How did a man in his mid-’60’s, so close to retirement he could taste it, suddenly leave us behind?
Close friends and family know most of this already. The last few years for our household (as for most of us) was a shitshow. I’d gotten laid off at the end of 2018, then spent most of 2019 in a hellish job that did such a number on me I could do little at home but sit in my recliner reading and recovering. Then my mother (who Charles adored) was diagnosed with terminal cancer right before Thanksgiving. I got laid off from Helljob a week before Christmas, and my mother passed away a month later.
Meanwhile, Charles’s job was doing fine, but after 50 years in the workforce, he was done. He was very much marking time until he could retire, which he’d planned for fall 2021. He was tired of the commute and worked from home when he could get away with it.
Then COVID hit. Aside from the plus that he could now work from home all the time (and he never did return to the office, except once to clean out his cube), he was more freaked out than most. Remember, that first year, it took us a while to figure out what was going on and older people especially were being hit really bad. I was confident enough to go out on powerwalks and shopping, as long as I steered clear of people (and then started wearing a mask or bandanna when that became the thing), but he did not want to do that. He only left the house to go grocery shopping once a week. What was he doing otherwise? Lying on the couch or on the bed, working on his laptop or playing computer games and watching old movies or The Golden Girls. We did no traveling. I’d hoped, after Mom passed away, to visit my Dad pretty frequently, and have him come up and visit us – but aside from June 2020, when I went alone to visit them, Dad and Sam’s planned visits to us kept getting torpedoed by virus spikes, and C wasn’t about to go anywhere.
By 2021, I had a new job, infinitely nicer than the last one, and they released the vaccine in March. But C was already starting have mobility issues. I remember when we went to the Bronx to get our first shot, we had to stand in line for about 45 minutes, and I was worried that he’d have to sit down from time to time, although, as it turned out, he did fine. But a month later, it was clear that something was going on. His left leg had become weak and untrustworthy. It didn’t hurt, it just felt like it was always going to give out. He could get around the apartment just fine, and he could still make it to the grocery store, although it was slow going.
So the doctor’s visits started. He started seeing a new GP in Jackson Heights, who sent him for some basic tests (found nothing) and then to a neurologist. A year and ten thousand tests later, they still found nothing, although we certainly found out a lot of things he didn’t have. Meanwhile, the mobility was getting worse: he started using a cane outside, and then even in the apartment. When we went to Atlantic City last September to scatter my mother’s ashes in the ocean, my dad brought up Mom’s old wheelchair for us, and this turned out to be a godsend: C never could have navigated the long lobby and halls of the casino we stayed at just by himself and a cane.
So that became our life – C rarely leaving the house, and when he had to go more than a couple of blocks, we needed either an Uber or a wheelchair. We did travel to Durham (where Dad and Sam live) for Thanksgiving, that was kind of a nightmare of logistics. And C was super-upset that he wouldn’t be able to decorate for and host Christmas the way he likes to, although he did end up doing all the decorations (by starting at the beginning of November) and we did host Christmas dinner, although it was not nearly on the scale he likes.
By this point, he would have liked to be retired, but his job was easy enough to do from home and with all this unresolved medical stuff, he didn’t want to switch insurance ‘horses’ in mid-stream. So we continued on, more tests, no results, and his mobility got worse. One thing that was always relaxing for him (and beneficial for me) was the hour he spent putting dinner together as I sat and watched the news and knitted. Well, because just standing in the kitchen for an hour became impossible, the dinners got more and more simple – he would order Fresh Direct pre-made crabcakes or chicken cordon bleu that you just had to cook up, and put a vegetable or a soup together, and that was dinner (which was fine). Towards the end, I ended up putting these dinners together instead of him. (and you can bet that he got very specific about how I should put dinner together and you can bet I gave him the stinkeye. Yes, dear, I can cook, you don’t need to make me cooking-robot, it will turn out fine). But that was super-frustrating for him.
