5 years ago, September 20, 2017. A day I will never forget.
And yet in many ways, most of it was a completely unremarkable, forgettable day. It began early as most did for us. Still in bed, eyes slowly opening, I saw the sun streaming through the leaves of our large beech tree out front, a gentle wind rocking the branches as the sun’s rays shone intermittently through our bedroom window. I smelled pancakes, and heard the clang of dishes and the muffled, ringing laughter of my six-year-old daughter Sophia conversing excitedly with my Dave, her Daddy. The usual getting ready for work and school routine commenced.
At the door, Dave decided to teach her how to tie her shoes. She tried unsuccessfully, and was visibly frustrated. He was firm and gentle in his lesson, the first of what was to be many shoe tying demonstrations. I watched them walk to meet the school bus, her emerald green sequined knapsack loudly sparkled in the sun, comically oversized on her six-year-old, grade 1 frame – the bottom bouncing against the back of her knees. They walked hand in hand as the school bus approached. I wondered why he had bought her such a large, big kid school bag.
Dave dropped me off at work next. On the way our conversation was of practical nothings focused on scheduling, grocery shopping and dinner. I left the car quickly and barely looked back. I had a busy day at work ahead and was preoccupied with the thoughts and worries of meetings that I needed to prepare for.
In my last meeting of the day, my phone buzzed at 3:50PM. I moved to discreetly look at it. As I lifted my phone to check I noticed my boss flash me a look of disapproval and I felt nervous. Do I check it, or wait until this meeting is over? I was currently finishing a contract and working hard to be made permanent staff. I ignored my phone for a few more minutes but then gave in and checked anyway.
The text was from Dave and read, “Can you please come home as soon as possible? Breathing trouble.” I ended the meeting early and called him. He had just recovered from pneumonia so intermittent minor breathing challenges had become something normal in between trips to the doctor. I wondered if the pneumonia had come back. But he seemed fine that day…
I called again. The phone rang and rang – he didn’t pick up. Did he go for a walk? Fall asleep? Was he outside, away from his phone? Probably on the front steps waiting for Sophia’s school bus. Was something really wrong?
I asked my colleague in the cubicle behind me if he could drive me home right away. I kept calling – no answer. I wondered if I should call 911. Or would I be overreacting? In his text it wasn’t clear to me how serious the situation was. Did he just need to lie down and rest? I looked at the time and noticed that Sophia’s school bus was on schedule to arrive anytime. He still wasn’t picking up the phone and I was at least 20 minutes away from home at that point, stuck in traffic on the 403.
I decided to call 911. We would probably laugh about this later, I thought. He would laugh at me about overreacting.
Next, I called Sophia’s school to see if her school bus driver could be notified about the evolving situation. “It’s probably nothing” I recall telling them. I was put through to the school bus dispatch. It wasn’t nothing. I was told that Sophia’s school bus driver found a man lying on the front steps of our house. Emergency services arrived and took him to the hospital. What??? She asked me who Sophia should be released to as there were other kids in the bus that needed to be dropped off at their homes. I was able to call my neighbour who kindly took care of Sophia while I continued to be stuck in traffic.
When my colleague dropped me off in our driveway, emergency services had left and my neighbour brought Sophia to me. Sophia approached holding a white garden rose from my neighbour’s garden. I learned that Dave had been taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital.
In a taxi on our way to the hospital I imagined Dave receiving oxygen in the emergency room. He would probably be hungry after all this. He probably fainted. What food should we bring him? Sophia blurted out, “Is Daddy dead?”
I stared back with a sinking feeling in my stomach, wondering why she would say something like that. Our taxi driver chuckled and said, “No, no – your Dad is young. He’ll be fine.” I smiled at her and assuredly told her no. He probably just fainted. We talked about what to get him for dinner.
At the hospital we were ushered into another part of the emergency department through what looked like closet door leading to a private office space. There was a desk, with a box of tissues in the middle, a large sofa and arm chair and a whiteboard with magnets on the wall. What was going on?
A nurse came and asked Sophia if she would like to come with her for a popsicle treat. They walked off together and a doctor came in, ashen faced. “Dave is in critical condition and I’m not sure if he’s going to make it.”
What? How is this possible? Sophia returned with her frozen treat.
“Mommy, can I see Daddy? I want to see Daddy.” I looked to the Doctor and nurse, stunned.
The nurse continued to attend to Sophia. I was led to Dave in a small, busy emergency room down the hall. A hive of nurses and doctors hovered over him, adjusting wires, and shouting instructions, as machines beeped loudly. Just like in the movies. A large plastic tube was in his throat, a machine breathing for him, the plastic tube rimmed with blood and his lips and fingertips blue, body bloated – almost unrecognizable. I touched his hand and it was ice cold. I knew he was going to die, but I couldn’t…It was too much. I ran to the bathroom and locked the door. I remember screaming, crying and vomiting repeatedly. I begged the Universe to save him. I lay on the floor feeling a level of pain I didn’t know existed. And then out of nowhere my pain turned to numbness. Survival kicked in. It was as though I could hear him telling me to get myself off the ground and take care of Sophia.
