“Is this John? I’m Kathleen’s nurse at Taos Living Center. I need your permission to send your wife to the ER at Holy Cross. She doesn’t look good at all.”
Me, buying lampshades at fucking Walmart, yanking my mask off to speak clearly into the phone. Everyone has disappeared, the world gone black…
“I don’t understand. I’m supposed to bring her home from stroke rehab tomorrow!”
“Her vital signs are very bad. Pulse rate 25, oxygen 42. She’s declining.”
“Declining? What… Oh God. I’ll be there right away!”
“It may take 30 minutes for the ambulance to transfer her. I’m calling now.”
I was almost at the register. Hung up and paid. Out the door and in the car. Old men and fat ladies shuffled by. It was a sunny day. Thirty minutes? I’d better go home first, I thought. I’ll need long pants and a sweatshirt at the hospital. And a phone charger, and my laptop. Maybe a sandwich, change of underwear.
Halfway home, trying to breathe. Am I really going all the way back? The phone rang once again: “Mister Farr? This is [another nurse] at the Emergency Department at Holy Cross. Your wife is declining rapidly. The EMTs just pulled in. We’ll have her here in 30 seconds…”
“I’m on my way!”
What the hell was going on?
Backed into a driveway and turned around, let a pickup truck go by. A slow one, driven by an old guy with a VFW license plate. He crept so slowly over the speed bumps by the little church I almost rammed him. If I’d had a gun I might have used it. Arrived at Holy Cross, parked close, pulled on my mask, and strode in through the plague door. Two people stood up to take my temperature and ask me questions. Oh no, you don’t.
“My wife is dying in the emergency room!”
“I’ll take you…”
So many corridors. It’s just a little hospital. Are they all like this?
“In here. Can I get you anything?”
Just then they wheeled her in and pulled the blanket back. She was in a tight fetal position, eyes closed, mouth open, all her color gone. I was sure that she was dead. Oh God. She wasn’t though. I could see her breathing, and she moaned on every exhalation.
[Shallow breath, “nnnghh,” two seconds, another breath, “annnghh,” two seconds… ]
They took blood and urine samples, hooked her up to monitors, stuck needles in her wrists, taped an oximeter sensor on her finger. Someone else came in and took an X-ray of her lungs. That wasn’t easy. Nurses came and went, glancing at the dancing colored lines. Competent-looking doctors showed up. One asked, “And you are…?”
“John Farr. I’m her husband.”
He flipped through pages on a clipboard. “I’ve been conferring with Dr. [so-and-so], the one who saw her last time.”
He told me that the chest X-ray showed her lungs were massively infected, then turned to his colleague and went on in a softer voice. I made out “ejection fraction, 30%” because I already knew that and I swear they rolled their eyes.
“What happens now?”
“Well, we can send her back to Taos Living Center, and—”
“We’re never going there again!”
“Are you prepared to take her home?”
“No way, no…”
“Then we’ll work on getting her admitted and make her comfortable.”
They spun around and left. A nurse showed up with coffee. They wheeled her to another room and closed the door. Shallow breath, “nnnghh,” two seconds, another breath, “annnghh,” two seconds. She had an oxygen mask on now, more color, and was stretched out on her back, but her eyes were barely open and I couldn’t tell if she could hear me. “Nnnnghh,” gasp, then two seconds. I counted every pause. She moved around a little and tried to pull the sensors off.
This went on for several hours. I was freezing in my shorts. A nurse brought me a blanket that I wrapped around my shoulders. Finally they had a room for us down endless corridors. A different nurse hooked up a Tylenol IV, the moaning stopped, and yet another doctor knocked and introduced himself.
The full import of “make her comfortable” hadn’t registered yet, but the latest doctor said it wasn’t bad lungs but a second stroke that cut her down. He recommended morphine. I consented after he agreed to only half a dose each time. I didn’t want her knocked out, see, if we could talk. It calmed her and the gaspy inhalations weren’t so harsh.
Someone from the kitchen brought me food. I wolfed it down. But something had changed from one room to the next. She wasn’t getting nutrients or fluids. No sensors stuck onto her chest, no oximeter wired into a console, no instruments. Just a single IV port, a catheter, a urine bag. Oh no.
God help us, they were only feeding me!
