By Ellen Palmer
Written by Ellen Palmer when she was sixty-three, four years after the death of her husband, Tim O’Donnell, who was sixty-eight when he died in 2019. She lives in Chicago. The book of poems mentioned near the end is online here.
Turn for the Worse
It was days before my vacation. After thirty wonderful and recently terrible years of married life, I would be spending a week in Scotland visiting my best girlfriend. Alone. My husband didn’t want me to go.
“If you go, you’ll see how much better your life is without me and you won’t come back,” he said.
“Going is how I stay,” I came back.
My husband—veteran philosophy and psychology professor, wearer of gym shoes, inveterate extrovert, relentlessly perceptive, unfailingly persistent and unwaveringly kind—had, with the support of a good therapist, struggled with lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a brutal childhood. Early in our relationship, he told me, with his earmark bulldog determination, that he refused to pass on the abuse, and with typical tenacity, he did not. But at sixty, all hell broke loose.
Years after the dust settled, I came to believe it was Parkinson’s disease that served as the catalyst. Whatever it was, seemingly overnight, my husband—a man who taught so long and was so beloved that former students would see him from afar in foreign countries and come running to embrace him—became a paranoid recluse with tormenting obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
In a short time, endless iterations of locks requiring complex, repeated maneuvers to secure appeared on doors and windows. “Checking” closets and the smallest hidey holes for potential killers who might emerge as we slept became a redundant routine. I recall feeling deep relief at the fact that he never registered the existence of a transom over the back door in our old vintage apartment, an oversight for which I was grateful.
After the first few shocked months waiting for the tide to turn and “helping” with his security routines, it became clear that this was a permanent, degenerative state, one that indulgence only perpetuated. I spent the next eight years bearing witness while my favorite person in life descended into occasionally lucid madness. I split my nonwork time between tending to his physically, socially, mentally and cognitively deteriorating state while feverishly searching the internet for potential answers, solutions, and treatments. I tried mightily to maintain my own boundaries.
Those first few months lasted a lifetime. Simply refusing to participate in his OCD proved to be an emotionally draining second job. The shock of suddenly finding myself the solitary breadwinner in a recently two-income family was, under the circumstances, petrifying. Managing finances, including the long, circuitous process of applying for his disability, was tricky, given that he was in denial of the fact that he was now unable to write checks for the bills he had been paying.
Realizing we would need to move—with all its implications of finding somewhere feasible to live, packing, making all the pre and post arrangements, overseeing the logistics of the event, and getting us settled in—was daunting, particularly when he couldn’t help and vowed he wouldn’t go.
On the healthcare front, eventually and with cruel clarity, I realized there would be no answers. And anyway if there had been, he would likely be too resistant and paralyzed by terror to make use of them.
His descent continued.
Like repetitions of background scenery in bad anime, excruciating moments arose and re-arose: him sobbing at the table, head in hands, pleading, “What’s happening to me?” or me in Wylie Coyote form, way past my limit and finding myself scrambling in thin air with the cliff edge long behind me, panicking and thinking, “I have to get out.”
On my doctor’s advice, I turned a walk-in closet into my sanctuary. I decorated it with care and hung a sign on the door saying, “Please wait.” I went over the rules with him: He could not enter without my permission and was not to talk to me if I went in. It was the only way I could stay in my possessed home and escape the insanity. And it was our best possible shot at me not having to abandon ship, a choice we both knew would almost certainly leave him homeless. For eight years, we were able, by the grace of God, friends, and our own deep love to stay that course.
Eventually, though, I needed a break.
Seven days away from him. It was going to be just five days plus two to travel.
Getting Ready to Leave
I packed, checked my passport, itinerary, etc., all the things you do before traveling to the other side of the world. We talked about his care. I wanted to ask my friend, a woman he’d met once and liked, to look in on him. She was a nurse, and the fact that he himself hadn’t directly known her “in his past life” meant he’d feel less ashamed about his stunning change. But he wouldn’t hear of it.
I had long decided to pick my battles and concluded that if all I could do was offer him a protected place in which to slay his dragons safely (even if he didn’t think it was) then, so help me God, that’s what I would do. I took extra pains to arrange things so that he could tend to his most basic needs himself and the rest could wait until I returned. I thought I had all the bases covered.
I was wrong.
