“There has never been a sound so loud” Joe D’Arrigo tells the story of his wife’s death. Excerpted from the original Good Men Project anthology.
When it was clear that the end was near, and the doctors said they would make Pat as comfortable as possible in the hospital, she said, “I’ll go home, thank you.” It was Thanksgiving; Christmas was coming, and she wanted to spend it at home, with her family.
I turned the playroom into a hospital room, a hospital bed replaced the couch in the family room, the refrigerator was stocked with feeding supplements, medical supplies were delivered, and hospice was contacted. We would spend these last few weeks together in the house that we had shared for the last twenty years, the place where our five children had grown up.
Pat was crying when the ambulance pulled into our driveway. She knew that she was returning to her home for the last time. The doctors said it would be a matter of weeks, that most likely Pat would not make it to Christmas.
All the children were home. Kerri and Beth had graduated from college and were living nearby. Jen was home from college on trimester break, Kate was finishing treatment—successfully—for her own bout with cancer, and Matt was taking a year off from school. We sat with Pat twenty-four hours a day. She was never to be alone at night. An easy chair was moved to the side of the bed so someone would always be there.
We celebrated Christmas Day as we had for each of the last twenty years. A fire roared in the fireplace as we sat around the living room—Pat with her portable stanchion with the morphine drip and feeding bags and tubes—and exchanged presents, and then we had breakfast. It was a glorious and bittersweet day.
That night, when the children were out or asleep, Pat decided it was time to stop hanging on. She had shared this last Christmas with her family, and now she was ready. She told me she wanted the feeding tube removed. The doctors assured us that it would be a matter of days.
Before Pat became sick, we had come to a comfortable stage of our lives. Pat was in a career she loved, working as a nurse in a hospital. My business was doing well. The kids were in college or had graduated; we were down to three tuitions from six—it was as though we had hit the lottery. We had money, and we had time. In November, on a whim, we went to Bermuda for a long weekend. Not bad for two kids from Queens.
We had plans. The kids would be getting married, so we decided to learn how to waltz. We took our first lesson in January, at an Arthur Murray studio. We were not very graceful, but we had some laughs. We had a pizza after that first lesson, in a restaurant that had to be the only one in the world with an indoor boccie court. The next night, Pat was in the hospital.
She had not been feeling well for a couple of months. On our trip to Bermuda she felt a little off but could not put a finger on what was wrong. She went to a doctor, a good family friend, for a checkup. I accompanied her, thinking we would have lunch afterward.
The doctor sent Pat to the hospital that afternoon for some tests. He knew something was wrong but wasn’t sure what it was. She was admitted, thinking she would be home in a few days. Those days turned into a week as doctors searched for a diagnosis, conducting every test imaginable: MRIs, X-rays, scopes, blood tests on a daily basis. Pat’s hospital room became our home, and the windowsill became her bookshelf. She passed the time studying Scripture (Pat had earned a master’s degree in theology from Harvard Divinity School), reading Shakespeare, or knitting, as our frustration grew.
Each day I would get up at 5:00 a.m., go for a run, and then go to the hospital, arriving at about 6:15. I would go to the cafeteria, get a coffee and the newspaper, and then go to Pat’s room to be there when she woke up. We would talk, read the paper, and then wait for the morning rounds to find out what the day’s plan was. But there never seemed to be a plan.
Pat had been in the hospital for five weeks when she was diagnosed with a rare tropical disease. It affected a valve between the stomach and the intestines, not allowing the free flow of liquids. Doctors tried various treatments and medications but to no effect. Because Pat was a nurse, none of the medical jargon was lost on her. Another two weeks passed before my frustration reached the breaking point. On the Friday before Presidents’ Day weekend, after I had engaged in a heated exchange with the surgical chief, the hospital agreed to allow exploratory surgery.
The operation was Saturday, and I waited outside the operating room, pacing for hours in a basement-level corridor. The corridor, painted green, had a Coke machine and a pay phone at the far end, and the only light came from tiny windows well above eye level.
When the surgeon emerged, he was pale and looking at the floor as he approached me. Pat had stomach cancer, he said. She was loaded. He did the best he could to remove all he could see, but it didn’t look good. Most likely she had only a couple of weeks, a couple of months at the most. When he turned and left, I looked at the pay phone. Who could I call? I needed to scream. I needed to say the words, that Pat had cancer. I needed to be heard. I needed to be held. I didn’t know what I needed.
I called my friend Don, and as I said the words, the dam broke and the tears rolled down my face. Then I called my friend Bill. I couldn’t think. I just needed to talk.
Over the next couple of days we learned that the form of stomach cancer Pat had was especially deadly; people with it had only a 5 percent survival rate. The fight was on.
