When someone wants to end a relationship, she or he may say, “I just need some space.” But when I told my kids I needed a little space from their father, they understood I wasn’t trying to break up. Jerry was the love of my life, but at 85 his health was failing, his memory was going, and I was exhausted from caregiving. I needed a respite, and our daughters were happy to give me a week off. They enjoyed time alone with their dad.
So I took a cruise to Bermuda with a friend who was also her spouse’s principal caregiver. We both desperately needed a timeout. I called him every day, but I was glad for the space.
I didn’t know that only two-and-a-half months later Jerry would be dead.
Now there’s a gaping chasm where the center of my life used to be. A hole in me. Who am I now? How shall I fill my time? Where shall I live?
At six feet two and 200 pounds Jerry took up a lot of space. Though he was quiet and unassuming, his presence energized any room he entered. When he sat on the sofa, he occupied half of it with that alpha-male stance of knees and arms spread wide. Or he’d lounge in an easy chair, feet stretched out in front, unaware he was making it hard for others to pass by.
Any flat space (tabletops, a bookshelf, kitchen counter, even an ironing board) was in jeopardy. Car-keys, loose change, cellphone, junk mail, pocket calendar—he emptied his pockets as he walked through the house. I used to fuss about it.
The house is tidier now. I wish his stuff was still there.
The grief counselor said, “Don’t make any big decisions for at least a year.” No problem. It will take that long to get my house ready, if I decide to sell it. I’ll have to get rid of 26 years of stuff. To learn how to do that, I found myself at a lecture sponsored by an upscale retirement community. A young blonde woman with too much mascara, three-inch heels, and a shrill, super-peppy voice said as she smiled reassuringly, “Don’t think of downsizing as losing; think of it as gaining space.”
She’s right about that. As trash goes to the dumpster and boxes go out the door to Vietnam Veterans of America or the Lupus Foundation or Miriam’s Kitchen, my house seems to expand. Books are no longer falling out of the shelves—now there’s space for framed photos and small vases and small sculptures among the hundreds of books I’m keeping.
Now that broken or excess tools are gone or hanging up or neatly shelved, I can park my Prius C in the garage for the first time in two years. But I’m not yet ready for a yard sale and the kids don’t want china or crystal or silver. So the “good stuff” sits untouched and unused, still taking up space.
That’s what’s happening on this side of the veil—my side, for now.
Being with Jerry in his last few weeks gave me a glimpse into the other side. As he transitioned, time and space became very fluid. He seemed to move back and forth between this world and the next. Or to be in both at once.
In his last month Jerry would rock back and forth in his chair, eyes closed, hands open, like a davening Jew at the wailing wall. On every out-breath he would groan. Sometimes he seemed to be speaking, but his speech was slurred and very soft so I couldn’t always tell. His forehead was knotted as if in intense effort.
At first his rocking distressed me, especially the groaning. “Are you in pain?” I’d ask.
“No.” He didn’t open his eyes.
“Does it comfort you to do that?”
“Yes.” He resumed rocking and groaning.
A little later I realized he was praying.
I wanted desperately to share his journey. I wanted to know what he was saying to God. So I turned on my iPhone recorder app, hoping I’d be able to understand Jerry’s words later when I could turn up the volume.
Here’s what I heard the first time I played it back: Jerry was praying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Another day he whispered, “Hold on, hold on!” over and over again. I couldn’t tell whether he was asking God to hold on or telling himself to try to keep living. To comfort him, I said, “Honey, God is holding on. He’ll never let you go—on this side or the other.”
“This side!” Jerry said. He wasn’t quite ready to go.
The last recording was a few hours later the same day, October 3. In four more days he would lose consciousness and sink into a coma. I sat beside him on the sofa and wrapped my arms around him. A shift was occurring. He spoke with an effort, but he wanted to bring me into his conversation with God.
“Are you praying?” I asked as he rocked.
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“What are you asking for?” Jerry was silent. I tried again, “Just to accompany you?”
“Accompany me… join me.” Then he continued, “It’s not too bad. It really isn’t…. But on the other hand, what else can I do? Let it be…. That’s all.”
“Are you anxious?” I asked.
“No. No, you know, I’m not. Not at all. It’s really amazing. It is. I’m really quite peaceful … with all these things going on…. Amazing, isn’t it?”
After a quiet pause Jerry started to sing without words. “Dum-de-dum-dum, dum-de-dum-dum”—he tune to an Alleluia we love in our church. His singing became a medley of tunes I couldn’t identify. Then I recognized “Jesus Loves Me,” so I joined in, singing the words. Jerry started to sing the words with me. We finished the song and fell into silence. Together.
Now I imagine Jerry on the other side, no longer bound by time and space. His body is free from walkers and wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. He can breathe freely and sing and laugh. (Do we laugh in Heaven? We must!) I see him young and strong as when we fell in love, running along a beach with Honey, his Shepherd-Husky mix. (Are there pets in Heaven? How could we be happy without them?) In this new space Jerry’s heart is free to love God even more than he did here. He is free to reconnect with the memories he’d lost on this side. (Or not? Do we remember there, or is it too painful?) Jerry is happy and at peace, fully alive in God’s love.
Back on my side the tears have slowed, though they dwell near the surface. My anxiety is abated. I’m able to sleep once more. And I, too, am free. I can try on new personas, reinvent myself yet again, from teacher to lawyer to judge to mediator. From caregiver to writer. There’s a spaciousness in life and death that I’m only just beginning to discover.