What I’ve discovered about life is thus: Sometimes the lessons it has to teach come at you at a hundred miles an hour and knock you down so hard you think the world’s gone off its axis. Such a lesson was handed to me in the early morning hours of December 20th. I had just drifted off to sleep when the ringing phone startled me awake. In the past, my phone has been known to ring at the craziest of hours. People who know me know I write at night and that I’m often awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, and they have always felt free to call. More recently, this has become less and less frequent though, so when, at 4:43 a.m., the phone rang I rushed to answer it thinking something might be wrong. Two possibilities crossed my mind instantly: something happened to my grandfather or something happened to my friend Paul Monroe, who had been in the hospital since the previous Monday.
I met Paul 25 years ago when I started attending Hope Lutheran Church. He was my Sunday school teacher. Later, we taught Sunday school together. We also ran the church youth group and served on the church council together. He sponsored me when I participated in a 3-day spiritual retreat called the Walk to Emmaus. As I got older, our friendship grew. Paul had never married and had no children. I joked that he was like a father to me; he scoffed and said he was more like an older brother…or a quirky uncle.
I worried constantly about his health over the last few years. He developed congestive heart failure 7 years ago and ended up in the hospital for a month with a myriad of issues. I moved down to the south coast a few years ago. A year and a half ago, I found him an apartment close to me so I could help him. He was a fixture in our home, often coming for dinner or to watch a football game. He spent every holiday with us. My son called him Uncle Paul. He was as big a part of my family as any person with whom I share a strand of DNA. More so in some cases…in many cases.
Paul was also my tax preparer. He did amazing work. He had a solo practice for as long as I knew him. When he started to get sick and could no longer work as much, I took him down to apply for disability benefits. He didn’t have health insurance. I helped him apply for Medicaid. But as his health failed, he grew weary. He did nothing to help himself. He never followed through with getting insurance or disability benefits, and so he never received proper, regular medical care. Every so often he’d end up in the emergency room with a new infection or fluid build-up around his heart and lungs. Every time he’d come home from the hospital I’d tell him he couldn’t keep doing this. He had to do something to help himself. He had to fight because he had a very good chance of living a pain-free, long life if only he would take care of himself.
Each medical emergency with him got me more and more frustrated. Why didn’t he understand that I was afraid for him and that I couldn’t help him if he wouldn’t help himself? Given his medical situation we had talked many times about the importance of having one’s affairs in order. Paul’s parents were both gone. He had no siblings. I knew he had a cousin, but he hadn’t spoken to any member of his family in well over a decade. He had me down as his next of kin for the hospital. He spoke of drawing up a power of attorney, but we thought there was plenty of time. He did have a life insurance policy to cover his expenses if anything ever happened. He had put me and our friend Dave down as beneficiaries.
I talked to Paul nearly every day for the past 15 years or so. Sometimes they were brief conversations, other times they were hours-long talk fests that touched on everything from religion to politics to the Sox-Yankees rivalry. Being from New York, he was a lifelong Yanks fan. I liked him despite that. Debating is what we did. We agreed on mostly everything, but he liked to argue the opposite side of most topics, just to keep it interesting. Over the last year or so, I became accustomed to calling Paul every couple of days just to see how he was doing. If he happened to be unable to take my call he knew to call me back as soon as he could because the one time he didn’t, I went over there to check on him and had to call rescue when I found him on the floor unable to get up.
On Friday, December 10th, my husband and I stopped by his place on our way back from running some errands. He looked tired, but otherwise OK. He was having some trouble getting around, but that was nothing particularly unusual. I called him Sunday to check in. He didn’t answer. I called again later that day. Still no answer. I knew he was busy with some work he was doing so I certainly didn’t panic, especially considering I’d seen him just 2 nights before. When I tried Monday morning and still got no answer, I started to get concerned. By the afternoon I was ready to head over there when I got a call from the hospital. It was Paul. He was calling from the emergency room, waiting to be admitted. His landlord Ken had gone down to Paul’s apartment to deliver some mail. When he knocked, he heard Paul call for him to come in. Ken went in and found Paul on the ground. He’d been there since late Friday night. Apparently after we had left that night, he’d gone to bed and woke up a few hours later with some neck pain. He’d been dealing with a pinched nerve. He sat up on the edge of the bed and got a little dizzy and had fallen out of bed. He had little upper body strength because of the pinched nerve and was unable to pull himself up. He remained on the floor until Ken found him more than 2 days later.
