The Deafening Sound of Death

This has nothing to do with writing, except that life-changing experiences always wind up in our writing. I just needed to write this. I’ll be back to blogging about writing and books soon; bear with me.

My partner, brilliant singer-songwriter Laura Shawen, died about two weeks ago. I was puttering around in the kitchen, making coffee and getting breakfast, and listening to Laura snoring in the bedroom—something she rarely did. She hadn’t really slept in a week, due to some medications she’d had to go on temporarily, so I was glad she was sleeping.

Her snoring stopped. Some people might have thought, “Oh, good, she’s turned over and is sleeping more peacefully,” but something caused me to run in and check on her.

She was turned on her side, silent. I came around the corner of the bed and saw that her face was blue. And she wasn’t breathing. With great difficulty, I managed to roll her onto her back and I shook her, hard, shouting, “Laura, wake up! Wake up!” But she didn’t.

I ran for the phone and dialed 911, and told the woman who answered that I thought someone was dying—the word “dying” coming out as a wail. I knew I needed to do CPR, but the dispatcher kept me on the phone long enough to ask for my address and for Laura’s symptoms, then assured me an ambulance was on its way.

I launched myself onto the bed and pinched her nose, tilted her head back, and breathed twice into her mouth. The air I gave her rattled out uselessly between her clenched teeth. I compressed her chest as hard as I could five times, then forced my air as far into her lungs as possible, then stopped and slapped her, screaming, “Laura, wake up!” Only she didn’t, so I went back to my CPR—something I could only barely remember how to do from a high school class taken thirty years ago.

This whole time I kept envisioning her coming back to life, gasping for air, opening her eyes, and having the glad knowledge that I’d saved her life, as she no doubt would have saved mine had the positions been reversed.

But I didn’t. I didn’t save her life. I heard the ambulance coming down our dirt road and ran out to unlock the gate so they could get in, then ran back in and continued with the CPR. Every now and then I stopped to listen for a heartbeat or rested my cheek against her lips to see if I felt her breathing, but nothing. No heartbeat, no breath. I kept on with my CPR and, my voice hysterical and quavering, shouted, “Laura, don’t you do this! You’re a fighter; you fight now!”

But then the EMTs came into the room and shooed me out so they could get her on the floor and check her and attach some kind of machine to her that gave spoken instructions that I could hear from the hall: “Stand Clear.” “Shocking.” “Checking for a pulse.” “No pulse.” “Stand clear.”

This went on for probably ten minutes until they gave up and got her on a gurney and hustled her out to the ambulance. They asked me to gather her medications and follow her. I quickly lost the ambulance, as they sped off down the highway, and all the way there I sang songs to keep myself sane: “This little light of mine. I’m a-gonna let it shine.” And “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world,” songs from my childhood when things like this never happened.

Once at the hospital, I tried to go into the room where she was, but a nurse pulled me into a side room where I could be private and told me to wait there. She offered me water and cookies, but I didn’t want anything except for someone to come and tell me that they’d gotten her back.

But what seemed like an hour passed and then the doctor came into the room. His face said everything. I don’t even remember his words.  Just that Laura was dead and they’ve given up working on her.

A nurse led me down the echoing hall to the room where they’d kept her, covered with a sheet. I pulled the sheet back and stroked her face and told her how sorry I was that I hadn’t saved her, and that I loved her and would always love her, and that if she could, maybe she could stick around for a while because I couldn’t imagine being without her, the thought of it was enough to send me into a coughing fit as I tried to swallow my tears because, after all, I was I a public place and everyone knows a lady never cries in public.

After half an hour, I finally left and told the nurse to take her to Wharton’s Funeral Chapel, and she told me the medical examiner would probably want to do an autopsy, which was a terrible thought to me.

I wasn’t home ten minutes before a woman called saying Laura had been an organ donor, and could I give her a run-down of her medical history to see what she might be able to contribute to the lives of others. This, again, was a dreadful thought—her body dismembered and shipped all over the country—even though I knew that the appropriate attitude was to be glad that her death could benefit someone.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for untold others, Laura had had a form a cancer in the past that disqualified her for any organ donation. “I’m so glad I called you first before I started the paperwork,” she said cheerily, but her attitude only chilled me.

That night, I slept on the side of the bed the Laura died on. The sheets were stained with her body fluids, but I didn’t mind; I wanted to lie exactly as she was when she died. Morbid, I suppose, but it gave me some comfort.

Someone told me that the aftermath of a death is like a rollercoaster, and it is in a way. It’s like a rogue rollercoaster car that smashes through the length of your house, deafening and terrifying. I found I couldn’t tolerate any noise at all.

I slept the night through, and then the next day all emotion was put on hold because my parents were flying into Oklahoma City and renting a car to drive way out here in the boonies to me and I had to clean the house. All the time they were here  I nearly choked on the passionate emotion swelling my throat, but I couldn’t let myself cry because that freaks my parents out.

