My first husband, Michael, died in a car crash in 1997. I find it difficult to talk about, even now. However, in 2000, I wrote the article below about him, about the experience, and about organ donation. The article appeared in a special supplement of the Denver Post sponsored by the Donor Alliance and Donor Awareness Council.
Once I’d been told the supplement would feature my article, I kept asking when it would appear. No one could answer the question because the space was to be donated by the paper, so it would appear whenever space was available.
I got goosebumps when the article appeared on April 12, 2000 –three years to the day after Michael died.
Copyright ©2000 Nicole McGehee
April 13, 1997, 3 a.m.
The last time I saw my husband, he was being taken on a hospital gurney to his death. I could not be with him in his final moment — the moment when his heart would be lifted from his body and transplanted directly into the recipient. There my husband’s life would end. Donating his organs was the only good I could salvage from the terrible car accident that had so suddenly robbed me of Michael.
I said my good-byes behind the closed curtain of his room in Fairfax Hospital’s intensive care unit. I lifted the sheet and looked at his body, unmarked save for the black eye on the left side of his head. He looked healthy and beautiful, far younger than his 42 years, but he was brain dead. Still technically alive, still breathing with the help of a ventilator, yet the neurosurgeon had “called” his death almost twenty four hours earlier — Saturday, April 12, 1997. He was being kept alive as the long process of matching his organs with potential recipients took place.
I had spent the last three days with him in that hospital bed, my hand on his chest, nestled in his. Each time the ventilator filled his lungs, his fingers tightened around mine; when the air left his body, his hand once again turned lifeless, releasing it’s hold on me. The first time it happened, my heart raced with hope that, despite the neurosurgeon’s verdict of brain death, he was somehow waking from his coma. I hugged him, spoke to him and held him, willing the bond between us to penetrate his dying brain, bleeding and swollen from a blow to the head.
The bond between us was so strong that it was difficult for outsiders to fathom. Two years after our 1983 marriage, Michael wrote to me on Valentine’s Day, “I used to be lonely and believe I would never fall madly in love…I’m in ecstasy knowing that we are going to be spending the rest of our lives together.” In the envelope was a tiny shell. He wrote, “I love you, my wife, with all my heart and soul. The enclosed shell is the place where I keep my heart. It’s yours to keep forever.”
Those feelings remained steadfast over the course of our marriage. On February 14, 1997, two months before he died, he sent me a Valentine’s Day card while on a business trip. He would be with me on the holiday itself, but he sent the card in advance because it spoke to him, and he knew it would speak to me. The card was bright red embossed with gold, and the printed verse captured our sentiments — that we were so close that we were like one person. Below the printed verse, he wrote, “I thought this card eloquently says how I feel about you and me as split-aparts.”
So when he had promised — countless times over the years — that we would live together to a ripe, old age, I had believed him. He had always seemed invincible. We, as a unit, had always seemed invincible.
April 10, 1997, 4:30 a.m.
We are chilled when the telephone rings in the dead of night. And we are right to be scared. It almost always means disaster.
The phone rang in the pre-dawn hours. I groped for the handset in my bed as the ringing went on. Once, twice, three times. I fumbled for the light. My hand was on the switch when the answering machine activated. I turned on the light, snatched the phone from between the sheets. But I was too late. The incoming message froze me. “This is Fairfax Hospital trying to locate Nicole McGehee.” Frantic, I pressed the button on the portable, “Hello, hello!” I yelled. I heard a click, then the dial tone. I looked at the clock. Four thirty in the morning Rocky Mountain time, six thirty in Virginia. Just four hours earlier, my husband had called from his car to say goodnight, as he always did when we were apart. I was at our Colorado vacation condo, which my husband had left less than twenty four hours before. He’d kissed me good-bye, then taken an early morning flight to Washington to check on his office and attend some client meetings. It was to be a two-day trip. He rarely traveled without me if the trip was longer. On the phone that night he’d said, “I can’t wait to see you. I love you.”
Shaking with fright, I dialed the number of our Washington home, praying Michael would answer. When I’d last talked to him, he’d been on his way there after a business day that had lasted almost twenty four hours. If he’d been on his way home just four hours earlier, he couldn’t possibly have left the house already, could he? The call from the hospital couldn’t be about him. But who else? And when the phone didn’t answer, my soul knew.
I called the hospital, was transferred, then put on hold. At the same time, I rushed through the house, the phone glued to my ear as I unearthed my overnight bag, pulled on clothes. A woman came on the phone. “Your husband has been in a very serious accident.”