He sounded remarkably well for someone who was as severely dehydrated as he was. After telling him how utterly relieved I was to hear his voice, I admonished him once again for not taking better care of himself. I told him that once he was released and feeling a bit better, I was taking him back down to reapply for disability and for Medicaid. On Wednesday, there was talk of discharging him. On Thursday, I called to see if he needed anything. He was feeling quite sick, which he figured was from a new medication they had started him on. I understood all too well how that can leave you with no desire for visitors, so I told him I’d call to check on him the next day. He still wasn’t feeling well on Friday. By Saturday, he was quite sick. They took him off the new medication thinking that would help. He called me Sunday afternoon to tell me he had switched rooms. He sounded unbelievably weak but he said he was feeling a little better. I told him I would come up to see him the next day, Monday, if he was up to it.
My phone rang at 4:43 Monday morning and when I saw the hospital’s name on the caller ID, I knew something was wrong. Because it was so early in the morning, I figured maybe they’d had to take him into surgery, or perhaps he’d taken a bit of a bad turn. A nurse asked me to hold for the doctor. I waited. The doctor came on and explained to me that Paul had been found unresponsive in his room. A team performed CPR, she explained. As God is my witness, I fully expected her next statement to be that they were able to bring him back and that he was resting comfortably. Instead, I sat down hard on the couch as I heard her say that they had been unsuccessful. She was sorry, she said. He was gone. I felt sick as the nurse came back on the line and explained that they needed to perform an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death and that the medical examiner would be calling me within a day or two. She gave me the name and number of a woman I needed to speak to in order to secure the release of Paul’s body. I shivered when she said it. I don’t think I blinked for more than a minute.
I hung up the phone and just stared at it. Did that really just happen? Maybe I was dreaming. I was on the cusp of sleep when I heard the phone. Maybe it was all just a bad dream. I sat on the couch and stared ahead until the sun came up. I rose from my seat around 7:00 to get some water but my knees buckled and I hit the floor and just started sobbing. I knew it wasn’t a dream. It was the start of a giant nightmare.
I have spent the last 2 weeks dealing with my friend’s death. I haven’t had time to wrap my head around it, to even think about the loss. Paul and I had talked about how important having one’s affairs in order was. The problem is, he never got his in order. He didn’t have a will. He never made his specific wishes known. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried or cremated. I don’t know if he wanted his remains kept here or brought to NY. I don’t know anything, and yet the responsibility for this man’s final rest has been left to me. I have had to make decisions these past 2 weeks that I never even contemplated. And I have had to do it blindly, because he left me no instructions.
The first thing I did the day after he died was go to his apartment to look through his files, hoping and praying I’d find something there that would guide me in the right direction. I found his insurance policy. But no will. No directive as to what to do with his body. As I searched through his desk and his computer I found myself laughing and crying at the absurdity of the situation. I imagined him in heaven saying, “Oops, my bad. Ah well, you’ll figure it out. Just don’t screw it up.” That, by the way? Is totally something he’d say.
I spent that day at his apartment, making lists of things I needed to do, people I needed to call. I quickly became overwhelmed. I took a breath and looked around me. Paul was a brilliant guy. Extremely well-read, and curious about everything. He was also a 12-year-old at heart. He loved Looney Tunes and comic books. He had an outrageous stuffed animal collection. He had all the Star Wars collectible glasses from the late ’70s. A Three Stooges poster adorned the wall in his office.
On the serious side, he also had a fairly large client base, and all of these people are going to have to be notified because he was in possession of sensitive financial information for all of them. A quick scan of his computer and my heart sank as I realized he didn’t have a master client list. That means that when I get through the business of laying my friend to rest, I’m going to need to go through these files one by one and contact these folks. That is just beyond comprehension right now. Thankfully, I won’t have to face this task alone. Several people have offered their help. I thank God for them, because I know I couldn’t do it on my own.
I went to the hospital the day after Paul died to collect his personal items. His wallet, his watch, his glasses, the clothes he was wearing when he was brought in. While I was there I spoke with the head nurse. She was the one who had called me so early that morning. She’d been on duty when he died. She told me more details about exactly what had happened. I stood before her horrified as I listened to the details of his final moments. I had assumed by the way they said he’d been “found unresponsive” that he had passed away in his sleep. I was wrong. The more precise details of his death I could have done without because it’s all I’ve been thinking about since she told me.
