The early morning of October 8, 2016 was sunny yet chastened by a biting chill. However, the cold gave sincere promise of flowering into a very pleasant day. It was not just the chill that I will take to my grave but the memory of a lost love. That was the morning I lost my Judy. There is no easy way to say it.
It was not the end of a sordid affair or messy divorce but the revocation of my marriage vow that promised Judy and I would be married until death do us part. That morning was emblazoned, not just on my heart, but my soul forever. The woman I had been married to for 50 years and 42 days was no longer with me but had gone to a better place without the pain, frustration and inner demons that had plagued her since childhood.
Her last summer in this life had been marred with an abscessed tooth that required surgery, walking pneumonia, and a fall in the bathroom, perhaps from a blackout. It was the latter that may serve as a beacon that does shed some light on her demise. Her back had been broken. This warranted visits to even more doctors. The surgeon gave her the perfunctory back brace without any thorough instructions. It took two other people to put it on her and it was a classic example of learning by doing.
The orthopedic surgeon did not like the hoarseness that Judy had only recently suffered. He advised her to have it checked out. Then it was another visit to a different doctor, who scoped her throat. He diagnosed some problem with the blood vessels that were impinging on her vocal chords. He advised doing surgery on them to relieve the problem. So on Friday morning we went to Missouri Baptist Hospital for pre-op testing. Her back brace was just killing her. I forced her to wear it during the short trip to the hospital.
At curbside outside the hospital, I removed it and she asked me to get her a wheelchair. An attendant wheeled her in and in minutes they were giving her oxygen and moving Judy to the ER room. Two hours later a doctor came out and changed my world forever. He said that she had a large blood clot in a lung and her right ventricle had stopped functioning. He advised a special Clot Buster drug that just might do the trick. To do nothing was to let her smother to death from the fluid building up around her over-taxed heart. Of course the powerful drug could kill her. I asked him if he were telling me to call our priest for the last rites. He said that’s not a bad idea. At that moment, I felt that he had really said that Judy’s life was all but over. I knew that I would lose her sometime soon.
Monsignor Vernon Gardin, our dear friend for over 34 years arrived, just as they were wheeling Judy up to ICU on the 6th floor. Vern and I tagged along. He gave her the last rites and then we went to the family waiting room. Less than an hour later another doctor informed me that they had discovered a large cancerous mass behind her heart, similar to those encountered in colon cancer, that had broken free. The doctor also asked me if I wanted them to resuscitate her if her heart stopped naturally. Had it not been for the cancer I would have said yes but the introduction of cancer seemed to cinch the matter for me. I did not see how she could survive all the deadly elements that threatened her life.
From that point we all stood vigil by her bedside, not knowing how much time she had left. I had called Lena, our massage therapist right after Michelle. She came right after finishing a client. She spent five hours, silently standing in the background for most of the time with the saddest look on her face I had ever seen. No one had a greater look of distress than Judy’s baby sister, Jayna. Her pain was palpable. Like Lena, Jayna saw Judy as a surrogate mother.
Some of us continued our vigil throughout the night. I tried to sleep some but I could not get comfortable because of an arthritic lower back. My sons lay on the hard waiting room floor. Michelle had to leave because she had just opened another play. She was playing Lady Macbeth without an understudy. I had no problem in her having to go because the show must go on! As the long night wore on, I just walked the halls and corridors, looking for someone to talk to…anyone to talk to.
Judy’s lactic acid count was a benchmark the doctors watched with increasing concern. When they brought her up, it was 11. One is normal. As the night wore on, her count rose to 15 and 17 and then 19.
The next morning around six, the ICU night doctor told me her lactic acid had hit 22, virtually the top of the scale. It was shutting down all of her organs. And the medicine had stopped working. There was nothing more the doctors could do. Only a miracle could save her now one doctor told me. While he believed they sometimes happen, he had never witnessed one. Without a dissenting voice, I decided that we had to let our Judy go. He said they could maintain her until all the immediate family was present. Michelle got there after seven.
With six of us gathered around her bedside, we waited. I noticed that there was no heart monitor. At 8:12 I asked the doctor, how will we know? He said that it had already happened. He raised her eyelids and I saw that they were like in the movies, fixed and dilated. I had seen that eternal stare once before. My friend, Jim Rygelski, had died in the same nursing home as my mom and dad several years ago. In a blog post for my The Right Stuff, I wrote that I had seen the face of death and it wasn’t so bad after all. In a way, I think that had prepared me to view my wife without losing emotional control.
Next began the business of planning her funeral. I left most of the details to my daughter and daughter-in-law, Patti. My major input was to set the theme for her wake and funeral. It had to be upbeat, not unlike an Irish wake. I wanted people to remember her at her best and count the memories she had left with them, instead of flooding the place with a sea of tears.
To do this, I spent over three hours talking to 150 or so people. Many others crowded Krieghauser’s Mortuary. My line was out the door. I had to leave each one with some memory of Judy’s life and for some, her death. I was overwhelmed by the grand show of love and support my wife’s life had engendered.