A few days before I was supposed to leave, I repeated to him that I was going in order to take care of myself, to restore myself so that I could return revitalized and able to stay. I told him I loved him and that that was what I wanted more than anything in the world. He told me he loved me too. He told me he was afraid to let me go.
Then without knowing I was going to say it, I told him I refused to leave with things between us the way they were. I insisted he give me a blessing. The idea struck both of us as somehow important. He said he wanted one from me too, and we both decided to take the day to consider what we’d offer each other.
At the end of it, he said, “I hope you have a good time with Penny. I hope you get to relax and have fun and enjoy yourself, and I hope your trip is everything you need it to be.” Then I told him, “I hope while I’m away, you find some peace and can relax. I can’t wait to see you when I get back. If you start missing me, maybe you could window shop on the internet for a little welcome-home gift.” The next morning, we kissed and exchanged, “I love yous.” Then I left.
Scotland was wonderful. Seeing my long-time best friend was a balm. The vacation was working on releasing a part of me that craved joy and hadn’t seen sunlight in years. We went for long walks along the North Sea, had tea and pastries in the local fishing town, and visited in her tiny house.
One morning, I asked her about the person whose trailer I was renting. I’d had a strange dream in which a man circled around it before bursting in, getting in bed with me, and trying to snuggle. This happened twice in the dream and both times I angrily pushed him out telling him I wasn’t who he thought I was. I was married to someone I loved. I curiously questioned my friend about my landlord: Was there a man in her life whose description matched the dream image? She didn’t think so, but she told me she’d ask next time she saw her. We chuckled and continued our day.
That evening, Tim didn’t email.
With his OCD and the time difference, we had decided he’d only email once a night: no phone calls—a rule he broke within hours of my leaving, frantically calling me while I was at the airport and later in his first email expressing remorse for “having ruined” our “perfect” leave-taking.
So now, two nights before my return, while it was a bit worrisome not to hear from him, there were practical reasons why I might not. He could be trying to make up for his earlier trespass by giving me extra space. There might be a technology problem—something nebulous having to do with the cloud or somehow tied to the sudden heat wave Chicago was experiencing. Or maybe it was a time difference issue.
Constantly having to walk the fine line between paranoia and sensible concern, I had developed a muscle for pushing back on worry, so I set mine aside. I emailed him again and sent myself to bed convinced I’d see a message from him in the morning. But that didn’t happen. On top of it, I couldn’t access the numbers in my phone because it was dead and I didn’t have a charger. Plus, I was in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the North Sea.
By now, I was leaving the next morning, so I sent yet another email. And like the philosopher’s wife I was, consoled myself with Occam’s Razor, holding on to the likelihood of tech problems, though I was less and less a believer. When morning came and there was still no email, I couldn’t leave fast enough. But matters were about to go from bad to worse.
The planes were, all of them, late and very late. In a cold sweat, I hustled up to an airport kiosk and begged them to let me call my disabled husband on their phone so I could let him know what was going on. They kindly obliged, allowing me both to send an email and to call. But he never picked up. I tried to reassure myself that he was only sleeping (the time difference again) and that his lack of response could be a good sign.
Finally after hours and hours of flying and waiting and waiting some more and flying some more, I got into O’Hare airport. After two more hours eking my way through customs and multiple stymied attempts to find a taxi (in the blistering heat, people had snapped them all up), at last I was lurching through thick traffic, on my way home, seven hours later than scheduled.
Now, through the lens of many years, it seems fanciful how something as simple as immediacy could so completely restore my faith. I marvel at how thoroughly and naïvely reassured I was by the simple fact of my return, as if just my presence back in Chicago somehow conferred a protected status over Tim. I fully expected to find myself throwing my arms around him soon.
Grinning with anticipation, I struggled out of the taxi, let myself in the bottom door of our apartment building, and wrestled my suitcase up the three flights.
I unlocked the bottom lock on our door and waited for him to come unchain it and greet me. He always did that. That was our routine.
No one came.
I peered through the door crack calling his name. There was no answer.
The thought occurred to me, Oh, he must be watering the back porch plants because of the heat wave, and I slyly decided, I’ll just leave my luggage here and go sneak up on him. Won’t he be surprised!
Parking my luggage there at the top of the stairs, I raced down, around the building and up the back stairs.
He wasn’t on the porch. That was an unexpected turn.
Fishing out my keys again, I opened the back door and walked in calling his name. Still there was no answer.
