‘Collapsed? Was this a joke? Who was this man? Then I asked the worst question. ‘Is he breathing?’: Wife’s recalls ‘nagging feeling’ her ‘young, healthy’ husband had before his untimely death

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“On the morning of June 26th, 2003, I was in the kitchen making breakfast when the phone rang. My 2-year-old was coloring at the table with my mom and my 20-day-old newborn was swaddled against my chest. When I answered the phone, I was surprised by the voice on the line.

‘Hello, May I speak with Melinda? This is Keir from David’s office.’

I was immediately confused. I had never met Keir. Why was he calling me? David was already at the office and had been for hours.

I hesitantly replied, ‘This is Melinda.’

‘I need to ask you some things about David.’

‘David is at work. I am sure he is there if you need to talk to him.’ Why was he asking me about David when David was right there in the office?

‘Yes, David is here. But he is not doing well. He collapsed and we need to know if he was on any medication or if he has any health conditions.’

Collapsed? What did that mean? Was this a joke? Who was this man and what was he talking about?

‘No he does not have any healthy conditions. He is only taking allergy medicine.’ Panic was creeping up my spine. ‘Are you taking him to the hospital? He needs to be at the hospital.’ I was sure that if he was in a hospital everything would be fine. My naiveté and panic were working together to keep him safe.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

‘They can’t transport him yet because he is not stable enough to be moved. People are working on him here. They are trying to resuscitate him.’

I still could not understand what was happening. Why had David collapsed and why was he unstable? And why was this man talking to me instead of driving David to the ER?

Then I asked the worst question. ‘Is he breathing?’

‘No,’ he answered.

He told me to meet him at the emergency room five blocks from the office where David was on the ground, not breathing.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

David and I were college sweethearts. We met at Umass Amherst in 1991 and from the moment we locked eyes—that was it. There was a tractor beam quality to how attracted we were to each other. And serious. We were serious about our relationship and our future right from the start. Our first kiss was 10 days before he turned 19 years old. I was already 20. He loved that for three months out of the year I was two years older than he was.

It didn’t matter that we were young. We were already older souls with a clear vision of what we wanted out of life, and we knew we were for each other. Even from 19 and 20 years old, we knew.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

We got married on a perfect August day in 1996. At our wedding we danced to Etta James singing ’At Last’.

At Last. 

              My love has come along. 

              No more lonely days without him. 

              And life is like a song…

We moved to a sweet little apartment in Wilsonville, Oregon, thrilled to make a home together and build the life we’d always wanted. David was an ambitious and talented Systems Architect who loved the world of computer science and coding problems. I was a social worker. While I loved my work, I was waiting (sometimes not-so-quietly) to start our family. David and I were clear from the word ‘go’ that we wanted to raise a family together.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

David started behaving like a father seven years before he actually became a father. When he bought his first car, he specifically asked the salesman about the safety record for infant car seats. (That was hot. He was hot! Nothing was more attractive to me than David planning for our family and watching for the safety of our someday babies.)

Jonathan was born on a freezing January morning and was welcomed into the world by his father who could hardly breathe for all of the happy tears he cried that day. The east-facing room that we labored in was bathed in the most gorgeous golden sunrise I have ever seen. Jonathan took his first breath in that light.

We drove our baby home in the same car David had bought years before. Things were unfolding as we’d planned and life was beautiful. Sometimes we felt guilty for all of our good fortune—for all of the love we shared, for the endless supply of blessings, and for the joy we seemed to swim in.

David was an incredibly healthy young man. He had worked as a lifeguard, played pick-up basketball, went running, and hardly ever got sick. But he still had a bad feeling. He told me once, when we were in college, that he worried he would not live to be an old man. I remember the icy prickles that bloomed down my spine when he told me. I begged him to see a doctor and to get tested for everything. I pleaded to understand what he meant, what his intuition told him, but he couldn’t offer a satisfying answer other than a nagging sense that old age would not be for him. He saw the doctor, he got clean bills of health every time. And still he worried.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

At 21 he laughed hard to see himself in the mirror on Halloween when he dressed up as an old man. With a stick-on gray mustache, gray hairspray and a cardigan sweater over a button-down shirt with a bowtie he looked like an elderly Steve Martin. Dashing and handsome. This is the only memory I will ever have of David as an ‘old man’.

Aside from these worries that surfaced from time to time for him, our lives continued much as we had hoped. I got pregnant with our second child, we bought our dream home, David was celebrated at his office as the ‘Golden Boy,’ and I had my dream job as a mother and childbirth educator to new parents. Our biggest concerns were about sleep deprivation. Jonathan apparently didn’t believe in sleep and we wondered how our new baby would be as a sleeper.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

We moved into our new house on April 30, 2003. Amidst the unpacking, organizing and settling in, David was humming at a beautiful frequency. He believed in working to live and not living to work. He found energy that amazed me in my slow-moving, late-pregnancy stupor…  He would walk in the door, scoop Jonathan into his arms, and take care of him until bedtime. He built a dresser for Jonathan’s room, practiced golf strokes with his son in the backyard, took him on bike rides, and loved the heck out of our lives. Then Baby Brendan surprised us and was born early on June 6th instead of his due date of June 27th. Suddenly we were in a whole new land of all-night nursing, chaotic two-and-a-half-year-old toddler moods and adjusting to our precious new baby.

