Thursday, June 20, 2013

O Death, Where is Your Sting

The following is an account of the night Paul died, June 5-6, 2013.  I've told this story numerous times already as it actually gives me a measure of comfort (I don't know if that is weird or not).  So it is probably nothing new to my readers.  Some may actually prefer not to read it, finding an account of death disturbing.  It took me three nights to write it and it was kind of emotionally taxing.  But I am grateful that I got it done.  For better or worse, the events of that night are recorded.

June 18, 2013June 20, 2013



Within a few days of Paul’s death it occurred to me that there might be some value in writing down every detail from the night he died and I determined then that I would do that.  I guess, in thinking about, it’s not totally necessary that I do so, particularly since this is the single most horrific event of my entire lifetime.  Why would I want to recall all the details?  Maybe it’s my wide streak of morbidity.  Maybe it’s for my kids, since they all, save for Will, slept through the event.  Maybe it’s so that someday, decades from now, I will shake my head to think that I went through such events and didn’t crumble.  I don’t know.  But, for whatever reason, I am recording the events of that night.


And, actually, there are a few details that have to be added that occurred prior to the night of June 5th and 6th.


Paul began having seizures in his late teens.  Actually, when he was a toddler he suffered a febrile seizure and had to go to the hospital.  His mom always wondered if that was the start of his seizure problems.  His dad was convinced it was because they cooked him food on aluminum pans while growing up.  Everyone always second-guesses themselves when it comes to things like this.  Paul and I began dating when we were 19.  I remember he told me about his seizures, but the ones he described to me were of the petit mal variety.  In fact, just the other day I ran across some 3X5 cards he had recorded on at the time entitled, “Ceasure history,” which made me laugh (the spelling, that is).  He was attempting to establish a link at the time between his diet and seizure activity.  If Paul was having grand mal seizures at the time he didn’t know and nobody else did, either, since he slept alone.


A month after we were married I was awakened one night by Paul making strange vocal noises, getting out of bed, and stumbling around our bedroom.  At first I thought he was trying to be funny.  I quickly realized though, that this must be one of the seizures he had told me about.  I do not know why it never occurred to me to call for emergency help.  It just didn’t.  Soon, he fell back into bed and went to sleep.


And thus, a pattern was established.  When Paul would get overly tired or stressed, he would tend to have grand mal seizures in his sleep.  He would thrash around, often biting his tongue or clawing at his face.  The next day he would have no memory of anything, although he would have side effects sometimes that lasted for days – fuzzy headedness, impotence, loss of taste, etc.  But he never, ever called in sick because of a seizure.  There were times he would seize multiple times in a night and still get up for work the next day.


Paul was reluctant to take medication for his seizures, even though I urged him to do so.  He preferred to treat things naturally and he took a variety of herbs and vitamins, hoping he would eventually find the magic combination that would let him live seizure-free.  Finally, in the summer of 1996 (July 4th, actually, I remember) he had such severe seizures that he fell off the bed and cut up his chest on a sharp plastic garbage can we had beside the bed.  After that time, he agreed to go to the dr.


Paul was put through a battery of tests and eventually diagnosed with epilepsy, cause unknown.  He then began a series of different drugs that definitely worked.  Unfortunately, they caused him to be more fatigued, which made things more difficult for him especially as Ben was born during this time and David came along just a couple of years later.  His birth coincided with the purchase of our first home, which then began a 14 year odyssey of home remodeling, done on the weekends and late into the week nights after Paul arrived home from work.


Three or four years ago Paul participated in an epilepsy study at the McFarland Clinic in Ames.  They were testing a new drug and Paul agreed to be a guinea pig.  I honestly don’t know if he ended up sticking with the drug they tested on him or if it was something else, but Paul and I developed a good relationship with his new neurologist, Dr. Moore.  He put Paul on Keppra, which seemed like a wonder drug to us.  For the first time, Paul was nearly seizure free.  He very rarely had his petit mal seizures anymore and even when he had his grand mal seizures, they were rare and he could function the next day with little to no side effects. During the last decade, too, I had learned to intervene at the start of his seizures and was often able to interrupt them.  For the first time, I began to sleep deeply.  For years, I had learned to be a light sleeper, alert to any changes in Paul’s breathing that would indicate a coming seizure.  Life was good.


Looking back, the only thing that raises a possible alarm in my mind is that for the last year, Paul had had great difficulty sleeping the entire night through, which was frustrating to him.  He would often awaken around 3 or 4am and be unable to sleep any more.  He also struggled with ringing in his eyes and very dry eyes.  We figured it was probably all related to his drug.  But because it kept him relatively seizure-free, we didn’t pursue making any changes.


