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Tell them you love them

March 20, 2021

Something mind-numbingly awful happened on the island this week.

Chris and Margy, a couple I know (not well, but I like them very much) were, one sunny Tuesday morning, about to start building their dream retirement home. Chris, a much beloved member of our community, was going to be working on the house with his dear friend Marc, a professional builder. The couple had invited family and friends to join them at the site to celebrate the day by watching the first pouring of the cement. At 10:45am the boom on the cement truck collapsed, killing both Chris and Marc – right in front of family and friends.

It is too awful. Too random. Too unfair. Chris got up one sunny day to start work on his new home and before noon he and Marc were dead. The whole island is devastated. Not surprisingly.  

It hit me hard. Not because I knew Chris particularly well, more because it happened this week.

I wish it had been any other day in March. If it had been any other day in March it would be so much easier for the date to fade in my mind. But it happened on March 21, the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, a day that is noted by all every year.

It was a Monday morning. We’d been in Vancouver for the weekend. I was packing up to head back to the island. Mike had gone into the bathroom to brush his death. I don’t remember if he shouted my name or just shouted. Whatever it was, I went to the bathroom to investigate. Mike was slumped on his walker in front of the sink. His left arm was up in the air. I managed to gently pull his arm down, while asking what was wrong. Instead of answering me he had a massive seizure. I held on to him tightly to keep him on the walker. When the seizure stopped I ran for the phone, called for an ambulance. Before we left for the island, Mike had an appointment with his Vancouver doctor, Brad. As I held on to him whilst awaiting the arrival of the ambulance, he talked, mostly gibberish, but inserted with concern about getting to his appointment. I lied to him, told him I’d rung Brad and that he was coming to us so there was no reason to worry. Moments before the ambulance crew finally arrived (it had been 45 minutes), Mike had another, shorter seizure.

I chain smoked and paced on the balcony as the crew worked on him in the hall. When one of them came to tell me they were taking him to the hospital, I called his son. I told him I thought his dad had had a stroke, that we were heading to the hospital. The crew asked me to sit up front with the driver, which I did.

At the hospital I was directed to admissions, where I handed over Mike’s health card and sat down, wishing I’d thought to bring a book with me. After a while a nurse came over and told me there was a more private room where I could wait. Eventually a doctor came and started asking me questions. How had Mike been that morning? He’d complained of feeling a bit light headed. What did he eat for breakfast? Porridge. A few minutes of this later something twigged. “Is he dead?” I asked. “Yes,” said the doctor, “didn’t anyone tell you?” No, no one had fucking told me. Why the hell were they asking me about his bloody breakfast?

Mike, who, two years earlier, had astonished his oncologist by fighting off a particularly virulent form of cancer, had had a massive heart attack. The doctor, who knew I’d been complaining about how long the ambulance had taken to arrive, assured me that even if Mike had been hospital being treated for something else when it happened, there would have been nothing they could have done.

And that’s when it hit me: That second, smaller seizure had been it. When the ambulance crew piled in moments later, his heart had already stopped. All their work had been an attempt, first to get it started again, then to keep it artificially pumping until they could get him to the hospital where, soon after arrival, his was pronounced dead.

Early in our relationship, Mike told me he wanted us to be together forever, that he wanted to die in my arms. He wanted me to promise we would be, but even then I wasn’t sure. I simply smiled and said forever was a long time. Indeed we ended up living separately for several years. But in the end he got his wish. He died in my arms. That was some comfort.

What I couldn’t get past was the fact that I could not remember the last time I’d told him I loved him. Of course I said it when they led me to a private room where I could spend time with his body, but that hardly counts.

For days – weeks – I kept advising friends to tell people they loved them. You never know when it will be too late. I hope, when they got up Tuesday morning, Chris and Margy told one another how much they loved each other. I hope she’s got that.

Back on the island a few days later a song suddenly popped into my head. Dusty Springfield singing, “You don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand. You don’t have to stay forever, I will understand.” Of course that’s not what the song is about, but those two lines, sung over and over in my head did help me feel better.

Tomorrow it will be ten years since I last saw this man.

Ten years.

I will mark this sad anniversary, the tenth vernal equinox since his death, by going to our favourite place on the island, the place where his son and daughter and I scattered his ashes ten years ago. I stopped going to that spot to talk to him some time ago, but I still sometimes, when I’m watching something on television, turn to look at the spot where his chair used to be and say, “You’d have enjoyed this.”

In the evening I’ve arranged to meet some friends for dinner. They didn’t know Mike, but that doesn’t matter, that isn’t the point. I just don’t want to be on my own all day.

We had our ups and downs, Mike and I, but I never stopped loving him. I just wish I’d thought to tell him more often.

Tell them you love them. Tell them every day, because life can be brutally random. You just don’t know when your last chance to tell them might be.

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