An Essay by Clare Simons
When the demand to understand your death consumes me, I take out Husband-in-a-Bag. The bag is in a box I bought at The Container Store and keep on the top shelf of my office closet. On sleepless nights I stand on a chair, bring down the box, and lay out your valuables on my desk.
Like a pilgrim on the road, you took only what was needed for your journey, a cross-country trip following our guru, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, Amma The Hugging Saint, on her eleven-city, U. S. tour. These are the things you carried:
- An orange cotton shoulder strap bag from Amma’s ashram, the color of a swami
- A yellow hoodie, the same shade as your souped-up vintage Volvo station wagon— “fastest car on the track with a roof rack.” You wore the hoodie around the track and on your twelve flights to India.
- Your Archana book laminated in plastic with crinkled pages and thumb-marked corners of Sanskrit prayers that you chanted every morning: The 108 Names of Mata Amritanandamayi, The 1000 Names of the Divine Mother, The Guru Stotram and Arati. You defaulted to an Italian accent when the fifteen-syllable words were too hard to pronounce. The book falls open to the second page with the invocation, “By renunciation alone immortality is attained.”
- Your hairbrush with strands of chestnut-streaked-gray hair. On our sixth date I took you to my haircutter, demanded layers for your lion’s mane. On date nights I blew dry your hair with my fingers while you fondled my breasts.
- Your brown leather wallet with sixty-two dollars and a photo taken of me in Hawaii. Your 47-year-old “child bride” promised to a “much older 52-year-old man.” I gave you your youth back. You gave me unconditional love. We knew we would love each other forever.
- Your wedding band, the one we bought at Jerry’s Pawn Shop. I wanted the ninety-nine-dollar special. You convinced me to upgrade. Jerry liked our style, gave us a deal: two for five hundred dollars, sizing included. The rings almost matched, free delivery to the hotel, 72 hours before our seven-minute Hindu wedding. Amma kissed our pawn shop rings, cleared away the bad karma, imbued them and us with grace, showered rose petals and good fortune upon our heads, like the Goddess Maha Lakshmi Devi. Magic.
- Your restless leg medication, a knock-off brand, purchased for a few rupees at a street side pharmacy in India.
- Your glasses, toothbrush, travel-size toothpaste and floss, of course. Ibuprofen for the fever you thought would pass.
- Your Rudraksha on a dried leather cord; the bead, a symbol of Shiva’s compassion lies lifeless now in a plastic Ziploc bag. Without your body to ground it, the amulet no longer emits rays from the sun or transmissions from the lokas only the Rishis could perceive. The emergency room team cut the talisman off your throat, the night you arrived, the delirious and unresponsive.
An Amma devotee had found you wandering in a dark alley, behind the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. Inside the Hilton, Amma, dressed in a shimmering gold and silk Devi Bhava sari, blessed and embraced thousands of people who came for an all-night celebration for world peace. A critical care nurse, Anugraha, whose name means favor found you, sat you down on a curb in your urine-soaked white pants, one shoe on, one shoe lost, and called an ambulance.
Then she called me.
“Get your ass on a plane now,” Anugraha said.
Two other devotees, Chi and Shuba, followed your ambulance to the hospital and put me on the phone with an E.R. doctor who needed your medical history.
“Hematoma, Himalayas, Disaster-Relief, Seva, local doctor, lanced, infected, seventy-two hours, bus-train-plane, Amma’s charitable hospital, I.V. drip, never really healed,” I said.
They quarantined us in a small room far away from the ICU, dressed me in a yellow gown, blue mask, and blue gloves. Two nurses, a cardiologist, neurologist, pulmonologist, and hospitalist came and went. They monitored tubes, wires, machines and entered notes into the computer. The white coats dropped their bluster, avoided eye contact with me and mumbled.
“Opportunistic infection, spinal tap, not meningitis, could be S.A.R.S, paralysis, right side of the body, we’re not really sure.”
I planted my feet on the other side of the bed, far away from the medical industrial complex and gripped the sidebars.