Finally, the neurologist threw up his hands and it was decided (finally, I’d been pushing for this for months) that at least C could get some sort of physical therapy to learn to work with his body as is, no matter what was going on with it. And he started that and (I’m not implying causality here, it may have been just bad timing) immediately developed two hernias. He said he knew that those had ‘started’ many years ago when he had a temp IT job and had to pick up a heavy box of hard drives, but now the hernias had ‘popped’ or whatever. Back to the GP, and then to a hernia doctor. The hernias were not actually life-threatening, he could have lived with them as is, but he couldn’t do the PT until they were repaired, and at the moment, the PT was our only tool in the toolkit for improving his mobility.
So, hernia surgery at the end of April, which went well, as far as it went. But now he’s got a month of miserable surgery recovery ahead of him and he still has mobility issues, now quite bad, and of course he’s realizing how much he was using his stomach muscles to compensate for the useless leg, and now didn’t have those available to him. So he was pretty effing miserable.
He healed up OK for about two weeks, closer to the ‘normal’ we’d had right before the surgery, but then in the last week, things got worse. He started having what he called ‘indigestion’ (GERD, basically). He was eating very little, belching all the time, and the leg started to get worse. His sleep patterns were completely fucked up (luckily, over the past year, I’d learned how to sleep through him watching TV in the bedroom at all hours, and it was no longer a surprise to wake up at 3:30 and hear snippets of Will & Grace). He could not get comfortable. I was in the middle of it at the time, but in retrospect, it’s clear he was in really bad shape.
So it’s the third week in May now, and he’s doing the best he can, but is barely moving. On Wednesday, our cleaning lady (who we adore) showed up at the same time as our friend Tessa, and they were both like, “you look terrible, call your doctor”. He did, but didn’t get a response until the next day.
(Side note: Charles was not interested in others helping him with the management of his medical problems. All suggestions of ‘you should try this’, or ‘maybe you could….’ were waved away. We had a long talk about this, and I told him I was very worried and my impulse was to try to drive that car, but he made it clear that he was the driver there, so I could only do what I could to help.)
Friday the 20th, I had the day off for a retinal appointment in Forest Hills (my eyes would be dilated, so I knew I’d be useless afterward). I was worried enough about him that I called him at home as soon as the appointment was over, saying “I’ll come home right now if you need me, otherwise I’m going to get lunch and do some shopping” and he was like, no, please, do what you want, but he wanted me to help him take a shower when I got home.
So I got home mid-afternoon and he was really anxious to get in that shower. First, I’ll note that he had never asked for or needed help in the shower before. I helped him out of bed, and he was really weak. Just supporting him to the bathroom was about five times the struggle anything like that had been before (only rarely had I had to support him at all). We had to undress him, of course, which was its own drama, and then get him onto the built-in bench in the shower. We have handrails in the shower, and he was holding on to them for dear life, but he was having trouble just keeping himself on the bench. I thought he’d shower himself, but it turned out he couldn’t really, so I got in there with him and did the best I could (which was not very good).
So now he’s still weak, but also wet and slippery. And I dry him off as best I can and then we try to get him up again. And he didn’t fall, but he did sort of slip and he ended up on the floor of the shower. SHIT. So we tried all sorts of things, but he couldn’t get himself back up again, and I couldn’t get him back up again. In desperation, I called our friend Bobbi, who runs our co-op office, to see if she could send up one of the porters to help me. She hemmed and hawed and didn’t want to, because that would be a liability thing (I got it, I really did), but our friend Doug happened to be in the office and she sent him up instead. And I’m in just a pair of boxers, which I threw on before Doug came up, and C is just covered with a towel, and it’s all completely embarrassing and still Doug and I can’t get C off the floor. Doug suggests I call 911, which is where we are at this point, and he leaves while I do that. (Believe me, I apologized to Doug profusely a few days later.)
