As we transitioned to making our vacation home our full-time residence, Tom spent most weekdays working at his office in Chicago, and flew out to join me and our children who still lived at home for as many weekends as possible. One of those weekends was coming to an end. Monday, March 5, 1990. My husband was scheduled to return to Chicago that Monday, but at the last minute changed his flight to the following day because Monday turned out to be a “bluebird” day for skiing. One of our daughters was there with us on her college spring break, plus our three youngest children who still lived at home. After driving the younger children to school, my daughter and I ran errands around town, then returned home. The two of us were ready to relax until my husband said, “If you think I stayed here to stay home, you’re wrong. Let’s go skiing.”
So we did. On one of our runs, we stopped to take a break. Before beginning the next run, I said to Tom, “How do you feel?” He had previously complained about one of his ski boots hurting his foot, so I had adjusted it. He said, “Great! Let’s go!” We were skiing in a relatively flat area at this point. Our daughter proceeded ahead, rounding a bend in the run, and then was out of sight. For the first time that day, I went ahead of my husband since we were still on this relatively flat area. I had not gone far when the proverbial “something,” which was probably my intuition, caused me to turn around. I saw him collapsing, not putting out his arms and hands to break the fall—just collapsing. I immediately disengaged my skis, threw down my poles, and ran to him, which could not have taken even a minute. He was gray and wasn’t breathing. I immediately started CPR, willing him to breathe and to be with me. He was not responding. The spot on the mountain where he collapsed was just out of view of a chairlift, and therefore removed from people who could have sent help. I so wanted to scream “Someone help me!” but I couldn’t stop pushing air into his mouth while willing him to breathe. A woman skied by us and stopped to ask if she could help. I said, “Yes, ski down to the next lift where my daughter will be waiting and bring her back up here to me from the other side of the mountain.” She did so without telling my daughter anything except she was requested to ski with this woman back to where we were.
In the meantime, a physician from the East Coast, on holiday, who happened to be skiing by, stopped to help. He quickly realized that my husband’s heart was beating, but not pumping. He started further CPR on his heart. By this time, the Ski Patrol was also there with oxygen, and the physician coordinated the CPR efforts, getting his heart to pump again. The physician asked if a helicopter was available; it was already at the base of the run. He then asked if there was an ambulance with supplies at the bottom of the mountain, explaining that my husband would not make it to the hospital without some kind of injection into his heart. One of the Ski Patrol skied down to the ambulance to get the required injection. My husband was transferred to a toboggan, and then when the Ski Patrol returned, the doctor gave the injection and proceeded to ride on the sled, straddling my husband and continuing the CPR until they were down to the helicopter. As my husband was being flown the few-minute flight to the hospital, another Ski Patrol led my daughter and me to the bottom of the mountain where a car was waiting to take us to the hospital.
Denial has such a power and is so engulfing that what is clearly obvious to others is impossible for the person in shock to comprehend in any way. The wonderful, caring doctor who was in charge of my husband in the ICU asked me if I had called our other children to come. I blithely stated that they were in college and law school and I did not want to bother them; I assured the doctor that my husband was going to be fine. All I had to do was look at Tom lying there, so tan and relaxed; I was certain that at any moment he would open his eyes and everything would be normal and wonderful again. This doctor knew me well because he had assisted us through the long caring of my mother-in-law during her hospitalization until her death five weeks earlier. Both this doctor and a heart specialist took me and my daughter into an empty room to talk to us and try to break through the denial. They told us my husband had no brain activity and was dead; the machines he was hooked up to were simply performing all the life-sustaining functions.
We lived in a very small town and word spread quickly. The few people that I knew came to the hospital to give hugs and offer support and assistance for anything and everything. Due to the doctors’ insistence, someone picked up our three youngest from school and brought them to the hospital, the oldest four children who were in Chicago flew in, and we waited for my husband’s oldest sister and youngest brother to arrive, which occurred within thirty-six hours.
The life-support machines kept him “alive” for those hours. The children and I slept in his hospital room on the other bed, staying close to him. I was still certain that he was going to open his eyes and make a smart-aleck comment like, “Got you, didn’t I?”
In Tom’s will I had been named as the person responsible for turning off life support, as I knew that my husband did not want to be kept alive artificially via machines. The attending doctor took me aside to warn me that when I chose to turn off the machines, that there could be a “gasp” from my husband—strictly an automatic muscular response, and definitely not a sign that I had stopped his life and prevented any chance for him to live.
There are no words to describe how much I dreaded the moments of turning off the machines. Since I had not accepted the fact that Tom was dead, being kept “alive” by the machines, I was convinced that if he did in fact gasp, I would hate myself and forever question if he could have been saved and if we were premature in turning off the machines.
The moment arrived for me to signal the doctor to turn off the respirator, the machine that kept Tom’s lungs breathing and the one that could produce an involuntary gasp. There was no gasp. Only silence. After that, each of the other machines were turned off one by one, and my husband was officially pronounced dead.
The shock of his death at the young age of fifty-five was felt by so many people—business friends, associates, acquaintances, and close friends and family. The requisite religious ceremonies of wake and funeral were planned to take place in Chicago, where we used to live and where Tom had worked all his life, as well as at our new place of residence. The small decisions of what readings to use, what songs should be sung, and other details for the memorial services allowed me a focus that included Tom and motivated me to keep going.
There was no preparation for how to grieve, or any awareness of the stages of grief. My sole example of a woman in grief was the internationally televised procession and funeral of our President John F. Kennedy. I doubt anyone who viewed that will ever forget the strength and presence of Jacqueline Kennedy during those hours. That one example was my blueprint for how to conduct myself through the following days and weeks; my ideal image was a woman standing tall, being strong for everyone else, keeping a stiff upper lip, keeping her chin up, and crying only in private.
The ceremonies were completed. Everyone else—relatives, friends, and acquaintances—went back to their normal lives. I felt my life would never be “normal” again. My best friend, my lover, my mentor, my confidante was gone. All that I had been was contingent on the fact that I was Tom’s wife. Who was I without him? I knew my name was the same, but my identification no longer had any basis.