I’ll never forget when my life ended

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I'll never forget when my life ended

Some say the world will end in a bang, and some say with a whim­per. My world ended with a ringtone.

Look­ing back, the whole thing played out like a farce but was really a tragedy. It all started in late August when my beloved Shirley com­plained about a sore on the top of her right foot that she blamed on a bug bite. As the days passed, the pain was a minor but con­stant irri­tant that she hardly mentioned.

But by the Fri­day after Labor Day, Shirley was in mis­ery and hob­bled around the house with a limp. Despite my protests, she refused to see the doc­tor. She changed her mind on Sun­day when she could barely walk with­out pain shoot­ing up her leg.

The doc­tor on Mon­day diag­nosed the prob­lem as an infec­tion, not an insect bite, and pre­scribed a round of heavy-​duty antibi­otics. Shirley took the meds reli­giously, but the pain kept get­ting worse. By the fol­low­ing Sun­day, she couldn’t get off the couch where she had set up her base of operations.

She didn’t com­plain the next day when I told her – and her doc­tor – that I was tak­ing her to the hos­pi­tal. I had to call an ambu­lance because she couldn’t walk. After we arrived, the emer­gency room doc­tor imme­di­ately admin­is­tered a painkiller and hooked her up to an IV antibiotic.

Progress was slow, but by the fourth day of treat­ment, nurses and doc­tors could touch her foot with­out her scream­ing. On the sev­enth day, she was actu­ally able to walk to the bath­room. Her doc­tors started say­ing she could be sent to rehab in a cou­ple of days to pre­pare for her return home.

The big day was Wednes­day, Sept. 27, when Shirley was released to a nurs­ing home a mere block from our home. She was bub­bling when an ambu­lance brought her to the facil­ity at 4 p.m. Feel­ing bet­ter than she had been in weeks, she said she could be home after six days of rehab, but she might need a wheel­chair for a few days until she got her legs back. She was espe­cially happy because she had been able to watch the sea­son debut of NCIS – her all-​time favorite TV show – the night before with­out inter­rup­tions by pesky nurses. As she had done at the hos­pi­tal, she offered me half her din­ner when it arrived, but I wasn’t hun­gry. She couldn’t stop smiling.

Thurs­day morn­ing was bright and beau­ti­ful, and I called Shirley at 11. I didn’t worry when she didn’t pick up, fig­ur­ing she was either nap­ping or going through phys­i­cal ther­apy. Four more calls at half-​hour inter­vals had the same results.

Then, at 1:15, the phone rang.

There’s been a change in Shirley’s sta­tus,” said the woman, who iden­ti­fied her­self as the rest home’s direc­tor. “Can you come in as soon as possible?”

Four min­utes later I walked through the door, was ush­ered into the director’s office and took a seat.

Shirley has coded,” she said.

I don’t know what that means,” I said.

She is non-​responsive,” she replied.

I put my face into hands and froze as she said a team of para­medics and nurses were work­ing on her.

She handed me a box of Kleenex and left the room. While shud­der­ing uncon­trol­lably, I prayed harder than I ever had before. Twenty min­utes later she returned and said, “I’m sorry.”

My world came to an end. Only three months ear­lier we had cel­e­brated our 40th wed­ding anniver­sary and talked about what we would do on our 50th. The odyssey that had opened with a silly lit­tle sore on her foot had closed with what the med­ical exam­iner called a pul­monary embolism.

It was a bad dream, a very bad dream, and I couldn’t wake up.

I thought back to when we had met at my brother’s wed­ding in June 1975. I had been bum­ming around the coun­try Kerouac-​style for sev­eral months but came back to stand up in the wed­ding. Shirley, mean­while, was a Cincin­nati girl who had become close friends with Mary, my future sister-​in-​law, while study­ing together for a semes­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Edinburgh.

Between the wed­ding in the morn­ing and the evening recep­tion, the guests gath­ered at the east­side Detroit house of Mary’s par­ents. I and my buddy Mike sat qui­etly on lawn chairs while Mike’s mom and a strik­ingly attrac­tive girl were chat­ting up a storm. It was lust at first sight. I couldn’t stop tak­ing side-​wise glances at the beauty with long auburn hair and a fig­ure that could have graced a Play­boy centerfold.

When the girl left to get a Coke from the house, I acted with bold­ness and bravado. “Mrs. Roberts,” I said, “would you please intro­duce me to the girl you’re talk­ing to?”

I don’t think Mike ever really for­gave his mom for intro­duc­ing me and not him to Shirley Sizemore.

We danced on air all that night, which ended with Shirley depart­ing for Cincin­nati, a five-​hour drive away. But she didn’t leave before we exchanged scraps of paper with our names and phone num­bers scrib­bled on them.

For the next year we endured a long-​distance romance, but it wasn’t too bad. We man­aged to see each other at least three week­ends a month, and a bit more when we had time off work. Finally, our phys­i­cal attrac­tion devel­oped into some­thing deeper, as I grew to cher­ish her intel­li­gence, humor and com­mon sense. She took a gam­ble and moved to Michi­gan in the Bicen­ten­nial sum­mer of 1976, liv­ing with my par­ents while I roomed with friends in a sprawl­ing old Victorian.

