Published: March 4, 2011
It wasn’t always pleasant when my husband Bill and I discussed politics. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t pleasant so why would discussions about them necessarily be? We usually ended up agreeing to disagree before a full-scale war would break out at the kitchen table. That can happen when a closet Republican marries a Democrat. On matters of religion, Bill’s predictable response was a discussion stopper: “You mean you haven’t figured that one out yet?”
As a newly confirmed Episcopalian, I hadn’t figured out the meaning of Lent. Bill was a lapsed Lutheran who didn’t go to church on Easter. But he did enjoy his annual dark chocolate Easter egg with coconut cream filling. The name “Billy” had to be painted in frosting on top, just like the eggs he’d received from the Easter Bunny as a child.
His thoughts on Lent came with a tease in his voice and a half-smile on his face: “Just remember, it’s observed, not celebrated. This may not be a joyous time for you.” I joined a church discussion group to figure out the answer.
The first meeting put me into a calm, peaceful mood (though there were hints I would need to revisit my soul in preparation for Easter Sunday). When I got home, Bill met me at the door of our apartment with a big hug, something not unusual but somehow special this time. It felt warmer and longer. He wanted to know if I had figured out Lent. I hadn’t, not yet.
He went back to his study, its walls decorated with nineteenth century pictures of English ladies, to read and watch TV. He took a slice of chocolate Easter egg with him. I got out of my church clothes and into something more comfortable. Then I decided to polish my shoes, which hadn’t been polished in months. Sometimes I would bundle them up for the shoe man to shine, but this time I chose to do it myself.
It was like any night, except something just didn’t seem right. I poured a glass of chardonnay in the kitchen and walked back into the bedroom to shine my shoes and sip my wine. I drank half the bottle of chardonnay that night. I don’t have so many pair of shoes to warrant that kind of alcoholic intake. Someone at peace with oneself shouldn’t be drinking. (My parents’ alcoholic grandfathers had kept a pretty tight lid on family overindulgence.)
I finished shining the shoes and got ready for bed. When I went into his study to kiss him goodnight, Bill seemed absorbed in a television show and a book. Our goodnight was brief. It was about 11 o’clock.
I fell asleep quickly. The next thing I remember was Bill standing over me saying in a very calm voice, “Tranda, I am going to die.” I opened my eyes. It was daylight and he was still in the same clothes.
“What do you mean? What time is it anyway?” I looked to see it was 9 a.m. I’d overslept.
“Tranda, I have never felt like this before. I feel as though someone is choking me.”
“Bill, you’ll be fine,” I answered.
I lifted my head off of the pillow. One quarter of the bottle of wine would have been a better idea. My head hurt.
“OK,” I said, wanting to sound like I was in charge. “I’ll call for the car in the garage, and they’ll bring it around.” I promptly made the call. “Then we’ll drive to the emergency room and everything will be fine.”
“No, Tranda. I don’t think I can walk down to the garage. I can feel something very heavy in my chest and now it is going down my arms and body and into my legs.” Bill sat on the edge of the bed and stared straight ahead. “I can’t move my legs. I can’t move at all.”
I called 911 and ran into the dressing room, threw on my clothes and lipstick, and returned to the bedroom. Bill hadn’t moved.
“Tranda, I love you,” he said, looking up at me. I stood in front of him and couldn’t speak. At that moment the bell rang and I ran to the door. I ushered two medics and their gurney down the long hallway and into the bedroom. They asked me to leave the room. I stood outside the door, anxious, not understanding the muffled sounds inside.
Bill was a hypochondriac and prone to exaggeration, a quality that worked well for him as an actor on Broadway and as media director for an advertising agency. But I had never seen him act this way. I figured we would go to the ER and he would get better. One time he had thought he was having a heart attack; after 11 hours in the ER, he walked out with something to take for acid reflux.
I got a book from my study to put in my purse; it could be a long wait. One of the medics asked me to go ring for the elevator. I followed his orders. I stood in front of the bank of elevators and kept pressing the down button and then dismissing the elevator once it arrived.
