The Last Birthday

I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.

A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.

I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.

And then I opened it.

His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.

Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.

I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.

After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.

We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.

My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.

I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.

And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.

Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.

“Why can’t we?” He said.

And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.

So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.

And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.

On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.

These are the words I spoke.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children.  He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.

That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.

Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.

Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.

People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.

This is that poem:

Give me hunger

Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders

Give me hunger, pain and want

Shut me out with shame and failure

From your doors of gold and fame

Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger

But leave me a little love

A voice to speak to me in the day end

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness

In the dusk of day-shapes

Blurring the sunset

One little, wandering, western star

Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow

Let me go to the window

Watch there the day-shapes of dusk

And wait and know the coming

Of a little love

Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.

Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.

Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.

One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.

We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.

This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.

I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.

But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.

All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.

Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.

On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.

As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.

I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.

I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.

Or I could rise.

But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.

My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.

Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.

Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.

I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.

For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.

What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.

I would say three things to him:

  • I love you.
  • I took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
  • I lived every day hoping you would smile my way.

My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.

I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.

Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”

Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.

For more about Dale:
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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book Zoo of Human Frailties for $2.99 on kindle https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY

395 thoughts on “The Last Birthday

      1. Words are powerful so people don’t like to say the wrong ones. I think if we find the right ones, they are the same ones for people everywhere.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. When my husband died unexpectedly a few years ago, we had not been getting along well for quite a while—mostly my fault. I wish our last words to each other had been better.
    This is a poignant read. You told it so well.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. That was a beautiful piece.
    Just on the chance you haven’t thought of it, and speaking from experience, your two small boys will feel the loss more than they reveal and will need on-going emotional support, ideally from an adult male figure.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sorry for your loss. To find him there must have been devastating. Don’t blame yourself for anything. We all do what we can do. The birthday party was the greatest move.
    It must still be raw inside. Time will heal. That is one of the few certainties One can have.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So sad to read of your loss and the circumstances surrounding.I see the pain in your eyes Dale, you have suffered much from your early years through to now, and felt the pain of loss as you try to piece back the shards of your life. You have had great courage and resilience having come this far. Spring and new beginnings always follow the winter of the soul.” I pray you will be blessed with a brighter future where your suffering will become fruit to help and encourage others following behind. You might want to check out my Suffering page on my website. Praying you will heal soon from your deep sadness and loss and experience new beginnings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will check out your Suffering page. Thank you for pointing it out. I have had some bad experiences but I don’t know if it’s any worse than what the average person suffers. I feel I’ve had a good life in many ways and that I was my own worst enemy during the bad parts.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When one begins their day reading words like this, words that actually mean far more than their sum, its impossible to focus on much more than those things that really make a life, a life. Beautifully honest, poignant and probably some of the most meaningful and articulate prose I’ve ever read. Sadness, memory, reality, with true understanding – all have a glow. Though I’m stuck for a fitting string of words through which to leave this comment, my own poignancy, I’m calmed to know the feeling that a cord is struck so frequently and so widely when so few of us realise. Until the words are put down and, offered up. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i am so moved by what you’ve written here….so sad, so true, life takes us where we didn’t want to go and forces us to face what we want to hide from. Relationships are so hard; in the end what matters is that we loved and tried to love well. Thank you so much

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks a lot for taking the pain to pen down the saddest incident of your life,undoubtedly it’s melancholy. Perhaps the good Lord wants you to use all your strength and power for your child.So be a father as well as a mother of your beloved child as you have always been.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wow, really wow – I am deeply touched, my friend – uff, I have not many words, but my tears are running, my heart is trembling – what a life story – I am so happy about your love (life is not easy and is often like a roller coaster, but love is like a sponge it sucks all: good and bad times, it forgives and forgets). – I always say: that when our life comes to an end – we may go with a happy end…

    From heart to heart and all good wishes for you and your family
    Didi

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh that is great that you nick was Didi too – It is a nick for man and woman (I am a man and often it happenes, because of my nick that people think I am a woman). In India Didi means elder sister. The funny thing is when I travel to India from my country Finland, people are a bit confused when hearing that my nick name is Didi.

        If you do not mind, I would like to call you Didi too.