They did wonders with the place while they were here. My father, the mechanical engineer, fixed nearly everything in sight, and my mother cleaned her heart out all day and then cooked us delicious meals every night. I, on the other hand, answered phone calls, wrote thank you letters, ran errands like picking up Laura’s ashes or her death certificate, mailing packages of old family photographs and Laura’s ashes to her daughter, and tried to manage the many requests I was getting from people for this or that of Laura’s things.

We held a memorial service for Laura here on the ranch. Laura was pagan, so we did our best to create a pagan “transition” ritual that would call upon the protection of those who loved her best and who had passed on, and sort of giving her permission to explore her new existence. It was a beautiful ceremony, I thought, though few of us were there. We all had a role to play in it, and we threw Dragon’s blood (a resin from a Chinese tree) onto the fire where it flamed up and sparked beautifully and released gorgeous incense into the darkening day. I hope Laura approved.

Finally, the requests for Laura’s things became too much. Laura died without a will, and of course gay people can’t legally marry in Oklahoma, so everything went to her daughter, who lives in Florida. She wanted it all within a month, so I went through our things and separated out those that were Laura’s and packed them—a task for which no good adjective exists. Horrifying, yes, draining, certainly, but the sense of loss, of having lost Laura and then losing everything that reminds me of her piece by piece, disappearing into boxes to be sealed and labeled and stacked and waiting to be picked up—that is unimaginable, unless you’ve ever done it. As I packed, I kept an inventory of everything that was Laura’s and where it was packed in case someone contested something someday.

The big thing was our stallion, Cattammen, the living icon of our land. I and Laura’s ex-husband purchased him at a substantial price, but Laura had registered him under her name, so he went to the daughter. I didn’t resent that at all, though; a child should have a legacy from its mother. Laura’s ex-husband and I agreed on that, and her daughter and I have managed to get through this with perfect civility. Still, I have spent two weeks trying to get him fit to sell and find a buyer for him, and to learn how to transfer Cattammen to Laura’s daughter without taking the estate to probate (not necessary in Oklahoma), which would have eaten up any proceeds of the sale of the horse. Her daughter needed that money in order to come pick up her mother’s things and hold a memorial service in her mother’s home town.

The second week of my parents’ visit I found myself suddenly in the vice grip of overwhelming rage, the like of which I’ve never experienced. I don’t anger easily, but suddenly everything incensed me to an alarming degree. I was angry that I didn’t have the space to cry, pissed off at people asking for things of Laura’s when I was having to send every last thing that Laura owned to her daughter and so it wasn’t mine to give away in the first place—which I must have explained umpteen times– angry beyond belief at some of the highly insensitive things some people say in the throes of grief—like implying that I didn’t do a good enough job giving Laura CPR, essentially blaming me for her death, or implying that Laura was having a love affair with someone even though I knew damned well it wasn’t true—angry that people wanted her things so quickly so that I couldn’t let myself first accept her death and then let go of her things but must rip each last piece of Laura from my heart and put it in a box, and angry, angry, angry most of all with Laura for not being invincible, even though that is so unfair of me.

After two weeks, when my parents felt I was relatively settled, they went back to Maryland. They hadn’t been gone an hour before I was keening and wailing and beating my hands on anything that wouldn’t break under the force—so angry, still.

But that proved to be the last of my anger, at least so far. After that, I just cried a lot, lay on the couch in a fetal position and stared at nothing, and was generally useless. I was glad, though, the rage was gone. I started trying to mend the bridges I’d set afire with certain friends.

I still cry many times a day, and some days it seems like all I do is cry, but I’m not feeling as out of control as I was before. So maybe with time this will get better. I hate to even say that; it feels like a betrayal of Laura.

But, no matter what certain people said, Laura loved me. She chose to be with me. She understood me better than anyone ever has. She would understand this.

Laura, my love, I miss you every minute of the day. I can’t try to look ahead because all those days are without you, and I can’t stand that. But I am getting through the days, one by one, and trying be strong, trying to live up to the image you had of me as strong. For all eternity, Laura. I still mean it.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “The Deafening Sound of Death

  1. Kathleen, I am so sorry to hear about the loss of Laura. She was admired and loved by all who knew her. I met her at one of her gigs from a chat room on AOL when AOL used to charge us all by the hour. That was many years ago. I am sending you a huge hug because I know after losing my own love that even though the rest of the world says sorry and keeps living we somehow seem to freeze in time. My thoughts are with you. Keep moving forward.

  2. Kathleen, I’m now just getting around to reading your story, and with many hugs, may I say, “I’m sorry.” Gosh, I spent 6 years as a hospice nurse and your feelings are spot on, even the anger. It’s part of what the person left behind needs to feel to get through the tragic event. Though, sounds like, for Laura, her precious life ended all too quickly. May you feel the peace once again, and Laura’s love forever as you head into the next phase of your life. I know you’re an atheist, but I do feel your faith through your words, and let me just say, Laura is with you every hour of ever day of every week. ((Hugs)) my friend.

