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Death Came Too Soon: Community TV

  • Richard Cohen:

    Almost 140,000 Americans die each year from a stroke.  Frequently, a loved one remains.  Today, a lovely lady talks to us about a death that came too early.  Jamie Rabb is executive vice president and publisher of Grand Central Publishing in New York.  Jamie’s husband of 22 years, Dennis Dalrymple, died in March 2009 of a cerebral hemorrhage.  Jamie, I suppose it’s always too early, but we take our lives for granted, don’t we?

  • Jamie Rabb:

    We all do, and once you’ve experienced an unexpected death, I don’t think you take it for granted in the same way though.

  • Richard:

    Do you think you are a changed person?

  • Jamie:

    Absolutely a changed person.  I think I was an innocent before. I feel a lot older in just a matter of a year.

  • Richard:

    Sure, sure.  Well, Dennis was not only a successful contracts manager, he was a househusband, a cook, a loyal activist father. Life was pretty good, wasn’t it?

  • Jamie:

    We had an amazing 22 years together.  We had fun, we had a really strong marriage, we had two kids we adored, and we had an arrangement that worked for us.  I worked out of the house in an office every day.  He worked at home.  He loved to cook, he loved to shop, he was really more domestic than I was, and it worked well and we enjoyed our life.  We had a good time.

  • Richard:

    And your world began to crumble when you went to California to see your sick father.  Please, sort of, explain what happened.

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, exactly two years ago my father, who had been failing, started to fail rapidly, so I went out to California to spend time  with him and with my mother and two sisters, and in a matter of a few days he really failed rapidly, and he died. It would have been Feb. 12, very soon, in 2007. 

    And the day he died, it was early in the morning, I called Dennis and Dennis always went out every morning and he exercised, but he would have been back.  It would have been about 8:30-9:00 New York time, and he didn’t answer the phone.  And he was a creature of habit, and I got incredibly nervous when he wasn’t  there in the morning, and I think my sisters and my mother thought I was just reacting, getting hysterical about my father’s death because my father died moments before.  But I just had this instinctual, very strong feeling that something was wrong, called a friend to go over to my apartment and check on him, and he had had a stroke the night before and had been on the floor for about 16 hours.  He was conscious, but he couldn’t move.  So that was the beginning of huge changes in our life. 

  • Richard:

    And I assume you were just shocked.

  • Jamie:

    Well, I was in shock over my father’s death.  I was in shock and terrified because I knew things were happening there, but I didn’t have all the details.  All I knew was that I had to get back as soon as humanly possible and, when my father was still at home, hadn’t even been moved, I was on my way to the San Francisco airport and then, in the middle of an ice storm, on my  back to New York.  It was pretty horrible.

  • Richard:

    And for the next year you sort of went through a rehab process  together.

  • Jamie:

    Basically, this was in February, and until May Dennis was in various hospitals and rehab centers.  He was paralyzed on his left side and he was learning, you know, how to function, getting back some mobility.  And that was hard living without him.

    And then when he came back into our home in May, you know, we had a lot of adjustments to make.  Our lives were changed by his disability and I was learning to be a caretaker, but we felt lucky in some ways.  He was alive and he was the same person he’d always been, you know, just had disabilities that he hadn’t had before.  But we were very hopeful.

  • Richard:

    And at some point, he sat back and told you he was a happy man, didn’t he?

  • Jamie:

    He did.  You know, he’d had a hard year and the rehab was very tough.  He was learning to walk.  He still couldn’t use his arm or hand very much and he was limited.  He was a man who loved to get out and walk around the neighborhood and cook and just be out, and his life was smaller.  And despite this, I would see every day when I came home from work, you know, he just lit up. 

    And one day we were sitting there, it was actually the last day he was conscious.  We were in the living room together and he looked up, he was reading his newspaper, and he just said to me, very simply, “I am a happy man.”  And I thought it was remarkable, given what he’d been through the last 12 months, that he could say that.

  • Richard:

    And then as I understand it, you guys planned a dinner out at a neighborhood restaurant.  Tell me what happened.