God was preparing to take Paul home, but we didn’t know it, of course.  Now we can look back on events and say, “Oh, God was working even then!”  The week before Paul’s death was crazy as we attempted to finish the house and clean everything up for Will’s graduation party.  Paul was missing sleep, which wasn’t a good thing.  In addition, he was getting up early every morning because he was working on a letter to Will.  This letter was a missive of sorts.  It was about 6 pages long and filled with fatherly advice to Will as he was about to set out on his adult journey.  Will treasures that letter now and even quoted from it at Paul’s funeral.


The night before Paul died, as we had been drifting off to sleep, being the needy female that I am, I had suggested to Paul that he needed to tell me how “amazing” I am.  He was really quiet and then I heard a light snore.  I laughed and told him I’d let him off the hook this time.  At 4 am the next morning, June 5, Paul awakened and then woke me up.  He began to tell me many things he loved about me and how special I was to him.    Then, I fell back asleep and didn’t even awaken to make his breakfast because I was so tired from being woke up at 4 that morning!  Later that day, we were chatting on the phone and I said something about being a “bad wife” because of that and Paul told me I “worried too much.”  He was always saying that.


My Wednesday was a normal day.  Actually, it was kind of nice.  I had been taking that week easy after the rush of the previous week and weekend.  I was tackling some long put-off projects and enjoying my still-clean house and brand new kitchen floor.  Will and David took the Littles to VBS that night and soon afterwards, Paul came home.  He walked in the house, crooked his finger and said, “Come here!”  Curious, I followed him out to his work van.  He asked me, “What did you call those chairs your grandparents used to have outside their house?”  I told him they were called “fan-back” chairs and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled for awhile, hoping to find some.  Well, that day, one of his customers had some sitting curbside and happily gave them to Paul when he asked.  Paul pulled them out of the van and explained that while they were a little rough-looking now, he planned to sand them and then we could spray paint them whatever color I wanted.  We carried them up to the deck and practiced sitting in them.  Then, Paul changed his clothes and left in my van to go to a side job for one of his elderly customers.


I had a long evening stretching in front of me, so I spent some time applying French tips to my nails (that I would later peel off in the wee hours of the morning as I sat with our pastors in their wives in my living room, stunned to my very core that Paul was suddenly gone.  I don’t know that I will ever wear French tips again.) and watching some crime show on television.  Paul got home around 10:30, explaining that the job turned out to be more of a job than he had envisioned and he actually had to run to a store for parts while up there.  He showered and came to bed.  I was already there.  David had come into my room while Paul was in the shower and had shared his shock over some information he had just discovered in the “So You’re About to be a Teenager” book we had given him in April when he and Paul took their trip.  His shock had to do with the birds and bees and it was all I could do to contain my laughter until David left.  I couldn’t wait to tell Paul and when he came to bed I did and we had a good laugh.  It was about 11:30.  Paul leaned over, kissed me, and said, “I love you!” like he did every night.  We both fell instantly asleep.


Ten minutes before midnight Paul began to have a grand mal seizure.  He sat up in bed, which was unusual, although he had done that before.  He had even walked around during a seizure before, which concerned me for safety reasons.  Once, he even went outside in his underwear during a seizure!  I was not about to let that happen this time.  I quickly grabbed his right hand and attempted to unfurl his fingers, which was the trick that usually worked for bringing him out of a seizure.  It didn’t work and Paul began to attempt to get off the bed.  I hung onto his arm with all my might.  He then fell over my body onto the floor, on my side of the bed, head down, with his feet up in the air.  At this point, I knew Paul would have to come out of the seizure by himself.  I could not move him.  I knew that within a few minutes he would awaken, realize he was not where he needed to be, and crawl back into bed.  I decided to go back to sleep.  So I laid there for about 7 minutes while Paul laid on the floor.  But his feet were tangled up in the sheets and I couldn’t relax.  It suddenly occurred to me that I ought to take a picture of him because he did look kind of funny, with his legs sticking straight up like that.  We could laugh about it the next day.  So, I crept out of bed, located my camera in the next room, flipped on the light switch and took his picture.  But then I realized there was blood near Paul’s head.  Concerned, I looked closer.  I saw that he dinged his nose on my vanity bench.  My first feeling was one of frustration.  We were scheduled to have a family picture taken in two days and now we were going to have to wait until that nose healed.  I wasn’t sure, but he kind of looked like he might need a stitch or two.  I leaned in closer an then saw a small pool of blood under Paul’s face.  It wasn’t coming from his nose, but from inside his mouth.  I began to frantically feel for a heartbeat, for a pulse – for anything.  I grabbed my phone and called 911.  I told them that my husband had suffered a seizure and I couldn’t wake him. 