Finally the medics pushed down the hall with Bill strapped on the gurney. They had piled his coat and briefcase on top of him. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. It all happened so fast. The medics took one elevator and told me to take the next one. When I got to the lobby, I looked at the clock: 9:30. I watched the medics outside the front door lift the gurney and Bill into the ambulance. Everyone else stopped and stared. The doorman wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to know what was going on.
I climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance. One medic stayed with Bill in the back as the other drove. We pulled away from the apartment building and I asked, “Could we please go to Jefferson Hospital? That is Bill’s hospital. They have his records.”
“Madam, your husband is in cardiac arrest. We’re going to the closest hospital and it has a fine heart unit.”
The ambulance wasn’t going fast enough. Cars, trucks, and buses didn’t seem to recognize the urgency of the moment. They were traveling in slow motion. They were ignoring the siren. Why didn’t people just pull over? My husband was in cardiac arrest!
I started to talk about Bill’s thoracic aortic aneurism that the doctors had been watching over the past few months. Less than 24 hours ago he’d been told it had not grown any larger. He‘d been given a clean bill of health, at least until the next time it would be measured.
When we reached the hospital, I followed the medics and Bill into the building. I was instructed to go to the admissions desk to give Bill’s medical information. Then I was ushered into a windowless room where I sat by myself and waited with the door closed. I tried to call our friend Elaine, but my cell phone didn’t work. I tried to read the book I’d brought but couldn’t.
Finally, a doctor came in and I stood up. He motioned that we both sit. “Mrs. Fischelis, we did everything we could...” His words continued but I stopped listening. It was 10 a.m. And Bill was dead.
The doctor asked if I would like to see my husband. I responded with something like, “Well, I guess I need to see him so I know he is really dead” and that I wanted to make sure he hadn’t gone out the back door with some gorgeous blonde. The doctor sort of smiled.
He led me to a room where Bill lay on a gurney, dressed in a hospital gown. He looked the same; but he was cold when I kissed him, and his lips didn’t move. A minister reached for my hand and asked how Bill and I had met. I told him the truth: we’d met in an elevator at the Rohm and Haas Building at 6th and Market Streets. The minister laughed and so did I. It turned out he had gone to seminary with the minister who married us.
The moments were peaceful as I talked about Bill, my husband of 21 years, the romantic jock with a dry sense of humor, who would have loved to have lived in the nineteenth century, but only in nineteenth century London. Speaking in the past tense felt awkward. Then I said something to the minister that kind of surprised me: “Now Bill knows what happens when you die.” The minister nodded agreement.
Someone else came in to talk about funeral arrangements. I didn’t have a clue; my parents had planned their own funerals. So I asked for a funeral home near my apartment building and wrote the name down on a piece of paper.
I thanked everyone at the hospital, took the plastic bag of Bill’s clothes, and tugged at Bill’s toe on my way out the door. I thought he just might bounce back up and say, “Gotcha”—he was quite the tease. But he didn’t. I walked onto Broad Street and caught a cab.
When I arrived home, the doorman hugged me. He knew Bill was dead. I made my way through the lobby, back onto the elevator, down the long hall to my apartment door. It was the first time I would open the door with Bill gone—the beginning of a series of firsts for me. The first sunset, sunrise, rainbow, and tax return were yet to come. The apartment looked the same as when he’d left. His chocolate-covered Easter egg remained on the kitchen counter. I phoned Elaine and left a message. Then I began making a list of everything I needed to do for the memorial service. For the next two weeks, I was a machine.
The priest at church wanted to know if Bill believed in God. Because Bill had never given me a direct answer, I couldn’t give one to the priest. He said he knew what he was going to do. The pear tree blossomed outside the church’s arched colonial window as the priest talked about Bill’s love of sports. That day was the season opener for the Phillies. Bill would miss his first baseball season. The service lasted 20 minutes, with no communion. I give the Episcopal Church credit for burying a lapsed Lutheran in such style.
After the service, I became more human, with a deep hurt in my stomach and a hole in my heart. Some people wanted me to be my old fun-loving self, but fun was hard to find then. I lost friends and found different ones. A new chapter in my life began when the final chapter ended for Bill.
More than seven years have now passed. I gave away Bill’s art books and threw away his football and baseball shoes. I kept the lacrosse stick. I reflect upon our many discussions about politics and the one about Lent, a subject that I still haven’t figured out.