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, my family, my sisters were in town and we had planned to go to a local restaurant; one that Dennis had chosen and liked.  We had a great meal and February has always been a hard month.  It’s, you know, the month of everything.  He had his stroke a year ago February.  My father died.  And it was the last day of February and I raised my glass at dinner, and I can’t believe I did this, and I said, “Let’s toast to getting through February.”  We toasted and within a half an hour Dennis had collapsed in the restaurant and was in a coma and never came out of it.

  • Richard:

    But when he collapsed you didn’t know this, he was not coming  out of it.

  • Jamie:

    Well, no, I didn’t.  At first he said he just couldn’t get up from his seat and I got a little impatient.  I said, “Dennis, you can get up.  You can get up.”  And he couldn’t.  Then he said, “I have a terrible headache.” 

    He had had a cerebral hemorrhage 22 years before when we were first together and those were the words he had said to me the morning of his first hemorrhage -- “I have a terrible headache” -- and the minute he said those words I knew something very serious was happening.  And he stayed conscious for a little while. 

    I talked to him while we were in the restaurant, asking questions.  I said, “Dennis, who is the President of the United States?”  And he answered me very clearly, “No drama Obama.  And then the last question I asked him was, “Dennis, who am I?”  And he looked at me and he said, “My young bride.”  Which, you know, 22 years after we were married he still called me that.  And he never said anything again.  By the time the EMTs came, he was unconscious.

  • Richard:

    And, I assume, went to the hospital.

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, we went in an ambulance to the hospital and the trauma team was ready for him and they took him in, gave him a CAT scan.  And the doctors came out and they said to me immediately, this was a very, very severe hemorrhage.  And I said to them, “Here’s what you have to know about me.  I stay calmer and think more clearly if you give me a lot of information and so don’t hold anything back.”  And that’s exactly what they did and it was helpful, just to really be able. … You can’t absorb when something like that is happening, but, I don’t know, some people don’t want to know a lot.  I wanted to know everything so I could grasp the situation and maybe make some difficult decisions, which I could already see were coming. 

  • Richard:

    You remember this with clarity.

  • Jamie:

    I was surprisingly clear headed.  My son was home from college and I had called him to come and meet me at the hospital, which he did.  And I remember saying to the doctor, “It’s bad, isn’t it?”  And he said, “Yes, it is.”  And I said, “I have a daughter who is in Nepal.”  She was there on a study program.  I said, “Should I be calling her?” And he paused and then he looked and he said, “You should call her.”  And I still get a shiver when I say that because I sort of knew what was going to happen at that very moment.

  • Richard:

    Do you remember the emotions?  I mean, could you describe … See, I can’t even imagine what one feels, what runs through your body physically almost in a situation …

  • Jamie:

    I don’t think my emotions had caught up with me by then.  I was terrified.  I wasn’t grieving yet; it was all too new.  I was just scared.  I was scared and I was worried about my kids.  I just kept thinking about them.  And I was shaky, but, as I said, I was very lucid.  I don’t know how… I think your emotions often crash into you later.  And that’s certainly what happened.

  • Richard:

    Sure, sure.  And then it was over.

  • Jamie:

    He lingered in a coma for five days in the Intensive Care Unit and I sat next to him pretty much the entire time, rarely going home.  My son was with me, my sisters were with me, and at that point it was just a waiting game because the doctors were really clear that there would be no miracles.

  • Richard:

    Did that five days give you a chance to begin the grieving  process?

  • Jamie:

    It did.  It did.  And it was like surfing.  Sometimes I was just sort of up riding the wave and then suddenly I would crash and, you know, very emotional; would hold his hand, would talk to him, would break down, would, you know, I just, sometimes I felt numb.  I probably felt every emotion a person can feel in those five days.  But as it was sinking in, just enormous grief.  I mean, just, not paralyzing grief, just almost shocked grief.  Because I was in a certain amount of shock then. 

    It was so fast and we went from being so hopeful to having it end so quickly.  We had just adjusted the year before to a different kind of life than we imagined we’d be living and then suddenly it was dawning on me that we wouldn’t have a life together as we move forward ... as I move forward.

  • Richard:

    Can you tell us about the first time you looked in the mirror and saw a widow?