I ran up to Will’s room and told him what was going on.  He jumped out of bed like I had lit a match to his foot.  He barreled down the steps and began feeling for a pulse.  I noticed that Paul’s face was gray, but I reasoned to myself that he was upside down and all the blood had rushed to his head.  I quickly dressed, brushed my hair, and even got a bag of Paul’s clothes ready.  After all, it looked like we were going to the hospital, but he would need some clothes for the trip home.  I even thought to throw my kindle and migraine pills into my purse.  I was ready!


It took about 15 minutes for the sheriff to arrive and about another 5 for the paramedics to come.  The sheriff came in and immediately lowered Paul’s feet and turned him over.  He began yelling loudly, “Paul!  Paul!”  But there was no response.  In the meantime, Will was doubled over on the front lawn, scared to death and in so much pain his body couldn’t take it.  I remember holding onto Will trying to recite Psalm 23 and being unable to remember all the words.  I was scared.


The paramedics rushed into the house, shoved our bed out of the way and began to do chest compressions on Paul.  The sheriff kept trying to shoo me out of the room, but I didn’t want to leave.  Paul’s face was so gray, so very, very gray.  The sheriff finally lead me to the kitchen and began asking some basic questions – what happened, Paul’s name, birthdate, etc.  He then turned to me and said, “I’m not going to lie to you – this may not turn out well.”  I am suspicious now that the sheriff already knew that Paul was dead at that point.


I had attempted to call our senior pastor when it looked like we’d be going to the hospital.  He had not answered (it was midnight, after all) and I had left a message.  Then, I called our asst. pastor.  I do not remember if I got him right away or if he called me back.


They strapped Paul to a board and took him out to the ambulance.  I peeked through the back window and I could see them still working on him, pushing on his chest over and over and over again.  I realized later they had also intubated him.  I don’t know how long it was, but the sheriff walked over to me.  I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the porch.  He said, “I’m so sorry.  We did everything we could, but your husband didn’t make it.”


I had just been delivered the most horrible news of my entire life.  I felt as though I were drowning.  I didn’t scream, I don’t even know if I moaned.  I just stood there, while the sheriff talked and asked who he could call for us.  I remember thinking that I was dreaming.  I would wake up and gulp mouthfuls of fresh air, relieved beyond measure that my horrible nightmare had ended.  Then, I would squeeze Paul in bed beside me, just to reassure myself that it had, indeed, been only a terrible dream.


I remember grabbing my phone and calling our assistant pastor back and just crying out to him, “Oh, Terry – Paul is dead, my husband is dead!”  I remember the terrible silence and then Terry telling me how sorry he was and that he would be there shortly.


I called my mom and left a message on their answering machine.  She called back within minutes, telling me over and over again that she didn’t know what to say.  The next morning she and Dad would throw some things in their car and would arrive by lunchtime.


I then made the hardest call I have ever made in my life, to Paul’s parents.  I got them both on the line and told them what had happened. I will never, ever forget the sound of Paul’s mother’s wails.  It was one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever experienced in my life – informing a mother that her child has died.


While waiting for Terry to arrive, I suddenly was seized with the desire to see Paul again.  I asked to go in the ambulance and the crew quietly opened the door for me.  I would end up doing this at least twice more before they would take Paul.  I went in and Paul lay there under the bright lights so terribly still.  A blanket was draped around his waist.  A vent was in his mouth and blood was smeared all over the left side of his face and head.  He was terribly gray in color.  I couldn’t stop touching him – his soft hair, his bald scalp, the expanse of his broad chest.  And then suddenly, I would have enough, and have to go back outside.


When I walked out of the ambulance, Terry had arrived and was holding Will who was weeping.  He turned to me and embraced me as well.  Soon Joan, his wife, arrived and enveloped me in her arms.  Our senior pastor and his wife arrived almost immediately after that.  I was hugged repeatedly, but felt very little.  I do remember Joan sitting with me on our porch swing, rocking back and forth while she wrapped her arm around me.


The medical examiner soon arrived.  I know I was handed various pieces of paperwork to sign, but I don’t know what they were.  For all I knew, I was signing a confession that I had just murdered my husband (I hadn’t, but it occurred to me a day or so later that a terrible way to compound such a tragedy would be if a wife was mistakenly arrested for her husband’s murder – how awful that would be!  Fortunately, I only had to imagine such a scenario, and not live it).


I remember at some point inviting Terry to look at Paul and he did.  He pointed out to me a dent in Paul’s head I had not noticed earlier.  That dent was still visible the days of his viewing and funeral.  I don’t know yet if he hit his head there or if that was simply from resting against the corner of my vanity bench for so long.


And then, some sort of station wagon arrived.  It was into this vehicle they took Paul.  He was put into a white body bag and taken out of the ambulance.  His head was covered and he looked exactly what he was – a corpse.  I am quite sure my knees buckled a bit when they brought him out of the ambulance that way.


