James Arthur Rudkin
the Finest Man I Have Ever Known
by Casey J Rudkin
Before you begin reading, I want you to understand a few things.
First, I am writing this for me. This has been welling up inside me for months, bottle-necking any attempts to write anything else, so it has to go. Honestly, it’s eating me alive, and I can’t take it anymore. This is the only way. If you feel slighted or somehow offended that you are not mentioned by name in my writings and social media postings about Jim, get over yourself. It’s not about you. If you find this an offensive stance, go read something else. I do not have the emotional bandwidth to coddle anyone beyond our girls right now. If you can’t be on board with that, close the tab and get on with your life, with my sincerest blessings.
Second, I am only comfortable sharing so much publicly. I understand people are curious. Some folks have gone so far as to attempt to pry details from me on the phone. I get being nosy, but you don’t always get what you want. Jim wouldn’t want me spreading his business all over the internet and to everyone who asks, and I am going to abide by that. Trust. I know him better than anyone. I know exactly who he would want to be in possession of the details of his exit from this world and who he would tell to bugger off. I will unflinchingly maintain that line.
Finally, I am not going to sugarcoat this. If you’re not up for it, I understand. You can nope out after the next paragraph and move along, no questions asked. You’ll know the most important part of the story. And the spoiler alert is that there is no happy ending. I aim to tell the most real version of this that I can. This one’s gonna hurt, and your mental health is important. Leave now if you must. No judgement here.
At the end of the summer, when the weather was nice, and the birds were finding their feeding schedule in our backyard at home in Calumet, Jim walked into the stars. It was sudden; it was swift; and it dismantled our world in ways I didn’t even think possible.
I made two of the worst decisions of my life in two consecutive days. First, I didn’t push Jim to go to the hospital to get checked out, when everything in me was screaming that something was wrong, and despite his protestations that he was fine. Then, after he died, I panicked, sold the house, and moved away. Every moment since, I’ve had to live with regret and the consequences of these decisions. Every moment since, I have to had to do it alone without the solid and guiding presence of Jim by my side.
Jim is everything to me. He is my husband, my best friend, my life mate, my co-parent, my writing partner, my co-conspirator. The moon and the stars. The mountains and the lakes. The rivers and the seas. All that there is or ever was, he is that for me. I love him more than all of the rocks on the hill by the Houghton Walmart, and he is absolutely the only person who would get that reference.
These last months, I have been trying to put the pieces of my shattered life back into some semblance of order. Dear Reader, I have not been so successful. I’ve tried to be there for our girls. I can’t imagine losing such a wonderful Papa so young. My heart breaks for them over and over again. I’ve relied on my close family and chosen family to be there for us, and those people have come through. I can’t thank them enough.
What I couldn’t imagine the day I lost Jim was all of the everything else that comes with death. It is supposed to be the ultimate finality, and for Jim, I suppose it was, but it kicks off a horrible new reality for those he leaves behind.
Like the paperwork. Endless rounds of paperwork and explanations on the phone, only to be transferred to someone else to start over again, never with a resolution. Do you have his notarized will? Do you have paperwork from the Court? Can you provide a Death Certificate? So much paperwork.
Like the machine of everyday life trying to grind him out of existence, erase him like an error in some grand equation. There is alive and there is not, and once you flip that switch, the system wants you out. Gone. Removed and best forgotten. It’s inhumane to those who love him, but there is no grey area in matters of legalities, finance, or public record. Marital status? Widowed. Not an option. Put “Single.” But I’m not single, my husband is just no longer here with me. Put “Single” and move on. But I can’t. Keep moving.