“Is he dead?” I asked, just that blunt. Don’t keep me in suspense. My legs were shaking so much I couldn’t stand. I sank to the stairs, clung to the banister for support. “No,” she replied, “but he’s very seriously injured.”
I wanted to insist that Michael was strong enough to overcome even the most serious injury, as though by convincing her I could make it so. And for a moment, just a moment, I hoped. She didn’t want me to hope. “He suffered a serious blow to the head and we’re not sure of the extent of the damage. He’s in surgery now.”
“Is his spinal cord okay?” If his body is intact, then how bad can the damage be? “Yes, but there’s a hemorrhage…we think his brain may have been deprived of oxygen for… ” she hesitated before concluding. “It took a great deal of time for the rescue workers to extract him from the car.”
I didn’t understand the significance of what she was saying. I didn’t understand that the medical staff who had seen him knew he was, in effect, already dead. Four minutes is all it takes for the brain to die from oxygen deprivation. There is no chance of recovery.
Ignorant, I hoped. “I’m coming now!”
Before leaving the house, I made two calls. First, to my mother, living in Maryland. “Go to Fairfax Hospital right now. I don’t want Michael to die alone.” Then to my mother-in-law in Oregon. Like me, she didn’t immediately comprehend the news. “Let me know what’s going on as soon as you get there,” she said, her voice a stunned monotone. I hadn’t made myself clear, I guess. “You have to come now. I think he may die.”
It was snowing in Colorado when I began my journey to the airport. I’d forgotten my glasses and I was talking on the cell phone trying to arrange a flight and I was weaving all over the road. But I had to stay alive so I could reach Michael and save him. Our combined wills would pull him through. We were the two most determined people I knew. It was an endless, two hour drive to the airport, the mountainous highway blanketed with snow. Halfway there, the surgeon called on my cell phone. “He has a lot of swelling in his brain. It’s being deprived of oxygen.”
“Are you saying he’ll be a vegetable?” I cried, trying to make sense of his words. The doctor hesitated. “First let’s see if he pulls through.”
He will! I wanted to argue. But I didn’t.
On the airplane, I hunched against the window and sobbed, not caring what anyone around me might think. Toward the end of the flight, the man in the aisle seat said, “You seem to be in trouble.” He was about my age, earnest and clean cut, and he wore glasses. Behind them, his eyes were sympathetic. “My husband’s been in an accident and he may die.” The man looked shocked. A moment passed, then he said, “I’ll pray for you both.”
When the elevator doors opened to the intensive care unit, I saw my mother waiting there, watching for me with an anguished expression. “They just brought Michael from the operating room,” she told me. “I held his hand,” she added, knowing that was why I’d sent her there. “But they made me leave because they’re doing something to him. You can go in in a minute.
I knew Michael would die the instant I saw him lying there. In a grotesque coincidence, Michael’s brother Dana had died two years earlier, at age 38, of a brain hemorrhage, though his had been caused by illness. The two brothers were only 13 months apart in age, and they looked remarkably alike. Now, as I stood in the threshold of the hospital room, my first thought was, “Michael looks exactly as Dana looked that day.” The same vacant stare, the same regular breathing, driven by the ventilator. The same young, handsome body. Two years earlier, Michael had cried as they detached Dana from life support. We watched in silence as the heart monitor slowed, then stopped, Dana’s ebbing life punctuated by the beep of the machine, then the flat green line on the screen.
Now I rushed to Michael’s side, spoke in a loud voice to him. “Michael, I’m here. I love you. Listen to me! You’ve got to fight. To get better. Please, please.” I rattled on, not making sense , only vaguely aware of our closest friend standing at the door with my mother, of the nurses coming in and out. There was no reaction from Michael, of course. All of sudden, I felt too weak to stand and I had to struggle to keep my eyes open. At some point, maybe hours later, I asked if I could get into the bed and hold Michael. The nurse said yes. My mother told me afterward that it then she knew Michael was a lost cause, otherwise they would have never let me share his bed. At the time, though, it felt familiar and comforting. Exhausted, I drifted in and out of consciousness.
Later, his sister and her husband arrived. Born again Christians, they stood over the bed and prayed for Michael, stroking him and repeating their chant over and over. I was comforted by their words, but I didn’t believe the prayers would change anything. Michael’s outcome had already been decided. Still, when they asked if I would consent to a visit from a faith healer, I agreed. I was willing to try anything, to say their prayers, to suspend disbelief. Anything.
When the faith healer came, I didn’t have the strength to sit up. I lay beside Michael, my face buried in his shoulder, as the minister prayed over us. And I prayed, too, and hoped with all my soul that a miracle would happen.
