Saturday, June 17, 2006

3. Shock Waves

So anyway, when Mario and I first met face-to-face, it had been three years since Gregory died. I was emerging from the tunnel of grief that he had just entered. The sheer pain at the beginning of that journey is hard for anyone who hasn’t been there to imagine. Trust me, you really don’t want to.

With physical pain, there’s a parameter. It may not hurt any less, but it’s confined in your being in a different way. With grief, especially over someone you love so deeply and completely, the pain is all-consuming: Your heart aches. You mind can’t stop circling around the memories, the what-ifs, the might-have-beens. Your body is wracked. You just feel ragged and raw, like someone has scraped off the top layer of skin.

Losing a soul mate is the 9-11 of an individual life. Yes, there are other loses that equal and surpass it. But they are few. Like 9-11, you can’t go back. Yet you can’t bear to go forward. Life exists in terms of before the death and after the death. Before they died and after they died.

For me, the agonizing part began that first night, when a friend – not Gregory – met me at the airport. I just assumed that Gregory had gotten tied up in a project. That was so like him.

So when Harry said, “Ann, Gregory had a heart attack Saturday,” I was shocked enough. In a nanosecond, I was already shifting to absorb the information, thinking, “We’ll have to go by the hospital now.” But Harry wasn’t finished. “Ann, he died.”

Died. Died? The towers were coming down.

The only thing I can compare it to is being hit by a huge feather pillow. It breaks, and suddenly it’s like you’re in a snow globe, surrounded by white feathers, swirling between you and the rest of the world. This was shock, throwing up a protective mental barrier between me and what seems like unbearable news. The pain would come later.

Unlike my off-the-precipice plunge, Mario was with his Isabel to the final moment. Holding her hand. She was in a nursing home, where she had been for about a month, finally overwhelmed by the effects of MS.

“They used those words ‘palliative’ and ‘hospice,’” Mario says. They’re code words. “You don’t know what they are till you have to deal with them. The others were ‘Keep them comfortable’ and ‘Keep them as pain-free as possible.’” They are all words that mean a person is dying.

So the morning it happened, Mario got to the nursing home early, and he and Isabel watched the sunrise through her window. “We talked. She had some lucidity.” The doctors had done some tests the night before to determine why her stomach was distended. They told him that her vital organs were beginning to fail. It would not be much longer.

“We gave her a bath,” he says. And when they were done, her breathing started to change. “She said, ‘I’m dying.’” The doctors gave her a shot of morphine to control the pain, something that would likely contribute to her dying more quickly.

“Once they gave her the dose, she spent the next couple of hours breathing heavily. She was not really conscious, but once in a while she would say something from deep inside. Her breathing became slower. And finally, her breathing just went ‘whoosh.’

“That was it. I could see the spirit leaving. I was holding her hand and felt the energy of her body leaving.” As soon as that happened, Mario says, he knew that she was not there anymore. He told the nurses to call the mortuary.

For Mario, the towers had been coming down in slow motion for months. He and Isabel had sprinted down the stairs together - faster, faster - in an attempt to outrun the inevitable. But the towers came down around them anyway. And while Isabel broke for the other side, Mario found himself just beyond the buildings, looking back. For the moment, he was suspended.

"You go through the motions," he says. Make calls. Set things up. Tell friends and family. "That's the shock part." The after-crash would begin soon enough.

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