On June 25, 1977, the two of us became one, and my life truly began. As with many mar­riages, our hon­ey­moon turned into a shake­down cruise, and we went through some rough patches in the early years. But there were plenty of good times to smooth things over.

The 1981 birth of our daugh­ter Denise was a joy­ful event with a dark lin­ing. As we antic­i­pated Denise’s arrival, Shirley fell seri­ously ill with an abscess that caused her tem­per­a­ture to soar to 104 degrees. Imme­di­ately after doc­tors oper­ated on the abscess, the baby popped out – seven weeks early. Denise spent her first month inside an incu­ba­tor until she was big enough to come home.

That turned out to be our first expe­ri­ence with Crohn’s dis­ease, which plagued Shirley for the rest of her life.

No such drama accom­pa­nied the birth of Sandy, our sec­ond daugh­ter. Shirley was feel­ing so com­fort­able that I had to force her to go to the hos­pi­tal because of the tim­ing of her con­trac­tions. For­tu­nately, the hos­pi­tal was close by because Sandy arrived about 50 min­utes later.

As time passed, our lives grew full and rich. Shirley served eight years as a Brownie and Girl Scout leader, was a vol­un­teer at her church and spent sev­eral years as a sub­sti­tute teacher. Mean­while, I was plug­ging away at the news­pa­per, tak­ing var­i­ous jobs and work­ing dif­fer­ent shifts to pro­vide for the fam­ily. Luck­ily, Shirley and I pre­ferred fru­gal­ity over extrav­a­gance, which is how we were able to put Denise and Sandy through col­lege on my less-​than munif­i­cent salary.

But Crohn’s dis­ease clawed its way back into our lives in the 1990s, and Shirley’s life slowly grew smaller and smaller. The first thing to go was her sub­sti­tute teach­ing and then her church activ­i­ties. Still, she never lost her joy or love of life even after the pred­nisone she took to con­trol her Crohn’s was destroy­ing her body in other ways.

For the past 15 years, Shirley was vir­tu­ally home­bound as she became hes­i­tant to spend more than 45 min­utes in a car or visit any place that didn’t have con­ve­niently acces­si­ble restrooms. At the same time, I gladly imposed lim­its on myself so I could be there for her. It was the least I could do for some­one who had given me two great chil­dren and such a ter­rific life.

In the weeks since her pass­ing, I’ve had to go around the house with blind­ers because too many things bring up too many mem­o­ries. The sil­li­est trin­ket can make me break down if it evokes images of Shirley’s glee or excitement.

Her idio­syn­crasies live on, too. She kept two file cab­i­nets for our impor­tant (and not-​so-​important) doc­u­ments, and I searched through them for her insur­ance poli­cies. When I couldn’t find them, I remem­bered she told me a year ago she had put them in a strong­box that she kept “in a safe place.” The place is so safe I still haven’t found it.

Only two days ago did I dare to delve into Shirley’s purse to see if any­thing in it needed my atten­tion. There, inside her wal­let, was the most impor­tant paper of all: the small scrap with my name and phone num­ber I had given her on a warm June night on the east side of Detroit 42 years ago. I had no clue then how my life would begin … or end.

Some say the world will end in a bang, and some say with a whimper. My world ended with a ringtone.

Looking back, the whole thing played out like a farce but was really a tragedy. It all started in late August when my beloved Shirley complained about a sore on the top of her right foot that she blamed on a bug bite. As the days passed, the pain was a minor but constant irritant that she hardly mentioned.

But by the Friday after Labor Day, Shirley was in misery and hobbled around the house with a limp. Despite my protests, she refused to see the doctor. She changed her mind on Sunday when she could barely walk without pain shooting up her leg.

The doctor on Monday diagnosed the problem as an infection, not an insect bite, and prescribed a round of heavy-duty antibiotics. Shirley took the meds religiously, but the pain kept getting worse. By the following Sunday, she couldn’t get off the couch where she had set up her base of operations.

She didn’t complain the next day when I told her – and her doctor – that I was taking her to the hospital. I had to call an ambulance because she couldn’t walk. After we arrived, the emergency room doctor immediately administered a painkiller and hooked her up to an IV antibiotic.

Progress was slow, but by the fourth day of treatment, nurses and doctors could touch her foot without her screaming. On the seventh day, she was actually able to walk to the bathroom. Her doctors started saying she could be sent to rehab in a couple of days to prepare for her return home.

The big day was Wednesday, Sept. 27, when Shirley was released to a nursing home a mere block from our home. She was bubbling when an ambulance brought her to the facility at 4 p.m. Feeling better than she had been in weeks, she said she could be home after six days of rehab, but she might need a wheelchair for a few days until she got her legs back. She was especially happy because she had been able to watch the season debut of NCIS – her all-time favorite TV show – the night before without interruptions by pesky nurses. As she had done at the hospital, she offered me half her dinner when it arrived, but I wasn’t hungry. She couldn’t stop smiling.