Baffled, I began reaching for explanations: Did he go out looking for me? I wondered. But how? He could barely shuffle through the apartment. And where would he even go?
I kept walking and calling with a growing sense of dread.
Finally, I got to the bedroom.
At first, I didn’t see him. He was on the floor between the bed and the wall.
And then all of space-time collapsed.
Somehow, the days and distance that had been between us turned out to be much, much shorter than the time it took to travel across the room, to see my darling man curled up in rigor mortis, to take in the parts of him that were blue, blue, so blue, and those eyes that had missed nothing, staring off.
I found myself shouting at him, trying to push him flat in order to do CPR before some part of my mind snapped to, stepped aside, and calmly pointed out the obvious: He won’t uncurl because it’s too late for CPR. And the bitterness of betrayal hit me like a club: All these years of taking first aid for work, paying meticulous attention, singing the “Staying Alive” song and counting until it was hammered home—all for nothing because I couldn’t even save my own husband. He was so dead, so very, very dead.
I couldn’t call anyone—my phone was dead. I looked for his phone. It was dead. In strange slow motion, the thought occurred to me, Now everything’s dead. And then someone was screaming and it was me. I was running up and down the halls, pounding on doors and shouting, “Help me, help me! My husband’s dead!” while in the back of my mind, that stepped-aside voice said, How are they going to help you, Ellen? He’s dead. There is no helping now. Still, that’s what kept coming out of my mouth—I didn’t seem to have any control over it.
It was a weekday. Everyone was at work. But finally, mercifully, a downstairs neighbor who worked from home heard me. She had a cell phone. Rushing up the stairs on my heels, she looked over my shoulder and took in the bedroom scene. One of us called some friends, the police, Tim’s doctor.
Then everyone started coming.
The ambulance paramedics said he was dead. Yes. Of course.
The police were kind and terrible. They wouldn’t let me near him. They wouldn’t let me touch him. I hadn’t seen him for a week, and they wouldn’t let me touch him. They took one look at everything and thought it was a homicide—the shredded mattress, the blood, feces, urine on the walls, floor, everywhere. Finally, a detective satisfied himself that it wasn’t a murder and told me I could go to him.
He was so vulnerable and dear to me then, lying there completely undressed except for his underwear and left sock. I cleaned him up—I and my two friends.
There are those who think that would have been unimaginably difficult. But to me, it was an intimate and precious moment I wouldn’t have given up if someone had laid all the money in the world at my feet. It was the last time I was going to get to do anything for this body I loved. All of those fluids—they became a precious mess to me. It was an unbearably tender time.
My friends helped me turn Tim slightly so I could clean parts that were more difficult to reach while they worked at the stains on the floor and walls and changed the bed linen. But we couldn’t turn him over completely—dead weight is heavy—so I was never able to find out what caused the bleeding.
Then the police—oh, how I hated them!—they made me call the funeral home. They refused to let me keep him. One night. That was all I wanted. One last night with the man I’d been married to thirty years and hadn’t seen in days. But they wouldn’t let me have him. Later, my nurse friend said it had to do with how long he might’ve been lying there, with bacteria already settling into the decomposition process. Even so, I still hated them for a while afterwards.
Someone from the funeral home arrived and took him away from me, and the next time I saw him he was naked on a metal trolley, covered with a white sheet in a barren room.
A series of confusing and hazy events occurred during which I managed to make the necessary decisions about things like the number of certified death certificates I might need and Tim’s cremation.
The crematorium was on the outskirts of town. I had no car, so a friend of ours drove. I said my last goodbye to him and they closed the coffin. They put him on a conveyer belt. It was hot and awful, watching them send him into the furnace. I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t him anymore, it was a shell. But still, it was the body of the man I loved. It was hard not to go after him.
In my head, I vowed to him, “I wasn’t there when you died, but I am going to be here for you now.” So I forced myself to stand there and watch. Foolishly, I thought it would be over in a matter of minutes until the attendant gently informed me that it would take about two hours. It was more than I could bear. Sobbing, I told my friend I didn’t think I had it in me to stand there watching him burn that long. So he took me by the elbow and led me away.
The first few nights were excruciating. The first few days were agonizing. The first few years were interminable.
Initially, many dear friends worried about me having to sleep in the bedroom—the death room. They invited me to stay with them, but I said, “Thank you, no. I want to be in our bed.” I had to be in our bed. It was that simple. Still, I could already tell a dark fear of that room, that date, was settling in, and I knew it would overtake me unless I did something to redeem it. Almost immediately, out of sheer need, a kind of “stations of the cross” ritual emerged.
