With those words, our idyllic life came crashing down around us. My beloved Alan was going to die, and I couldn’t talk to him. We simply looked at one another and listened as the doctor told us all he knew about this new diagnosis.
This was a second marriage for both of us, and it was truly a “match made in heaven” for the 17 years we’d been together. Many couples go through a whole lifetime without ever knowing the kind of all encompassing love we had for one another. We felt we were the two luckiest people in the world.
Alan was twelve years older than I and had survived several heart attacks. When we were dating he told me he would never marry again since he didn’t want to burden anyone with an invalid. Since he was fully recovered from his coronaries, I didn’t look at it the same way. I adored him and wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.
Somewhere during our growing relationship Alan’s thinking about marriage changed. One evening, after a lovely dinner he and his two boys had prepared, he said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think Ginny and I should get married. Ginny, will you marry me?” One of the boys, Birk, then a college student, said, “Sheesh, I’ve never been at a proposal before.”
Totally unexpected, this was something that was never supposed to happen. When I finally got my wits about me, I said “yes,” so loudly that the neighbors down the block must surely have heard me. This went down in my book as one of the best days of my life.
Alan and I didn’t waste any time. The next day we went to a local jeweler, and he bought me a beautiful little marquis-cut engagement ring, along with the matching wedding band. It was a very short engagement, though. By the end of that day we had arranged to be married early the next morning. By midday on July 24, 1975 I was Alan’s wife, and we were on our way to Lake Tahoe for our honeymoon. Add one more day to that list of the best days of my life. We built a home on the side of a mountain east of San Bernardino, California in a little community called Highland. There we began our storybook life together, and it could not have been better.
In the late fall of 1985, after living there for 10 years, we began to find the smog obliterating our beautiful view of the San Bernardino Valley, and put our home on the market. For the next year, we traveled the eighty odd miles to the beach areas of north San Diego County several times a week in our search for the perfect home.
Finding where we wanted to live was easy. Finding something that we could afford there was not. We didn’t want to begin this last move of our lives in a run-down fixer-upper, so we continued to look.
We finally narrowed our interest to Oceanside, California. It was just seven miles inland, and it was affordable; but by December we were beginning to feel we’d never find the right home. We decided to return to the same new home complex where we had looked when we began this journey. It was nearing build-out, and they had one home left unsold. It was exactly what we wanted, and we bought it, there and then.
Watching your home being built is quite an experience. Alan was an advocate of having detailed records, so we spent long hours driving back to the beach so he could photograph all the wiring, plumbing and carpentry as it was being put in.
We moved in on my daughter’s birthday, June 3, 1986. She rode with us to our new beach home, where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. She was the first to see our new little love nest.
We were wonderfully busy with long walks on the beach and time for our hobbies. We became involved in the therapy dog movement, which was at that time in its infancy. Alan, a retired military officer, proved to be an excellent dog trainer, something I had been doing for many years. Soon we had three poodles-two big standards and a little toy. As a lifelong dog lover, I was in heaven, and Alan wasn’t far behind.
Before long the therapy dog group was visiting convalescent facilities, Alan and I were part of a group of about a dozen dog and handler teams doing this work. He was the only male of the bunch, but the women all loved him. One or the other of them often told us how lucky we were to have such an incredible marriage. We agreed.
Life was good, and family visited often now that we were at the beach. We saw much more of them than we had while living on our mountainside. About the time we finished moving in and finding a place for everything, I remember standing beside Alan in the living room one evening, looking outside at the pretty surroundings we had created with our own hands. He had his arm around my shoulder, and softly said, “I love this little house.”
As we walked toward the car Alan’s first words were “Are you okay?” No, I would never be OK again, but I couldn’t tell him that. I couldn’t tell him anything, but only gaze at this beloved man who had become my whole reason for being. We drove home in silence, a time that would ordinarily have been spent in lively conversation.
Arriving home, he turned on lights and changed into something comfy as I let our dogs out, brought them back in, and fed them. I started preparations for dinner, and Alan poured us each a glass of wine. This routine was the same as it had always been, the time of day we shared our thoughts and brought one another up to date on the news of the day.