Like the Death Industry. He was an organ donor, and by the afternoon of his last day in this realm, Jim was already in Ann Arbor, awaiting the procedure. I wanted that, too. I wanted his death to mean something positive for someone else. But then I got the paperwork after the fact. Sorry, we couldn’t use this part or that part; we did use x, y, and z. I didn’t need to know that. I didn’t need a scorecard. That was cruel. Donating everything possible, I received a medal – a fucking medal – as a thank you for his contributions. I had to fight to get back his earrings, his clothes, and the contents of his pockets, but they sent a medal as a thank you. Like, yay, he won? And because the funeral home apparently sells its client list, I started to get strange offers in the mail. Turns out $4000 doesn’t get you a lot of discretion, just ashes in a plastic box. After two months of trying to find some semblance of a new normal, I get a “gift” in the mail – a crappy hardbound book filled with cheap, generic Bible verses, and blanks to fill in relevant information or squares to paste in photographs. Very much old school arts and crafts crap. In it are parables about losing a parent, losing a spouse, losing a sibling, losing a child – fill in your personal grief on the relevant pages, please. And they had the unmitigated gall to send me pre-written thank you notes to let the “sponsors” of my gift know how grateful I was to receive it. These businesses around my small town somehow want to advertise in a DIY book about my dead husband? They will certainly be receiving a hand-written response from me, but it won’t be the pabulum the authors of the “keepsake” wrote on my behalf. It will be an unedited screed about how shitty their “gift” was and how they should fire whoever told them this was a good investment of their money and their reputations.
Like the staggering medical bills for unsuccessful treatment. How can you rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills in two hours and have only a death certificate to show for it? You’d best be sure they made sure I signed all of that paperwork before I left the hospital. Half of the bills come in Jim’s name, and half of them come to “The Estate of.” Turns out, your insurance isn’t big on covering the last two hours of your life. And speaking of insurance, mine went up by $400 per month the minute Jim died. They made it retroactive to his death date. No freeloading widows in the insurance industry, no siree Bob. Did I mention that the insurance didn’t cover any of this? Because, yeah, it didn’t.
Everything about death is wrapped in dollar bills. I’m pretty sure Jim didn’t go to the hospital when he experienced his initial pains because he was worried about the medical bills, about the cost it might take to diagnose or fix whatever problem he was having. He reassured me it was a pulled muscle across his back. I rubbed his back and shoulders with liniment an hour before he died. Nothing to worry about, he said. It takes thousands of dollars to live, but I don’t think he realized, it takes just as much to die. I’ve become increasingly jaded about healthcare in America, as was Jim. Now I nurse that bitterness alone.
It’s hard to navigate even day-to-day life without Jim. He was always a steadying influence. The voice of reason to gently move me away from a wound I couldn’t ignore. He thought I was the one who buffered him from the world, because I was in charge of any social interactions we had, but it was always he who kept me afloat and on a relatively even keel. I am grateful that I was sure to tell him that daily.
Since he’s been gone, I’ve also found myself overly critical of social media posts by other couples on their anniversaries and special occasions. Isn’t that weird? I think it’s weird. But that’s where I find myself. One that particularly poked my ire one day was a post from a wife to her husband that said, “Death will tremble to take us.”
Well, isn’t it pretty to think so.
No, sorry. You’re not special, and you are not exempt. And I know that because I am not special, and Jim was not exempt. No one is special when it comes to Death. No one is exempt. Let me tell you how it really happens.
Death comes to take your loved one Sunday morning while you’re having coffee, discussing strategy for an upcoming Champs game, and deciding what to have for a late breakfast before play begins.
Death walks right in, silent and unseen, moves between the two of you as you talk, inserts their bony hands into your love’s chest and squeezes his heart to a halt. Death doesn’t flinch, doesn’t yield, doesn’t care. Death certainly does not tremble. Death just does.
You watch the love of your life, the entirety of your existence, seize up into an unnatural position. His face registers surprise, and you think maybe there is a joke in the offing. But this is no joke. Something is seriously wrong. Panicking, you scream his name again and again. You’re screaming, even though you are not four feet from him.
He pitches over, away from you, out of his chair and onto the ground. You know, but you don’t know, and you do have the wherewithal to call 911, put it on speaker, and drop your phone on the table, all while moving toward your love, motionless on the floor. You toss aside his chair in an effort to reach him.
