So I have a husband who appears to be having a massive heart attack. I have a scared but calm and scarily competent fourteen-year-old daughter who has just called an ambulance.
I can work with this.
The dogs go wild. They adore him and can sense that something is Not Right. The child and I throw them out into the garden. They are too much of a distraction.
Suddenly I realise I know that aspirin can inhibit platelets in the bloodstream. It’s like some superhero sense has just come online, but I’m not complaining. I even remember where I’ve stashed the packet. I run to the kitchen, fetch them and a glass of water and get my roaring, terrified husband to swallow.
The child is dealing with the phonecall like a pro – fourteen-going-on-forty-seven, and coolly relaying age and medical history and any detail you could wish for – but this is now my show and I need to get angry and assertive and get the people here that are going to save his life. She hands me the phone. I remember demanding, “Just get an ambulance here now.”
“Okay, so I need you to tell me if he’s changed colour.” The call operator is warm and northern and reassuring and I already hate her because she’s being kind. I don’t want kind. I want ‘This is what you do so your husband doesn’t die.’ Between us, he and I lift his t-shirt and yes, his skin is already beginning to yellow. I relay this information and also tell her about the aspirin thing because I also know that this is an Important Thing For When The Paramedics Arrive.
Somewhere in this exchange he’s fallen onto the floor. I haul all of his 6’ 5” length back onto the sofa. He starts to fall sideways. “I think I’m going unconscious,” he mutters, and then does just that; collapses onto the cushions with his eyes rolling back into his head. I give this information to the operator. She tells me not to panic. I tell her I’m not.
I order the child round to our neighbours. She nods and runs. Still calm and amazing, even though she’s just watched her dad tumble into oblivion. I think this is the first time that I swear at the operator. “Where’s that fucking ambulance?” is going to become my mantra.
I check the instruction manual I have stored in my consciousness and realise I now need to remove his false teeth. I stick my fingers in his slack mouth and grab them out. Then under the operator’s instruction, I begin CPR.
I’ve seen this done on the TV and in movies; it’s portrayed as dramatic and occasionally glamorous in a violence-porn kind of way. I quickly learn that this is a big fat lie. CPR, done correctly, is brutal, exhausting, and fucking awful.
I refuse to be incompetent at anything. I knit my hands together and begin thumping the everloving shit out of the man I love. Even at the first impact the sternum creaks, and this is a sign I am doing it right. At the same time I am shouting endearments at him. I can’t recall the exact script, but “Don’t you dare fucking leave me you fucking cunt this is not how it fucking ends you fucking fuck!” is a general theme.
I tilt his beautiful head back, pinch his nose, and give him my breath in an intimate and futile attempt at resurrection and love. I have kissed this man for over twenty years and I know every contour of his face, and even at this point I know that the breath he returns in a soft sigh is not his, but mine.
My neighbour runs in. My sweet, funny friend who has been enjoying an afternoon of Sunday TV, and who has just been invaded by my child telling her that her dad is having a heart attack. It will be weeks later before I realise that I have dragged someone into a situation that they might want to run from, but her response, “What do you need me to do?” is all I need for this project right now.
CPR is a mean cardiovascular workout, ironically. I am wearing a sweatshirt over my dress and I’m already sweating like all hell. Without considering that doing CPR on a dying man might be a bit of an ask, I tell her to take over whilst I remove a layer of clothing. She does this without question. Another pro.
I take the opportunity to swear at the operator again. She assures me that the ambulance is on the way. I reckon it has been hours since this show has started.
Down to my short-sleeved dress, I take over the CPR. This time something deep inside him cracks beneath my palms and I keep on going. Another breath, returned as an empty moan. This is when I know. “He’s gone,” I state to the operator.
“Oh, now we don’t know that. Just keep going,” comes the reassuring response. I want to smack her face with a shovel.
Because I do know. It’s been too long since he’s taken a breath, since I’ve felt his heart beat. And you know when a shadow races up a hillside, when the colours fade as the light stops touching the earth? That has happened to his complexion, and there’s another thing I can’t quantify – a feeling that whatever makes up a man’s soul has slipped away between my cursing and the CPR and the silent pleading to the universe.
My husband is dead, I tell myself, already feeling the weight of the words.
Still I keep on going. Just throwing my weight behind bringing a dead man back to life.
In the middle of all this, the Indian takeaway delivery turns up. My wonderful neighbour sees the poor man off our property as if he were a burglar. I briefly wonder who gets to eat the food in these circumstances.
