The Last Birthday

I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.

A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.

I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.

And then I opened it.

His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.

Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.

I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.

After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.

We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.

My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.

I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.

And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.

Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.

“Why can’t we?” He said.

And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.

So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.

And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.

On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.

These are the words I spoke.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children.  He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.

That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.

Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.

Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.

People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.

This is that poem:

Give me hunger

Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders

Give me hunger, pain and want

Shut me out with shame and failure

From your doors of gold and fame

Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger

But leave me a little love

A voice to speak to me in the day end

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness

In the dusk of day-shapes

Blurring the sunset

One little, wandering, western star

Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow

Let me go to the window

Watch there the day-shapes of dusk

And wait and know the coming

Of a little love

Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.

Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.

Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.

One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.

We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.

This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.

I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.

But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.

All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.

Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.

On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.

As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.

I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.

I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.

Or I could rise.

But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.

My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.

Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.

Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.

I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.

For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.

What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.

I would say three things to him:

  • I love you.
  • I took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
  • I lived every day hoping you would smile my way.

My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.

I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.

Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”

Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.

For more about Dale:

401 thoughts on “The Last Birthday

  1. Riveting account of such an emotionally complex relationship, Dale. Grateful that you shared it with us, and hoping that the sharing it helps you move further down the road to wholeness and joy.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. I pray that the sweet moments with Dennis will continue to come to mind to make you smile, and that the memory of that last kiss will speak apology and forgiveness to your spirit. You WILL rise, Dale!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Just saw this today, Dale. Beautifully written. Marriage is not easy and its end isn’t either. You’ve really captured that. Thinking about your post: I don’t think anyone can be everything any other person needs — a child, a spouse, an aging parent. There are some needs only God can meet. Hmmm. Lots to think about.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Your post was so beautiful … and so pure!👌🏻 I just loved the way you harnessed your thoughts and feelings and made the most touching tribute I’ve ever heard!
    I’m not particularly religious, but I believe that consciousness transcends time and space – and even though Dennis may not be in the physical realm any more, your words are, without doubt the music that will touch his soul through all eternity.
    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Abraham Hicks calls death the transition to non physical and that’s what I have come to believe about it. We don’t die in the traditional sense, but we just pass to another form.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. This is a beautiful tribute to your husband. Also, I love the idea of a party and have told others that’s what I desire. I also like the fact that you broke tradition and did what was appropriate for him. Finally, this is one of the most authentic eulogies I’ve read.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for this honest and touching post. It reminded me of a dear friend who died suddenly of a heart attack at 43. He lived life to the fullest. I did the eulogy at his funeral which was difficult, but also therapeutic in remembering his life and celebrating it. I love the idea of a last birthday party.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Wow, this has left me in tears. So well-written, it feels like I needed to hear what you’ve shared. It resonated loudly! You’ve given me so much to think about what to do in the land of the living. I thank you for that. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  8. There are pains that do not heal so easily. You make a story very sad, painful and at the same time very true with your feelings. Only time will tell when to close that wound. On the side, the writing is magnificent. Greetings.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Reading your work is so very touching, gripping; and it took a little while to form a verbal response. I’m touched by your love and celebration of your husband, and how uniquely you depicted and shared that love with us in your written piece. I am touched by the character of your husband and your son’s suggestion, and how you all fit together as a family. May things become easier along the way… your courage and patience is shared as an artist in all the ways you keep going; please keep going and fill the pages and all the spaces with your healing and celebration, and all it takes to get there…into the healing places, into the places of connection.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Dale –

    I wanted to reach out to you after reading your story.
    My heart and soul pours out to you and your sons. I too lost my husband on June, 4th 2012.
    As a little girl, I was always terrified of the word “Widow.” I am that terrifying name now.
    I want you to know, you are not alone in this Widows Walk. I feel your happiness and your sadness. My heart breaks because I know whole heartedly what you must have felt and are feeling.

    You sound like a very strong woman and I love the idea your son came up with to throw your husband a birthday party. Awesome idea!

    My sweet husband, who’s name is Stan, suffered a heart attack on June 4th, 2012 which was my birthday. We were on the phone planning our weekend. He was a truck driver, had been for years, and died behind the wheel of his truck while talking to me on the phone, doing what he loved doing, “driving an 18 wheeler.”

    I developed an anger with God for taking him two years after we were married. It just didn’t seem right, it was much too soon, and I wanted him to know how I felt.
    Throughout my pain and anger, I did have to many times, leave the room or go outside and scream! I can remember the day the State Troopers, who were so amazing and comforting to me, even though they had to deliver a nightmare to my door-steps. One that stopped me from celebrating my birthday for a few years. I just now started back allowing my sons and friends to take me out to eat and celebrate that day. My sweet grandchildren and Grief Counseling helped heal my heart through this journey!

    I have grown stronger since then and have turned my Grief into poetry and am completing a book that I’ve written in honor of him.

