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.