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November 10, 2009
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VIEWS: ERIK RONNINGEN
The Great Escape! Final Farewells [published to Big Medicine on May 7 06]--I was on the West coast presenting to a group of architects when the telephone rang. The secretary answered it in muted tones, and after a moment looked directly at me and said with quiet authority, “Sir, you have to take this call. It’s your wife.”
I was in San Francisco on
business in July 1994. Sarah, my wife of 27-years had dressed and was about
to leave for work from our home in Mamaroneck, NY when she had the urge to
pass gas. But it felt like more than gas, and upon inspection, she found
blood in her panties. Curious but not particularly concerned, she took care
of business and continued with her normal daily activities. When it happened
a second time in as many days, she knew it was time to have it looked at.
Not the kind of person who
frequented practitioners of the medical sciences, Sarah spoke to her dear
and close friend, Liz Kelly who had recently been to a gastrointestinal
specialist in New York City. The following morning she was in the office of
Dr. Burton Korelitz on East 85th Street where he performed a colonoscopy and
diagnosed cancer of the colon. His advice to her was immediate
hospitalization at Lenox Hill Hospital, and surgery by the world-renowned
rectal colon specialist, Dr. Norman Sohn. Sarah asked to use his
telephone—and that was when I received her call.
Cancer is one of those words
that brings with it instant fear— Few other words in any language evoke such
Each one of us is going to
die. It’s a fact... But it’s one of those universal facts that we each
unsuccessfully try to keep hidden away—whistling in the dark whenever the
subject tugs at the hem of our consciousness—pretending, hoping it will
never happen to us. And that’s more the pity of it, isn’t it? Next to being
born, death is the one most important event in our lives.
I excused myself, turning the presentation over to my associate and took the call in the chief architect’s office. “Hello, dear. Are you okay?” I asked with concern. And the whole crazy past few days poured out of her.
When we were married, my best
man—an old and wise gentleman—counseled us, “Live each day as if it were
your last.” I sagely nodded my head, as if my 23-years on this earth imbued
me with great wisdom, acknowledging the prudence of his advice. But I, we
had our whole life ahead of us. There would always be tomorrow; many
tomorrows to apply his counsel.
As we approached our third decade of marital “bliss,” people− friends and relatives began to die; my best man, Sarah’s father, then mother, her two brothers, my stepfather, my best friend, then my brother-in-law, and numerous other friends. Death is a fact. But now it’s beginning to get personal. Then the demon, that feared “C” word had come to my home to roost.
The world-renowned rectal colon specialist performed his magic. Sarah healed nicely and was given a clean bill of health, though not without physical and, some mental scaring. Mortality was unceremoniously booted from our home and we continued our life as before. There are many more tomorrows…
The events of 9.11 and my
near termination on this earth from the collapse of the Twin Towers had a
large impact on our attitude towards each other. We became much more
forgiving of each other’s idiosyncrasies. We came to understand our petty
differences as non-issues; silly and childish. We gave greater leeway, and
became more tolerant of our irrelevant differences. We both began to think
about, and to apply the admonishment given us so many years ago on our
Eight years to the month from
her first surgery, on Sunday morning Sarah telephoned our dinner guests from
the evening before, inquiring if they had food poisoning. She had tremendous
abdominal pain, and early Monday morning I bundled her into the family
automobile and delivered her to the hospital.
Dr. Sohn had retired, and the
new star of rectal colon surgery, Dr. Joseph Martz performed the honors. He
removed most, but due to complications was unsuccessful in eliminating all
of the cancer. After healing from the surgery, she survived the year of
inquisitional hell that is chemotherapy. I became much more attentive to her
needs, and we became increasingly close. Our love and friendship blossomed
as her body began to submit to the dreaded malignancy gaining ground within
In June 2004, her third and final operation was performed. Dr. Martz, once again the surgeon, opened her up, carefully considered all the options and made the right decision to close. Sarah was in recovery when he briefed me at 10 PM. I shook his hand and thanked him for all his efforts and good work over the years. No remaining time was offered, but I intuitively knew that she wouldn’t live out the year...