I wrote a eulogy that I think captured just the right mixture of reverence and solemnity with joy and optimism. I began by pointing out Judy had warned me when I started doing talk radio in the mid-eighties, don’t YOU ever mention that you even have a wife!!!! I kept that pledge all these years until her funeral. I know the Bible says there is a time for everything…including grief. My grief was for later…and in the privacy of my thoughts. No, we are here today, not to grieve, but to celebrate my Judy…our Judy…
Like so many teachers, Judy never realized how much joy she had spread through her immediate world. I have witnessed and been overwhelmed by the reaction to her death. One vivid example will suffice. We tried to alert all the many people who were captured by her spirit. There is a young Barista at the Buck’s where we used to hang out around at 3PM most days. Judy was especially fond of her.
Two of my kids and I stopped there the other night…and I plainly told her…I lost my Judy at 8:12 Saturday morning. This woman reacted as it I had thrown acid in her face. She grabbed her face with both hands and her torso bent parallel with the counter. I never thought anyone would have such a reaction.
I was hoping to achieve some sort of personal good for the many people her life had touched during her stay on earth. I suggested that they be like Judy and smile at anyone they may encounter during their daily activities…even strangers. And if they were bold, they could tell them that Judy sent me…pass it on. That thought was akin to that TV commercial where people observe others performing a kind deed and decide to the same, starting a chain reaction of good deeds.
A smile can be many things but instances like this can have divine overtures. I look at a smile like Judy’s as a vehicle of grace. I have watched Judy do this for many years. At Lester’s where I eat frequently, I had been bringing her lately because of her broken back. It did not take long for her to work her innate charm.
Shortly after she died I met a new server, a young woman, named Kaylyn, with a very friendly demeanor. I stopped her and told how my late wife would have really liked her and she beamed. I also spied a table with one father and a gaggle of little girls. I went over and told him how if my wife were here, she would have complimented him on how beautiful his family of little girls was. That was my Judy…our Judy.
I have no doubt that Judy is with God and that is no false presumption. Since news of her death hit the streets and the lines of communication Masses have been said in her honor in Catholic churches in Tokyo, Kiev, Vatican City, New York City, most of Connecticut, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Kansas, and Los Angeles, traversing the globe. Even better is that two Holy people have secured Plenary Indulgences for her in this Year Of Mercy that Pope Francis began last November. That means that her soul and eventually her body will immediately have an eternal place at the Trinity’s table.
After she was laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery in Ellisville, Missouri, the same place my parents are interned and will be my final resting place, I had to answer the question: what happens now? Our home, which is just a house now, is filled with her. I had very few bachelor skills and my knowledge of home management was close to zero…but I could learn. My youngest who has been alone most of his adult life taught me how to do laundry. I really like doing my own laundry. Glad she never knew that.
I still have our housekeepers who have helped me organize and change that business dealing that needed closer attention. I don’t cook nor do I plan to learn. Judy and I ate out a lot and there was no reason that she should cook a lot just for the two of us. I have only me to feed now.
The nights are the hardest. The bed is always cold. I miss the comfort and presence of having her lie close to me. She usually retired early, exhausted by her daily grind. The bed would always have a warm spot where she was and she let me intrude on part of it. Of the estimated 18,301 nights that we were husband and wife, I do not think we were ever separated for more than 180 or so…less than .001%
I know I will never forget her, no matter what the future may hold for me. I could start a small cottage industry in describing her zany sense of humor, which was almost always unintentional and without self-realization. Judy said her favorite memory of being a Catholic, other than hearing Mother Teresa speak in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1986, was marching in the 35th Anniversary of the heinous Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 2008 with 320,000 of our closest friends.
My special memory of her was at a similar march but smaller in scope in St. Louis. We were finishing the last leg en route to the Planned Parenthood Killing Center in St. Louis about the same time that a very light snow had just begun. Judy was wearing her black earmuffs and her hair was darker then. The flakes started softly weaving their way onto her hair, creating what could have been a portrait of a Winter Madonna. Her beauty was radiant and she never lost that special charm of hers, despite the cold.
While I know I will always miss my Judy so very much, I realize she belongs to God now. I miss the idea of Judy! I miss having no one to share my days, my life, my meals, my bed and my stories. I miss being a couple. One is not only an odd number but a lonely one as well.
When I was little, I told my mother that I could not wait to get married, have 10 children and move in with her. I am one of those men who has to be married. There is a word for this—uxorious. Of 16th century origin, it derives from Uxor, the Latin word for wife. The only time I have ever encountered it was in my junior year at Holy Cross. I was writing a paper on President Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. The author of one of his biographies used it in reference to the 27th president. Current dictionaries make it sound much different. They define it as having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness for one’s wife.
I find that meaning erroneous. It sounds too derogatory. They make it sound like a neurotic symptom when I will bet it is more common than people will admit. I promised my children that I would not marry for at least a year. I do not think that will be very difficult as I have so many activities planned that would not permit any time for finding, and proper courting. There is no one right now that I would even think of courting.
I certainly do not want to rush into anything with the plethora of unhappy and lonely widows out there. I have already been warned about the notorious Casserole Queens. So for the immediate future, I plan to find my moorings, stay busy and do what I enjoy—reading, thinking, writing and telling my innumerable stories.