Thursday morning was bright and beautiful, and I called Shirley at 11. I didn’t worry when she didn’t pick up, figuring she was either napping or going through physical therapy. Four more calls at half-hour intervals had the same results.

Then, at 1:15, the phone rang.

“There’s been a change in Shirley’s status,” said the woman, who identified herself as the rest home’s director. “Can you come in as soon as possible?”

Four minutes later I walked through the door, was ushered into the director’s office and took a seat.

“Shirley has coded,” she said.

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“She is non-responsive,” she replied.

I put my face into hands and froze as she said a team of paramedics and nurses were working on her.

She handed me a box of Kleenex and left the room. While shuddering uncontrollably, I prayed harder than I ever had before. Twenty minutes later she returned and said, “I’m sorry.”

My world came to an end. Only three months earlier we had celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary and talked about what we would do on our 50th. The odyssey that had opened with a silly little sore on her foot had closed with what the medical examiner called a pulmonary embolism.

It was a bad dream, a very bad dream, and I couldn’t wake up.

I thought back to when we had met at my brother’s wedding in June 1975. I had been bumming around the country Kerouac-style for several months but came back to stand up in the wedding. Shirley, meanwhile, was a Cincinnati girl who had become close friends with Mary, my future sister-in-law, while studying together for a semester at the University of Edinburgh.

Between the wedding in the morning and the evening reception, the guests gathered at the eastside Detroit house of Mary’s parents. I and my buddy Mike sat quietly on lawn chairs while Mike’s mom and a strikingly attractive girl were chatting up a storm. It was lust at first sight. I couldn’t stop taking side-wise glances at the beauty with long auburn hair and a figure that could have graced a Playboy centerfold.

When the girl left to get a Coke from the house, I acted with boldness and bravado. “Mrs. Roberts,” I said, “would you please introduce me to the girl you’re talking to?”

I don’t think Mike ever really forgave his mom for introducing me and not him to Shirley Sizemore.

We danced on air all that night, which ended with Shirley departing for Cincinnati, a five-hour drive away. But she didn’t leave before we exchanged scraps of paper with our names and phone numbers scribbled on them.

For the next year we endured a long-distance romance, but it wasn’t too bad. We managed to see each other at least three weekends a month, and a bit more when we had time off work. Finally, our physical attraction developed into something deeper, as I grew to cherish her intelligence, humor and common sense. She took a gamble and moved to Michigan in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, living with my parents while I roomed with friends in a sprawling old Victorian.

On June 25, 1977, the two of us became one, and my life truly began. As with many marriages, our honeymoon turned into a shakedown cruise, and we went through some rough patches in the early years. But there were plenty of good times to smooth things over.

The 1981 birth of our daughter Denise was a joyful event with a dark lining. As we anticipated Denise’s arrival, Shirley fell seriously ill with an abscess that caused her temperature to soar to 104 degrees. Immediately after doctors operated on the abscess, the baby popped out – seven weeks early. Denise spent her first month inside an incubator until she was big enough to come home.

That turned out to be our first experience with Crohn’s disease, which plagued Shirley for the rest of her life.

No such drama accompanied the birth of Sandy, our second daughter. Shirley was feeling so comfortable that I had to force her to go to the hospital because of the timing of her contractions. Fortunately, the hospital was close by because Sandy arrived about 50 minutes later.

As time passed, our lives grew full and rich. Shirley served eight years as a Brownie and Girl Scout leader, was a volunteer at her church and spent several years as a substitute teacher. Meanwhile, I was plugging away at the newspaper, taking various jobs and working different shifts to provide for the family. Luckily, Shirley and I preferred frugality over extravagance, which is how we were able to put Denise and Sandy through college on my less-than munificent salary.

But Crohn’s disease clawed its way back into our lives in the 1990s, and Shirley’s life slowly grew smaller and smaller. The first thing to go was her substitute teaching and then her church activities. Still, she never lost her joy or love of life even after the prednisone she took to control her Crohn’s was destroying her body in other ways.

For the past 15 years, Shirley was virtually homebound as she became hesitant to spend more than 45 minutes in a car or visit any place that didn’t have conveniently accessible restrooms. At the same time, I gladly imposed limits on myself so I could be there for her. It was the least I could do for someone who had given me two great children and such a terrific life.

In the weeks since her passing, I’ve had to go around the house with blinders because too many things bring up too many memories. The silliest trinket can make me break down if it evokes images of Shirley’s glee or excitement.

Her idiosyncrasies live on, too. She kept two file cabinets for our important (and not-so-important) documents, and I searched through them for her insurance policies. When I couldn’t find them, I remembered she told me a year ago she had put them in a strongbox that she kept “in a safe place.” The place is so safe I still haven’t found it.

Only two days ago did I dare to delve into Shirley’s purse to see if anything in it needed my attention. There, inside her wallet, was the most important paper of all: the small scrap with my name and phone number I had given her on a warm June night on the east side of Detroit 42 years ago. I had no clue then how my life would begin … or end.