospital because he thought he was having a heart attack. I woke my baby from his nap and raced with my toddler in tow to my neighbor’s house to see if she could watch them while I went to the hospital. No one answered so I buckled them in the car and brought them with me. Once we realized that Gare was going to be in the ER for a while, I had a friend come and get the kids. I didn’t want them to have to be there and witness all the chaos.
After hours in the ER, the doctor met me in the hall with tears in her eyes. I pointed my finger at her and told her to tell me right now what is wrong with my husband. The words she uttered took my breath away. ‘He has a tear in his aorta. It is catastrophic.’
My husband was conscious, I had to deliver the news to him. His job now was to remain calm and keep his heart rate from elevating. The more it pumped, the more he bled out. He couldn’t freak out but that didn’t stop me from falling to the floor and crying as hospital personnel walked around me. It was determined he would need to be life-flighted to a hospital in Portland, more equipped for the severity of his surgery. Sam, the life-flight nurse grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. He told me that his job was to keep Gar[e] alive. He told me he was great at his job and he had confidence in delivering my husband safely to skilled surgeons that would fix him. He took my number and promised to update me from the flight. I thought to take a video of Gare for the kids, we started the video but he couldn’t finish. The thought that he would have to say goodbye was upsetting him too much. They wheeled Gar[e] out. Little did I know that that was the last time I would see my husband conscious.
The 4-hour drive to the hospital is a blur. Sam texted me updates and once they arrived at the hospital, he let Gar[e] call me from his phone. I told Gar[e] he was my most favorite person ever and that I loved him so much. That was the last time I would ever hear my husband’s voice tell me how much he loved me.
When I got to the hospital waiting room two nurses came out, crying. ‘Is he DEAD’ I screamed. They quickly reassured me he was still alive, on bypass and in surgery. They told me the longer he was in surgery the better and they drew me a diagram of where the dissection was. I asked them if he was going to be okay. They couldn’t answer me. The minutes went by in slow motion. I couldn’t eat or sleep. At this point, my two beautiful friends showed up to be with me as my mom and brother wouldn’t be able to arrive until the following morning.
The surgeon came out minutes later and stripped away all the joy and hope that filled the room. He informed me that Gar[e] was conscious entering the OR but as soon as they got him under anesthesia his aorta tore completely and he coded. They performed CPR as they were opening him but he was without oxygen for five minutes. He told me it was a miracle he even got him this far and that if he did wake up, he would have severe cognitive and physical disabilities.
The nurses tried to prepare me for what I would see when I entered the room. I appreciated their efforts but nothing can prepare you to see your sweet, loving husband laying there ventilated, swollen and unconscious. They told me that hearing is the last thing to go so to talk to him, tell him to keep fighting. I sat next to his lifeless body and encouraged him to keep fighting, that I would never be okay without him. Hours went by and additional surgeries were needed to relieve some swelling and pressure in his chest and abdomen. They moved me to a private waiting room which I like to refer to as ‘the waiting room of hell.’ My mom showed up and she was hysterical. I thought to myself, ‘pull yourself together, I need you to be strong and support me.’ She immediately pulled me out into the hall and said, ‘Your sister died last night.’ What. It took a few minutes before my brain could register the words my mom was speaking. I walked back into the room and screamed ‘MY SISTER DIED!’ and I chucked a cup of water across the room. A wave of relief washed over me as I thought now that my sister is gone, there was no way God would take my husband too.
A couple hours after I received the news of my sister’s passing the Dr. walked into the room and said words that I had only ever heard on TV. ‘If there is anyone that wants to say goodbye, now is the time.’ What I heard was, ‘now is the time to sit your four small children down and crush them with the news that Daddy would not be coming home.’ I went into the hospital room as the neurologist performed multiple tests to check for brain activity. Tears filled the neurologist’s eyes as I looked at him and said, ‘He is gone, isn’t he?’ Yes. He was gone and I had to sign paperwork to take him off life support.
When my children arrived, I was forced to say words no mother should ever have to say to their children. We marched past the nurses’ station sobbing and entered the hospital room. The image of those final moments with my children and their Dad will never leave me. It was the most heart-wrenching part of this whole experience. They said goodbye and left the hospital. I climbed up on the bed and stroked his hair as the nurses turned the machines off. He was gone within minutes. After a while, I got off the bed and apologized to the different nurses and doctors for having to go through this with us. I can imagine it is hard for them too. The man showed up to take his body to the hospital morgue and I looked at him directly and said, ‘I know to you he is just another body, but to me and my children this body means everything, please take good care of him.’ He reassured me he would and gave me a hug.
How does one survive losing their dear husband and sister a day apart? How do you survive spending your son’s first birthday at a funeral home planning your husband’s funeral service? How do you pack up your beautiful home and move to a different state and start your option B. It all seems impossible. This is when I realized that all the clichés are true. You learn that God truly carries you when you cannot walk yourself. You learn that the people around you are his hands and they never leave you alone. I have survived because of the kindness and selflessness of friends, family, church members, and complete strangers. To the ones who brought me meals, who helped watch my children, who cleaned my house, and laid with me in my closet as I sobbed, looking at all of his clothes. To the flight attendant who scooped up my fussy baby and got him to sleep while I sat and stared blankly. I was unable to function as we flew to the place where I would bury my husband. To the friends and family who have encouraged, loved and supported me. I am here, surviving because of you.
I don’t know why my husband and sister had to die. All I can do is have trust that God is here with me and is molding me to be the woman he knows that I can be. He gave me a wonderful sister and brother-in-law who immediately called and said they were finishing their basement into an apartment for me. Not only would I be living with them but they have been helping me raise my children. We have made our own little tribe. My brother-in-law doesn’t try to replace their Dad but loves them and is willing to fill that void. He takes my kids individually on outings so they can talk and get to know one another better. I could not have asked for a better option B.
I made a promise to my husband while in the hospital, when I viewed his body for the first time and right before they closed the casket. I promised I would keep going even when I felt like it was impossible. I promised him I would be a good mother and do my best to raise our kids. I intend to keep these promises. I am working on healing and finding ways to cope. I am praying, reading my scriptures, working out, seeing a therapist, taking anti-depressants, listening to music, drinking copious amounts of Diet Coke and just taking life minute-by-minute. I am a different person now. I am more vulnerable, raw and authentic. I call these changes in me a ‘gifts from grief.’ I like the perspective this experience has given me. Would I give it all back to have Gare here with me? Without a doubt. The reality is option A is no longer available so I have to move onto option B. You better believe I will do everything to make sure option B is worth living. That I will provide a beautiful life for my children and I will not let this break us. That even when I think I can’t possibly pick myself up one more time, I will do it anyways. I am doing this for my sister, my husband, my kids and most importantly, me. I deserve a beautiful life and I have the ability to create it.