I repeat my demand to the operator regarding the ambulance crew. Again she tells me they’re on their way, and again I explain that that’s really not fucking well bastard good enough.
The paramedics arrive. Not one but two ambulances. Bargain. It has taken precisely twenty-three minutes. I step aside and let the professionals do their stuff. “Medical history?” they ask as they lift him onto the rug.
I listen to myself calmly reel off everything I know. Recovered heroin addict; hip replacement, prostate cancer; high blood pressure but under control… Then they start their work. What strikes me is the silence. Each man knows what job he has to do; there is no shouting, no panic, just a sense that there is a task to be carried out.
As they intubate my husband, I return to Facebook. I’d been messaging two of my very best friends about the minutiae of my day just before this all kicked off so under the circumstances it feels appropriate that I keep them updated. It will be a while before this strikes me as being in the slightest way odd.
I then step outside onto our driveway and make a noise that I have never heard before: a roar and a howl of grief and anger and frustration. Another neighbour is just leaving his house to walk his dogs and asks if everything is okay, what with me baying at the clouds and the two ambulances blocking the street. I stop roaring to tell him what is going on. He tells me that if I need anything he’ll be there, and I manage a ‘thank you’.
When I return to the house, they’re still working on him but it’s clear that they’re just doing their job and running every single option before they surrender. I alternate between watching and updating my friends over the internet.
“I’m sorry love, but he’s gone.” The guy who finally tells me is kind and gentle but I don’t need to know because I was there when he actually went, and they weren’t. They remove the tubes and all of their kit, and now I have a dead husband lying like he’s asleep on the lounge rug. I thank them for their efforts because I am middle class and English and this is what we do. Besides, I mean it. They did everything they could, and just because it didn’t work this isn’t a reason to be ungrateful.
So much happens now, and if I’m honest I don’t recall the proper order. These next things happen all at once, or in a completely different way than I remember them. Still, they need to be told, so here goes.
I know that I call my dad and my stepmum answers. I am like some despot over the phone; I explain what’s happened and tell her that I don’t want my dad to come over unless he can handle it, and, horror of horrors, not become emotional over the unexpected death of a man he loved. Despite my lapse into dictatorship she says she’ll be right over.
I know that I’ve sent the child to my neighbour’s house and I have to tell her that her dad has died. It’s a thirty-second walk, but by the time I’m there I have a script.
I kneel in front of her. “Darling, your dad died and I’m so sorry, but I promise you I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be here. I promise.” She gives a wail that sounds uncannily like the noise I made on my driveway and we hold onto each other like the world has ended. I briefly consider that this is a lie, that I cannot guarantee this thing, that platitudes are wrong, but both of us are falling and we need words that suggest that we have a future. We go back to the house.
I know that my dad and stepmum arrive, and they obey my earlier instructions to the letter. They hug lightly then step back; stay dry-eyed and calm, despite the dead dude on the rug. I’m so fucking grateful.
And then more stuff happens. In no particular order:
The child sits by her dad’s body and takes his hand and kisses him and tells him that she loves him and that she’ll make him proud.
Two police officers arrive because this is a Sudden Death and I might have killed him. They are young and apologetic and have to turn his body onto its side to check for head injuries. They do that with such care and respect that I nearly cry. But I’m damned if I’m going to do that.
My neighbour makes tea for those who want it. I decline and pour myself a gin and tonic because I feel I’m going to need it.
Undertakers arrive to take him away. They’re professionally solemn and I’m grateful for their distance.
I am a martinet and I don’t care. I order everyone out of the room so I can do one last thing.
He has over a foot of height difference over me. I have always joked that when he is dead, I will have him dissolved in acid so I can have his femurs displayed over our fireplace. When we’re in bed together I love the fact that I can lay my head on his shoulder and the very tips of my toes will still just about touch his ankles.
I realise that this is the last time I will ever get to do this thing.
So I lie down on the rug next to his vacated body. It is already stiffening, and I know I don’t have much time. The hands with the graceful long fingers that I have watched play guitar for so long have begun to cool and the fingernails are now sky-blue.
I lie next to him, as I have always done since I was twenty-one. I pull his arm over my shoulder, and I hook my ankle over his tibia. I nestle my head into the dip of his clavicle and breathe in the fading scent of the man I have shared my life with across all these years.
In a whisper, I tell him that I have loved, love and will forever love him. I thank him for being my husband, my lover, the father of our child, my best friend. I forgive him for all our arguments, and ask for the same in return. I curl into his side and close my eyes for one last blessed time.
I hide in the kitchen whilst they take his body out.
I’m a widow, and I have no idea what to do next.