  • Jamie:

    I remember saying to my kids, I was sitting with the two of them, and I said, “I’m a widow.”  And that word is so shocking.  It’s, you know, I still somehow see, you know, old women in black garb when I think of widows.  And one of my kids, I can’t remember which one, said to me so quickly, “Don’t ever use that word.”  Really sharply.  I mean, I think it stunned them to say that.  And I don’t use it a lot. I sort of, you know when people ask, I say, “My husband has died.”  But I rarely say, “Oh, yes, I’m a widow.”

  • Richard:

    You know, we’ve done some programs, had some conversations  where we talk about the power of language and there’s just something about that word that sends a little bit of a chill down your spine.

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, you know, widows to me are still old, old women.  They’re not women in, you know, in the prime of their life.  They’re not women who are looking forward to life.  They’re people whose lives have come to an end in some way.  It certainly isn’t true, but that’s, as you say, language conveys certain images.

  • Richard:

    You know, even having people -- I’ve always found this in tough moments to be true -- having people around you, a support system, family, friends, people who love you, you still feel very alone, don’t you?

  • Jamie:

    Well, having people around, I certainly found, and I had a lot of people around; living in the apartment with me at that time, coming over every day, was tremendously helpful.  But then what happens is they go home or they go to sleep and suddenly I couldn’t even sleep in my own ... in our room for a while. 

    You know, you’re in bed and you’re alone and that’s when I found the sadness, the grief would overwhelm me.  And that’s when I would, you know, that’s really when I would think, “Oh, my God.  This is all real.”  You know, yes, you feel very alone and scared and at a loss and, you know, the nighttimes are hard.  But the daytime you can keep very busy. And I’m an expert at keeping busy.  And, as I said, there’s diversions or decisions to be made.  So much had to be done.  I had people everywhere, but there comes a time every day when you’re alone and you feel just how alone you are, especially when you’re spent the last one, two, three decades, however many it’s been.  In my case it was two decades, almost everyday. 

    Our lives were so joined and I didn’t have that partnership anymore.  For 22 years I felt like the most loved person in the world and I used to say that Dennis was my safe harbor.  I knew every day when I came home or when I came home from a trip, he’d be there and there was always a sense of, you know, someone in the world cared about me more than anyone and it was a very comforting, very safe feeling, and that was gone.

  • Richard:

    It must have been tough every day when it got dark and, you know, the world around you went to sleep and you were left with thoughts and memories and pain.

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, it was.  It was very hard and every night it would happen. 

    And here’s the strange thing: grief is so unpredictable.  You think that it’s going to, you know, you’re just going to be crying all the time.  I found in the beginning I could sit with people and we’d laugh and joke, and that surprised me.  I thought I would just cry all the time, but I could actually even have a good time with people. 

    And then, something would happen; either I’d be alone at night, or stranger things, and then I’d be hit.  It would be like being sacked by a baseball bat and, for me, it was while driving in the car.  I’m not quite sure why, but we drove a lot.  I always did the driving, he rode shotgun, and he’d be reading the paper, reading the map, and we’d talk and listen to music for years. 

    So every time I got in the car and I looked over at the empty passenger seat, I’d almost have to pull over to the side of the highway or wherever I was.  That, for some reason, those were key moments of grief for me because I just felt how much my life had changed.  And how there was this void and the void was symbolized by this empty car seat; an empty seat in the car where he should have been.

  • Richard:

    Right.  This is almost one year later.  Do you feel better today?  Has your life changed?

  • Jamie:

    I feel stronger.  Better?  I’m not sure I’m still not immensely sad.  I have more and more good days.  I have, still, moments when, you know, for example, I would go into his closet a lot in the beginning; all the time.  And would just feel his clothes and I tried to smell them, but he didn’t have a smell.  And then I found I was doing that less often. 

    And then just this December, I decided it was time to pack up his clothes and give them to people who might need them and that was a pivotal moment.  It was acknowledging a change, a difference, an end of something.  And it was good, I thought. In my head, I didn’t want to go into the New Year without packing up his clothes.

  • Richard:

    Right.

  • Jamie:

    It was somehow saying to me, “Your life has changed, you must move on.”

  • Richard:

    Well, do you have a plan or are you just going to make it up as you go along every day?