After another pretty sleepless night that night I awoke, ready to work, to get through this and do what I had to do. A third dimension was added to the nightmare when I received a call from the hospital asking if I had the name of an undertaker that could take possession of his body. Not having any idea what I was even going to do at that point as far as burial versus cremation, I said I didn’t yet have a name to give her. Her silence told me there was more to it. When I asked if there was a problem, she said that they really needed someone to take the body. My understanding was that he had been moved to Boston, to the medical examiner’s office, so I was confused. She told me the medical examiner had come out to the hospital. “So his body is at the hospital?” I asked. She said it was but that there was a problem. Paul is a big guy. She explained that they didn’t have a “cooler” large enough to accommodate him. “Where is he now?” I inquired. She told me he was in the morgue. “What’s he doing?” I asked. I don’t why I asked that or what I expected to hear, but her response was a punch in the gut. “Decomposing,” she said. She could sense my outrage, I’m sure. What the hell did she mean he was decomposing? How were they not able to accommodate him? I told her I would make some calls and get back to her as soon as possible.
Not being a blood relative, I wasn’t sure what I was legally allowed to do. I asked my husband to help me call some funeral homes and explain the situation. By this time, after having found no directives by Paul and being pretty much forced to make a decision quickly, I had decided the most practical thing to do was have him cremated and plan a memorial service after the first of the year. He knew I want to be cremated and I don’t remember him having a particular problem with it, so I figured he’d be fine with it for himself. And that would give me time to do things right, to honor him as best I could. The funeral director at a funeral home near the hospital said that as long as the medical examiner signed off on the release of the body, that they would cremate him. A few calls later, the medical examiner signed off, and the funeral home transported his body that afternoon. My husband and I went over there that evening to do the paperwork. When the funeral director told me Paul was there, I wanted to ask to see him. I went back and forth about this in my mind, wondering how I would react. I wasn’t sure it would be a positive thing. Ultimately I decided I didn’t think I could do it. I’d have one more chance the next day when I went over there to choose an urn and pick out memorial cards. I started writing his obituary that night. I can’t believe the things I’ve done in the last 2 weeks.
With each passing hour since Paul’s death I appear, inexplicably, to be gaining a firmer grasp on my own life. It’s weird, really, because I would expect the exact opposite to happen. I should be unraveling, on the cusp by now of complete madness. Instead, I’m spending my waking hours making sure Paul is taken care of. I’ve spent a lot of time at his apartment, cleaning it out, making phone calls, doing what needs to be done. I went to the funeral home to make final arrangements and make final choices on the urn and prayer cards. I asked my pastor and friend, Ken, to come with me. He picked me up and we drove over together. I was quiet during the ride, but only because I was thinking three steps ahead, planning what needs to be done next. These circumstances suck, but this is what I do best. I organize. I keep lists. I plan. It’s what I’ve always done to maintain some semblance of control in my life. Since I found out about Paul’s death, I’ve organized every aspect of what needs to happen. Sometimes I’ve walked through it blindly, and certainly at first I walked through it numb, but it’s been an efficient operation. I have file folders containing pertinent information. I have important phone numbers typed on a master list and also stored in my BlackBerry.
I’ve made countless phone calls. There are so many people to call. Right now that’s the most difficult part for me. Because his death was unexpected, everyone wants to know what happened and I’m finding that recounting those details is grueling and exhausting. I’m feeling physically and emotionally drained. I haven’t slept much. And I keep forgetting to eat. I find myself breaking down at the strangest of times. Each day since it happened I’ve started crying in the shower. I guess it’s because it’s the one time during the day that I’m surrounded by silence and there’s no chaos, and it’s just crashing over me during those times. I think that’s OK though; I think it’s healthy. If I didn’t allow myself to feel that sadness and grief, if I held it in, it would become much more insipid and destructive, I think.
If I didn’t think Paul would haunt me, I swear I’d have had him buried in a Red Sox cap. My heartbreak is tempered right now by my anger at his refusal to help himself. I’m angry that he died. That sounds awful. To be angry at him. But I am. And I have spent the better part of two weeks trying to navigate the chasm between the devastation and rage I feel about Paul’s death. It is, I’ve determined, an exercise in futility.