Sophia repeatedly asked to see her Daddy. He was in really bad condition, and the doctors were concerned it would be traumatic for her to see him that way. More traumatic than seeing your Dad carried away by an ambulance while you are trapped on your school bus? Likely not, I thought. I considered the trauma of not letting her see him and then him dying, which was apparently likely. How would that rest with her soul? Decisions made now were about lessening trauma, not preventing it. What is the least destructive choice? I decided to let her see him, because if he were to die she would need to know that her wish was honored. And she would see the doctors and nurses trying to save him. She would get to touch him and hug him one last time before he died.
The doctors and nurses agreed reluctantly. They covered him up as best they could and I took her to see him, honouring her request. Was it as awful as you imagine? Absolutely. But it was less awful then her last memory of him being taken away by an ambulance while she watched from the locked school bus, banging on the window to see him.
About an hour later, I was told he was being moved to the ICU. Perhaps we will get a miracle I thought? Shortly thereafter, I was told he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. Is this really happening or a nightmare? Everything felt surreal. I never got to tell him how much I loved him. So many things left unsaid. Stolen from us.
I don’t recall what exactly happened next except that I had to tell Sophia, which in the blur was a series of moments that remain crystal clear to me. I remember her being in that room on my right side, just the two of us, side by side. I remember her green tartan school uniform, her large blue eyes looking up at me waiting for good news, to be woken up from her nightmare. The absolute worst pain was next. Up until that day, Dave and I had spent six years doing everything to protect her and create a solid foundation for her to have a happy, joyful life. She was our world. I looked down at her, my darling little girl who had just started grade 1, learning to tie her shoes for the first time that morning, and I had no choice but to tell her something that I knew would break her heart and leave her irrevocably changed.
I told her. A light dimmed in her eyes and I watched her heart break, right there. She looked away from me and refused a hug. She stood up, walked over to the whiteboard, destroying a picture she had drawn on it earlier. What happened next is mostly blurred but I remember Sophia wanting the shoelaces he had been wearing that day which I made sure to get for her before we went home without him. Five years later, she still wears that emerald green sequined bag pack. Turns out it was the perfect big kid size.
September 20, 2017 was a day like any other day, until it wasn’t.
It’s now been five years since that day. What five years has taught me is that although what happened was unexpected, traumatic and heartbreaking, we’re not unique in our suffering. People around the world are losing loved ones, at all ages, all the time, some suffering much more than we have, in every breath we take. Suffering is our shared humanity, what binds us together. Our shared suffering is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, we all suffer. We all win sometimes, and we lose, repeat. This is life.
I no longer think of suffering as something to be overcome or fixed. Suffering is part of life, and when it breaks you it can also open you up to a deeper and more profound connection with humanity. Like Japanese Kintsugi pottery, the cracks of my heart are lined with the compassion I feel for others who suffer with me, and I have experienced an expansion in my desire to bring joy and love to others, to help others, and alleviate suffering.
That saying “life is short” is very true. In a blink of an eye, on a random not so remarkable day, it can be gone. I experienced this first-hand. To the best of your ability appreciate every breath, every moment you get to experience on this whirling blue orb we call earth. Everything experienced in life is impermanent, including life itself. Accepting this isn’t as morbid as it may seem. There is freedom to enjoy the simplest of pleasures, moment to moment, when you realize this. We will all die one day. Live every day to your fullest, whatever that means to you.
This year we attended a church service memorial, marking five years since Dave died. At the service was also the baptism of brand new life, a baby boy. We experienced grief in our loss of Dave while witnessing collective joy as the church community, filling the pews, welcomed this baby boy to the journey of life ahead, blessing him with a community and commitment of love. As we lose those we love on this journey we also welcome new life, and this cycle of birth and death is both profoundly beautiful and heartbreaking.
To love each other fully, knowing of life’s tragic impermanence and fragility is to commit to heartbreak. Perhaps that’s the whole point. To love with everything we got and know we will have to let go of it all someday…and that pain, joy, mess and all…it was worth it. Acceptance of this brings with it freedom. Our Kintsugi hearts are bigger and better for it. Thank you Dave for being a part of our journey.
Nicole Longstaff is a Consultant, Entrepreneur, and most importantly Mom to one extraordinarily resilient, and kind-hearted daughter. She studied Political Science at the University of Toronto and is currently completing an Applied Compassion Training (ACT) capstone project at Stanford University, and a Master’s in Communications Management at McMaster University. | Instagram: @nicole.longstaff | Twitter: @nicolelongstaff | LinkedIn.
This essay was selected as part of Shedoesthecity’s New Voices Fund, established to help continue offering opportunities to talented emerging writers with less than 20 bylines. More info here.