“Hollis!” I screamed. I was screaming to say, “Wait, wait! Don’t go.”
The time was slipping. I could literally see it moving.
After weeks of not being able to sit up, my husband Hollis sat straight up in bed – so very direct with amazing posture – and his eyes flew open. My mouth flew open with his eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
His left eye was a black deep hole – there was no eye visible – and his right eye was clear and green. His face was smiling.
He looked straight at me and puckered his lips for us to kiss. We did. He said his last words.
“I love you- bye.”
What happened was a miracle in itself – to muster this strength – to pull back up to say one more time “I love you- bye.”
With his words, he signaled the end of his life and the beginning of my explosions.
You will explode before your very own eyes
I sat beside him for a long time. Scared to move, I did not want things to change. If I got up and moved away from his body, I thought, the change would put things into motion.
But he wouldn’t move. He was gone.
I was frozen.
If I had had words at that moment, they would have been “I’m so scared of losing you – I truly can’t think. But he’s already gone – get your act straight. There are people that want to see you and talk to you and care about you.”
But I didn’t have words. I wouldn’t have listened to them if I had because all this just went right over my head with no emotions. So I refused to see anyone. I did not want to share the stories of Hollis’s life with any one.
Eventually I did have to hear other people saying his name. I ran from it. If I didn’t talk, I could keep him to myself. I didn’t want to know their kindness or hear of them loving him. All conversations were in past tense. The pain was ripping my heart out and chewing it up.
The day that MUSC told Hollis that he had three weeks to live, we went and ate a cheeseburger. We sat in silence. From that day until his funeral, Hollis was worried about how I would be without him. I’d never been on my own before and he knew how much I loved him.
My days were filled with him.
I promised him that I would be brave and I would be OK if he would make me a promise: that when he crossed over, he would somehow let me know that he had arrived.
He double promised. We held each other.
There was the silence of tears. We never cried together again and we never talked sadly. We talked about how strong we were going to be. The word we were looking for was dignity.
It could’ve have gotten so chaotic that we could’ve lost our dignity very easily.
Once the word was out that Hollis was dying, it sent shockwaves all over. Phone calls came from people and I wondered how in the world they found out so quickly because they were in another country.
I was glad that we had kept the news to ourselves for a while. We needed our privacy to get things organized in our head before we shared it.
Because after that, there would be no more couple-time for us. Everybody wanted a piece of him. People started coming to visit.
One night a week before his death, I turned to my daughter-in-law and asked if she would please walk outside with me.
“I can’t breathe,” I remember whispering in her ear.
It was late at night and people were still at the house.
I will always remember the kindness of my daughter-in-law’s heart. We were standing in the middle of the road. Home lights were burning in neighborhood homes and you smell the wood-burning fires filling the air.
This weightlessness of my legs and body made me begin just floating down so slowly to the gravel road. “Oh my God,” I thought. “I am falling- I have lost all control of my body and I am giving in to this horrible wave of grief – that is overwhelming – taking over my mind my body and my heart.”
I looked at Amber quickly to make sure this was real. I felt this deep pain inside coming out roaring from the deep darkest private place inside of me-wailing and wailing and wailing. I was on all fours. She did not judge me. She stayed with me.
I was a pressure cooker that just exploded into 1000 pieces. Even before he died, I exploded before our very own eyes.
Things will explode on your head
There were two funerals for Hollis. The first was in Columbia, and the second funeral was private back home on the farm in North Carolina with my family’s cemetery where we laid his ashes.
At the funerals, I wanted to disappear and I did. I clearly did not need to be making any decisions of importance. I just couldn’t get it together, not even to fake it.
I could not even write thank you notes with warm tones.
How cold this was of me, I thought. But I was so depressed that I could feel the power of anger moving in.
So instead of nice notes, I sent brownies, which were Hollis’s favorites.
I heard they were a hit.
Then I climbed in bed, pulling the sheets over my head.
No connection was easiest to do when feeling can’t feel.