We watched the evening news, ate dinner, and cleaned up afterward. Alan chatted on about things on the news and reminded me that the dogs needed to be groomed for a hospital visit coming up soon. It was as if nothing had changed, except that tonight was not the same. Trying to talk with him about this horrific diagnosis was so painful that I simply could not do it. Alan spent the evening trying to dispel my fears.
Several times he said, “We have to talk about this,” but all I could do was shake my head. As the evening wore on, I did manage to tell him he was going to have to be the one to break the news to the rest of the family. I just couldn’t talk to anyone. I look back now and realize how uncaring that was, leaving him with the burden, but I couldn’t help myself. Alan was so gentle and patient with me. He was dying, and I was the one in need of support.
The next morning he put his arms around me and told me we would deal with this, just as we’d dealt with other problems over the years. We’d been told to start with an oncologist, and since we were both big on researching anything having to do with medical issues, beginning that research was the tool that finally broke down my wall.
As anyone knows who has dealt with cancer diagnosis and treatment, it takes on a life of its own. From the first call to find the best oncologist, through innumerable medical tests, doctors appointments, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, even neurosurgery to prevent the rapidly spreading cancer from rendering him paralyzed, Alan faced it with a positive attitude. His guiding principal was “whatever it takes.”
For 15 months he put up an amazingly heroic fight, never once losing hope. When it came time for chemotherapy, he asked his Doctor, “What would you do if you were in my position?” When the doctor replied, “Miracles happen,” that was enough to convince Alan to agree to the treatment. He was a fountain of strength for both of us.
Alan lost control only once during that time. He suffered a terrible panic attack, something he was familiar with because I had dealt with them when we were first married. Being familiar with them didn’t make going through one any less frightening. He stood in our kitchen, and suddenly said, “I don’t know what to do.” He looked around these familiar surroundings with terror in his eyes. A visit with a psychiatrist enabled him to understand that this was his way of fighting the loss of control he was feeling. A short period on medication put him back in his usual form.
When it became apparent that I could no longer manage Alan’s care in our home, our hospice nurse recommended he be moved to the San Diego Hospice Hospital, about 20 miles away. I refused, saying we had never spent a single night apart in our nearly twenty years of marriage, and I wasn’t going to let it happen now. She told me I could be with him, that there were accommodations for family in each patient’s room. I agreed immediately, and he was transferred the next day. I sat beside his gurney in the ambulance on that last ride.
While Alan was being checked in and bathed, I explored the grounds of this beautiful place. If there was ever to be a perfect setting for end of life, this had to be it. Situated on a hill overlooking the city with a view that went on for miles, there were colorful gardens to wander and sheltered places to sit and enjoy the view. It was lovely and peaceful.
At first Alan was his usual upbeat self, talking with staff, and joking with friends and family who dropped by. As the days passed, he began to hallucinate about being back in the military. As a retired Air Force Colonel, he was accustomed to the secrecy often necessary among his peers, and he began to insist on seeing the General, whom he was sure had summoned him. It became quite a task getting him back to reality, but he was never violent or angry, just insistent.
The day before he died, he was in a state of complete confusion. I sat down in a chair very close to him, took his hands, and said, “Alan, do you know who I am?” He looked at me with all the love of our years together, and said, “You’re my Ginny, and I love you.” I put my head on his lap and gave in to the tears, while he patted me on the back in an attempt to comfort me. Those were the last words I heard from my beloved Alan.
Shortly thereafter, he fell into a deep sleep from which he would never awaken. At about seven the next morning when the rounds nurse came in to check his vitals, I asked what they were. His blood pressure was about 60 over 40. I asked her to move him so I could get in bed with him. I lay there for several hours, holding him and listening to his weakening breathing. Finally, I said, “Alan, I’ll be OK. It’s time for you to let go.” To this day I believe that he heard me, even in his comatose state. His last breath came out in a soft whoosh.
I’m now approaching the beginning of my 80th year, and know that death will come before too many years pass. I hope it’s not soon, as I have many stories to tell before I go. I can also tell you that I do not fear Death. Instead I look at it as a logical progression of life.
I only hope someone who loves me will be there to hold me when the time comes.
© Jeri Klosson Todd, all rights reserved