        So all the best, dear Didi and have a great time
        Didi

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I loved being called Didi. Dale is a masculine name and people are usually surprised to find out I’m a girl. Funny how things work out.

        Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you so much, My Dear, for sharing this with us!! Loved “Your Poem” by sandberg!! Your husband sounds like such a romantic, at least remembering your wedding anniversary. Sometimes life has it’s sad chapters. Thanks for the remembrance! I’m hoping you and your son are dealing with this together! Wish I could give you a Big Hug – So consider yourself hugged – Dear Dale!!
    xoxoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  10. As I humbly leave my gratitude here, my heart is in prayer with his spirit, for you to somehow feel what a temporarily precious misunderstanding you last sentence is, dear one.

    Heaven bless you both (((👼 💑 👼)))

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Heart breaking experience for you and your boys but I love how you honored his memory with a party and included all those creative details – he must have been in the perfect sweet spot to hear the music of your memories being shared.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for sharing this. My dad died when I was a teenager and I was so absent in those years before his death—young, selfish, and naive…I wish I’d have been more present…have to focus on the positive memories that I do have of the time we did spend together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We all have our specific regrets but regret serves no one. Guilt serves no one. It’s my hope that when people read my story they feel less alone in their own. They can punish themselves less for pain they caused because they realize others have similar stories

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes exactly! Thank for sharing that comment…it is helpful to communicate with others—being open, honest, and vulnerable at times..real and raw so we can relate in some way and not feel alone in our hardships even though they look a bit different for each individual

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Looking back, there are so many times I wish I had a “do-over.” To be gentler. To be kinder. To be more present. And, with each loss – I learned something. I know that I only have this moment to be brave and bold and courageous enough to ask for a hug, to offer compliments, to acknowledge kindness and to welcome beauty. Your story is uniquely yours and also universal to so many. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for stopping by to visit my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh wow this is so beautiful. I love how you shared such sweet tender moments in a beautiful post. What a lovely tribute to your life with Dennis. So inspiring and beautiful. I hope your heart has found peace and that your memories stay sweet and not regretful. I’ve found in this life we do the best we know how to do and that’s okay. Blessings to you. I’m so happy you liked my post because I wanted to see why you chose the photo of mine that you did. Have a beautiful day 💜🦋

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Michelle. I haven’t written in a while because I’m renovating a house but soon I’ll be done and back to writing again.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So far so good. I painted the entire upper part of the house and put in new baseboards. I put new tile in the bathroom and a new light fixture. I replaced the electric plugs and 4 of the light switches and a new front door light. I put a new ceiling in the basement. There are still a few little things left to do but the big things are out of the way and the house will be on the market soon. So the week has been pretty good.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I feel gratitude to you – and to your husband – for having gotten to read what you shared here, and what you shared together in life. As a relatively new wife and mother who is already pocked with doubts about my role in our marriage and about our place in this world, I wonder why you lay the burden of guilt and failure on yourself, even though it is clear that love – your love – prevailed. I have much to learn and am deep into a season of humility (does it ever end!) and can ascertain from this, my first ever post I’ve read of yours, that you have much wisdom, a rare treasure. So thank you for your commitment to your soulmate as this bond strengthens us all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. And have a wonderful like with your spouse. You sound like someone who would is a wonderful mother.

      Like

  16. I teared up …. because of the love …. captured in those special moments. Yours is a story of authenticity, inspiration, hope, and ultimately love. My heartfelt gratitude. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Oh boy. A piece of writing hasn’t moved me in so many ways as this one has, in such a long, long time. Your words here will stick with me until the end of my life. I don’t know why I wandered upon this particular post today, but I’m so grateful that I did.

    Now, to go live.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Eli. I decided to write down all my memories, especially the ones that are painful. It is in our full experience of this life that we realize how similar we are to others, how much pain and pleasure that we all share. I’m sure you’ve had your share of heartache and I want you to know that I have had too. Words contain the power to connect us and that’s what I hope to do. I haven’t written in a while because of extensive house renovations I’ve been doing. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel and will be writing again soon.

      Like

      1. I look forward to new words from you. This was immense. And also light, with the details. What a party you threw for him. It’s good to know we kind of move in parallel patterns in this life, isn’t it?

        Liked by 1 person

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