  • Jamie:

    I make it up as I go along.  It’s funny, people said to me, I think  it’s traditional, people always say, “Don’t make any big  decisions in the beginning, in the first year.”  And one of the first things I did, strangely, was I bought a house.  We had always been apartment dwellers.  I had never owned a house.  I haven’t lived in a house since I was 15 and I bought a house way up in the country.  And I thought, “Are you crazy?"

  • Richard:

    Where you could be alone.

  • Jamie:

    Where I could be alone or I also have family, but it was a place without memories and I actually welcome that.  You know, because my apartment, everywhere I turn, there are memories.  New York City, every street, every restaurant, every, it seems, every building has a memory.  This had no memories and it was almost a symbol of starting something new.  It was saying to me, “You’re moving forward.  You’re planning for a future.”  And I don’t know if I’ll ever live in the country full time, but it symbolized to me that life was different and I was building something new. 

    I wasn’t just mourning my loss, but I was looking to change my life in some ways and to add to it.  Because, you know, I’m 56 years old, I really, I want a full life.  It’s not the life I wanted.  I wanted those years spent with Dennis.  There’s so much we wanted to do.  We wanted to travel.  We wanted to have the fun we always had in the city.  He was not a country person.  As a matter of fact, he always wanted to dash back to the city when we left it. 

    It was not the future I wanted.  It’s not the future I planned, but I can only have one life, I always say to myself.  And I’ve got to figure out now how to bring pleasure back into it.

  • Richard:

    Sure. You have a pretty high-powered job.  Does that fill a hole?  I mean, has your relationship with that job changed?

  • Jamie:

    The job has been enormously helpful.  Fortunately, I do something I love and I work with the people I have worked with for many years and I love them too; a wonderful group.  And knowing that every day, or at least five days a week, I got up and had, you know, from the time I got there to the time I leave, I am so on and so busy and so focused.  That was really helpful.  And it still is helpful.

    On the other hand, one of the reasons I got the house in the country was I knew myself and I knew I could drown myself in work and I could see myself, if I were in the city, coming in Saturday or Sunday and working 24/7.  I would ... it’s very much in my nature to do that and I didn’t want to do that.

  • Richard:

    Do you feel like there is a healing process that goes on?

  • Jamie:

    There is definitely a healing process and it’s not at all as I used to hear about grief; how you go through all these stages, that’s not true at all.  It’s much more stop and start.  There’s some days and weeks I feel I’ve made leaps forward and I find myself really having a good time.  I find myself even thinking, “Oh, I’d love to love someone again.”  And then there’s other times where I stop and I think, “My life isn’t as good as it used to be and I’m sad.”

  • Richard:

    I’m curious, do you get a range of emotions, I mean, where you’re lonely one day and maybe angry the next?  I mean, are you, not out of control in a crazy way, but on a steady course or just not knowing what the day is going to bring emotionally?

  • Jamie:

    I’m somewhat steady, but then I’m always knocked by surprises. 

    As I said, it’s always the things I don’t expect that make me sad.  But if someone had told me this was going to happen I would have thought I’d just be a puddle, nonfunctioning.  But I guess I’ve been surprised that you get up in the morning and you put one foot in front of another and you do what has to be done.  And in the quiet moments you feel really sad. 

    And it’s, you know, it’s unpredictable.  It’s unpredictable, but I do find that I don’t think too far in the future. I, you know, I try to get through the days and I do it pretty well.  And then, you know, there are times when I anticipate certain things.  I anticipate certain anniversaries and birthdays and I get scared when I think about them.  I think, “How am I going to get through them?” 

    For example, in a couple weeks will be the one year anniversary of Dennis’s death.  And I think, “Will I stay in bed that day and just pull the covers over my head or will I go to work and pretend it’s a regular day?  Or will I take the day off and try to be with people I love?”  And I don’t have the answer to that now, but I anticipate those things. 

    His birthday, I thought, “How am I going to get through that day?”  And I took the day off and I spent it with my sister at the beach and we took some time to remember him and talk about him and even have a kind of little ceremony.  And it helped planning that day.  But, you know, it seems like these times that you dread come up all the time and I suppose, as time moves forward, you don’t have a first anniversary again.  And the second and the third, I suspect, are easier.  I don’t know yet.