The final six-months were a
blur. As her body began to shut down, the activity around the house
increased exponentially. She would call me at my office when her pain was
unbearable. I would rush home to be by her side, and hold her hand. I felt
worthless, but it meant the world to both of us. When the pain subsided,
she’d get up and putter around her flower gardens. She was a beautiful
sight. Never a complaint. A strong woman. She sustained her high standards
of conduct and continued to maintain a well regulated home.
People came and went. My
sister, Kaaren took it upon herself, and asked if she could become the
“Gatekeeper” for all the help our generous friends were offering. I
Four times during the past
two years, we had cancelled a long wished for holiday to Great Britain. Once
again we discussed the trip and she decided, “Let’s give it one-more-try.”
We set the date for the end of October. We guesstimated that the healing
from the June surgery would climax at about the same time the rest of her
body would began to fail.
It was touch-and-go right up to the gate. On the final leg into Heathrow International Airport, she began vomiting—not from airsickness. I’d arranged for a wheelchair to meet us at the gate. The poor girl struggled all the way to our London hotel. “Find me the ladies room!” she demanded as we entered the lobby. While I did the formalities at the reservations desk, Sarah was vomiting her innards out. The next three days she spent in bed, vomiting. She was so apologetic to me, but nothing mattered except her comfort. On the fourth day, she felt better. I rented a car, and as we pulled away from the curb she quietly said, “Please take me to the hospital...”
Sarah knew her blood volume
was down and so informed the doctors. We spent 24-hours in the hospital
while she received two units of blood.
The following day we walked out of the hospital, hopped into our little rental and drove a couple hours west to the Fisherman’s House, a wonderful Bed & Breakfast. She immediately went to bed. We had day trips planned, but she couldn’t rise before noon. We managed to walk arm-in-arm on a blustery sunny day through the ancient stone circle of Avebury. And in the Red Lion Inn, located at the crossroads in the center of the circle, we hoisted a beer, a toast in honor of the ancient ones. Three days later, after an abbreviated itinerary we drove back into London and checked into a hotel.
At the office late Monday morning, I received a telephone call from Catherine, a dear friend of over fifty years; a retired registered nurse who took it upon herself to help Sarah and me with all things medical these past ten years. “Hi, it’s me,” she said by way of introduction, knowing I’d recognize her calm, confident voice. “Sarah’s in the hospital. She’s undernourished and needs blood.”
Lord, how I love this woman.
We managed a short dinner
date at a friend’s home a week before Thanksgiving, and surprised my sister
and her husband when we arrived for Thanksgiving dinner with them in their
home. This was Sarah’s last outing.
She began losing weight. At 5
foot 4 inches and about 115 pounds, she didn’t have much to lose. She was a
beautiful bride 38-years ago. She was an even more beautiful woman today;
scenic blue eyes, luscious silver hair sprinkled with her original auburn,
honey lips, controlled, even-tempered disposition, unafraid of death, her
body, consumed by cancer was wasting away at a furious rate.
The first week in December
was the beginning of the end. Mostly bedridden, she’d bolt out of bed and
sprint to the bathroom to vomit—ten, twelve times a day. I’d be there to
hold her head and have a cool, wet washcloth to wipe her face and help her
back into bed. She no longer had the energy to shower, and a sponge bath
became the norm. I hired a day nurse/aid to assist. My sisters were in and
out frequently every day bringing groceries, shopping, running little
errands. Catherine, our personal, friendly neighborhood nurse counseled me
daily and ministered to Sarah. Arrangements were made for a funeral home. I
refused a night nurse/aid, not wishing to have a stranger padding around my
bedroom, selfishly wanting to administer to the increasing needs of the love
of my life, myself.
The second week during a few
hours of calm, Sarah quietly asked, looking me straight in the eyes, “Erik,
am I leaving?”
