The Day I Became a Single Parent

Wednesday, May 1, 1996 began with one of those sparkling Spring mornings that convinces you that all truly is right with the world. Birds sang and trees budded as unclouded sunshine illuminated everything against a clear blue sky.

Only one thing had seemed amiss that morning. My 45-year-old husband John, normally up and out the door promptly, got ready for work as usual but lingered; he went out to the family room and sat on the couch. This was so unlike him that after a few silent minutes, I became concerned and went to see him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, touching his shoulder.

“Nothing,” John said. “I’m just tired.”

John had been working 12-hour days, motivated by the dangling carrot of an imminent promotion; it seemed reasonable that he’d be tired. He’d been working too hard.

So I felt better when my husband got up, grabbed his golf bag and, as he walked out the door, said that he’d probably stop at the driving range after work.

I took our little son Mike to the on-site kindergarten provided by our employer (my husband and I worked for the same company) and then continued on to my office building. After picking up coffee at the cafeteria, I headed for my office.

The phone rang and I chatted at length with a former coworker who’d moved to another part of the company. Suddenly I was interrupted when a woman who worked for me appeared at my doorway with an urgent message.

“Excuse me, Fran,” she began. “There’s a man on the phone from your husband’s office. He’s been trying to reach you. Your husband is having a medical emergency and they want you to go down there.” John and I worked in different buildings, but they were right next to each other.

I had no idea what “medical emergency” meant, but I hung up the phone, grabbed my purse and raced down the hill between the buildings. Before I reached John’s building I was met by Dave, the coworker who’d called for me.

Then I was startled by what I saw: two ambulances, lights flashing, parked in front. Were they there for John? Suddenly I felt terribly afraid.

What’s wrong? I asked Dave as we ran inside and up the stairs. They weren’t sure, he said. He opened the door to the second floor. All I saw were hushed people standing everywhere. No one was sitting, no one was working. Everyone was standing, staring. Staring toward the open door of my husband’s office.

Dave led me through the parting spectators. We reached the office and I saw John, flat on his back on the floor, motionless and expressionless.

My first impulse was to run in there to be with him, to let him know that I was there, but it was impossible. Paramedics knelt over him, administering injections, squeezing a plastic bag of air into a tube down his throat.

The office nurse approached me for information about John’s medications and health. I answered her questions as well as I could. Dave gripped my arm – so tightly that I later found a thumbprint-shaped bruise there – to steady me. Yet I felt strangely calm, as if none of what was unfolding before me was real. We just stood there, all of us together, and watched.

Watched as the paramedics applied an electric shock to John’s chest. Watched as his body jerked upward in response. Watched as nothing they did affected his lifeless pallor.

I said to people around me, “My son is just a little boy. He needs his father.” I really didn’t grasp what was happening, but my maternal instincts were working just fine: my Mikey had to have his Daddy!

This went on for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, the person in charge at the scene, a police officer, took me aside. “Your husband has gone into v-fib,” he said. He explained that v-fib was ventricular fibrillation, an ineffective, erratic heartbeat that is fatal if not reversed via defibrillation, the electric shocks which they’d applied repeatedly without success.

“Does he still have a heartbeat?” was all I could think to ask. (In hindsight, I realize that I was actually asking if John was dead or alive.) Yes, he still has a heartbeat, the officer said. They were going to transport John to the hospital now, he told me.

Not comprehending the implications of this, I simply told Dave that they were taking John to the hospital. Dave offered to drive me there.

During the short drive, I had hope. This doesn’t look good, I thought, but they have to be able to do more for John at the hospital.

I felt even more hopeful when, after Dave dropped me off at the emergency room, I was asked to complete admission papers. OK, so they’re admitting him, I thought. You only admit people who are alive, right? I provided all the information they requested in what seemed to be an unusually deserted area of the hospital.

I asked if there was a phone I could use to call my parents and John’s brother (John’s parents had both died several years earlier). I wanted to let someone know where we were, what was going on. My mother was upset; I told her I’d keep her informed. John’s brother said he’d be right down.

Then I sat on a plastic chair and waited, alone in an empty corner of some back hallway. I looked up when I noticed a young doctor walking toward me from the opposite end of the hall.

It was exactly like one of those cliché TV moments; you just know that the somber-faced doctor is about to deliver the bad news. Only this wasn’t TV. And the bad news was about to be delivered to me.

“Mrs. Hopkins, the paramedics did everything they could for your husband on the way here,” the doctor said. “There was nothing more we could do.”

At barely forty and with a little boy in kindergarten, I found myself suddenly propelled into – what? I didn’t know. The future had vanished.