You’re frantically shouting the details of the situation to the dispatcher. The dispatcher tells you to start CPR. You used to teach it. You know how to do it. Now, in the moment, it suddenly seems so hard. Your knees protest at your weight driving them into the bare wood floor. It probably looks like you’re kneeling to pray, but there is no time for that now and no gods to listen.
You start CPR, following the dispatcher as she counts chest compressions out loud for you: one, two, three, four. She asks you to stop and check for breath. He has none. You tilt his head back and breathe into him, willing him to start breathing again. The air rushes out as fast as it went in. You feel it on your own face, as your head is turned, and you are watching to see if he will begin to breathe on his own. There is nothing. Mercifully, his eyes are closed.
You jump back to his chest and begin compressions again. The dispatcher resumes the count: one, two, three, four. She says you’re not stopping again for breath. Everything has to go into those chest compressions. You realize your efforts are getting sloppy. You fight to lock your elbows. Your arms wobble in spite of you: nine, ten, eleven, twelve. You’re tired already. Your knees grind and complain about the abuse, but you stay focused. You put everything into trying to restart that big old heart of his. It can’t end this way, on a pretty Sunday morning on the dining room floor in front of his 90-gallon fish tank. It just can’t.
This seems like this should be the place for pleading, right? Tears rolling down your cheeks as you beg your love to come back to you, as you call out his name at an increasingly desperate pitch. Maybe somewhere in the darkness, he hears your voice and rallies, fighting to get back to you. Perhaps his eyes flutter open, and he takes an unsteady breath with a slight quiver of his bluing lips. But this isn’t fiction, and none of that is real. There is no time for romantic gestures. There is no time for entreaties and drama. This is deadly serious. You are silent. You keep the count.
Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Stop to listen. Is he breathing yet? No. Back to the compressions. Out of your own breath, you do manage to yell out to the dispatcher to ask when help will arrive. She can only assure you help is on the way. Keep going. She continues to count for you. Again: one, two, three, four.
After what feels like an eternity, but was actually closer to eight minutes, the Deputy Sheriff comes in. You know his presence by the barking of the dogs. You crawl away from your love, from the chest compressions, from the futility of it all, and you let the Deputy take over. Your shoulders burn, and your knees feel like they’re filled with ground glass. You manage to get off the floor, in the least graceful way possible, and get the dogs corralled in the living room, where they can hear but not see what is taking place. You start shoving furniture aside to make space and suddenly your dining room is filled with emergency personnel. At some point, you release the dispatcher from her duties and pocket your phone, moving to the doorway of the kitchen, the same doorway once festooned with mistletoe, a place for stolen holiday kisses, now just an out-of-the-way perch to watch the worst moments of your life continue to unfold in excruciating detail.
And this whole time, your love, your everything, lies motionless on the floor, next to the spot where you always had breakfast together, wrote together, worked together, and gamed together. His spot. The head of our table. That vision, watching people you don’t know work to save the man you hold above all else, it haunts you. It drives you to leave your home forever because you are too damn panicked and stupid to know that you can’t move away from an image. It will pop into your thoughts at random times, bringing with it the sting of fresh tears. Sometimes it halts your breath, seizes your chest until the pain subsides. It materializes in your mind frequently, unbidden and unwelcome, and it probably will for the rest of your life. But at least you could have had the comfort of the home you shared with him. Now you have nothing. Because you made the two worst decisions of your life in quick succession.
The EMTs and two deputies work to save him. They inject him with stuff you have no idea what it might be. They pull out the paddles and shock him a few times. You watch his body jump at each application, desperate to see him move, breathe, give a sign of life. Each time, there is a heavy pause as the EMTs do the same, then resume their efforts.
“He’s dead, isn’t he? You can’t restart his heart.” Your voice sounds flat and monotone, even to your own ears. These are the first words you’ve uttered since hanging up from the dispatcher. You resume your silent vigil.