I visited all the parts of the room that had been involved in his death, thanking them for all the good care they took of him for the years before, day after day, and most especially for looking over him while I was away. I told them none of this was their fault, that to me, they were holy, that this room, this place, was holy, would always be holy because it took such good care of him for so long, and I blessed them all. Then I told them I knew I was among friends.
And that is how I was able to go to sleep, if that’s what it could be called.
I repeated this mantra over and over until the sacrament took hold in my bones. And on the wall overlooking the niche I found him in, I hung his old framed sepia picture of Notre Dame Cathedral for those moments when I might forget.
Many significant things followed, some precious, some wrenching. Predators emerged, some sadly disguised as friends. Meals appeared mysteriously. Tim’s ashes were lost and found. Chalk messages of love from my preschool students and their families poured across the pavement in front of my building. Generous friends, co-workers, and acquaintances donated money to a GoFundMe page. Friends, students, and colleagues collaborated to create the most healing memorial service I could have imagined. Bills came due.
Institutions demanded hard evidence of his death. Finances had to be seriously considered and refigured. Stuff—now artifacts—had to be wrangled, sorted, dispensed, disbursed. The phone calls were endless. Emails hatched other emails.
In the middle of it all, COVID-19 hit, compounding loss with loss when access to my supportive communities disappeared overnight, including my beloved preschool—with all the affectionate hugs of the children, colleagues, and parents—and the agency for refugee high school girls where I volunteered. At a Zoom meeting I told my colleagues, “Now you all are as dead to me as he is.” My isolation felt complete.
I took to making a point of tenderly examining the leaves of my many plants and talking fondly to Nietzsche, the mouse that visited each spring, whom I named after Tim’s favorite philosopher. From a new angle, I reconsidered old conversations about The Eternal Return of the Same. I had my first chance encounter on public transportation with a man who was his double, and the effort to bully myself into turning my back and walking away wrecked me for weeks.
I began attending a surviving spouse’s Zoom support group offered by an organization called Vitas. It saved me. I discovered the strange and unpredictable nature of grief when I found out I didn’t need talk therapy or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) after all. Instead, running on instinct, I followed out an intense compulsion: I gathered, framed, and hung every piece of art given to Tim by his art school students and colleagues, and felt surrounded and embraced by love.
In deference to his long-ago request, “If I die first, write me a poem,” I wrote a book of them dedicated to him. I asked friends to let me tell them Tim stories about hats, New Orleans, the Kentucky Derby, hospital trips, olive oil, and wrestling. I moved again.
Grace, Goodwill, and Kindness
The support I had during that harrowing time was strong and sturdy. It created a cocoon in which healing could happen. I feel absolutely certain that I would not have been able to move forward beyond that terrible moment without the grace, goodwill, and kindness I was fortunate to have in my life.
I know people often feel awkward around a surviving loved one, fearing they will “say the wrong thing and make it worse.” But from my perspective, he was already dead. Nothing anyone said could make it worse than that. And truly, even the most fumbled attempts at comfort were soothing.
Many who knew him and loved him were also mystified and justifiably curious about his illness and death. Who could blame them? His long-time family physician, a man who knew him for decades, was kind enough to officially designate “heart attack” on his death certificate. But I set myself to living with never knowing for sure. After the horrifying abuse of his childhood, I couldn’t bring myself to put his body through the further assault of an autopsy. Nevertheless, in a matter of months, I had an answer.
Tim died in July. My school year resumed in September. Despite being an introvert inclined toward approaching sensitive subjects from a discreet angle, I developed a great appreciation for directness from watching and interacting with him. It’s one of the many gifts he gave me that I strive to implement in my own life when possible. In that spirit, I chose to confront difficult topics head-on with my preschoolers, and that included Tim’s death.
At the beginning of the year, I told my class that my husband had died and that when a being dies, its body stops working. You don’t have to worry about the being hurting or needing things because its body doesn’t feel or need things anymore. I told them you can go right on loving the person. You just need to find new ways to show it.
The main thing I wanted them to know, I told them, was that if they saw me looking sad, it didn’t have to do with them. It was probably because I was sad about missing Tim, since I couldn’t see or hug him now. If they felt they wanted to do something kind for me about it, they could just touch my shoulder or give me a hug. They listened attentively. After I finished, a few had questions.