You jabbered. Perhaps you were chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, bowing to The Son Of The Wind, The Holder Of The Bow. You could have been beseeching our Guru Amma for liberation from rebirth. Maybe you were in limbo.
I kissed your sweaty brow and prayed as if my life depended on it. It sure as hell did. When I fluttered my eyelashes on your cheek, you opened your eyes and tried to wipe the tubes and wires away with your left hand. You knew you were dying. I knew it too. The night before, when the phone had rung, I had packed a bag with some clean underwear for both of us and took the 5:00 a.m. flight from Portland to Los Angeles. I knew I’d be coming home a widow.
The white coats charged into the room.
“Scott’s oxygen levels are dropping. We have to intubate now,” someone yelled.
“No,” I yelled. “No heroic measures. It’s in his advance directive.”
“What else is in it?” A doctor rolled his eyes. A nurse checked the computer for the advance directive but couldn’t find you in the system.
“Do not resuscitate,” I said.
“What about antibiotics?” another doctor huffed.
Trick question. Of course, I wasn’t going to deny you drugs.
“We believe we can isolate and contain this infection,” a different doctor said.
“Your husband will be hospitalized for several weeks but he will recover.”
The white coats puffed up and nodded in accord. Four bobbleheads in a row.
“We do not consider intubation to be a heroic measure,” the puffiest one said.
“Bullshit,” I said.
A nurse turbo-typed notes from this conversation into the computer.
“What else is in Scott’s advance directive?” a doctor deflected with her best dulcet tones.
“Opioid analgesics titrated upwards even if it affects his breathing, ” I said in my best patient-advocate, death-with-dignity, power-of-attorney, expert-spouse voice.
Six medical professionals stared at me. You just laid there waiting for me to figure it out. This wasn’t a conversation about palliative care. There would be no comfort for you or me. This was about the hospital’s risk-management, cover-your-ass, standard of care.
Oh Scottiji, please forgive me for once in our marriage, I wanted to be right. What an arrogant fool I was to think I could stop the wheel of karma from spinning. Shiva danced. I stopped stalling for time and nodded yes. I let them intubate you.
“Call the crash cart,” a doctor told a nurse.
“Code Blue,” blasted from the hallway.
A battle raged inside you. Sepsis decimated your white blood cells, poisoned your organs, devoured your muscles, overpowered your heart. Great empires fell like in the Bhagavad Gita—you were Arjuna on the battlefield, a warrior who could not, would not fight once again. You were a conscientious objector who crossed the border into a foreign land, surrendered your identity and disappeared into the blue mountains.
Four people in scrubs burst into the room with the crash cart. Someone demanded I leave. Someone in scrubs insisted I leave and escorted me out into the hallway. Screw them. I turned on my heels and braced myself in the doorway. A white coat rammed a tube down your throat. Your pacemaker switched off. Yama, the god of death, came from the underworld to claim you. You left your body. Everybody froze. I ran into the room, pushed a white coat with a stethoscope aside, and called your time of death. 12:49 p.m.
The cardiologist confirmed my accuracy. The pulmonologist shook her head. The hospitalist looked daft. The neurologist was numb. The team stared at your body and wondered what had just happened here.
You refused to be tethered to the netherworld. No limbo or persistent vegetative state. You spared me that.
I ripped off my yellow gown, blue mask, blue gloves, looked for your soul, tried to see your sushumna nadi connecting the sun and earth and stars with eternity. I cowered, kissed your feet, circumambulated your bed and chanted, “Asatoma sadgamaya, tamasoma jyotirgamaya, mrityorma amrtamgamaya, om shanti, shanti, shanti. Lead us from untruth to Truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.”
A social worker was summoned to contain me.
The elegant woman arrived offering apple juice and empathy. She stood at the foot of your bed, never taking her eyes off me as I sucked the high fructose corn syrup from a child-size carton. My icy fingers couldn’t grasp the pink mini-straw or the fact that you were dead.
