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Johnny Cash & the Last Song I Ever Played Before My Life Partner Died

"And you could have it all, my empire of dirt."

“What have I become My sweetest friend Everyone I know Goes away In the end”

Cash’s rich, bass-baritone voice, filled with pain and longing, croons as haunting chords, four beats each — A, F, C, G — strum in the background.

“And you could have it all My empire of dirt I will let you down I will make you hurt.”

This was the last song I ever played when my life partner was alive.

Resting in a matrimonial bed, he sat up quickly. “Roll me into the other room,” he directed. His voice and demeanor restrained. I didn’t know it was the final hour of his life, and that he had precious, little life energy left.

His twenty-year old daughter napping in the hospital bed that a friend helped me squeeze through the bedroom door. Our five-year old son just home from school and decompressing in front of an iPad in the other room.

Guiding him to his feet and into the chair, I rolled the black, rubber wheels over unpolished wood floors and into our front, living room. There, natural light and the fruit trees and flowers in the garden surrounding our casita, entered through the windows.

Maneuvering Burt over to the boxy, wooden furniture where I had been sitting, upholstered foam cushions under my ass, while typing on my computer. Always reflecting; always at the work of creating deeper meaning in a world that can feel cruel, unjust and filled with oh so much incomprehensible loss.

In and out of consciousness, his head gently rolling to the side, Burt would seemingly awaken, and look at me with shock in his eyes. Rubbing his knee in support, “It’s okay,” I consoled. “It’s the morphine — perhaps you had too much today. Tomorrow will be better.”

But tomorrow never came.

At least, not for him.

Life does go on for the rest of us, however.

“If I could start again, A million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way.”

House ridden for a week, Burt had finally accepted conventional doctors’ grim prognosis. He wouldn’t live to see February.

It was January 21st, 2020.

The following day, Burt held me as I expunged myself of every last tear I had spent this lifetime holding in. “We will sing and dance you out,” I cried aloud in his arms.

Sitting there, stoic and skeletal, on a bed in an unfamiliar room in an unknown hospital in a foreign country, he nodded in agreement and did what he had been doing from the get go of our friendship, just nine years before.

“I hurt myself today, To see if I still feel I focus on the pain, The only thing that is real.”

Later, an alternative doctor walked into the room and had us wishing upon a star by way of the miracle of mistletoe. Listening to him, and hoping against all odds, Burt chose to spend the last ten days of his life focused on living.

I wish we would have talked more about Burt’s death — what would it look like? What choices did he want to be made? And:

"What song would he want to leave this material plane on?" Burt would have loved to be danced out to “Whip It” by Devo, or some other meaningful-to-his-life song from an obscure, early-80’s band. I was sure to include this in his official memorial, over a month later and back in North San Diego County, of course. But in these final moments, I chose Cash and “Hurt.”

Because I was thinking about me; not Burt.

Extremely self-absorbed, I took everything personally. I still erroneously thought that Burt’s cancer journey and death were all about me.

What had I become?

There I was, doing the two things that I promised myself I wouldn’t.

I hadn’t wanted to play the role of mother, or to have our whole life revolve around him — but Life was requiring this of us.

My days had become focused on managing and directing his care. His daughter taking the overnight shift; a caretaker arriving in the early morning to make herbal poultices that she applied to Burt’s mid-section, where his rock hard liver protruded beyond his rib-cage; and then my navigating our afternoons together of cleaning and caring for all four of us. This included getting my young child out into nature, and remembering to be alive and free, by riding our bicycles along the winding sendero (path) found beside an ambling river just down the hill from where we were living.

Because life is to be savored, even in the midst of grief and pain.

A day earlier, I had helped Burt into the wheelchair and rolled him into the front room. Covering myself with plastic and arming myself with floss, I commanded that Burt open his mouth and let me tend to his teeth. Softened and chipped from all of the chemo and radiation the year before, he had white grime filling the space between his front, lower teeth. I set about, fixing this.

Annoyed, he accused me of caring about vanity in his moment of death. “Our teeth are the gateway to our gut,” I innocently responded. “And gut health is another important pillar of our health and well-being.”

I did do my best to support Burt in all of the choices that he was making — even as I failed often to extend to him all of the unconditional love and empathy that he was so good at giving. I had long been running with a deep fear of intimacy clouding my path, and now I was being confronted with all of it.

“I wear this crown of thorns Upon my liar’s chair Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair.”

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