Five minutes later, two friendly young EMTs show up. They do this sort of thing all the time. They check in with Charles, who is upset and embarrassed and probably bruised, but otherwise OK. “Hi, Charles, we’re going to get you back on the bench, and then we’re going to put you in this little wheelchair thing we brought, and then we’re going to wheel you back in the bedroom and get you back into bed.” And that’s what we did, them talking with me and Charles the whole time. So we get him in the chair thing and strap him down, and wheel him out to the bedroom.
Just as we’re about to unstrap him and get him to the bed, he suddenly has a switch – he looks off to the side, starts choking a bit and clearly something is happening. We all reacted, said, “Charles? Charles?” and then the EMTs sprang into action. We got him on the floor, then they started doing stuff and giving him CPR, while calling for reinforcements and shooing me out of the room. I’m like ‘oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck”, let the new batch of EMTs in and start putting together a go-bag for the hospital.
Now the bedroom has about 10 EMTs in there and they’re all working on him and I can hear them talking in professional tones, no panic. I poke my head in- they have a monitor hooked up and I can see the heartbeat waves going, so I’m not panicking, but I’m very very very worried.
So I can’t really do anything except sit in the office and listen to what’s going on in the next room. By now it’s about 4;30, 4:45 pm. And at some point, I hear one of them on the phone saying, “no, we won’t need a transport”. And I’m like, Oh good, he’s fine, he doesn’t need to go to the hospital. And then one of the lead guys came out to talk to me and said, “OK, so… he lost his pulse, but then we got it back…. but then we lost it again… and now we’re waiting for a doctor to make a call”. And I thought about this and said, ‘oh… so he could die‘. Yes, that was correct. And then a few minutes later, they came in and told me it was over. And again, I said, “Just so I’m clear on this… Charles is dead.”
Yes, that was correct.
So I went straight into “responsibility” mode and asked what was going to happen next. Which was that we were going to get visited by cops, detectives, a medical examiner and so on. And, they gently pointed out, if I didn’t have a funeral home, I should try to get one because the home would then be able to pick up the body directly rather than going to the morgue first. A quick Google Maps search showed me that Conway Funeral Home (which used to be two blocks from us) had moved to Woodside, and that was fine, so I called them, set that up, and the cops took care of everything else.
(It was a minor blessing that the ‘event’ happened while the EMTs were literally there staring at Charles. If it had happened 15 minutes before, when it was just me, or me and Doug, there might have been an inquest or an autopsy or such. As it was, the ME didn’t even need to come, he just heard the EMT report on what happened and signed off.)
So young Officer Leonard and I hung out in the living room for hours waiting for the funeral home guys to show up, and he listened to me start the phone calls- first to my brother-in-law, which started the phone tree down that side of the family, then to my dad (same for my side) then to the various friends. Charles’ best friend Patti picked up the phone, thinking it was him, with “Are you aliiiive?” Boy, was that awkward. But everyone was suitably upset and WTF about it. Once word spread, I started getting texts and phone calls, and my upstairs neighbor came down to sit with me for a bit. Me: “I have a cop in my living room and a dead body on my bedroom floor.” Yes, I did peek under the sheet, just for a second. He was really, most sincerely dead.
I had called his GP, who of course on a Friday afternoon, had already left, and had him paged. He didn’t call back until 9:00 or so and when he heard what happened, immediately suggested that it had been a blood clot from the surgery that escaped and went to the wrong place – this is a real danger, especially for people who are immobile. The jostling around in the shower probably didn’t help. We’ll never know for sure.
Finally, the funeral home guys showed up and took the body away about 10:00 pm, and Officer Leonard could finally get on with his shift. And I was finally alone and could get a glass of wine and put on “Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and cry, which I did. LOTS.
The bedroom was a horrorshow, so I shut the door on that and slept in the guest room. And by ‘slept’, I mean ‘lay there and listened to the grandfather clock chime every 15 minutes until 5:00 am, when I got up again’.