  • Richard:

    What have you learned about yourself through all of this?

  • Jamie:

    I learned things I knew or suspected or, in some cases, didn’t know.  I learned that I’m an optimist, actually.  And it would have been very bad ... it would have been very easy to slide into despair and pessimism.

  • Richard:

    But can you described how this takes you to optimism?

  • Jamie:

    Yeah, I find myself thinking, “I have just gone through two of the saddest years.”  I couldn’t even imagine experiencing such sadness and I still believe that good things will happen in my life.  I still look forward to the future. 

    I look at my 22 years with Dennis and I think before I met him I didn’t know that I could love someone so much and so deeply and for so long, and I’m really glad that he taught me I could because, you know, I’m glad that I loved someone so much.  And whether I ever do again or not, I always carry with me this ... it gives me strength knowing that I have that kind of love and I have that capacity to love. 

    And I didn’t think about it a lot when he was around because it was my life.  I took it for granted.  But I have a deep appreciation for that and I, you know, I don’t see the world as a sad place, which would be very easy to see.

    On the other hand, I have changed and I find at work or in other parts of life, but mostly at work, people get hysterical about stupid things.  And maybe I used to, you know, something was going wrong or we didn’t hit budget numbers or this or that and, yeah, it’s kind of serious, but people get nuts.  I just don’t. 

    I sit down, I think to myself, “No one’s died.”  And I actually sometimes say that to myself and I’ve probably even said it out loud and people kind of stop when I do.  I say, “No one’s died."  And if no one’s died, you know what?  The problem isn’t so big.  It really ... it’s a cliché, but, man, does it put things in perspective.

  • Richard:

    Well, you learn not to sweat the small stuff.

  • Jamie:

    You do.  It’s ridiculous to sweat the small stuff, you know.  These things, they pass so quickly.  They’re so unimportant, and so I think , you know, I just don’t get as bent out of shape.

    One weird thing that’s happened to me, and it’s not a great thing, is that I’ve always liked to have a lot of control.  You know, I like to control situations.  This has taught me I certainly can’t control the important things, but I’ve become even more of a control freak.  And it takes the form of I’ve become a crazy neat person.  Like, if there’s a pile of papers they have to be perfectly lined up.  And I thought to myself, “What is this?  Am I getting like OCD or something?”  And I realized, I’ve learned a scary thing.  I can’t control the things that matter in my life. 

    So, being neat is trying to control the small things that I can control and it’s a little crazy, but if that’s the worst that happens it’s not, you know, if that’s the worst manifestation of fear of just horrible things that can happen in life, it’s not so bad.

  • Richard:

    No.  And it’s probably a phase, and you’ll probably go through lots of different phases as you try to make peace with a death that came to early.  I don’t know how you do make peace, do you?  I mean, is there such a thing?

  • Jamie:

    I don’t think you make peace with it.  You know, it is unfair, you know?  Dennis was too young to die.  We were really, you know, our kids are grown and for the most part out of the house. We were really looking forward to these years, so that’s unfair.  It’s hard to make peace with that.  On the other hand, it happened.  I can’t change that. 

    I’ve also learned that people don’t like to talk about it.  You know, they’re very sympathetic at the beginning and they’re really kind and most people are always kind, except they want you to move on.  People really want you to move on, even when you feel you don’t want to move on.  And what I found, and I hope I treat other people differently, is they skirt the issue.  They don’t talk to me about him as much anymore and I like to talk about him.  And, you know, I like when people say, “Tell me about Dennis.”  I love to talk about him and I hope I do that with other people. 

    I guess everyone’s different, but I think most people do love talking about people they loved in this.  And people are uncomfortable, you know, asking bereaved people about the person they miss, but I think it’s quite opposite.  I think people like myself like letting people know who that person was. 

    And I had a memorial service for him and that’s what I wanted more than anything else.  I wanted people to leave that service saying, “I didn’t know him, but now I have a pretty good feel for him” or “I knew him, but now I know him even better.”

  • Richard:

    Well, Jamie, I never met him, but I feel I know him a little bit better, and I really thank you for sharing this with all of us.  Jamie Rabb, we wish you the best.

  • Jamie:

    Well, thank you.  Thank you very much.

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