Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
'You come into this world taking your first breath, and ...'
'You come into this world taking your first breath, and ...'
This is a story about the ordinary — a common, everyday event happening to someone everywhere.
But it wasn’t to Mary Flesner when it fell upon her.
Mary stood at her husband’s bedside and looked down with helpless, empty hands as Jim’s breathing struggled like an exhausted runner. Then it stopped.
She leaned over for a final kiss, and when she lifted her head she was alone, even among her good friends standing nearby.
Sickness sometimes gives plenty of notice of what is to come, and the approach of death seems to be a long road. However, the terminus of that road is always a cliff, and when you fall over, you’re a widow.
Mary Flesner was a widow.
He was gone, the 65-year-old man who had been every day to her for almost 44 years.
One month later, Mary, 64, sits in her comfy dollhouse home in the Windansea area of La Jolla and talks about dealing with Thanatos, as the Greeks personified death. She is not a teary, handkerchief-twisting woman. When she chokes up, she chokes it back.
Mary’s memory of Wednesday, June 14, is as fresh as a red scar.
“By 11:10 in the morning he was gone. My friends and I just went through the motions at lunch. I came home, just mentally exhausted and numb.
“And when the door was finally shut that night, the house was empty.”
She’s been supported by female friends, but they can’t be there at night when half the bed is empty and the ceiling is the only thing to stare at.
“We talk a lot about Jim and cry sometimes because he was such a special guy. I’m lucky. I've been surrounded by people almost every day, but people do have their own lives, I understand that.”
Jim and Mary lived quietly in retirement in their small house not far from the beach. They had both retired early from airline jobs at the airport.
Then in 2015, the beginning of the end: Jim Flesner was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. It was a shock to both because he had not been more than an average drinker. But there are multiple causes by which that clever disease can sneak into the body.
“When he was diagnosed, he didn't accept it at first. But, like, if he’d have a glass of wine, he’d make it half wine and half water. It was kinda cute in a way. Then about 10 months ago, he just quit (drinking) completely.”
Jim also developed congestive heart failure, diagnosed last November. Sustainable health was gone and would never return.
Early last month, his body faltered and he spent 36 hours in the hospital, then sent home on Sunday, June 11. He wasn’t well, but there seemed no reason for him not to go home. However, as Mary and the doctors later learned, an infection was already hard at work.
“I was very blessed that I was able to sleep with him that night. Our cat slept with us; I think the cat knew something was going on.
“The next morning, Monday, June 12, he was not feeling good. I could barely get him out of the shower. I put him in a chair in our bedroom and asked my girlfriend to come over to kind of observe him. I just need another set of eyes and somebody to help me.
“I called his liver specialist. She suggested he go back to the E.R. and so I called 911. Jim did not want to go back into the hospital, but I said, ‘We gotta go.’
“When the paramedics came, Jim apologized to them. He said, ‘Sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to disrupt your day.’ He was an ultra considerate guy.”
After Jim was admitted to the emergency room, his decline became precipitous. Unaware of what was happening, Mary was alone in the waiting room when she saw something ominous approaching — two doctors.
“When you’re in the E.R. waiting room, you don’t ever want to get a visit from two doctors.”
The solemn physicians told her that Jim was very sick. Sepsis, or blood poisoning, was attacking his weakened system and winning.
In a corner of the waiting room, in low voices, she was asked if she had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and whether she had her affairs in order.
Those words seeped in like water sluggishly swirling into a slow drain.
She says, “Now when I look back, yeah. They were being honest with me. I was stunned, but never in denial. But I thought, ‘I’ve got to give Jim a fighting chance.’”
Jim was moved to the intensive care unit where all the drugs, beeping monitors, wires and IV punctures could not forestall the creeping chill of what was coming. On Monday night, a ventilator was inserted down his throat and he was kept unconscious with drugs, Mary was told.
For two days, Mary was there, sort of — part fog, part shadow, part glare of reality. Hospital staff members came in and did their jobs quietly and with straight faces. They gave off rays of compassion.
Though Mary and Jim had no children, or even extended family, her troupe of friends shared her vigil, took her to lunch, spoke their support or just held her hand.
She had planned to spend Tuesday night in a recliner in his room, but she remembered that Jim hated the idea of a “death watch.” So when a nurse said, “Mary, go home,” she did.
Wednesday morning, as she stood at Jim’s bedside, it was clear what was going to happen. Only when.