“How did he die?” they wanted to know.
I told them usually someone dies when their body stops working because it’s too sick or too injured for doctors to fix, but since I wasn’t there when he died, I didn’t know for sure what happened.
That satisfied them.
A few days later on the playground, a boy with whom I’d had an especially long and close relationship came running up to me. Out of nowhere, he demanded, “How did your husband die?” So I repeated what I’d said in class. He cocked his head and thought for a minute before replying, “No. His heart popped out and flew off!” Then he ran away just as quickly as he’d run up.
I was in shock. Gathering my wits, I assumed a recent heart attack of a family member or friend had probably prompted his announcement. He was a smart little guy and likely to put two and two together like that. I passed it off as an interesting incident that said more about something he was going through personally than the circumstances of Tim’s death.
But then it happened again in exactly the same way. This time his mother was present. After class, I spoke to her about the incident. I asked her whether someone in their family recently had died from a heart attack. She vigorously denied it, saying she had no idea where he had come up with the comment. She was clearly distressed, supposing it upset me and concerned about how it landed. As for me, I was stunned. After telling her the general outline of Tim’s passing, we both were stunned. I told her frankly that of all the consoling words I’d received, her son’s were the most comforting.
A painful legacy many survivors deal with involves the wheel of guilt, with its endless, “what-ifs” and “if-onlys.” A particularly unshakable nightmare I struggled with was, What if, while I was enjoying my time in Scotland, he was suffering a prolonged, anguished, lonely death there on our bedroom floor? If only I’d gotten there sooner. . . . The image of it had become unendurably haunting.
Now here was this little fellow who, out of nowhere, appeared to be directly channeling a message of consolation from Tim, delivering it in the intimate language very young children and their caregivers share. I was undone in the best possible way, relieved of a boulder of burden.
A Second Life
It’s been over four years now since Tim’s death, and I have managed to strike a deal of peace between the life I continue to live without him and his death. It has been difficult to hold on to the demand that it not be a half life, but a full, open-hearted life. I am unwilling to allow bitterness to close me off from love.
I have learned that a person’s relationship with a deceased loved one doesn’t end when they do. With that, I have made many unexpected, sometimes startling, discoveries about myself and our relationship that have offered insights about people and life in general.
In this “second life,” I have had to come to grips with the astonishing and difficult revelation that despite all my efforts to “stand on my own two feet” as an independent person within my marriage, my husband’s sudden departure utterly dissolved my axis, leaving me dangerously wobbling, often tilting in the direction of winter. And I have come to realize that that fact was not a failure on my part. When you love someone deeply and widely, they become your home. And losing home makes refugees of us all.
I was also stupefied to realize that simply being married to a kind, good man had somehow provided me an invisible protective shield against predators—a shield I had apparently lived under for decades, entirely unaware, and for which I am now deeply grateful. So our relationship continues in strange new ways.
Still, in spite of my seeming “recovery” and resilience, every year around the time of Tim’s death, I find myself reliving it. Then time slowly regathers itself and passes, and I am able to remind myself that neither of us are stuck frozen there. The air lifts slowly, and life resets to the present.
Anniversaries can set off that flashback. So can mirror events: Someone else’s mention of their spouse’s death leads me to a feeling of deep empathy, while having to retake a CPR class inevitably sends me into a traumatic spiral. But I am here, choosing to go on.
In the early days after I found Tim, I became crazy with the need to understand what had happened, plagued with wanting answers about when he died, and I went searching for clues. The number of chocolate Ensures left in the refrigerator was one. The timing of his last email was another. The number of pills left in his bottles was a third. His state of undress was a fourth. When I thought to check the computer to see the last sites he visited, I found Amazon. He was looking at welcome-home T-shirts with dragonflies. He knew how much I love them.
Many who learn the facts of Tim’s illness and death think of it as a tragedy. Certainly the circumstances were. I who knew him best look upon it differently. That my husband went mad was not his fault. That he did so with more self-containment, courage, kindness, and grace than could be rightfully expected or imagined is, to me, heroic. In spite of struggling with demons, he did his damnedest to protect others from all of it, including most especially me. For someone who had been so violated so early in life to manage such a feat strikes me as nothing less than something to be honored and celebrated.
© 2023 by Ellen Palmer