Rev. Neil O’Farrell thinks about husbands and their wives’ deaths.
Ruby (not her real name) sat in her hospital bed, a place I’d seen her with increasing frequency. Her doctor had just told her that the only way to keep her alive would be through a feeding tube. Joe, her husband of more than 60 years, sat by her bedside. Her family and I were standing all around her bed.
She told the doctor there would be no feeding tube. She sat upright so that her decision would carry the weight. The doctor said he’d check on her in an hour after she had had time to think about the decision, and what would happen if the feeding tube was withheld. He indicated that with no feeding tube, death would be only hours away.
Ruby, with her bottle-dyed, jet black hair, held Joe’s hand and said:
“I’ve said for years I don’t want to be kept alive with any artificial gizmo. Feeding tubes fall into that category.”
Joe told her that he would support any decision she made, and he would be with her the whole way:
“We’ve been married for a long time. I’ve heard you say more times than I can count that you want to die naturally and at peace. You know I love you and will honor your wishes.”
She had settled back down in her bed. I could see that several tears had traced a path from the corner of her eye, down her cheek, over to her mouth, and ultimately dropped off her chin, making a little wet patch on her hospital gown.
I had gotten to know her well because of the many ins and outs of various hospitals and rehab centers. I recalled her lifting weights, doing tests to assess her cognitive skills, and putting together puzzles to test her manual skills.
In her day she had been the life of the party, the best dressed woman there. Up until the end she watched the shopping networks on TV to order new frocks and over-the-top jewelry. I had grown to love her.
Many times she had told me that she didn’t fear death:
“I don’t know what it will be like, exactly, but I know it will be wonderful and Jesus will be waiting for me.”
I was convinced she was correct on all counts. If anything, as she got sicker, her determination became fiercer. I told her that God would be with her in any decision she made. I knew that that decision would be soon.
As a minister with an old congregation, I’ve participated in going-on two hundred funerals in my time here. I have watched husbands, with marriages that span decades, sit beside their wives in this, the most frightful, fraughtful of personal decisions. I’ve not heard any husband, not a single one, try to convince his wife to take one more drug or to try one more doctor. No, these husbands have been there when the decision was made, and to watch her last breath.
All of us who are married understand that we made our wedding vows in joy, and they will end in heartache. Our youth-based culture often overlooks the “gray eminences” who live among us. I know that it takes courage to be there when your beloved spouse dies. It takes Herculean courage to face this death, and yours in turn.
I also know that few persons see the legions of husbands and wives sitting by bedsides, listening for the last breath, and when the heart monitor will no longer beep but flat-line, with the buzzer playing only an unceasing, single note because there is nothing the heart can do anymore.
In my congregation these are good and simple (in the best sense of the word) men, who as new widowers, come to Sunday services alone, sitting in the very same places they had sat with their wives for so many years. They come to church out of faith and habit, but also because at the church pew they can still tap into something of her essence–sitting in the spot where they had sat for decades, holding hands and sharing one hymnal.
Ruby’s children quietly moved out into the hallway so Ruby and Joe could have some alone time with each other. I remembered another long-married couple. The wife had been kept alive with a breathing tube. It had been decided that it would be removed on a certain day and time, and she would be allowed to die. His children asked if they should be there, and the husband said no. He had some parting words to whisper in her ear; besides, some things—death included—are too intimate to share with others.
Another man spent hours with his wife everyday in her nursing home. She was by then comatose. People asked him why he went so often. His rejoinder was always, “What else can I do? We’ve been married for 55 years.”
Ruby was so weak; she didn’t linger long. All of her family was beside her. None of them thought she had taken the coward’s way out. No, she had died as a champ. They would help take care of Joe, and they knew he was a champ, too. They knew that if the roles were reversed, and he was the one who had to decide about a feeding tube to keep him alive, he would have made the same decision that Ruby made.
There is no hurrying death. But at a certain point, death can’t be delayed either. It’s time.
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