Now That She Has Died, What Do I Do?
Karen and I would have celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary later this month. She died on May 13, the feast of the Ascension and of Our Lady of Fatima. For some time now we had been gifted with her care which, over the last year particularly, became more and more intense, detailed, and involved.
And after her funeral, I began to ask myself, what do I do now?
She had been sentenced to death over twenty years ago. After surviving colon cancer thirteen years earlier, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts and skin cancer. She was given six months to live unless she checked in to the cancer center for a regimen of radiation and chemo to shrink the tumors so that surgery could be done. And then, post-surgery, some weeks in the hospital for follow-up chemo and radiation. “Five-year survival” propaganda had no one like her in the database.
After the “six-month” warning, we walked out into the sunlight and she told me “I will never enter that place ever again in my life.” For over the next twenty years, this woman who had a will of iron and a spirit of hardened steel never again saw a medical doctor or took a prescription drug. She learned about God’s powerful natural healing and she changed her life and mine with things like natural detoxing, pure water, and a no-processed-foods-no-carbs-no-sugar diet.
This was not all sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops. She was presented with, accepted, and carried her cross. Over the last year she had three heart attacks, and each time she fell she got up, shouldered her cross, and moved on, determined to overcome cancer. Her courage and sheer guts seemed so effortless, so natural for her, they almost went unnoticed.
Last New Years she stopped producing hemoglobin and went to the emergency room near death – and was then alone there due to the covid decrees – where she received a transfusion of four units of red blood cells, a large amount of blood. She was sent home to be on hospice. After some visits by the kind hospice people, she did what she has done for decades. She decided she was not done fighting. My brave Karen, as usual, was not ready to die yet. “While I am among the living, I am going to live. As long as God gives me breath, I am going to fight.”
She had us call hospice to tell them they need not come anymore.
Before she was released from the hospital, they had done a routine scan and found that cancer had metastasized from her breast to her lungs and liver. Cancer in her lungs caused an accumulation of fluid, an amount of such volume which, if not drained, would cause her to drown. Her lungs were filling up continuously, so an incision was made in her side and a drain catheter was installed so that twice a week, at home, her lungs could be drained. 750-1,000 mL of fluid were drained each time the nurse came to our home. For a time, this meant instant relief and easier breathing.
Many nurses and other caretakers helped her carry her cross and some of them often wiped her forehead and face with a damp cloth. Whenever she sensed one of them tired, upset, or concerned, she tried to comfort and console them, tell them she was just fine, and speak about God’s will for her and for them.
She had another heart attack, fell, got up, and still resolved to seek God’s healing for cancer. Then the opening in her side for the tubing that exited her body between two of her ribs became infected. She had to go to the emergency room due to the very real and very dangerous possibility of sepsis which would result in her quick and painful death. When they removed the catheter, without anesthesia, she suffered excruciating agony as it was pulled out of her. The doctor – who evidently had not heard “first, do no harm” – yanked so hard repeatedly on the catheter tubing that when he finally pulled it loose, it was with such force that his arm recoiled and he punched her in the rib cage. My Karen screamed out in pain.
I was then diagnosed as covid positive, along with a son, and she could not come home from the hospital. I felt like I was denying her, abandoning her. We communicated via cellphone and when she was not in an ER or a hospital, she and a daughter stayed at a nephew’s home, where she had yet another heart attack, fell again, and was taken to the hospital. Upon admission, they had her strip, and she had to put on one of those embarrassing hospital things they call a gown.
She had explicitly said “No intubation, no feeding tube, no ventilator.”
Then they got her latest covid test results back and she had tested positive. They moved her to IMU isolation – alone. There is no other word. She was my Karen, with her family, for over half a century. Alone. The covid, over the next few days, greatly increased her oxygen demand. When her oxygen demand increased, they again punctured her body and inserted a drain tube into her lung cavity. Then, going in and out of consciousness, she tried to remove that tube, so they had to restrain her, in cruciform, on the bed.