The social worker watched over me while I used your phone to text friends that you were gone. One of Amma’s swamis was the first to reply. “Aum Namah Shivaya. Amma knows. She will phone you tonight,” he said.
The social worker fetched a list of funeral homes, and I cold-called cremation facilities. The first wanted six thousand dollars.
No way in hell, I heard you say.
The second funeral home put my call on perpetual hold. The third gave me a ballpark quote of twelve hundred dollars.
Go for it, I heard you say.
I knew I needed to buck up, be here now, so I gave the kind woman on the phone my credit card number. She faxed papers for me to sign to the desk at the nurses’ station. A cold metal clipboard held your death documents. Your body became hospital property.
“Would you like to help me wash your husband’s body and prepare it for the morgue?” a nurse asked.
Oh Scottiji, I was afraid I would fall, lie, maybe die in a fetal position on the white linoleum floor. I wanted to be a good Brahman wife, perform my duty without tears so as not to bind your soul to the earth plane, wash your body with Ivory Soap, scrub between your toes, pray The Rigveda. I wanted to dribble suds over the Sanskrit letters of your only tattoo, the name Amma bestowed on me that means She Who Is Beyond Form—your girl Gunaja.
I asked the nurse to remove your wedding ring. I could not bear it if your body refused to grant me one last request. The nurse took off your ring, placed it in my palm, a holy hand off. The ring gave me courage.
I kissed the dome of your head and ran my fingers through your hair for the last time. The nurse let me borrow a pair of scissors that felt cold against my skin. I sheared off a lock and wrapped your hair and ring in a handkerchief that you bought in India. The nurse gave me a Ziploc bag for your valuables. I felt like a fool with a death souvenir.
Nursing students came into the room to wash your body. I went to the lounge and sat with a Mamacita who told me her 93-year-old grandfather was passing. I told her you were 62. She said you waited for me to come and say goodbye before you died. The lady stood and made the sign of the cross when she saw your cortege come down the hall. I stood, made the sign of the cross, and then pressed my palms together in prayer pose and gave you my very, very best Namaste.
Two employees from the morgue took you away, feet first, shrouded in a white plastic body bag on a creaky stretcher.
There were no marigold garlands to shield your chest, no eldest son to light the funeral pyre and fan the flames, no exotic woods of cork and mango to return your soul to the five elements. I knew better than to ask why. Why, was for fools. Why, would lead me deeper into suffering and antidepressants. Reason? Because God said so. Because your number was up. Because you’d annihilated the “self” and pierced through the physical, causal, astral bodies and danced with the magnificence of Shiva. Because it was Friday, June 17, 2016.
The social worker walked me to the lobby and hailed a cab.
Your body lay in the morgue for twelve days. The HMO convened a mortality and morbidity study to determine the cause of your sudden death. I left hysterical messages with the morgue asking, when will my husband’s body be released? Nobody knew. The lead doctor called to apologize. She’d been on vacation and forgot to sign-off on your paperwork.
“Ok,” I said, too tired to fight.
Your body was cremated on the sixteenth anniversary of our second wedding, the one we had in our living room so your family wouldn’t feel left out. On the ninety-ninth day of your death, when the memory of our life seemed hazy, I took out Husband-in-a-Bag. I held the yellow hoodie and could not remember how it lay on your shoulders. I inhaled but your scent was gone.
Shiva, my rescue kitty, came to console me when I cried.
Then I packed my Husband-in-a-Bag in that special box, climbed up on the chair, placed the box on the top shelf of the closet and let it rest. It will be there whenever I need it.
Clare Simons was the press person and gatekeeper to the stories of the terminally ill patient-plaintiffs defending Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Her stories have been published by The Write Launch, Manifest Station, Spirituality & Health Magazine, An Ear to the Ground: Presenting Writers from 2 Coasts by and on the official Muhammad Ali website. She was a member of Portland’s iconic Pinewood Table. Husband-in-a-Bag is excerpted from her yet-to-be published memoir, Devoted.