By Saturday night I was tired enough to wish the whole world dead. No exceptions, either. Nodding off every minute. I talked constantly to Kathy who never shifted her position, breathing in that way that people who are dying do. My sister Mary the nurse was driving up from Tucson with her dog. “Tell Kathy I’m coming!” she texted from Hatch at 3:14 a.m. I did.
Mary showed up in the morning, said goodbye to Kathy, went away, came back. We talked and talked. I hadn’t seen her since forever. All this time Kathy was just lying there, mouth open, breathing like a fish washed up on the sand. Hearing is supposedly the last thing to go. My sister thought it might do Kathy good to hear us laughing, like she’d know we’d be all right. That made me feel a little better, but of course we couldn’t tell.
By late Sunday night, I was so exhausted I thought my heart would quit. Kidneys, liver, something, blood flow from my ears. Maybe I’d lose consciousness and split my skull. Kathy was either sleeping or too far gone to notice. I pushed my recliner up against her bed and curled up in a ball. I was dead already. If she made it through till morning, we could say goodbye, otherwise I’d wake up and find her cold.
Someone else was in the room. David, the tall nurse, with a stethoscope. I saw sunlight on the windows. He checked her heart and watched the quiet little gasps. “She’s close,” he said, and left. I got up, pushed the chair away, and knelt down by her bed. The next 90 minutes were the most intimate and powerful we ever had.
She was conscious. Her mouth was open underneath the oxygen mask. I saw black patches on her tongue and lips from circulation shutting down. Her eyes were open, barely. Maybe she could see. She might have moaned, I don’t remember. What I do is that she tensed her back like she was trying to sit up. I put my arm around her back and lifted. (My hand knew every bone.) She had one elbow on the bed to give support and reached up with her other arm to pull my shoulder. Her head fell over on my chest and she relaxed. Her breathing got a little softer while I talked. We stayed that way a long time.
I had to lay her down again but slid my arm behind her neck to hold her head so we could see. I’d cried a lot but something changed. Her breathing had become more agitated. I remembered my sister telling me that sometimes dying people need to know their loved ones will be all right so they can go. The gown had slipped from her left shoulder. Her skin was warm and beautiful. All at once I wasn’t worried. The love poured from me like I was on fire. I told her I would be okay, that I would write a book about us, that our love was greater than our bodies and would never die. Her respiration slowed and all was softer. She shot an image right into my brain to tell me where she wanted to be buried. I got down nose to nose with her. We looked right in each other’s eyes and held it. I didn’t talk or cry.
The way it went from there was gentle as can be. The pauses in between her breaths grew longer until I knew to lay her down. I took off the oxygen mask, fluffed her hair some with my fingers, stood up, and pushed the button to call the nurse.
All this time we’d been left totally alone. I told her everything, far more than written here. I know she heard me and she hears me still.
“Would you like the window open?” I heard someone say. (The nurse, of course.)
“Uh, sure. That would be real nice.”
“People in Taos like to do that when someone passes. You know, to—”
“Yes, I understand.”
The levers for the window cranks had been removed to keep things closed because of covid. She went to fetch one and came back.
“We’re not supposed to, but…”
“I know she’d like that. Thank you.”
How it was and how it is. How it’s meant to be. Forty-four years together, people. The thing that I was born for, plain as day. This time, this place, this woman. Simpler than I ever dreamed it was. If only I had known!
Dear Friends: A few links…
• I’ve written and posted an obituary here.
• For photos of the last eight years of our life in New Mexico (posted chronologically, newest at the top), see my SmugMug gallery.
• You’ll find hundreds of posts about us at this website by using any search field (“Kathy,” “wife”, etc.) or choosing a Category or Tags to search. Use your imagination. Some of them are in the Top Posts category linked in the menu bar.
• Most recent articles from JHFARR.COM are cross-posted at my Substack newsletter, which you can subscribe to for free.
• Washington College President Powell’s letter to WC alumni is available here. I urge everyone to read it to learn the full breadth and depth of Kathy’s academic career.
• There’s an email link for me on the “About” page.
Thanks for your comments. I know she’s read them all. – JHF
I knew Kathy from when we both went to Curves to exercise. A nice lady. I’m really sorry for your loss.