The time had come, and I was
yet unable to face the reality. I answered jocularly, “You haven’t left,
“Am I leaving,”
she demanded, stressing each word, her eyes locked onto mine.
“Yes,” was my quiet, simple,
honest reply, as I looked deep into those beautiful blue eyes I’ve admired
all these years.
“Thank you,” she said softly,
relief in her voice, pausing, already knowing the answer but wishing
confirmation. Then she started to weep.
“I wanted to grow old with
you,” she cried. “There’s so much I still want to do with you.”
“And we will,” I assured her
as she sank, spent of energy back onto the pillow.
“In our next life together.”
I thought I was going to
suffocate. The emotion swelled up into my throat, neck and head. Tears began
streaming down my cheeks. I turned away not wishing to show any weakness. I
wanted to be strong for her as she still had a rough road ahead.
This was not going to be
easy, I thought.
I knew the end was near. 38-years—and it was ending with me only just now beginning to understand the wisdom of “Live each day as if it were your last.” Was our pettiness so important to argue over? Certainly not. Life with my love would have been that much sweeter, and I would not now have the regrets of having said, or done that which could, I feared, begin to plague me.
Spoon feeding her some tea,
in a moment of calm lucidness she looked at me and said, “I guess we’re
beginning to say goodbye.” It was a statement of fact.
“I think so,” I said with
difficulty, choking on the words. “Will you marry me again when we have the
opportunity,” I asked?
“Yes. Oh, yes!” she wailed,
reaching for my hands and squeezing them. She had so little fluid in her
body she couldn’t tear when she cried, but I had enough for both of us.
Sarah had become so weak;
often she didn’t know whether she was asleep in a dream, or awake on earth.
“I feel like I’m two different people,” she told me one day.
“It’s the same you,” I
replied. “Your Soul is free, anxious for release. And at the same time, it’s
in prison, trapped in your body.
You’re about to make a prison
break!” I announced.
The most beautiful smile
crossed her lips...
She began telling me—talking
out loud actually, to no one in particular—about the crowds of people around
her bed. That she was having the most wonderful conversations with them. I
would ask her who was there.
“Oh, you know,” she would
Once, I began naming names of
friends who had passed away, and she would just nod her head, “Yes.” Then it
got old and she said with annoyed understanding, “Oh, cut it out, Erik!”
For the next ten days or so,
until she became too weak to speak and keep her eyes open, she continued to
talk with friends, and described activities taking place that only she could
see. At one point as I was feeding her broth through an eye-dropper she
said, looking beyond the corner of the room, “Oh, look! There’s mom over
there eating soup. ‘Hi, Mom,’” she said breezily, raising her right arm,
waving to her. Her mother had passed away 24-year ago, but had obviously
joined her for dinner.
On another occasion, clearly
discussing with her friends—invisible to me—how much time she had left, she
said, “Will it be fast or slow? Make it fast. Make it fast,” she said
“Take it easy. We’re waiting
for you,” was the reply she repeated.
On Christmas Day before
opening the gifts, we had developed an annual practice of reviewing together
the just past year; discussing our life together, appraising the successes,
and assessing how we could improve upon our cooperation with one another. At
the conclusion of our review, we would hold hands, and I would say a short
prayer to the Lord’s Angels, thanking them for all the help, answers to our
prayers given us during the year. I would conclude the prayer, “With Love
There was no Christmas for us
this year. But I did sit beside the bed with her and attempted a one-sided
review of the just gone year. I couldn’t tell if she could hear me or not,
but when I held her hand and concluded the prayer with, “With Love and
Gratitude,” she weakly said, “Hear, hear!”
Emotions were running strong for me just then. The love of my life, my wife of 38-years was approaching her moment of escape to the other side. I had no thought of myself, but only of her comfort and the wholehearted love I had for her... and her selfless suffering. I was in awe of her beauty and inner strength. I thought of the verse in Ecclesiastes that reminds us, “The day of death is better than the day of one’s birth.”