On Father’s Day I took a picture of David in what we affectionately called ‘the daddy chair’ while he had both boys in his arms. David and I shared a constant stream of love language with one another. We not only said ‘I love you’ several times a day, but we also shared every color and texture of our feelings for one another. On that Father’s Day, David shared some of the most romantic words I have ever heard in my life. It was as if we had reached the tallest peak out of a valley and he had to tell me the depths of his feelings.

‘I need you to know how grateful I am for you,’ he said. ‘For how you love me. For how you mother our children and make us all a beautiful home. You are my home. My love for you keeps growing. Keeps being a living, breathing entity of joy.’

I cried when he said those words to me. I still feel exactly that way about him.

He is my home.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

Then, only 10 days later, a phone call split our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after.’

Keir told me to meet him at the emergency room, I found a friend to watch my boys. Leaving my 20-day-old infant was excruciating. I did not know how to process what was unfolding. How long do ER visits with an unconscious husband take? How much frozen breast milk should I have prepared for my baby? Would Jonathan need me to make him a lunch? Chaos. Confusion. Fear.

My mom drove us to the hospital—a 30-minute drive that felt like a thousand years. When we walked in, Keir and David’s boss met us at the sliding doors into the emergency room. They were crying. All they could say was, ‘You have to go over here.’ And they took my elbows and guided me deeper into the ER to the bay where doctors were working on David. Someone was straddling David’s body on the gurney and giving him chest compressions. Someone else was quietly, rhythmically squeezing a blue bag taped to David’s mouth to give him air. Someone else was reading a screen and shouting orders about pushing medications and stopping compressions.

I fell apart when I saw the flat line, when I heard the long unbroken beeping. The woman squeezing the bag to bring air into David’s body was crying. No sound, just tears streaming down her cheeks.

No one actually said, ‘He has died.’ My beautiful mother told me to look in his eyes, to see that he wasn’t there anymore. I was in a panic, wanting them to fight for his life, and my mom gently did the terrible hard work of orienting me to what had happened. She explained to me that he was gone.

They moved us to the ‘Bereavement Room’ where we spent time with David’s body. He was wrapped in a quilt and people were saying things like, ‘probably an aneurism’ and ‘could have been a cardiac event.’ Everyone was desperate to know why this happened. How does a healthy 31-year-old man who had taken his 2-year-old on a bike ride the night before suddenly collapse and die 18 hours later? I was asked questions like, ‘How often did David faint?’ or ‘Did his lips ever turn blue?’ Zero. Never. None of that ever happened.

Eventually, David’s death was explained as a sudden unexpected cardiac death. I have been told by cardiac specialists that David’s death is known as ‘tagged by God syndrome’. It is something that baffles and confounds medical professionals because no matter what is done to save a person, they often do not survive.

Grief was completely foreign to me. I was absolutely unprepared for what was unfolding in my life. I anchored myself in the dreams and ideals that David and I had built our lives around. My focus was on raising our sons with hope, compassion and faith that love goes on. I read everything I could get my hands on about grief, young widowhood and life after loss. I have lived the last 16 years doing my best to fulfill the dreams and hopes David and I had for our children.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

I went to therapy, found a young widows support group. Found a beautiful friendship with another young widow who helped me through some of the darkness. My parents have been and continue to be an incredible source of comfort and encouragement in my life. I have leaned heavily on their support. I did all the things you’re ‘supposed’ to do . . . and realized that I was working on healing and observing myself through this process so that I could hopefully, someday, be able to give back to other young widows.

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

Over time, I realized that grief is really all about love. We can’t grieve if we don’t love. I grieved a lot. I still do at times. I eventually went to graduate school and became a therapist specializing in grief counseling. My life’s work is to help others find their hope after loss.

I discovered that grief is actually ever-present in our lives. Grief is an element in every life transition. We grieve the loss of a job or a change in our career path. We grieve a move to a different home. Grief for me has become a companion to every experience I have where change and transition occur.

I want every young widow or person struggling with grief to know that I love my life. I have loved my life for years and years now. I want them to know that they can love their lives, too. I have times where I grieve intensely even all these years later but on balance, I truly love my life. When I experience grief now, it is a signal from my soul about connecting to the love I have for David. None of us who grieve or struggle are alone. We are connected through our shared experiences of loving deeply, grieving our losses and the noble search for hope.”

Courtesy of Melinda Laus

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melinda Laus. You can follow her journey on her website and on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories from those experiencing grief and loss:

‘My 30-year-old husband who was never sick, was constantly downing Pepto Bismol. He started eating less than me. He was missing work, which he never did. I knew something wasn’t right.’

‘John was my PATIENT, and I was married. With tears streaming down my face, I looked at him. ‘Do you want to get married?’ We held each other in the tightest hug, and just sobbed. Hard.’

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