Renewed strength came when Michael’s mother arrived. She was our kindred spirit — a fighter who believed in the supreme power of the human will to overcome adversity. Like me, she spoke to him and, like me, she knew it was futile.
The neurosurgeon, a tall, brusque man with a cold demeanor came in to tell us to give up hope. But Michael’s own doctor, as well as a good friend of ours — a world-famous neurologist at UCLA — told us not to take him off life support until a further test showed there was absolutely no blood flow to the brain.
The neurosurgeon seemed irritated by that advice. “There’s blood flow to half his brain, but that will stop. His condition is degenerating.” But I remembered the words of the two other doctors, almost identical: “Where there’s blood flow, there’s hope. Don’t give up until they do another arteriogram in 24 hours.”
When our neurologist friend from California called, I asked if he believed in God. He hesitated only a second before answering. “Yes, I’ve seen too many things in my practice that are inexplicable.”
Michael had once said to me, “If I’m ever in a coma, don’t be too quick to pull the plug. Doctors are always saying a case is hopeless and then the patient wakes up!” Those words have haunted me in the months since Michael’s death. It is hard to believe you’re doing the right thing when you give up the life of a person you love with all the strength and passion of your being. It feels like you’re committing suicide because life as you know it is finished.
Until recent decades, a widow wore black for one year, gray for the second — a mark of her loss recognized by anyone who encountered her. What a comfort it would be if that were still the custom. That way, I wouldn’t have to explain my loss to people I meet. Anyone who’s lost a beloved spouse will tell you this: it’s important that you know about their loss. For me, it is the pivotal, defining event of my life. And yet, in modern times, people expect you to “move on” or “get over it.” They do not understand that grief doesn’t go away; you carry it in your heart forever. I will never be the same.
Sunday, April 13, 3 a.m.
I was sitting beside the bed holding Michael’s hand when the nurse told me they were ready to harvest his organs. I had to say good-bye. She pulled the privacy curtain around us, then left the room. Leaning over the bed, I caressed his arm — put my lips to his skin. The medicinal smell was gone because they’d removed most of the tubes from his body. Michael once again wore his own scent, sweet like cinnamon toast.
I ran my hands over his arms and chest, wanting to absorb him. Then I put my head to the sheet near his heart and sobbed. Crazy, fleeting thoughts passed through my mind. If I kept him alive, I could visit him, at least be in his presence. Maybe he would wake up. But I knew that he would not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state — he had said so countless times.
Finally, I let go, walked away from the bed. I pulled back the privacy curtain. In the hall stood a cluster of family and friends, their expressions stricken. No one came to me, as though they were afraid that any movement would shatter me.
I looked at the orderlies. “Okay,” I whispered.
They nodded, their eyes downcast, their demeanors respectful, then they surrounded Michael’s bed. The noises I heard made me tremble: the screech of the privacy curtain being pulled back along its steel rod, the clang of the hospital bed’s side rails. Then the rollers on the linoleum floor.
I joined my family, stood aside as Michael’s gurney passed me. His eyes were open, his stare lifeless. The nurses had put a clear lubricant in his eyes, and the gel spilled over his lids like tears. I will never forget that image: Michael’s beautiful blue Celtic eyes, open, unblinking and weeping. Was there a part of his being that understood what was happening, a part that wept?
Michael’s last birthday gift to me was a brass paperweight shaped like a sleeping fox. In the accompanying card, Michael wrote, “This little fox is to remind you of me whenever I am not sitting beside you. It’s my split-apart talisman.”
Now, I watched his figure disappear down the hall and through the double doors of the intensive care unit. The last I saw was the top of his head, the slightly receding hairline, of which he’d been so self-conscious. The procession reached the elevator. I heard the bell toll and I turned away, numb with shock and grief. How would I live without Michael, the other half of me?
I went dark inside.
In Michael’s Memory
Wednesday, April 16, 1:30 p.m.
I arrived early for Michael’s memorial service. I had photographs of him to place at the altar near the box containing his ashes. I was stunned by the banks of flowers on all sides — tributes to Michael. The first person to arrive was a stranger, a very young man with dark hair slicked into a ponytail. “May I help you?” I asked, certain he was at the wrong location.
He held out his hand, his eyes bright with compassion, and said, “I’m the one who found your husband.”
I clutched the boy’s hand. Here was a link to Michael, someone who might explain how a man wearing a seat belt, and with zero alcohol in his blood, had crashed into a tree by the side of the road. “Tell me what you saw.”
“I was driving behind him when he stopped at the intersection…” At the stop sign. “But then he disappeared over the hill. The next thing I saw was a lot of dust and the car…” he lowered his voice, “…upside down.”