They assure you they are trying everything.
A calm sweeps over you and shuts you down. A curious absence of emotion fills you. You go to the kitchen and begin moving the kitchen island and all of the things on the floor against the cabinets. You clear the entryway, tossing aside shoes and boots, and clearing the path to the door. Occasionally, you go back to kitchen doorway to repeat the ritual of The Watching for the Breath after each application of the paddles. And always it’s the same result: Nothing.
They lift him onto a board. His only chance, they determine, is at the hospital. They work hard to maneuver him out of the house with its narrow doorways and passages. You watch as they take him past you, as you stand in the kitchen, helpless. That’s another memory that’s going to haunt you. You didn’t need to see it, but you did, and there is no going back from that. You turn away too late.
You gather up your wallet, both your phone and his, and your car keys. You grab your purse because it has your mask, and you’ll need that at the hospital. Finally, you see your adventure bracelet, the one he made for you when he was alone in Alaska and you had the girls in Connecticut. You’ve worn it all over the continent as the two of you traveled together – dipping it in multiple oceans and rivers, scraping it across the ice of the Arctic Ocean, touching it to the tundra in the Arctic Circle, rolling it in the sands of the Carcross Desert, wearing it on hikes through national parks and while camping around Alaska and Canada – carrying bits of your adventures tucked into its knots and folds. You have a feeling this is going to be another big adventure, one you did not want to make, and one you will most likely have to make alone. You shove your hand into the band and get to your car. At the corner, you have to wait as the ambulance crosses your path. Hard to believe he’s in there. You follow behind it. You are less than two miles from the hospital.
You park your car and walk in. People turn to look at you. You detect pity in their eyes, confirming what you already know to be true. A doctor comes out almost immediately and takes you to a room in the ER to wait. You are across the hall, not 15 feet from where they are working to save your love. The doctor says he wants to be honest: it’s not looking good. You say you understand because there aren’t really any other options. You wait.
Less than an hour passes. The doctor returns. They did all they could do. The doctor is kind, and he is sincere. Despite the masking requirement, he reaches out and takes your hand. He says your CPR efforts gave him a chance. He emphasizes that it was not your fault and that Jim did not suffer. You cannot offer yourself the grace to accept the former, nor can you risk your sanity to not believe the latter. You thank him. He leaves.
You answer questions. You fill out paperwork. You’re told you can stay as long as you need. You ask to see him. They point to a room across the hall. You walk in.
It is eerily silent. All of the machines are off, and all of the hospital personnel have left. It’s just you and your love alone. Even Death has moved on, their work complete.
And that is just the way Death operates. Nothing personal. Death doesn’t tremble. Death doesn’t pause to consider. Death just does.
And we, the living, are left to ponder the damaged wreckage of our lives, the shattered debris of our souls. Some people try to glue the pieces back together. Some people throw those pieces away and get something new. Some people, I’m sure, deny the pieces are damaged and continue on as if nothing had happened.
But me? I am married to a glass artist. I’ve walked around barefoot picking shards from my feet for much of the last 30 years. It’s a hazard of the position and a badge of honor to be with the one I love most of all. I can’t even bring myself to pick up the broken pieces let alone do something with them. I shuffle unshod through the ruins of my new life day after day, night after night. Always a new cut or stab, always leaking a little blood as I go, a trail of droplets to mark my passage, a sanguineous measure of any progress I might make.
I wanted none of this, and I got all of it. All of nothing.
Jim deserves a brilliant eulogy, but I can’t write one. Jim deserves a fitting ending, but I can’t materialize that either. Jim deserves to be alive, but I couldn’t make that happen, even though, may the girls forgive me, I tried. I am powerless to do anything of consequence. All I can do is let you know that he is gone. Tell you that we who love him mourn his absence. Express that we hope his journey is a good one. And until I leave on my own adventure to find him, this will have to do.
I love you, Jim. Travel safe.