Pat was offered a chance to go to New York City for an experimental treatment, and she accepted it with little hesitation. As soon as she was able to get on a plane we were off to New York with copies of her MRI and medical records. Before she could begin the treatments, Pat had to undergo another operation, to make sure all the cancer was removed and to insert a shunt for the chemicals she would be treated with. It was St. Patrick’s Day. Pat had marched in New York’s parade each year she was in nursing school at St. Vincent’s, wearing the flowing cape and the big, pointy hat that distinguished the St. Vincent’s nurses.
Pat got out of bed the day after the operation. She was determined to beat this. She dragged the various stanchions, with IVs flowing, into the bathroom to wash her face. She just wanted to move to prove she could. The plan was for her to regain her strength, go back home when she could travel, rest, and then return to New York for chemo treatment.
Two days after the operation I went home and bought a sailboat, a thirty-footer that I named Expectations. Pat and I had talked of buying a sailboat when the kids were out of college. I returned to New York with a picture of the boat and I pinned it to the hospital-room wall. The treatment would be over by mid-June, and we would sail out of Newport, Rhode Island, that summer. This would work. It had to work. While Pat recovered, I decided, I would continue to manage the process, to stay busy, to plan for all contingencies. Being in control seemed like the objective, to stay in constant motion, to only occasionally sneak a glimpse of the void.
We spent the next few months traveling back and forth to New York for treatment. Each trip sapped more strength from Pat. She was becoming frail before my eyes. But after the treatments were finished, Pat’s strength slowly returned. She spent her days reading, studying, taking care of her house, attending to her garden. She was gaining weight. She began taking longer walks. Sweatpants, purple socks, sneakers, and she was off. Within a couple of months she was running, to the beach, up the glades and back.
We did go sailing on Expectations a few times. Pat was still weak, and sometimes she would wrap herself in a blanket and sit below decks to keep warm. I would ask her if she wanted to go back. “No,” she would say. A cup of soup and a blanket and she would be fine. We had one overnight on the boat. We left Newport Harbor in the early evening with a bottle of red wine and a bag of chips and the sails filled. We headed up Narragansett Bay, sailed under the bridge, came about, and navigated into Potter Cove. The sun was setting as we sat on deck, each of us with a glass of wine. The evening chill forced us below, and there we snuggled and spent the night rocking gently to the ripples of the water and listening to the sounds of the bay.
Pat continued to grow stronger every day. I returned to work on a full-time basis, cautiously optimistic that we had made it. She was running a couple of miles a few times a week and back to studying, this time for a PhD in Gaelic history. In October, Pat started to feel as though something was wrong. She had an MRI, but it showed no signs of cancers. Though the doctors said she was in remission, Pat’s body was telling her something different.
The third week in November she went back in the hospital. Her pain was overwhelming. The surgeon told us that he would not operate on Pat. She was loaded with cancer, he said, and he didn’t feel he should operate, even to relieve her pain. Pat’s pain was excruciating, and nothing was being done.
We moved Pat to another hospital in the middle of the night. Shortly after we arrived, a surgical team assessed her condition and made arrangements to operate within an hour. The surgeon said he would speak with me as soon as the operation was over.
It was three o’clock in the morning when he opened the door. The cancer was back and had spread throughout her abdomen, he said. It would be a matter of weeks, if that long. It was time to end the fight.
In the days following that last Christmas, we didn’t talk about the past. We talked about the future. We spoke of the sorrow, of missing our children’s weddings and the births of their children, our grandchildren. We talked about her funeral, the eulogy I would give, the music, her burial. Pat was not controlling, but she did have specific requests. She wanted her service to be a simple one.
She spoke of meeting God. She had some questions for him. She wanted to know why there were no women priests, whether that was His idea.
The doctors said she had only days, but those became a week, and then a second week. With morphine as her only sustenance, her body withered away. But Pat remained alert, reading The Catholic Moment every day and underlining passages as if there was going to be a quiz when she finished. She would struggle to get out of bed just to walk around the kitchen island.
I changed her dressings, gave her massages, and rubbed peppermint cream on her feet. I needed help from the hospice nurse those last few days because I just couldn’t change the dressings anymore without crying. Pat weighed only sixty pounds then.
Early one morning she leaned over to me, and with tears in her eyes she said, “I love you so very much.” We kissed. She wanted to apologize for whatever she thought she might have done wrong in the thirty-five years we spent together. There was nothing to apologize for.
We sat in silence for a long time, and then she wanted to talk about my future, telling me that I should date, get remarried, go on with life. I didn’t want to talk about those things.
A week later, one brilliantly sunny January afternoon, I was sitting beside Pat, not really paying attention, looking up at a frozen, crystal blue sky, when she took her last breath. Her breathing had always been quiet, but at that instant there was silence, and I knew she was gone. I had thought I would be prepared for this, that I was in control, that I would be OK. But that final moment is as vivid today as it was almost seventeen years ago. That silence was the loudest sound I have ever heard.
I held Pat’s hand for a while before finally getting up and kissing her warm face.
“Silence” by Joe D’Arrigo, was excerpted from The Good Men Project anthology. Get a free copy of the book by becoming a premium member of The Good Men Project. Details here.