    You never forget the day they passed away, what you were doing when you learned of their death and the memories, those sweet, sweet memories, which is the Sugar Process; but late at night when you’re all on your own and the pain hits you and the guilt sets in, that is what I call the Salt Process. It is like someone pouring salt on an open wound.

    Thank you for sharing this touching story. I would love to have a birthday party for my husband. I still have his ashes on the shelf in my living room. I tell myself that I haven’t had the time to spread them anywhere; but the fact of the matter is, it’s just a way of keeping him there with me.

    Grief is definitely a process that we all must go through in life. Dying is a part of living, but living without the people we love is and can be hard.

    Peace and Love to you and your sons!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also have my husband’s ashes. I went to a guitar store and asked if they had any broken amplifiers. They looked confused and asked why. I said I wanted something to put his ashes in. They pulled out an amplifier from the back room and when I asked how much, they said it was free. What a wonderful world we live in. It does seem unfair you only had him for 2 years. But everything is temporary, the good and the bad. They always end sometime.


      1. Yes, they do, don’t they.
        It’s the Survivors Guilt that tears you up inside.
        My husband’s ashes are in a beautiful urn and I had them split up into three parts for his siblings that weren’t able to make it to his funeral, his daughter, and myself.
        His siblings spread his ashes on the land they grew up on, but his daughter and I have yet to spread ours.

        I love the broken amplifier thing you did. What a beautiful tribute! We fell in love on our first date, listening to Sirius XM Radio. He was a hoot and I was naive. We made a great match.

        You’re right, everything is temporary!😃


      1. Am so glad. That is how all of us should be living : filled with love and light.
        Thank you for the reads and wish you more love and light 😊🤗

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks. I’m a little stuck at the moment but hopefully I’ll publish another one soon.


  11. This is beyond gorgeous. I read every word. Having been the one to discover my nearly 102-year-old mother had died, I understand that experience, and you expressed it beautifully. Having written–a year ago–a eulogy for her, I know the special privilege that is, and the pressure of one last chance to get it right. I dare say you accomplished that. Thank you for the honor to read it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much Gretchen. I’m so glad to know other people have had the same experience. It makes me feel less alone.


  12. This is the most real, the most honest, the most vulnerable tribute to a love that endured.
    My heartfelt condolences for your loss, and my deep respect for your grace and strength.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Oh Dale. This is beyond beautiful, sweet, raw and wide open. Thank You for sharing Your heart so. There is so much sweetness and honesty here You made me cry. Sending much Love You way….❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  14. It is so amazing Dale the synchronicity. I had just started to write about the death of my wife and took a break to read … and found this.
    We are all so connected. And we know so little about life, about other dimensions, which I strongly believe in. I am sure Dennis is in good hands and going on with his journey.
    And am so glad that you have chosen and carved out a great life for you. Much love and hugs 🤗

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Wow! This was such a heartfelt gripping story! I am so sorry for your loss. I love how you turned death into a celebration of life and remembrance. You are a very strong and enduring soul. None of us are the spouse we should be. Life is a journey full of the good the bad and the ugly. Remember the good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Beautiful remembrance. Love changes for us all in time. Stay together long enough and the fur will fly. That’s okay. What really matters is you were there together through it all and you let everyone keep their fond memories and gave them more. You said goodbye in a grand and loving way and you know he had to give you that smile for all you did. That is what love is after the honeymoon is over and everyone goes back to work.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I like the rawness of words; they have nothing to hide behind and only say what is there. They also clean the wound and prepare for fresh growth. Feel honoured that you shared this.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I appreciate your honesty. Several years ago-it was me living in the basement. I can relate. It’s heartbreaking-and real. I get that there was much love-even if it looked like bitterness. Good to meet you 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes—I am sorry for your loss. It is tragic—but how different a story you would tell—if you had never loved him at all. 😊

        Many a night, while living in the basement did I consider ending my marriage of 22 years—by death or divorce. I’ve written a bit about some of that time on older posts-Ch 1.

        I look forward to reading more of your journey,
        Be well.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. I don’t know if you were the wife he needed, but I imagine he thought so and you were the wife he wanted.

    I struggled over the eulogies of my parents who died a year apart Jan 2017 and Jan 2018 and I too felt the same way about public speaking. In the end I concluded for me it was one last chance to say thank you to them.

    Your words to and about your husband are beyond beautiful and I loved them.


    Liked by 1 person

      1. My post yesterday was called “How I Know Life Is Fleeting'” and when I was thinking about that title, it made me think of the kind things we say after the person is gone….and I was thinking to myself, that’s the way we should live while the person is alive, then I read your post today, and it makes so much sense, but yet it is often difficult to do while the person is alive!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know. I think that’s why we say such nice things during funerals, because we regret we didn’t say them during life.

        Liked by 1 person

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