A week after the farm services, I was back at home alone kneeling on the floor beside our bed and all of a sudden I felt something hit me on top of my head. Maybe a bug, I thought; whatever it was had heaviness to it.
Quickly with my right hand, I hit the top of my head just in case it was a water bug or grasshopper.
It landed with authority- so I was moving quickly thinking that I really had to start shutting the screen door to our bedroom.
What next happened was a life changer. A piece of clear paper the size of a Tootsie roll wrapper – the size was around a 2 by 2 square- had fallen down on top of my head with the power of a bomb.
I know this is hard to believe. If it had not happened to me, I would have not believed it.
How could something this light hit me so heavy? As I felt this lightweight material, I realized it was not a flying bug that had speed when it landed on top of my head. This was a clear, weightless piece that looked like Saran Wrap. I picked the clear paper up and it was puzzling at first.
Then a divine moment of truth and validation sat me down on the floor with tears streaming down my face.
I suddenly remembered that the lollipops I used to get from the diet center had a clear wrapper. Hollis was a diabetic and usually he wouldn’t eat things like this, but he liked the cherry flavor. So after his diagnosis, I bought him bagfuls of cherry lollipops. He constantly had one in his mouth.
The doctor said he could have anything he wanted to eat- it didn’t matter anymore. For some reason, these cherry flavored lollipops satisfied his taste buds.
This was the moment I’d been waiting for. What exploded on my head was Hollis sending me a sign that he had crossed over.
Realizing this, I jumped up and started yelling, “Hollis! Hollis! You made it! You made it! And you kept your promise!”
“I’m going to be OK,” I said, finally settling down. “I promise.”
And then I whispered, “Please stay with me.”
Things will explode around you
Hollis designed the cabin, which we named The RedBug, on our family farm. The RedBug was Hollis’s favorite little piece of heaven, he would say. So every weekend we would go with great excitement to be in the woods where it was so quiet at night, sitting on the porch, and hearing bobcats calling back-and-forth to each other. You could almost touch the stars.
Hollis had bought a round solar light for The RedBug’s front door so we didn’t have to leave the porch light on when we were gone.
One Sunday afternoon a few months after Hollis was gone, my sister and I were at RedBug sitting outside talking about Hollis. I had picked up the solar light and sat it between us for me to clean. We were talking about how he had once said that he would rather see me smoke pot than smoke cigarettes. Remembering this, we laughed.
Then I turned to Leslie and said, “Give me one of your cigarettes. I’m gonna smoke one.”
All of a sudden the solar light started flashing on and off. There were four round lights on one side and two big round ones on the other side. The light wouldn’t stop. They were just a-flashing and a-flashing.
I said, “OK -OK – I promise I won’t smoke ever! I was just kidding! All right! All right!”
Then the floodlight on the back of the house where we were sitting near the cookshed, for no apparent reason, just exploded. The poor dog jumped a few feet. Bless – he had been sitting under the floodlight.
We called an electrician the next day and he checked it and said, “Everything’s fine, Ma’am. It’s not the wiring. I can’t explain it.”
I can explain it. Hollis was caring about my health. He was sticking to his guns about my not smoking. This was made very plain. He was so worried about me and I understand why.
There have been other incidents at home with the kitchen ceiling fan turning on and off or just a light coming on and off, not just one time, but keeping going on and off until I stop it.
I feel him when this happens. His ways definitely get my attention and it helps me to know he still lives.
Maybe it took these explosions to get my attention. When I think back to how inconsolable I felt when he died, it was like my wiring was shot and I was unable to start.
The explosions helped me through my grief until I could finally begin to live in a joyful way again.
If we all could see the beauty in these explosions, maybe we could calm down and live our lives more fully instead of from our deep fears of dying and being alone.
We are never alone. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone.
Deborah DuBose is a white widow who grew up in the South in the 1950s. After the death of her husband, she began a journey of learning to see the realities of gender, race and class inequality that allowed her to claim her own power and begin to pass these lessons on in her writing.