Hi Pam. I think we’ve met, right? Thank you so much for reading. Kathy really loved Curves. La familia, you know, being part of a community. It wasn’t just the exercise.
Thank you for this beautiful testament to your great love for Kathy. Very few people ever have a relationship of such depth and devotion.
Please keep us informed about how you are doing. You are an incredible writer (and person).
You’ll make me cry again, you will, but that’s all right. It’s good. Such generous words. I thank you.
John, my friend, words fail. My heart goes out to you.
Means a lot to know you read this, man. That’s all I need. Big thank you.
John – I have followed your blog for quite awhile as a subscriber and as I started to read this one I kept saying out loud “no…no…no…” hoping it would not end with your beloved Kathy’s passing. I was just in shock. There are no words sufficient to express the depth of my sympathy and my admiration for the love you gave her. You were both blessed. Valerie Yaros, Studio City, CA.
I wrote it like it all went down and felt the same cascading disbelief. It’s still as if she’s simply off somewhere, delayed or lost! We are both blessed, however. Thank you.
My first thought was; she didn’t get to experience that home that you were hoping to find. Life goes on and I hate that sometimes. People we love get off at different stops on the journey. What a strange trip it is even if we’ve done it before. Your photo of Cally on your beautiful wife’s lap made my heart stop. She will be around for a while. By the time one reaches our age, we have more than one identity; each one with its own room of memories. Kathy filled your heart space and her loss hit me in the chest as if she was a dear friend. You made her big enough to reach us all. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, I thought the same thing. It’s okay, though. Long ago we had a talk about what “home” was. I left her a note that night that read, “Wherever you are, that’s my home.” Never saw the thing again until two days ago: she’d had it in her underwear drawer, the one she opened every day!
Thank you for this. I taught piano in Dubuque at the same school with Kathy. What I remember is enjoying wine and laughing with her, she had the best laugh.
I don’t know if you all believe in God. But I’m sure God believes in Kathy.
Hi Kaye, yes, I remember. Didn’t I meet you once? Her laugh was like the ringing of a bell. What a great thing to say about her in the spirit world. I won’t forget.
Yes we did. I remember thinking: oh yeah that writer guy! And he likes cats, so he’s ok with me. More importantly, you loved my friend.
Thank you, Kaye.
My deepest condolences, John. Truly, they are deep and, in a strange way, as is if we’ve met many times before. I guess that’s the power and beauty of your writings. I read your post just after midnight and had no idea of your wife’s stroke last month. I must have been caught up in the hustle and bustle. But I read about that day, too. I can only imagine how difficult the past three weeks have been. They asked if you would like the window opened and I would like to say thank you for sharing such a powerful post about your beautiful wife and the meaning of true love. I’m thinking about you and your family. Take good care. Peakwx
“…in a strange way, as is if we’ve met many times before. I guess that’s the power and beauty of your writings.”
Couldn’t ask for a better comment, Kerry. Maybe we have met before in unknown realms. I often get similar reactions from other people and wonder whether they’d feel the same if they actually met me. Regardless, this is about Kathy and I’m very moved by all the reactions. They tell me I’m getting through and honoring her memory. I have to share these things or I would shrivel up and die.
My deepest condolences. I am moved beyond words by your description of this incredible loss and your final, sacred moments with your wife. Peace be with you.
You get it. Thank you. That’s all I need to hear.
Thank you, John. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your Kathy and my Kathi made our respective lives worth living, and what else is there in life? In an odd way that I’m sure you’ll understand, I envy the time you and Kathy had together at the end. I had no time with my Kathi. 9:00 in the morning, she was here, 9:49 she was gone. EMTs fought for her, while I stood by helplessly. Before they arrived that morning, my last word to her were, “Stay with me.”, a phrase that had illuminated our lives more than once. Even in grief, you are a lucky man, John.
“Stay with me.” How many times have I heard those exact words. In the last year or two, Kathy had occasional bouts of shakiness probably related to cardiac issues we knew nothing about. Being with her was all I ever wanted to do, from the very first moment I saw her. Not realizing this was heaven, I tried to fix myself and be “okay.” I don’t care what happens to me now. If I drop dead, I’ll be with her. If it takes another 30 years, I’ll still be a spirit in the sky. Despite having my heart ripped open, things feel, well, easier now. I wonder if anyone will understand. They sure are DIFFERENT, anyhow. That is so weird.