I was lead into my house by our pastors and their wives.  I began to scurry around, picking things up.  I knew that I would be having a great deal of company in the days to come and I had to have my house picked up!  I think Marcia, our pastor’s wife, attempted to get me to sit down.  In the end, she and Joan helped me pick up.  Pastor and Terry asked for some bleach and they cleaned the bedroom floor of Paul’s blood and moved our bed back into place.


Then we sat.  I don’t remember much of what was said, although I seem to recall that our pastor prayed.  I think he did – I don’t really remember.  I remember being so cold and shaking with shock.  Joan put a blanket over me.  Will headed up to bed after a little while.  Soon, I received a call about donating Paul’s organs and within minutes the organ donation center was on the phone with me, asking all kinds of questions about Paul’s health history.


Then, everybody but Marcia left.  It was about 4 am by this point.  The two of us sat in the dark and talked.  I told her about the morning before when Paul had awakened me.  She told me about a death in her family.   She quoted Bible verses to me.  Eventually, I tried to lay in my bed and she fell asleep on my couch.  I never slept.  I am a person who needs their sleep!  In college, I used to marvel at my fellow collegians who bragged of pulling all-nighters.  I could never do that.  I was never good about being up in the night with babies, which is how they usually found their way into bed with me!  But I did not sleep the night my husband died.


By 6:30, I was showered and dressed.  I grabbed my Bible – the one Paul gave me for my 38th birthday – and pored through the Psalms, reading them out loud to Marcia.  She scribbled a hasty list for me of ones that I found comforting. Two weeks later, I am still referring to that original list.  Then, we made a list of people to call.  I first called Paul’s boss, who was stunned by my news.  Marcia called most of the others.


At 7:30, I received a call from my friend, Tammy.  She asked simply, “Can I come?”  I answered with one word, “Please” and she did, for the entire day, leaving her own busy household of 8 children behind.


Pastor Johnson then arrived back at our house and the children began to awake, one by one.  David was puzzled as he walked into the kitchen and saw his friend, Jonathan (Tammy’s son) sitting at the kitchen table.  I knew I didn’t have much time before the kids would figure out something was drastically wrong.  I gathered them around and told them that their father was dead.  I don’t know if I have had a more difficult task than that one.  Four c-sections, a post-pregnancy stroke, a baby in the NICU, and an adolescent with autism were far easier to deal with than what I had to do that morning.  But I knew I had to be the one to do it.  I don’t remember everything I told them.  I do remember that as I delivered the news, they each began to weep and my heart broke open even wider to witness their pain.  I remember assuring them that we were “still a family.”  I remember thinking that I would endure anything if it meant I could take this pain from my children, but knowing I could not.


And there are other stories to tell.  I could write about all the people that crowded into my little house over the next few days – and who are still coming around with meals.  I haven’t done my own laundry or cleaned my house since before Paul’s death.  Every time I turn around someone is begging me to let them do something for us.


I could write about how our pastor and his wife suspended their own lives to be there for us.  In fact, tomorrow morning they are meeting me up in Urbandale at my insurance agent’s office.  Tonight my pastor informed the people of our church that it is getting hot and someone needs to get our pool set up for us!  I remember our pastor sharing with us the morning after Paul’s death about how dear the widows and orphans are to God.  I am learning that they are also dear to our pastors and our church.


I could write about the blur of  days leading up to Paul’s funeral and the funeral itself, which was – amazing and profound.


I could write about grief – not my own, but others’.  I quickly realized that I was not the only one hurting and those crowded around me were looking for relief from their own pain.  And, oddly enough,  some of them were hoping to find that relief from me.


I could write about the stack of cards that came to me and continue to arrive daily, even fourteen days after Paul’s death.  I could write about the hundreds of Facebook messages and emails that poured into my computer, lifting me up in spirit and to the Lord.


In time, I will probably cover it all, one way or the other. 


The death of my husband is the single most profound event of my life.  And, as odd as it may sound, I am thankful I was there.  Even though I wasn’t quite aware it was happening, I was there as he drew his last breath and entered Eternity.  I was the last person he spoke to, cuddled with, and laughed with.  Paul loved me.  And I loved him, even as he slipped away into the arms of Jesus.


This is the story of his death – and the beginning of his new life.















  1. Oh, Sarah. So very, very heart-wrenching. I don't know what to all sounds so trivial compared to what you have written here. God bless you and your children. I really wish I could be there with you at this time. I love you, dear friend!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. It is the story every widow needs to tell. There is a healing that oddly comes from sharing the most devestating moment of your life with others. Thank you for sharing your pain, and your Paul with us. Hugs & shared tears.

  3. Oh, Sarah, I'm weeping as I read this! May God continue to strengthen you day by day. What an awesome testimony you now bear!

  4. Beautiful story, Sarah. What an amazing church family you have. God is so faithful