Photo by Peter Cunningham
Written by Roshi Eve Marko, this post originally appeared on her blog as So Many Ways of Loving.
Bernie died of sepsis. Bacteria from an infection got into his bloodstream and spread like wildfire into his organs.
He woke me up on Friday night, November 2, and told me he was in a lot of pain on the right side of his body.
In the morning the pain was gone and he had breakfast. Our close, long-time friend, Dr. John Kealy, was concerned by his low blood pressure, but Bernie went back upstairs to rest and watch TV. I’d seen him through plenty of bad nights over the past 3 years—his bad times were usually at night—so I didn’t think much of it. In fact, I went out for a few hours and brought home Chinese food, which he’d always loved but hadn’t eaten in a very long time. His blood pressure was back to normal but he didn’t have much appetite. I noticed that both his hands shook.
Slowly he returned upstairs, I walking at his side. But on his way from the bathroom to bed he fell against the dresser, no strength in his legs. Walking behind him, I pushed him step after slow step to the bed. He was breathing very fast and hard and leaned heavily against me. Nothing like this had happened before. Only later did I realize that Saturday evening he was already in severe sepsis.
But once in bed, his heart rate slowed to its normal pace, his shaking stopped, and he calmly picked up his iPad to look at the news. I’d seen Bernie through so many weak times and assumed it was a partial result of the previous night’s collapse. When I next checked on him he was deeply asleep, breathing normally.
And he continued to sleep deeply early Sunday morning, the day he died. I did my usual routines downstairs till 8:30, when I heard a noise. Upstairs his body seemed to be in seizures, and I called 911. Later I realized that septic shock had set in; Bernie had begun the dying process. But who knew? They took him to the ER of our local hospital and he was immediately treated and tested, would quiet down, then start breathing hard and move restlessly in bed.
He had an infection, they told me, maybe flu, and warned me they’d have to put masks on, please don’t be upset. Upset? By flu? Flu was no problem, I thought. They were going to give him something to help his body quiet down when the doctor returned.
“The results of our tests are coming in,” she told me. “Your husband’s kidneys are failing. He’s going into massive organ failure.” She said they could take extreme measures, put him in intensive care, a breathing tube, respirator, etc.—did he want that? No, I said dully, and looked at the monitor. His heart rate had been around 140. In less than the time it takes to write these words it plummeted to 40. He had basically died within 5 minutes of the time the doctor had told me my husband was dying.
They left me alone with him for 20 minutes.
You can say: Eve, the man had a stroke. The man had cancer. And I’ll say back: I never saw it coming.
One more thing. I wasn’t supposed to be there that weekend. I’d arranged to go to Switzerland to support the opening of a Zen Peacemaker House in Bern, a dharma transmission, and do some teaching, then on to London for four days of fun and rest with an old friend. “There’s a Harold Pinter festival,” she told me, “I got tickets.”
In Switzerland she called to say something happened and she was too sick to host me. I considered going to London on my own, staying in a hotel, see Pinter. Instead, I decided to fly home. It took me 19-1/2 hours to get home, tired, still pining for that good time in London instead of having to put dinner on the table. It was 7:30 Friday evening.
Three hours later, I heard: Eve, come!
Thirty-six hours later he was dead.
On Sunday morning, as his body began showing signs of septic shock, he looked up once at me and said: “I am so much trouble for you.”
We brought him home. The men washed his body with warm herbal water and dressed him in the clothes he hadn’t been able to wear since his stroke: jeans, Hawaiian shirt, suspenders. In his shirt pocket they put a cigar and inside one hand a red nose. Inside the other I inserted his wedding ring.
Eve Marko is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, head teacher at the Green River Zen Center in Massachusetts, and a Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order. Learn more at her website.