Yes, I’m lucky. I always have been but thought the opposite… this is what’s happening now. It’s like I’ve been washed and now I’m tumbling in the dryer.
Oh John, what can one say that hasn’t been said before, that doesn’t somehow sound hollow, traditional.
All I can say is that I don’t know you or your dear wife, but I feel your loss.
So much so that I wept for you my friend.
It’s working, then. All I wanted in this piece was to be honest and honor her. Thank you for your kind words.
Sincerest heartfelt warm hugs and vibrations to you and Kathy. Thank you for your words, knowing such a loving relationship exists makes my heart soar.
I followed your writing while I was still in CA trying to decide whether or not to move to Taos. I did.
I have been blessed by your writing and your relationship, so if you need assistance in the coming days, please contact me.
Peace and warm hugs while you both go through this transition.
Marcie Coulter, Arroyo Hondo, NM
You get it, too. That helps a lot, thank you. Arroyo Hondo is a good place to end up, I think, lifted up a bit above the valley. I’m happy that my living with Kathy made a difference in other people’s lives, something that never occurred to me before the reactions to this piece came rolling in.
I do get it and have many times felt jealousy because my relationship wasn’t like yours. Now I feel humble with your loss.
The transition to Taos County has been extreme and intense and, well, you know.
Your writings of yours and Kathy’s adventure with the land, the roads, the wood delivery, the propane, the old adobe, and the mountain encouraged me to stay.
Today I think Taos is a good place to live, love and die. But like the Mesa winds, that is subject to change. I hopE you feel the same.
Soothing Peace John.
PS could I make and deliver you a meal?
That’s very generous of you, but I’m well-supplied, thank you.
Almost a year ago to the day I was where you are. My husband had a heart attack while out riding his bike. While they were able to restart his heart he never regained consciousness and we walked him to the pearly gates three days later.
The next days and weeks and hell, months, will be hard but life marches on and we have to go with it. Shoot me an email if you need to talk. And don’t wait like I did to start regularly seeing a counselor to help get you through.
Best wishes my friend.
That’s the thing, isn’t it. Someone has to go first, and we never think it’s time. In this case it was far better for me to be the survivor, however long that distinction lasts.
I don’t feel I need any help, remarkably. It’s all housekeeping—massive housekeeping, but mainly dealing with “stuff,” including all the emotional time bombs I’ll uncover. It’s good, though. A natural process. And I do get to do whatever I want.
So sad now.
Peace be with you, John.
Hi, Theo. What a world, eh? I’m doing all right. Today is kind of hard for some reason, but I’m okay.
Oh dear John, I’ve been wondering and thinking about your wife since I read about her stroke. I had a very similar experience last summer with my husband who basically passed away in my arms. My heart goes out to you but I think you were a wonderful husband and it was so brave of you to share this with all of us. My deepest sympathies.
I know I’m not the only one. If you really love somebody, you just can’t stand back or look the other way. You want to take it all in. It only hurts because it’s good. Thank you for the generous words.
My heart is breaking for you and Kathy. I’m so sorry. Death sucks. Life sucks. Grief is overwhelming. I am rooting for you for be strong no matter how hard it may be. I tried to tell my husband about this but I started to cry and couldn’t finish.
Please keep us informed with your bruising from-the-heart writing.
Hi Judy! Thank you for subscribing to my Substack, too.
I want to say I’m doing all right. Death is part of life. The grief is overwhelming, but so was falling in love—you should have seen us way back when—and even staying in love. I couldn’t have had the one without the other.
Here’s an example. The last two times I made the bed (including just a while ago), when I walked around to her side to tuck in the bottom sheet, I fell apart. Her side. The impressions her hips made in the stupid mattress since the last time we turned it over. Her pillows. I mean, Jesus. But it made me proud, because I know I lived, even if I feel I wanna die. You see?
That’s the best I can do right now. It’s not easy to express these things. I’m not surprised you couldn’t explain it to your husband. That’s okay, though. Everything’s okay.
John – I was so worried that the damn covid would keep you two apart at the end.