The image flashed in my mind. And my heart screamed for Michael’s pain and fear. “Did he say anything?” I asked. Did he think of me? Did he say my name? Or was he already in that tunnel of bright light and beloved relatives that is said to greet the first moments of death?
“No, he didn’t say anything.” The boy looked troubled. “I was afraid to try to get him out. I held his hand and asked him to squeeze mine if he could hear me. His arm kind of moved, but it might just have been twitching.”
I am in awe of the poise and sensitivity of that young man — at his bravery in coming to Michael’s memorial service. And at the impact the service had on him. It wasn’t a formal, traditional service, but rather one in which those closest to Michael recounted stories about him and told of his qualities. And when it was done and the guests gathered at my home, the young man who was with Michael in the moments before his brain death asked, “How can I be like him? How can I have a life like his?”
How to be like Michael?
We married in 1983, when it was unfashionable to vow, “Till death do us part.” We insisted on those words, however, because we refused to consider the possibility of divorce. Like all married couples, we sometimes argued, and often our disputes were stormy, but we never doubted the strength of our commitment. Over the years, we grew together, we developed enthusiasms in common; Michael and I — two iron-willed individuals — became “we,” an even stronger unit.
He was an ambitious man, a man who believed he could achieve anything if he worked hard enough. He owned his own public/government relations firm and he was dogged in representing his clients. The more he learned about their causes, the more passionate his involvement. But he had fun, too. We had fun. Michael came home at five or six most days, and we reveled in our time together each evening. We chose not to have children, instead devoting our love to each other. Maybe because we were childless, our marriage was filled with constant silliness and laughter: practical jokes, dry quips, comical greeting cards and –always — laughter.
The Michael I loved, though, is best illustrated by the following anecdote. We found a baby mouse in a wall in our home. Instead of killing it, Michael made it a bed in a shoe box and tried to feed it warm milk with an eye dropper. We named the mouse Celeste. Inevitably, the mouse died within the day. Michael dug a hole in the flower garden and we buried it, complete with ceremonial prayers. Years later, he would mention Celeste from time to time and laugh about the episode, but always with a tender note in his voice. That is the kind of man Michael was.
People often mistook us for honeymooners and would ask us the secret of or wedded bliss. It was love, respect, mutual admiration, shared interests and ambition. But it was so much more. When I looked at him across the room at a gathering, I was overcome by a wave of gratitude that he was my husband. I never saw another to compare, and I often told him so. A friend who spoke at his memorial service said it best. “Their love was nearly palpable. You could see it occupying space in the room. You could almost walk up and put a ribbon around it.”
Perhaps our most joyful moments were when we danced. Michael, a splendid athlete, also happened to be that rarest of men — an excellent dancer. When we swing danced to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” for example, others on the dance floor would often stand back to watch, then applaud. Dancing, we communicated via electricity, it seemed. Totally in synch, absorbed only in each other.
The Last Year
The last year of Michael’s life was happy, but it was shadowed by the recent death of his brother and, a few months later, the death of his father. For the first time, Michael seemed to contemplate his own mortality. He persuaded me to go along with the financial burden of the vacation home in Colorado by saying, “I don’t want to put off our dreams. You never know how long you’re going to live. We’ve worked hard. Let’s enjoy what we have.”
I couldn’t argue because I knew what was driving him. And I am so glad we had that winter in Colorado — a dream come true for us both. A month before he died, the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in the skies over Colorado. We stood in the clear, cold night and watched the glow high above the snow-covered mountains. He turned to me and said, “We’re so lucky to be here, aren’t we? I love our lives.”
I hope the people who received Michael’s organs love their lives, too. I have received letters from two of the recipients, and I know they are grateful for another chance. I often wonder why anyone would deny another person such a gift. It is the only good that can come from the premature death of a loved one.
But how do we who are left behind, grieving, go on? To have been loved with such grace and tenderness has taught me how to love in return, and realize that I don’t want to do without it. I have no choice but to accept grief as my burden, but I will not let it destroy my enjoyment of life. That is how I can be more like Michael.
We used to kid each other when choosing items for a menu or making other trivial decisions. “I’ll do the what you do…I want to be just like you because you’re my idol.” The only thing is, we weren’t really kidding.
I remained a widow for five years after Michael’s death. In June of 2002, I met a financial adviser recommended by a friend. Our first date was in August of that year, and we were engaged at Halloween, married by year’s end. Until I met David, I had only been in love once — with Michael. I feel very lucky to have found love twice in a lifetime. We married quickly because life is short.
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