Sarah’s time of release was
rapidly approaching. The evening of the 27th she said, “It won’t be long
now.” And the following morning she said to no one, and everyone, “Thank you
These were her last words...
She had asked me a couple of
weeks before, “How do people do this alone?” acknowledging all the wonderful
help that was being volunteered to us.
“Truly, I do not know,” was
my heartfelt reply of gratitude.
Night times were occupied
with changing her colostomy bag, emptying the folio-bag draining her stomach
fluids—poisons from the tumors, repairing the faulty plumbing of her
catheter, and attempting to keep her hydrated.
I was exhausted, though I
wasn’t that aware of it! On December 30th, I laid down next to her at 11 PM,
attempting to take a cat nap. Her breathing was so loud and labored that I
got up and spent the remainder of the night trying to give her water and
make her comfortable.
Thinking she was not getting
enough oxygen, and that I was starving her, I telephoned Catherine at 8:00
AM and explained the situation. She arrived 30-minutes later and assured me
that Sarah was getting enough oxygen, and no, I wasn’t starving her. I was
particularly disturbed about this and we sat in the living room discussing
the current state of affairs.
Fifty-minutes later, Denise,
the day nurse/aid standing watch at Sarah’s bedside, called, “Erik!”
Both Catherine and I went
into the bedroom. She stood at Sarah’s feet, I at her head. Sarah’s
breathing was loud, labored, and becoming more and more widely spaced.
I placed my right hand on her
forehead, stroking it back over her beautiful silver-gray hair. Her
beautiful, scenic blue eyes were concealed behind closed lids. Her
honey-lips, cracked from lack of moisture. Those alabaster hugging arms,
slack beside her, hands resting on her stomach.
One last, labored, long drawn
out short breath...
It was 9:24 AM, December 31,
Sarah made her escape.
Thank you for
Happy New Year!
A couple of days later I had
breakfast with an old and close friend of mine. In the course of our
conversation, he asked me an insightful and fascinating question: “What have
I opened my mouth to speak,
but tears immediately flooded my face, as I had given this subject
considerable thought the past few months. “That’s a great question,” I
barely eked out. “I can’t talk at the moment,” it felt like an apple was
stuck in my throat, “but I’d like to give you an answer—at a later date.”
I wanted to discuss with him
the 38-years ago counsel given us by my best man, “Live each day as if it
were your last.” Had we applied that wise counsel, there would be no
regrets, or sorrow, nor guilt this day; as we would not have said or done,
or not done things for which we would later have cause to regret.
And the admonitions: Sink your differences, Bear with one another, Cooperation with Understanding, Work with
one another, Give the benefit of doubt... And how by applying this very practical advice each and everyday, would eventually eliminate strife amongst individuals, strengthen friendships, and dissipate enmities, thus developing more successes and eliminating failures. What could be more practical...?
This is what I have learned:
Not to regret past mistakes, but to learn from them. That the cultivation of
our friendships is more important than self-centered, obstinate selfishness,
and irritable impatience towards one another, which brings strife and
difficulties. That the efforts to treat each other decently and honestly,
exercising discretion and tolerance, patience and understanding towards each
other’s shortcomings, carries weight toward bringing together mutual
cooperation and harmony between individuals.
The paradox is that we must
suffer through the storms and tempests in the passage of life’s journey to
gain the experience to begin to understand the wisdom of wise counsel. The
counsel here is to remember our mistakes and not to repeat them.
Thus is true progress toward
cooperation with understanding—learning to work harmoniously
Erik Ronningen lives in Mamaroneck, NY.
He was married to Sarah for thirty-eight years.
I have been lucky enough to have known Erik for a few years and was privileged to have had the chance to have chatted with Sarah once or twice before she died.
Erik's reflections on 9/11 are some of the most powerful words on the subject I have ever read and remain online more than four years after we first published his essay. - HN
You can email Erik at
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