I have been blessed to be with a loved one as they passed. I was a midwife years ago and it felt the same.
Your writing has influenced me to navigate somehow the relationship I have with my ex as we age. I just cannot throw it away. We have children but it is also those many years together in Arkansas.
I am not jealous of you, but you and your stories have lighted my path to what is true.
Well, the COVID didn’t get us, did it? Lord, Rita. What an amazing comment. I’m glad y0u understand. Navigate away. You sound like you know just where the channel is.
Dear John, thanks so much for these beautiful words about Kathy. You both became such important people in my life at a crucial time and I really wish I had stayed in better touch over the years (although it was great to hear from Kathy a few times from Taos). Kathy was a true light. My deepest deepest condolences, Love, Jerry
Jerry! How fabulous to hear from you. Are you still in Boulder? Maybe our paths will cross again sometime. I hope so. Kathy was (and is) a true light. I appreciate this comment more than I could ever say. Thank you, thank you.
You are so kind, John. Yes! we’re still there, but living now in Denver. It would be so good to see you. We’re on our way forward to being vaccinated and so I hope this might be soon. “Is” indeed; I was inspired to start practicing my Ravel again, with the deepest and fondest memories.
BTW, I found this forgotten audio file of her playing something in my Voice Memo app on my iPhone. Do you recognize it? I made the first 30 seconds of it into a ringtone.
Beautiful! It sounds a lot like a work I heard by Florence Price, but I think it’s a different one. Here the Price, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZutG4sSYZIs
(which I know Kathy would have loved)
John, I feel privileged to be weeping at your words and your generous sharing of the awesome yet terrible experience we are all headed for in some way. May you feel her spirit to shore you up in those inevitable waves of loss. The degree of pain is a testament to the depth and fullness of your love together. It seems as fine and beautiful a death as one could be part of. Thank you.
You’re welcome. It was fine and beautiful. I was fully present. No tears, just awe. The most intimate experience I’ve ever had. Afterwards, her face was still beautiful. My sister (a nurse) arrived and noticed, too.
Two weeks later, the pain does come in waves. I canceled her bank accounts today and nearly fell apart. The simplest thing will set it off. Tucking in the bottom sheet on her side of the bed, for instance. Throwing away her toothbrush. I keep thinking of things to show and tell her. I have no idea what I’m going to do next, but that’s all right. I did what I was born to do, and I’m still here. It’s very strange.
I think I have never received a finer, more meaningful , perfectly expressed comment, reaction, benediction, prayer, whatever, and I hope I never forget your words.
John – I’m not a regular reader, so maybe I don’t belong here, but your blog has been in my newsfeed for more than ten years, and this post touched me deeply. Please accept my heartfelt condolence from California. I don’t suppose you’ll ever “get over” such a loss, but I hope it helps to know that strangers send their love.
It does help, Larry. I wanted to share the experience because I think it’s important. If the post touched you deeply, then I succeeded. Very much appreciate your comment, thank you.
I cry with you, I cry for you.
Word fail me here.
That works. I get it. (Do I ever.) Gracias.
I am so sorry — I only just learned this evening of Kathy’s passing.
It leaves a void the size of the Universe doesn’t it. No need to answer that because I know. Wow. Whst a beautiful soul she was although I never knew her. It shines through your photos. I lost my love after nearly 30 years quite unexpectedly. His name was also John and we were married in the mountains in Santa Fe. It’s been 14 years since he passed to the side we can’t always see. It gets better, easier but I think of him every fucking day and miss all that we had as imperfectly perfect as it was. So I get it. Your obit is such a wonderful tribute and your posts about Kathy make me weep. Take care of yourself. A redhead who had a guy who loved me and who I loved fiercely.
Hi, Terry. I appreciate this more than I can say. Thank you.
John, it’s been awhile. Not sure if you remember me, but I remember you and Kathy quite fondly. I am so sorry to hear that Kathy has passed on. I read this in tears. Painfully beautiful. Sending love.
Hi, Tif. Oh yes, I remember you. Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a little over 9 months since she died. I’m still slammed hard several times a day. Sometimes I worry that it hurts so much, you know? As if the force of that would pull me across, when what I really want to do is keep on going for the two of us. I’m better than I was, at least, in no small part because she’d want me to be happy.