All of her children got to speak with her via cellphone and then, on sedatives, she began to sleep most of the day. Eventually, they let us know that all that was keeping her alive was a massive amount of heated high flow oxygen and that if they tried to wean her off of it, which must be done for her to have any hope of recovery, her lungs would most probably not be able to handle it. But that was the only possibility for this fighter. They began to reduce the oxygen flow and let us know that, almost certainly, she would die.
They informed us that two of her children who were covid-free could come to the hospital and watch her die through a window in her door, with a cellphone by her ear. In what can only be described as a true miracle, several hours before her death these two children were allowed to be at her side, holding her hands, talking to her, and praying. I and the rest of her children were on the phone which was by her and we all said “I love You” and our goodbyes. The last words I said to her, after I had blest her and asked God to hold her safe in the palm of His hand, were “Love you.”
As her daughter read the three beautiful prayers for the dying, with all of us listening via the cellphone, her breathing slowed, and then at the last Amen, she breathed her last breath.
Her body was later taken down from the bed and transported to the funeral home. Last week she was buried in a new grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Halletsville, Texas, on a beautiful hilltop under a centuries-old oak tree.
After she nearly died last January, she began a written “Gratitude Journal,” writing to God to tell Him everything for which she was thankful. It is beyond humbling for me to read this now – something I did not do until some days after the funeral. Here are some excerpts.
January 24, 2021: “Lord, if thou will . . . only say the word. . . .It is all that You will that I want. I am after all, in a foreign land. I want so for my love and faith in You to increase along with my trust in you.” Prayer Request: “For Holy Souls In Purgatory.”
February 7, 2021: “In thanksgiving . . .for Guy.”
February 26, 2021: “Today I ‘m grateful for . . . all my dear sweet grandchildren.”
February 28, 2021: “I’m just beginning to appreciate the role God’s saving grace plays in all of our lives . . . So then that leads me to be thankful also for His faithfulness . . . I’m grateful for the ability to get my butt outside and just walk!”
April 30, 2021: “I’m grateful for all the people who have been praying for me. I’m grateful for all the good people God has put in my life.”
May 3, 2021: “I’m grateful for my life. I’m grateful for every breath I take. . . . I’m grateful we live in Texas.”
There is so much more. On page after page, she said she was grateful for a wheelchair, for cupcakes, watermelon, breakfast, energy, Buddy [her dog], pajamas, mung bean noodles, blue skies, electricity, plumerias, an oxygen machine, MOD pizza, rain, law enforcement, egg whites, a clean kitchen, and weeds. She was giving thanks for all this while she bravely bore in her body the dying of Jesus.
This grateful woman, suffering from so much pain, was and is not only the love of my life, she was and is the life of my love. Once I asked her why she was doing all this, suggesting that she wanted to be there for prom night for each of her grandchildren. “You don’ know ?” she replied. “You dummy. I am doing this for you.”
The first days after Karen died, I found myself asking, “What do I do now?” For over thirty years we had been gifted with her illness, and now she was disease-free, without pain, and no longer with us bodily on this earth.
I asked that question in grief. It was, in a sense, self-centered – what about me? This was the exact opposite of what Karen had been teaching me during all our life together. In another sense, it was a dumb question, because I knew the answer before I asked it.
Holy Scripture, the Catechism, the Sermon on the Mount – these had been the answer, in theory, all my life. I knew the words, I could say the words. I heard the Voice of Conscience, the Voice of God. But, in her loving actions, her generosity, her selfless pouring out of her life for me and our children, and those “dear precious grandchildren,” Karen told me the answer for decades, much more emphatically, much more generously, and much more lovingly than using any words.
Especially over the last few years in the reality, sometimes the hard reality, of our lives together, in her pain and suffering, she put the answer right there in front of me. She taught me to glorify God by being lifted up in suffering, self-sacrifice, and love. So, instead of thinking now about all my sins and how “I all alone beweep my outcast state,” her actions, her pain, her love gives me hope – and show me the way to what I do now.
Yesterday, I looked at her sparkling eyes. I remembered how she used to publicly, with joy, paraphrase a country song, “But I’ve got him, girls, and that makes me the winner!” I smiled and then I laughed. I’ve got her, boys, and that makes me the winner.