    • Thank you, Deb…Your words mean a lot to me. As a hospice nurse, I know you’ve seen death far too many times not to have been marked by it, so your empathy touches me deeply. 🙂

  3. Kathleen – First, my heart goes out to you. Comments like that may not help now, but eventually it’ll be nice to know that others understood. The moments surrounding your loss and mine (six years ago) are similar. My wife and I said, “I love you” to each other just before she went into convulsions. Less than an hour later I was at the hospital being told by a doctor that she was gone.

    Advice is easier to give than take – I realize, but I also know the aftermath of such an experience. I didn’t do as she would have wanted. I fell apart for almost a year, until the memory of a conversation she and I had a few months before her death helped me back to the world.

    For a while just take it day by day and remember what she loved about you, and that she wanted you to be happy. My wife once said, “Grieving is acceptable, falling apart is not. I want you to continue to write and I want you to live.” Eventually I was able to do both.

    Hope I haven’t gone too far with my comment.

    • Not too far at all, John…actually, I’m having a heck of a time getting myself to even try to write. Guilt, maybe? She was a musician and, so far as I know, won’t be able to pursue that anymore. I don’t know; just can’t give myself permission to write.

      I appreciate your advice very much, and I hold you in my heart for the pain you’ve suffered.

      Kathleen

  4. A cathartic piece to write and feel all at once. I know enough about this experience to recognize much of what you related. More than I want to know.
    When my sister died so suddenly, also Laura’s age, it would have been simple to claim all that Karen owned, I was in her last will, but I had heard from her own lips that her stuff would go to her partner, who at the time of death was estranged. It became all about respect. And as I packed my sister’s property, I carefully sorted and respected the things that made her life, her own. The people around are funny curious things.
    It was hard to let go- of anything- and some things should not be kept. I built a bonfire, after awhile, and ritually burned that which needed to not be thrown away, but let go. Personal clothing- the most private things.
    And there was confusion about how and why she died. So many weeks until the ME said natural causes. No suicide- no foul play. But no life.
    My brother made up some bad karma during this time. Some.

    Tonight, there is something I am not doing. This night, I am not going to the bedside of another dying friend. Number 19 today. I just cant go. I just can’t, again, right now. Not now. Maybe never again.
    My parents stopped going to memorials, funerals, even their own daughters’ years ago. I know this feeling.

    Silence and respect seem all that I can give. I have nothing else.
    Lauri

    • Lauri, that was beautifully written and so evocative. What a good idea of what to do with things that need to be let go but not disrespected. Yes, at least I know exactly how Laura died. I counted her pills to be sure it couldn’t have been suicide, and it was obviously not foul play. I do have that to be thankful for. And after too much death, it makes sense to hold onto life. Thank you for sharing yourself despite this. I very much appreciate it.

  5. Your post reminds me that no matter how fiercely we love, we can lose that unique person who is all the world to us at any moment. I hope that your memories and your writings bring you healing. As much as anyone may feel prepared for this kind of loss, I believe we are never ready.

  6. Kathleen, To lose a beloved partner like that, and then to loose all of the things that remind you of her, even the stallion–I cannot imagine the depth of your grief. Thank you for writing it out in this public space so we could read and witness to what you’ve experienced, and could offer such comfort as we can. Stories teach us, move us, help us understand life. At best, they help the writer and the audience. May the warmth of your reader’s hearts help to ease yours, bit by bit. Take care of you….

  7. Kathleen,
    I am sorry for you loss. Death is the mystery we all have to face and do not understand. I have lost a number of individuals close to me. I do believe that they live through me and also are alive in Spirit and are a help. I hope that you will be comforted in weeks to come of thoughts of the finest shared moments and that you both enriched each others’ lives.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Was touched to join your blog. Return the favor and join mine? It’s http://www.thefatandtheskinnyonwellness.com/ (I left a post commemorating my mom whom I lost in a fatal car accident. She was my best friend but good did come out of the loss…as I mention in the post.)

    Thanks for connecting and sharing.
    Carole

  8. I’m so sorry for your lose. I am glad that you seemed to find peace and strength in the loving songs of your childhood. It is where I too find strength. I’m sorry you had to go through this alone without the help of the daughter to assist you. I’m glad you shared, I agree it helps with the healing process.

    • Thank you for your words, Sherrie. I hope it does help with the healing process, and I hope someone comes across it who can gain some kind of comfort from it.

  9. Kathleen, thank you for sharing your humanity here, and for inviting your WWW friends, known and unknown, to share a small part of this painful path with you. I hope we can each carry a small part of this with us, so that in some small way we lighten your burden.

    Page Lambert

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