The critical care doctor came into the room. He was Dr. Achal Dhupa, and Mary recognized him as the one who had treated Jim years earlier.
“I said, ‘Dr. Dhupa, Jim was one of your patients.’ He said, ‘I know,’ and he touched Jim on the shoulder, which, to me, I thought it was just so — nice.
“Dr. Dhupa just quietly said, ‘Let’s let Jim have some dignity.’ And then he also said, ‘You come into this world taking your first breath, and you leave this world taking your last.’ I just loved the things he said. It gave me peace.”
The staff quietly prepared to turn off the life-support equipment.
“My girlfriends came in, eight girls, all of us crying — they all knew Jim — and we all said our goodbyes. And then I said to Dr. Dhupa, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Jim was gone in five minutes.”
And that was that.
Before she departed, she sought out a kind nurse whom Jim had wanted to particularly thank but didn’t have the chance. Mary tracked down ICU nurse Matt Lugendill and thanked him for Jim.
Time to go. She walked out of the hospital holding Jim’s bag of clothes. In a few days, they would be fingered over on a Salvation Army rack.
All that was weeks ago, or like yesterday, depending on whether the perspective is yours or Mary’s. Loneliness has moved into her small house until she’s ready to kick it out.
She’s left with financial and other paper threads to untangle. Death creates jobs for the bureaucracy.
“I break down emotionally a little bit by going through all this paperwork. I think, ‘Oh, I want somebody else to do it for me.’ But ultimately, the only person who can do it is me.”
It doesn’t sound like you have pressing financial worries.
“Knock on wood. Hopefully.”
She is aware that ghouls and predators sometimes try to take financial advantage of grieving widows, but none has come around to her house.
Mary has intensified her commitment to a greyhound rescue organization. She also had a second memorial for Jim on July 30. And then, well … you have to find ways to keep busy.
She’s gifting herself with a new paved patio out front. She’s going to spread Jim’s ashes in the shrubs at the edge of the patio because he loved to sit out there and watch life go by.
Sitting in her small living room, she’s relaxed and smiling, but tears are obviously just off-stage. Her eyes redden, but she doesn’t weep, not in front of someone who’s not a girlfriend.
Memories and reminders are everywhere, like knickknacks in a great-grandma’s parlor. She points across the room to a commercial leather chair.
“That’s Jim’s barber chair. He always wanted one. Actually, it’s really comfortable.”
Mary, have you thought about what you'll be doing in, say, 10 years?
She’s matter-of-fact. “I hope I’m not alive in 10 years, to tell you the truth.”
No! Why do you say that?
“I don’t know. Just right now it’s, like, I’m OK if I was to leave this earth right now. I would be OK.”
She pauses and backs off that idea. “I guess it’s the loneliness talking. Anyway, that’s kind of a dumb statement to make.”
That’s depression talk. You don’t seem depressed.
“No, I’m not. I don’t think I am. I have a lot ahead of me. I can travel.”
Who knows? Maybe remarriage.
She feigns being aghast. “Oh, lord no!”
Mary’s on that grief-recovery roller coaster. Tears erase smiles, or is it the other way around?
“I owe it to myself to remain strong. I mean, Jim’s gone. I just gotta keep moving forward. Going backward doesn’t do any good.”
She flashes the waggish humor she shared with Jim. “At least I don’t think it does.”
You seem a bounce-back person.
“Yeah, I’m trying to be. To tell you the truth, Jim, he didn’t dwell on his sickness. I would get upset sometimes and cry about it and he’d say, ‘Why are you crying? Quit your crying.’ That always is in the back of my mind. I can hear him saying that to me, so it's kind of like I haven’t really cried. Death isn’t the worst thing in the whole world.”
She shakes her head as a form of sighing. “I guess death is actually the worst thing in the world.” Then, she rethinks that. “Well, I don't know about that. Actually, it’d be how you die. You could ...”
You could die unloved.
“Right, and ...”
You could die alone.
That’s a word with an echo. She absorbs it. “Alone.”
Carry on, Mary.
Once, while browsing the UC Berkeley bookstore, I ran across a small book of verse by an undersung writer named Theodora Kroeber. She wrote, thoughtfully:
When I am dead
Cry for me a little.
Think of me sometimes
But not too much.
It is not good for you
For your thoughts to dwell
Too long on the Dead.
Think of me now and again
As I was in life
It is pleasant to recall
But not for long.
Leave me in peace
As I shall leave
you, too, in peace.
While you live
Let your thoughts be
with the Living.